Boiling Point

Dealing with our own anger in the Montessori classroom

Child in a Montessori kitchen

As Montessorians we espouse ideals of peace, freedom, and joy. We work tirelessly to prepare environments that promote a climate which is idyllic, serene, pacific, and which responds to the special needs of each precious child with whom we are able to work. And — furthermore — we constantly and meticulously concentrate upon our own spiritual preparation; feeling the need to constantly improve ourselves for this vital task. Despite this my kids have been known to lose their tempers with each other and with me from time to time, and — now this is the really scandalous part — I lose my cool with them on an almost daily basis. Sometimes I really donít feel much affection at all for some of the children who share their lives with me (and - knowing that feelings change from moment to moment — I try not to be to hard on myself about this), and sometimes I reach “boiling point” where I become so angry that I start to decentre and lose connection with myself.

“I would like for you to hear that I would like you to be supervised in the kitchen, not because I doubt your ability, but because I need a safe environment. Could you tell me what you hear me say”?

When this happens I have found that a process known as Nonviolent Communication, developed by Dr Marshall Rosenberg (www.cnvc.org), has been really valuable to me. In this article I would love to share with you how this might be applied by sharing a (slightly edited) experience from my own environment. Oh, by the way, if you are one of those lucky people who never lose their temper, perhaps you know somebody else who you could share this information with.

The Scenario

In the middle of an intricate music presentation I felt a little hand on my shoulder. Esetu (5 years old) was wanting to know whether she could use the kettle and microwave in the prepared kitchen to prepare her lunch of noodle soup. She had only recently had this task presented to her and so I requested that she waited a few minutes while I finished what I was busy with at which point I would come and supervise her. I tried to share with her what needs of mine were leading me to make this request by explaining that I was concerned about her safety and would call her as soon as I become available. However, when I got up a few minutes later to go and look for Esetu I found that she had already used the kettle and that her noodles were already in the microwave. This, obviously combined with a variety of other social, personal, and environmental factors, had pretty much succeeded in elevating me to a point of blinding anger.

My thinking — the real stimulus of my anger

Letís stop right here and take a moment to look at what is actually going on here. What am I telling myself right in this moment that is making me really angry? I guess that if I tuned in really well some of the internal monologue may have sounded something like this:

“She doesnít listen to me and do what she is told (and this is something that she should do)”.

“She doesnít care about what I say…she doesnít value my point of view”.

“She is irresponsible and so she canít be trusted”.

Looking at that list now those look like pretty unreasonable diagnoses to be inferring from the scenario painted above, but in the heat of the moment — I swear — they seemed like objective facts.

My feelings and needs

Anger is, in my opinion, never a primary emotion. It is normally composed of a whole lot of other really strong feelings and serves to communicate to me that I have some strong needs which are not being met in this situation, and that as a result I am starting to lose connection with myself. So, what were my needs in this particular situation? I identified the following needs as most alive in me at that moment:

When I deconstructed this anger I was able to get in touch with what my feelings were as well. I understand feelings as emotional sensations which help to sensitize me as to whether or not my needs are being met. Now then letís try to connect feelings and needs. I guess my anger looked something like this:

Self-empathy — the key to self connection

The process which I had completed at this point neednít have taken me more than a few seconds (the more it is practiced the easier it becomes) but it had gone a long way towards helping me identify and connect with what was really going on with me. Rosenberg refers to this process as “self-empathy”. Letís quickly review the steps that I followed before we go on to discuss how I chose to approach Esetu. Firstly, (1) I observed what had happened (trying really hard to take a mental photograph of this just as it was untainted by judgments), (2) I raged to myself and identified what my thinking was (with the knowledge that this thinking was in fact the stimulus of my anger…in other words I chose to be angry, neither Esetu nor anybody else can make me feel angry), (3) I identified the feelings and needs that lurked behind my thinking. At this point I already felt a great deal more relaxed.

Expressing my feelings and needs

I approached Esetu and asked if she would be willing to let me discuss something with her. She nodded. Knowing that she was willing to talk with me now (if she wasnít Iíd be wasting both of our time) I went on to say, “Esetu, when I ask you to wait for me to supervise you before using the kitchen equipment, and then walk in and see you using that equipment I feel really scared because I care about you being safe (from things like electrical shocks and burns). Can you tell me what you hear?”

Notice that I went through similar steps here to the ones I used during self-empathy: observation, feelings, needs, request. Notice that to start off I chose one need and one feeling and then checked her out by requesting some feedback; this helped me to connect with her better and letís me know if what I was attempting to express and what she heard were the same thing. Notice also that my request was clear and immediate (it was something I wanted to know if she would be willing to do right away).

The response

Esethu responded by saying, “You think Iíll hurt myself, BUT I know how to do it! You showed me last time, remember…”

Now that wasnít what I said! Why wasnít she hearing me? Is this a ploy aimed at getting me to blow a gasket? Rosenberg suggests that there are primarily two reasons for this breakdown in communication flow. Firstly, many people have lost touch with their innate literacy in feelings and needs as a result of deviations (or at least thatís my interpretation. And, secondly, often people are in too much pain because of their own unmet needs to connect with the needs of someone else. Suspecting that the latter is most likely the case in this scenario I decided to try and connect with what her needs were, i.e. offer her some empathy in much the same way as I had offered empathy to myself.

Offering empathy

I said, “Are you frustrated, or maybe hurt, 'cos youíd like me to understand and appreciate that you can do it yourself?”

Notice that all I did here was to guess what her feelings (frustrated and hurt) and needs (understanding and appreciation) were. It doesnít really matter how accurate my guess was. It was a question that helped us to connect and initiated a dialogue. Letís see how the dialogue progressed from there on.

Dancing between empathy and expression

Esetu: (Defensively) Iím five… (shows me a handful of fingers) I can do it (looks at feet)…

Matthew: Would you really like to be seen for what you can do?

Esetu: (Appears unmoved)

Matthew: So…youíre telling yourself that you really can do this, but that I just wonít let you? I guess it is kind of confusing and annoying to you. Would you like to know if I understand and trust what you really can do?

Esetu: (Looks up with tears in her eyes. Nods affirmation.)

Matthew: It really hurts when youíre telling yourself I donít trust you? Trust is really important to you?

Esetu: (Climbs on my knee. Relaxes visibly and looks up at my face.)

Matthew: (Sensing connection.) Would it be okay if I told you what was going on for me now?

Esetu: (Still relaxed.) Uh-huh…

Matthew: I would like for you to hear that I would like you to be supervised in the kitchen, not because I doubt your ability, but because I need a safe environment. Could you tell me what you hear me say?

Esetu: You care about us? You want everybody to be safe. (Smiling now.)

The dialogue then continued with me sharing my mourning and feelings of sadness with regards my need for trust. We were able to see that we were both needing trust, but had very different strategies for meeting this need. Once we had all the needs on the table Esetu had no objection to my request to commit to seek supervision before using the kettle, stove, or microwave.

The result

This process resulted in the complete dissipation of my anger for a number of reasons:

  1. I was able to see that my anger was not a primary feeling, but rather an important and urgent message to myself communicating that I had needs that were not being met.
  2. I was able to establish a compassionate connection with the good reasons that Esetu chose to meet her needs through doing what she did, i.e. how her actions were, and always are, simply a strategy for fulfilling her needs. We had the same needs at the end of the day, but were so attached to our own little strategies that we were unable to see it.
  3. My subjective experience of this process was that, once a sort of basic condition of transforming my intention into compassionate connection was met, my anger was transformed from “a pain” to “a puzzle” that was fun to solve. Anger only has power over me for as long as my intention is focused on being right or getting what I want, instead I can choose to focus on connecting with people.

Concluding thoughts

I have said a lot in a rather short space, but I am hopeful that you may at least begin to explore some other ways of modeling how to deal with anger. This is an important practical life skill that many adults donít possess. It canít make you like the company of every kid you meet and it sure wonít make you a nice person, but it may empower you to choose on a moment to moment basis how you are going to respond. When all else fails I like to turn to the advice of one of my greatest teachers in the Montessori approach who once told me, “Matthew, you will never like every child, but you can always choose to be kind”.

Matthew Rich (B-t-B Consultants: East London, SOUTH AFRICA)
Tel: +27 72 517 9549
Email: m.h.r.rich@gmail.com

Copyleft © Matthew Rich (2007). You may distribute this article in its original form providing that this is not done for financial gain and that the authorship is acknowledged.