Here are the six biggest obstacles to the healthy development of babies and young children, according to Dr. Maria Montessori.

1. Too Much Help

2. Disrespect, Harshness, & Violence

3. Being Interrupted

4. Fatigue

5. Obstacles to Free Movement

6. Lack of Basic Needs

“It is often we who obstruct the child, and so become responsible for anomalies that last a lifetime. Always must our treatment be as gentle as possible, avoiding violence, for we easily fail to realize how violent and hard we are being. We have to watch ourselves most carefully. The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self. The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than a learning of ideas. It includes the training of character; it is a preparation of the spirit.” — The Absorbent Mind

Despite their uniqueness, every child follows a predictable timeline of development that has been configured by nature. Our goal as parents and caregivers is to support our children’s journeys and help them follow this path that nature has laid down for them — and if nothing else, make sure we at least “do no harm” — making sure not to hinder their paths with unnecessary obstacles which can cause delays or problems later in life.

Maria Montessori urges caregivers to remember the following three big ideas in The Absorbent Mind in her chapter entitled “The Effect of Obstacles on Development”:

  1. The first two years of life affect all the rest.
  2. The baby has great mental powers to which not enough attention is given.
  3. The baby is supremely sensitive and for that reason any kind of violence produces not only an immediate reaction but defects which may be permanent.

She wrote and spoke at length about obstacles to development across her books and lectures; what follows is a summary of the six biggest obstacles mentioned regularly across her body of work.

1. Too Much Help

Because children are born helpless, children rely on adults for many things, including food, warmth, and comfort. As caregivers, it is important that we provide these things things but also find ways to help them break free from their dependency on others. We should find ways to help them help themselves. This is one of the key tenets of the Montessori philosophy.

In a Montessori environment, you will likely find adults doing very little for the children —in the environments prepared for little people, adults are acting as a guide on the side and supervising their activities, or helping the children help themselves. The purpose of this is to allow ample opportunities to build skills and foster confidence and indepen.

“If the adult, instead of helping the child to do things for himself, substitutes himself for the child, then that adult becomes the blindest and most powerful obstacle to the development of the child’s psychic life.” — Maria Montessori

2. Disrespect, Harshness, & Violence

Dr. Montessori noted that a child’s sensitivity is “greater than anything we can imagine” — and since children learn what they live, the impressions they receive are what they eventually manifest in their own personality and behavior. Children become what they see and experience.

According to Montessori, the impressions we leave in the child’s mind “tend to become permanently registered in it not unlike the marks “on a photographic plate…which appears in every subsequent print,” according to Montessori (in The Absorbent Mind, p. 129). Although children are flexible and can overcome trauma, any person who has experienced it will tell you that it’s not easy, and still has long-lasting effects on the body and mind.

Take time to think about what you do and say to your child — and how. Try your best not to be violent or even disrespectful or unkind to your child. Only when a child feels safe and respected, and that his presence is valued and makes a difference in the community, will he be motivated to do and be his best self.

3. Being Interrupted Too Much

Have you ever been in the zone, totally engaged in a some productive or creative activity that nothing can pull you away from? In positive psychology, this is called a state of “flow,”which is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Babies and children experience the state of flow, too — and it is not only enjoyable but necessary since since is when they are able to make observations, notice patterns, and make connections that are crucial for their development.

Nobody likes being interrupted — even babies. If you ever notice that your baby is in the zone, just leave him there. Let him do what he needs to do and finish when he’s ready.

“The mind takes some time to develop interest, to be set in motion, to get warmed up into a subject, to attain a state of profitable work. If at this time there is interruption, not only is a period of profitable work lost, but the interruption, produces an unpleasant sensation which is identical to fatigue.” — Maria Montessori

4. Fatigue

According to Montessori, babies and children can experience fatigue then they are offered activities that are too difficult for them. They derive no sense of joy or accomplishment from doing the activity; instead, they get tired, frustrated, and lose confidence in themselves.

Have you ever tried something that was “too hard” for you to do? It gets old fast and it doesn’t feel good. Fatigue can be avoided by offering suitable activities that are enjoyable for the child to work on but offer a challenge and some sense of accomplishment once it’s mastered.

“Thus the two causes of fatigue are unsuitable work and premature interruption of work.” (Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘What You Should Know About Your Child’, Kalakshetra Publications, 135)

5. Obstacles to Free Movement

New parents are often made to feel like they need the latest baby bouncers, swings, walkers, and other devices. While these may be okay in moderation, any equipment that confines, restrains or limits your baby’s natural movement can be a hindrance to development.

Chairs that prop baby up, walkers that encourage them to walk before they’re ready, and similar devices enable them to achieve certain positions without their own efforts. They should be allowed to move in natural ways in order for their body including its nervous system to develop properly.

6. Lack of Basic Needs

In 1940, Abraham Maslow pioneered a new approach to understanding human behavior by focusing on the causes of healthy rather than unhealthy functioning. One of the best-known products of his work was hierarchy of basic needs which is understood to be essential for people to actualize their best selves.

These basic needs include physiological needs, safety, a sense of belonging, and a sense of self-esteem. Maslow argues that only if these needs are met can a person achieve self-actualization: having a “full cup” the ability to love others, contribute to society, and express their unique talents. These needs are acknowledged and met in Montessori rooms, which prioritize a safe and “child-friendly” prepared environment, grace and courtesy, a sense of belonging, and freedom within limits.

Despite the importance of meeting basic needs — and especially childrens’ needs, people can and do love and lead meaningful lives without having all of their basic needs met. This is the main idea shared by neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who believed that people can find meaning in all forms of existence, even situations where needs may not be met.

Dr. Montessori, a visionary who found a purpose in a world she believed could be better, who resisted gender stereotypes, publicly advocated against war as a citizen of an Axis country, and blazed trails all her life — and who worked with destitute children from the slums of Italy, would probably agree —

and would probably acknowledge the adaptability, flexibility, and beauty of the human spirit, which seems to have an inborn tendency to want to belong to and better the world.

Other Notes on Obstacles

In The Absorbent Mind is a chapter on “The Effect of Obstacles on Development.” This chapter outlines the effects of other more general obstacles such as:

  • The limitation of a child’s own powers: the shock of having to suddenly function on his own after birth; the frustration of not being understood before learning to speak
  • Limitations within the environment; wanting to do something but not being able to do it
  • Trauma or memorable setbacks experienced during infancy and childhood which can lead to regression and other psychological issues later in life

Every significant obstacle tends to have its own corresponding effect, according to Montessori; for example, a significant disturbance during the child’s sensitive period for learning individual words can lead to poor pronunciation and stammering later in life; disturbances while learning to structure sentences can lead to a person’s hesitancy for framing sentences, for example.

Montessori pointed out that many adult problems can be traced back to childhood. Being helped too much can lead a child (or adult) to lack basic skills. Being interrupted or fatigued on a regular basis may lead to difficulty concentrating or following through on tasks. Feeling disrespected can lead to problems with behavior and self-esteem. Not meeting basic needs can result in stunted physical and mental growth, or limited functioning.

Becoming a contributing member of society, which happens through a process anthropology calls “normalization,” is something that happens naturally and to all children everywhere when there are no obstacles present. Normalized children typically share four characteristics: they love purposeful work, can concentrate, practice self-discipline, and are social.

When children are not able to proceed with their development normally, faced with some of the obstacles mentioned previously, “deviations” can occur. These can be thought of as “detours” or “defenses” which occur when development is not able to proceed in a normal way. These need to be addressed before they become more problematic later in life.

Normalization is the single most important result of our work.
(The Absorbent Mind, p. 204).

As caregivers, it is our job to help children support and not hinder their path towards contributing to society, not only for their sake, but for the betterment of the whole world we live in.

Read more about the normalization process on the Michael Olaf website:

The 6 Biggest Obstacles to Development

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