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Understanding a child’s sense of order

Three-year-old Abby, was the perfect cheerful morning pre-school student with never a tear or a fret. Until the end of April. All week at dismissal she had begun to cry as soon as I opened the car door. Her mother was greeted with big sobs and screams of “You don’t love me.” Her mom was horrified and I was confused, to say the least.

Thursday morning during class I asked her why she was crying at dismissal.

“Because my momma doesn’t love me anymore.”

Why do you think your momma doesn’t love you anymore?

“Because she took my blankie away.”

A clue! I called Abby’s mom and inquired about the blanket.

“Oh my gosh! It’s gotten so warm that when I cleaned out the car last week, I washed it and put it away. Don’t worry. I’m putting it in the car now.”

When I opened the car door at dismissal, Abby let out a whoop of joy. “Momma, thank you for giving my blankie back. I love you!”

For Abby, life was not right for her unless her blankie was in her car. Her sense of order told her that her mom’s love and the blanket had a connection. Not a logical thought, but Abby was in a sensitive period of development for order. This sensitive period is strongest from birth to age four-and-a-half.

Children are trying to create order out of chaos as they make their way out into the world. Language, movement, family relationships, and the ability to discern sensory information, all connect in the child’s mind to create order and make sense of the world.

At this age, children learn by repetition, by doing the same thing over and over, such as reading the same book, saying the same prayers, and singing the same songs. It is how they make order out of chaos. Around age six, with the loss of baby teeth, a more adult learning style develops where learning requires repetition, but with variety. Until that time, though, children thrive on this stability in their environment. Children gain comfort, as well as expertise, in knowing the wooden blocks are in the same place, that the kitchen pans are in the lower left hand cabinet, and that lunch is at noon everyday.

The child’s need for order may create seemingly outrageous demands. On his fifth birthday, Paul started to stay all day for the kindergarten program.   After two days, he told his parents that he didn’t want to come to school anymore, because he didn’t like lunch.

“Paul,” I asked. “What don’t you like about lunch at school?”

His bottom lip almost touched the floor. “The food.”

“What kind of food would you like at school?”

He went on to name three fast food places. He was in the habit of eating lunch out several times a week with his dad or mom. Lunch at school just didn’t fit in with his established sense of order for lunch.

Paul learned to adjust, but not without a lot of complaining to his parents and teachers. We were able to work together, understanding that Paul’s sense of order had been disturbed. Mom and Dad took turns coming to lunch at school a couple of times a week, and Paul learned to enjoy “the food,” different company and a new routine.

If your child is being difficult and moody, step back and reflect on what recent changes have occurred, remembering the importance of order in the young child. Many times moodiness stems from a change in routine or environment. It might be as simple as having washed the “blankie”.

Written by Maren Stark Schmidt


Maren Schmidt is a certified Montessori teacher with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and holds a Masters in Education from Loyola College in Maryland, as well as a BA from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in Interpersonal and Organizational Communications. Maren founded a Montessori school and has over thirty years experience working with children.

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