Identifying the True Need Under the Request
Throughout my years of teaching and leading schools, I have witnessed certain personality characteristics surface and resurface again. There’s a particular one that I want to address and that has cropped up a few times during my career in education. Though the children are different, the script is very much the same:
Child: I need some help.
Me: What kind of help do you need?
Child: I don’t know, I just don’t know what to do.
Me: Do you want some suggestions?
Child: No, I am just confused. Can you sit here and help me?
And the conversation would continue like that, going around in circles, never really getting anywhere. One year when this familiar script came up, I had a lightbulb moment. The child wasn’t needing my help. The child was wanting my company!
Asking for help is a way to get someone to sit close to you, and if you are a child in a Montessori environment and your teacher is moving about the room helping other children and/or teaching lessons throughout the day, the child with a high need for connection might try some different strategies to get those needs for connection met. This is a teachable moment! We can either become annoyed and, as a response, withhold from the child (she/he just wants my attention), we can succumb to the unconscious manipulation, or we can help them learn how to identify and ask for what they truly need, in a direct manner that will likely result in the child getting their needs met. After coming to this insight, I decided to try it out the next time this question surfaced.
Child: I need some help.
Me: Do you need some help, or do you want some company?
The child pauses and thinks for a moment.
Child: I want your company.
Aha! Now we have something to work with!
What is the child really asking for?
When a child comes to you with a problem and you help brainstorm some solutions, and they reject every solution you suggest, it often means that the problem they are posing is not the true problem. This doesn’t mean that the child is consciously lying or manipulating, but that elementary children are at the beginning stages of understanding how they are truly feeling. Identifying how they feel is a new and emerging experience for most elementary children, and sometimes they miss the mark. A 6-year-old might not know how to find the right words to express their desire to feel connected, but they do know how to ask for help. Asking for help is the first step. However, it is a general request, and not always enough information to go on. As you dig deeper, you might find that a child indeed does need help…spelling a word, identifying 3 things that a cheetah likes to eat, and etc. During your initial inquiries, you might discover that the child is yearning for connection, but doesn’t yet know how to directly ask for this.
Ways you can support the child in identifying their feelings and making direct requests
For the child who most recently asked for help when he really, in fact, wanted company, I would either let him know that I’d be happy to sit with him for a few minutes (which would satisfy his need for connection), or if I couldn’t, I would scan the room and see where I could plug him in so that he had some companionship throughout the work cycle. I might also let them know that I was busy at that moment, but that I could sit with them later (after I give the lesson, in the afternoon after read-aloud, etc).
Most children are spending a lot of their time making bids for connection, and what they are hoping for is your attention and it indicates a desire for connection. When you are finding yourself feeling annoyed or responding in irritation, that is a signal that it’s time to dig deeper. Does this child have a need? Has this child expressed a need? Have you been able to have a conversation with the child to check and ensure that the need expressed is the true need, or is there an underlying root cause for their interactions?
When children continuously ask you for help or come up to you with questions, it is often the case that they don’t want your help, but that they want a piece of your time. This is not the time to turn away and ignore, or to turn against them by speaking to them in a tone of anger. This is a time to turn towards them and to respond with care.
Helping them recognize what it is they are asking for, and helping them to find the words to directly state what that is, is part of the social work of the elementary classroom. While sometimes laying this foundation can take a lot of time and energy on the part of the guide, it is well worth it when you notice that the older children in your class are taking a pause to check in with themselves, identifying their wants and needs, and then asking directly for those needs to be met. Just as we need to sometimes repeat lessons in math, or check for understanding to ensure that the children are ready for the next step, helping the children learn adaptive ways to connect with the classroom community is an important part of the work of the guide. This kind of support will help the children to develop positive and thriving connections with their peers, both in the elementary years and as they grow into independent and self-directed adults.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.