Sensitive Period to Order

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The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.


The Sensitive Period to Order

Your child is panicking because you have brought him the wrong socks. You know to look on a particular shelf in the kitchen for your keys because, no matter where you’ve left them, because your toddler likes to “clean up.” Bedtime requires two books, the same two books, in the same order, with the same intonation every night.

You’re watching the Sensitive Period to Order. 

For parents observing the sensitive period to order, it can seem that their children have suddenly become compulsive and inflexible. Small changes precede dramatic tantrums. Children insist on routines that lack any common sense or reason. Seemingly imperceptible differences take on incalculable importance. For the child, though, the sensitive period to order is an important opportunity to test the reliability of this new world he’s discovering. Through repetition and order, children challenge their environments and their relationships, assuring themselves that the world around them is a place in which they are safe, a place in which their needs will be met and their influence will be real. 

In practice, the sensitive period to order challenges parents to offer their children as much predictability and routine as possible. Consider your daily rituals: when things are orderly and predictable, your child has a chance to start his day reminded that the rules he understands about the world are intact. The same routines for brushing teeth or choosing clothes or having a bath may seem like small issues, but to your toddler, they’re evidence that the world will not move out from under him. It’s an essential goal of the first three years of life: to discover who and what are reliable, and who and what are not. 

Accommodating a child in a sensitive period to order requires adding in time for these routines: the way we eat our breakfast or what streets we take on our walk to school, how we’ll pack our bags for school and whether we’ll see the same gardener at the park as we usually do. Rushed experiences will almost necessarily be stressful ones and small changes may require extensive conversation until your child is resolved that everything is still ok. 

Accommodating a child in a sensitive period to order does not require stopping your own life, however, or guessing every possible variation so that you can prepare for it. Things do, after all, change and sometimes very unexpectedly. Understand that these changes will be more stressful for a child in this sensitive period. Avoid dismissing those concerns. Instead, when things are different or routines must be altered, make time to help support your child to make sense of those changes. Acknowledge the stress, “ You were not expecting the puppy to jump on you! What a surprise!” Help your child to notice what is still safe and reliable, “The puppy was very excited. But see? Her owner is hugging her close to help calm her down.” And most importantly, model responding to unpredictable changes with ease. If your child sees that a lack of order causes you to lose your cool, it will be that much harder to encourage him to remain calm when the things he is expecting don’t come to pass. 

And when your child’s sensitive period to order has you scurrying around the house trying to find your keys, remember: it’s short lived and it’s high impact. A child who learns, in those critical first three years, that the world is a safe, reliable and predictable place in which his influence is real and meaningful can use that lesson as the foundation for great adventures to come.