Montessori moment; from The Absorbent Mind on selective mutism.

I am reading The Absorbent Mind which is Dr. Maria Montessori’s seminal work, based on her lectures in India where she and her son Mario lived during the years of the Second World War. I am not sure how this book published in 1947 has become public domain so early, but I am truly grateful. This woman was a genius!  Her understanding of language acquisition outstrips science and her recognition of the child’s need for a respectful and loving relationship with his mother to enhance language is profound.

She said:

Mothers, and society in general, must take special care that children have frequent experiences of the best language. Let the child come with us when we visit our friends…especially where people speak with emphasis and clear enunciation.”

Ignoring this salient advice we have, as a culture, put our babies and children into institutions where they are surrounded by children of the same age and same lack of language skills. When they are not there, we put them in front of the TV for hours on end and then teachers in school complain that Reception aged children (4 to 5 year olds) can’t talk!

Montessori was years ahead of the research in noting that a baby and toddler’s relationship with his mother was the primary source for language development. We now know from lots of research that this is true.

But there is something else Dr. Montessori picked up on, which I think is very oddly ignored by professionals, and that is selective mutism.

I have personally met a number of children who stopped speaking in school. Some were so truamatised by their school experience they stopped speaking at all. Most of the children I’ve met now speak and behave as happy, well adjusted, loved children behave. They have put the trauma of school behind them and are doing really well as home educated children.   There are a number of reasons a child stops talking, and some are very complicated and do get professional notice. However, I think Dr. Montessori’s observations of mute children speaking in her Casa Bambini’s should receive some attention.

We have children in our schools of three and four years of age who had never spoken and then suddenly spoke. They had never even spoken the words of the two year old, they were absolutely dumb and then suddenly they spoke. By allowing them free activity and a stimulating environment they suddenly manifested this power.”

That fascinates me.

Of my six children, one had delayed speech. His speech was so delayed we were referred to a language therapist. The NHS being the way it is, the child’s age and need for language comes second to the waiting list system so we waited a very long time for the appointment. The fact that he was already diagnosed with Failure To Thrive, that catch-all dx for children who are sickly, don’t grow or put on weight and are struggling, was not considered. On the day the letter, with the appointment, dropped through the door my son picked it up, came up to me and said as clear as you like, “Mum, there’s a letter for you.”

You might shrug and say, “Well most 3 year olds could manage that sentence.” And I would agree – except he hadn’t managed anything like a sentence until that moment and then suddenly he was speaking, full sentences.

Why?

I don’t know. But I have a sneaky suspicion my son’s language problem was rooted in how I was parenting him. I did the exact opposite to the things that both Maria Montessori and Charlotte Mason recommended. Instead of spending loads of time with my son, I was sending him to nursery and working my socks off as a student and then newly qualified nurse.

I am not doing a guilt trip here. I had absolutely no other option at the time. We have built an economy on forcing mothers into work. Even now living on one wage is pretty challenging. But the fact is, he was institutionalised, and his language was delayed. Research does show a causal relationship.

While delayed language and selective mutism may seem quite different, there may be a link between them in that they are caused by separating the child from the adult he should be attached to, and forcing them into a group situation that is unnatural and unhelpful.

Montessori wouldn’t have her classes separated by yearly age, but had classes with children aged 3 to 6 and then 6 to 9 and 9 to 12.  The older children helped the younger children and an atmosphere of cooperation was encouraged.

Just about all home educators will tell you that educating our children in mixed age groups makes a huge difference to their language and social development. It’s been known for well over 100 years.

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