Normalization and Deviations

Lecture given by Dr. Rita Shaefer Zener, on the AMI 3-6 course
Nakhon Pathon, Thailand, April 2006
Permission given to Michael Olaf Company for reprinting

Introduction of the concept Normalization

At the beginning of her educational career in San Lorenzo, Rome, Dr. Montessori was moved many times by what she observed the children doing. She wondered if their accomplishments were "the work of angels". She would say to herself,

I won’t believe this time. I will wait until the next time to believe.
(The Secret of Childhood).

After 40 years of work, spreading her scientific pedagogy around the world, Dr. Montessori was willing to say that

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

She had given up all her other work—medicine, anthropology, psychology, and even prestigious positions to lecture in Universities—in order to concentrate on bringing this message to the people of the world.

The message is that there is much more to childhood than is currently recognized. She saw the normalized child as a new level of humanity. Children all over the world and in all socioeconomic levels have exhibited this new level of humanity. The normalized children possesses a unique character and personality not recognized in young children.

Normalization is a technical word borrowed from the field of anthropology. It means becoming a contributing member of society. Dr. Montessori used the term normalization to distinguish one of the processes that she saw in her work with the children at San Lorenzo in Rome. This process, the process of normalization, occurs when development is proceeding normally. She used the word normalization so that people would think that these qualities belonged to all children and were not something special just for a few.

When does normalization appear?

Normalization appears through the repetition of a three step cycle. The building of character and the formation of personality that we call normalization come about when children follow this cycle of work.

(1) Preparation for an activity which involves gathering together the material necessary to do the activity. The movement and the thought involved in the preparation serves to call the attention of the mind to begin to focus on the activity.

(2) An activity which so engrosses the child that he reaches a deep level of concentration. This step is what all educator and parents recognize as important for education.

(3) Rest, which is characterized by a general feeling of satisfaction and well-being. It is thought that at this point some inner formation or integration of the person takes place.

In our Montessori groups, we see this third step as the time a child is putting away the materials, perhaps talking with friends, and is exhibiting a aura of satisfaction with himself and the world. We recognize this cycle as the normal work cycle in a Montessori environment.

A Philosophy of Normalization

Dr. Montessori explained the process of normalization philosophically as well as practically. She borrowed the term, horme, from Sir Percy Nun, an English philosopher. Horme refers to life force energy. It can be compared to the elan vital of Henri Bergson or the libido of Sigmund Freud or even to religious terms, the Holy Spirit.

Horme is simply energy for life. It must stimulate and activate the individual because that is its nature. When the child is surrounded by plenty of suitable means (work of development) for using this energy, then her development proceeds normally.

Characteristics of Normalization

There are many personality types of course. However, when children enter the process of normalization the same characteristics appear.

There are four characteristics that are a signal that the process of normalization is happening:

(1) Love of work

(2) Concentration

(3) Self-discipline

(4) Sociability.

All four characteristics must be present for us to say that a normalized type common to the whole of mankind is appearing—no matter how brief the appearance of the characteristics. The process is usually invisible to us because the process of normalization is hidden by characteristics not proper to the child.
(The Absorbent Mind, p. 202)

Love of Work.

The first characteristic of the process of normalization is love of work. Love of work includes the ability to choose work freely and to find serenity and joy in work
(The Absorbent Mind, p. 202)..

In the fall I like to observe new three-year-olds who were phased in during the month of September. Some of them have six weeks or so in the group and have their little routines of the work that they love. Some still have no clue about "their work". Kindly and experienced adults lead them into various activities. Some of the activities evoke concentration but most of them do not. It usually isn't’t until the child has learned to do several orderly activities that the missing element of choice will enter the child’s work life.


The second characteristic of the process of normalization is concentration. Concentration appears as individual children in a group became absorbed in their work—each one in a different, freely chosen activity.

To help such development, it is not enough to provide objects chosen at random, but we [teachers] have to organize a world of 'progressive interest'
(The Absorbent Mind, p. 206).

We must continue to present the next appropriate challenge. The frequency of continual periods of intense concentration will depend on the child and on the teachers' knowledge and attitudes about guiding the process of normalization.


The third characteristic of the process of normalization is self-discipline. Self-discipline refers to persevering and completing cycles of activity that are freely begun.

Dr. Montessori says: After concentration will come perseverance . . . It marks the beginning of yet another stage in character formation . . . It is the ability to carry through what he has begun. The children in our schools choose their work freely, and show this power unmistakably. They practice it daily for years.
(The Absorbent Mind p. 217)


The fourth characteristic of the process of normalization is sociability. Sociability refers to patience in getting the materials one wants, respect for the work of others, help and sympathy for others, and harmonious working relationships among members of the group.

There is only one specimen of each object, and if a piece is in use when another child wants it, the latter—if he is normalized—will wait for it to be released. Important social qualities derive from this. The child comes to see that he must respect the work of others, not because someone has said he must, but because this is a reality that he meets in his daily experience.
(The Absorbent Mind, p. 223).

Sociability also refers to the human response to turn to other people after finishing a job. If the work when well, then the social interactions are "colored" by the emotional satisfaction of the job.

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Introduction of the concept Deviations

At the same time that Montessori was distinguishing the process of normalization she distinguished another process which she called deviations. She saw that the process of normalization and deviations is going on all of the time. It is what children are engaged in.

If you do not like the word deviations in referring to human beings, one option is to think of deviations as defenses. We are all familiar with the idea of being defensive. Another option is to think of a deviation as a detour. In Italian as in Spanish the word desviaciones refers to a detour in the road. Deviations or detours in development result from road blocks in the developmental process.

I like to think that hormic energy, or life force energy, runs through us like a crystal clear river. If the energy runs smoothly without barriers and stays within its river banks, we see normalization. If this river, this force is repressed and not allowed to flow in its normal channel, it will seek other ways to move.

The hormic energy may be damned up for a while producing an artificial passivity. Every now and then the dam will let loose a big burst of energy. The emotion that comes with that burst of energy may cause turbulence in the person's life. If energy is held in, The life force energy cannot be expressed in ways appropriate to the situation.

On the other hand if the river banks are not well defined, the water can spread too thin over the countryside. Just so, the hormic energy without any boundaries can spread out too thin and over too large an area of life. If the child has insufficient order or limits in his life then there is not enough life force to carry out anything much. The horme is dissipated.

The Process of Deviations

This process is not one big drama. It is the drama of everyday life. When the horme can’t go in the normal three step cycle for the building of a person then it moves into these other cycles that we call deviations or detours. The child feels threatened and reacts to save herself. She has to defend herself.

A deviation is a defense created when development cannot proceed in a normal way. All children have some deviations. If they are not straightened out, they will become worse in time. Dr. Montessori says that the defects in adults can be traced back to a lack of development in the first years of life.

There are many Types of Deviations

Dr. Montessori has categorized deviations in several ways. It is interesting to see how she reaffirms their presence while giving them different titles. There is overlapping between the various categories. However, each order she places them in gives us much to think about.

(1) Deviations Fostered by Adults

By the time a child is three years old, deviations are so common that many of them are fostered by adults and thought to be normal for children. For example: some adults find these characteristics desirable states of being: over-affectionate attachment to persons, submissiveness, play, laziness, overeating, and instability of attention.

By now the psychic energy is separated from the movements of the child from lack of purposeful activities in the environment. This type of adult often abandons the child to her toys, the television, or the computer. True, toys stimulate activity, but usually it is like a flash and once used then the toy no longer can give the same attraction.

The child’s immaturity in the real world and the excess of unused psychic energy combine to form an unreal world where the child can alleviate her boredom and discomfort. She becomes like the adult who is not content unless she is being entertained constantly. So easy it is to foster this deviation and heap toy after toy upon the poor child while denying her part as a worker in the family.

For some children the way to feel safe is to hang onto an adult or an older child. She is the one whose movements have been supplanted by others so many times that her drive to independence is thwarted. It is as if she doesn't’t know herself apart from the other, even after the age when she should. This too is an easy deviation for some to foster when that affection fills avoid in the other's life.

(2) Deviations Not Fostered by Adults

Some deviations, while thought to be normal, are not likely to be deliberately fostered. They are likely to be corrected. Messiness, disobedience and quarreling are so common as to be though normal. The lazy child or the inhibited child who outwardly appear to do little are constructing a thick inner wall of defense to keep out the external world. We are all aware of adult negative reactions to these behaviors.

Deviations as Fugues

In The Secret of Childhood she talks about deviations as being fugues and barriers. A fugue is a running away, a taking refuge, often hiding away as one hides ones real energies behind a mask. These are the children who are never still, but their movements are without purpose. They begin an action, leave it unfinished, and hurry on to the next. They fancy toys only to throw them away. They become conditioned to the need to be entertained.

Deviations as Barriers

A barrier is an inhibition which is strong enough to prevent the child from responding to her surroundings. It shows itself as disobedience or obstinacy. Teachers may suspect the child’s intelligence because this deviations keeps away the things that would promote growth.

The most common of the barriers produce the following deviations: dependence, possessiveness, power craving, inferiority complex, fear, lying, and psychosomatic illness.

Deviations Shown by the Strong and Weak

In The Absorbent Mind she talks about deviations shown by the strong, meaning those who resist and overcome the obstacles they meet, and deviations shown by the weak, meaning those who succumb to unfavorable conditions.

The Strong

Defects of the strong are capriciousness, tendencies to violence, fits of rage, insubordination and aggression. They are also disobedient and "destructive", possessive, and unable to concentrate. They have difficulty in coordinating their hands. They are generally noisy, unkind, and often greedy at the table.

The Weak

Defects of the weak are passiveness, indolence, crying, trying to get others to do things for them, wishing to be entertained, and easily bored. They find the world frightening and cling to adults. They may refuse to eat, have nightmares, fear the dark, and have psychosomatic illnesses.

The Role of the Adult


We realize that in the early years there will be many spontaneous expressions of normality even when the environment is very bad or the obstacles very great. The vital energy returns to the surface again and again. The child must continuously struggle alone because no one recognizes and assists his bid for life. The child may become engulfed in her deviations.

Lay aside pride and anger

The child needs help, more than just physical care. She needs the adult who knows humility rather than pride; patience instead of anger. Yet the common defects of the adult are pride and anger. The adult is easily impatient when he is with a child. He doesn't understand how life needs to grow. He wants the child to submit. He doesn't recognize goodness. He can't give confidence.

The educator has to rid himself of his anger before he can put the child's need first. He must:

(1) know himself

(2) educate himself in his work

(3) give appropriate help

All these disturbances came from a single cause, which was insufficient nourishment for the life of the mind.
(Absorbent Mind, 182 in Cleo Press edition).

To give appropriate is two pronged:

  1. Interrupt the deviated cycle whenever it appears because it isn't helping development.
  2. Offer interesting activities to use up the psychic energy in a productive way.

Neither kindness nor severity help. It is the return to the normal work cycle that is self-healing.

The appearance of normalization is explosive. It must be protected. It happens in a single moment. In that moment the deviations are gone, vanished. The child is as she is. That is the first observation task of the adult. Learn to see, protect, and guide those moments. NEVER interrupt them while the concentration lasts.

These normalizing events are triggered by a certain situation. It has been found a characteristic reaction of children throughout the world. A return to a life of normality begins with just one event. Just as long ago the defense mechanism began with one incidence and then proceeded to become a fixed response.

In the 3 to 6-year-age span, we are not talking so much about a personality change. At this tender age, the personality is still in the soft, formative stage. During these years he must organize the embryonic development of many parts that were developed separately. The new child is really a true personality being allowed to develop normally.

Now we can begin our work. As these moments become more frequent and the concentration more lasting, the child may give up using her old defenses. It is not by reason, nor by threat, nor by begging that she does so. She just doesn't need them anymore because she has less to repress now.

Why is it apparently easier for some children than others? Apparently some have had to repress less, and their normal responses are not so buried. Some have learned to accept reasonable limits to their behavior. They have some control over their impulses.

But in all children, and in us, the life force is there to be found and used in a productive way.