Baan Dek

Observing Without Judgement


For a podcast of this post, scroll to the bottom of this page or subscribe on iTunes.

Recently, we published on the blog a post about Observation, beautifully written by Amanda Boerger. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s a great one!

One of the roles Montessori Educators are tasked with is that of trained observer. What is each child doing? What, if anything, do I need to do about it?

It’s the truest way we Follow the Child. How do we know each child’s strengths, and where more energy would be best spent? How do we know if casual misuse of a material is due to boredom or too high of expectations? Did you spill the water because you were being careless, or because I picked the wrong material to show you, or because I made a mistake in the basin and bucket I chose for this work?

In Montessori, the call to action lies with me, the adult, rather than the blame lying with the child. This is how we Follow the Child. What are you showing me? What, if anything, do I need to do about it?

observation without judgement baan dek

Whether you’re an educator or a parent, the hardest part is observing without judgement. This phrase can be so misleading, because of that one word: judgement. When we hear “judgement” we often insert emotions: judgemental, pre-judging, bias, opinion. I don’t do that! I would never! Who could judge this child?!

Judgement isn’t always negative; judgement is sometimes cloaked, even in kindness.

We are observing with prejudice when we have an emotional response, any emotional response.

When we watch a child fuss with a zipper and our heart longs to help until we finally jump in, that’s judgement. When we sigh after reminding a child, using all our most positive language, to use a tissue rather than their sleeve, that’s judgement. When we feel frustrated that we’re still reminding a child to sit the right way while simultaneously wanting to say “see????!!?” after they’ve fallen out of their chair AGAIN, that’s judgement. The judgement is that teensy voice saying “they can’t.” It’s not judging the child, but it’s still judgement.

Why do we do this?

Sometimes it’s hard-wired, an evolutionary response to meet our child’s every need, so we don’t swing the opposite way and abandon them — that’s the zipper, the carrying, the fixing. Sometimes it’s forgetting the small things are the big things, that Education of the Whole Child piece, that no one WANTS to wipe their nose on their sleeve, and if they remembered where the tissues were they surely would have used one by now, and that the work doesn’t begin after their nose is clean, that IS the work, that is why we’re here, and there is truly no better use of my time. Sometimes it’s guilt, could I have prevented this pain, this discomfort, this learning experience by hustling harder, by being more prepared? “If only you had listened to me we wouldn’t be in this position!” is the refrain of sheepishness, of pain, of regret.

We walk this careful tightrope of wanting to prevent as much as we can, but we cannot do the learning for the child.

So, how can we respond? How do we observe without judgement?

We don’t jump to conclusions. We respond, rather than react.

I see a child running. Yes, of course, I must do something. I don’t yell “stop running!” or run to them to make them stop. I take a breath, and watch. Are they running to or from? Is there a real emergency, or have they forgotten we walk in this space? There’s always a good, logical answer, and without asking ourselves and taking the space to observe, the answer won’t emerge.

A child with someone else’s work in their hand did not necessarily take that work. Maybe the work fell on the floor, and they’re returning it to the person it belongs to, so even the kindest “whose work is that?” or “you can touch your work,” is ill-advised.

Maybe the child getting up from the gathering, or from the dinner table, is quietly excusing themselves to go use the toilet, and even our best prepared, “it’s time to sit! I can find you a spot. This is your spot, that’s where you can stay. We all sit until dinner is over.” can, in fact, cause an accident, if that child were getting up because they identified, “now would be a great time to use the toilet/get a tissue.”

The hardest part is that the answer lies with us. Yet again, we must be without judgement. Not “they’re running because you didn’t give enough reminders about walking, or because you’re not clear and consistent, or because you’re terrible,” not, “they’re getting up because they just can’t sit still.” not, “they’re touching that work and I need to be clear and kind.” — these are all simply turning “they can’t” into “I can’t,” which is defeatist, shaming, and serves nothing. We must treat the children and ourselves with kindness and grace.

observation without judgement baan dek

Rather, “I could give more reminders about walking,” or “my reminders could take a different tone,” “I could take a breath before I say something,” “let’s see what that child is going to do with that work,” “What’s up? Do you need something? Where are you going? or “Looks like it’s time for more Grace and Courtesy!” These are questions and statements and thoughts, sometimes we ask ourselves, and sometimes we ask aloud, seeking more information.

The emotional response is looking to place blame, either in ourselves or on the children, both of which can create a negative spiral, feelings of inadequacy, and don’t actually serve the situation. This is that judgement.

Rather, we gently ask ourselves, what are we seeing from the children, and what conditions have I set up? It’s a spider with a keen awareness of every thread on the web; we hustle hard and wait and listen, then hustle again. It’s taking responsibility but not blame and not credit, it’s emotionally invested but not emotionally burdened. It truly is a tightrope, and we start with a breath.

Written by:

Charlotte Snyder

Inquire Now

Schedule a time to meet

Montessori Zine

Subscribe to our bi-monthly digital Montessori zine. Every other week, you will receive a brief, curated email with links to popular and trending interviews, commentaries, spotlights, quotes and photos.