Montessori Siblings: How can I keep my infant or toddler from distracting my older child and messing up his shelves?

I received a question from a reader asking how to support her toddler’s work now that her infant is crawling and can get to his shelves and also distract him while he  is working. I thought I’d answer with a post.

While the original question specified infant and toddler, I think this can be an issue with children in any combination of different stages of development. one child is always interested in the work of the other child or just interested in being with or playing with the other child. I have grouped my suggestions into three categories: the environment, materials and grace & courtesy. Also see examples in the gallery at the end of the post.

The environment: This is the first area I look at when I encounter an issue with my child(ren). How can I modify the environment to support each child’s needs? In this case, it is a need for independent work free of distractions from the other child(red). You can:

  • Have a blocked off or restricted area which is unaccessible by the other child. Pilar talked about this in her Essence of Montessori parenting post. This especially works for an older child with a younger a crawling sibling.
  • Have materials at different levels for each child. When the child is crawling, I would have all the lower shelves dedicated to him/her. However, once they start pulling up, I have found that they loose interest in lower (bottom) shelves and are more interested in shelves at their standing level so I usually swap at this stage and put my toddler’s materials on the bottom shelf
  • Have separate shelves for each child. Initially their shelves were in separate areas but as my younger son started walking and both boys wanted to work close to each other, I moved their shelves closer together. They still visit each other’s shelves but they know which materials are theirs. I have found that my children like their shelves to be relatively close together.

Materials: This is the next thing I consider when thinking of how to support each child’s work. I have found that they often want to do what the other is doing or they want to just be/work with the other child so I offer

  • Variations of the same or similar materials that meet each child’s developmental needs or abilities. Here is an example
  • Materials that can be collaborated on. All this materials on this list as well as art, water and some practical life activities like baking are what usually fall in this category
  • Restricted materials: When a material does not fall into the two previous categories, I make them unaccessible to the younger child by putting them in a container with a latch or closure that only the older child can work. This serves as a control of error because no one has to tell the child they don’t have access.

Grace and Courtesy: The third area that I address to deal with this situation is grace and courtesy. I model to both children how to:

  • Say: “I’m using this right now, you may use it when I am done or “it’s not available to you.” and protect their work
  • Say: “You may watch, but please don’t touch” or “I don’t really want to be watched right now.” and how to watch or move on. I usually have to help the younger child move on
  • “Let’s work together!”

You might have to try different combinations of these to see what works for your family. For our family, we value relationships and so whatever solutions we try, we always judge success by the effect it has on their sibling relationship. We want each child to feel respected and valued but to also foster their sibling relationship.

What has worked for your family? Do share in the comments!

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