Monday, August 25, 2014

Interrupting Interruptions

It was supposed to be simple. My children would spend their first day of the school year getting to know the new room layout, exploring work on the shelves, and organizing their work folders for the year.  

But instead of the calm, easy morning I had envisioned, it was utter chaos.  

E ran around our school room as if it were a playground and, ultimately, had to sit by the door until he was ready to work calmly.  C left work after work dotted around the carpet, each one only half-completed. W wanted me glued to his side, watching each and every activity he chose.  

And all three of them interrupting. Constantly.

I was barely able to speak to one child without another pulling me in a different direction to ask me…tell me…show me. I couldn't complete a thought, much less a lesson.  

When I reminded them to touch my arm, a method that has worked for us in the past, my oldest sons managed to turn that into an interruption, too, by making a game of covering my arms with their hands while I attempted to work with their little brother.  

By the end of our two hour work cycle, I was a very tired, very stressed, and very frustrated mama.  

After I had a chance to cool down, though, I realized that this was not a "school time" issue. It was a problem that was affecting lots of areas of our family life - music practice, reading time, bedtime, and anytime I needed to focus on just one of my sons.  And we needed to do something about it. Immediately.

I sat down with my oldest two sons that night and told them, honestly, how I felt. 

After seeing a few shy smiles, I asked them to think (to themselves) about how they felt when I spent one-on-one time with them - whether it was during school time or bedtime or some other time…

And how they felt when one of their brothers interrupted that time.  

One of my sons said it made him want to cry.  The other already had tears forming in his eyes.

With everyone in agreement on our goal, we first brainstormed a list of ways it was possible to interrupt, including both spoken and behavioral distractions.  We were able to get a little silly, coming up with all sorts of crazy ideas, in addition to what they had been doing in our school room.  It was an important step, we decided, to really define the types of behaviors that would be considered an interruption.

Then, we made our plan:

When one of my sons needs to ask me a question or tell me something, but I am giving a lesson or helping someone else, he will make one (or more) of these choices:

1.  "Ask brother before mother."  I read about the "Three before me" technique during my NAMC Montessori teacher training program, but hadn't considered the possibility of using it at home until I read this post, by Deb at Living Montessori Now. We decided that when one of the boys has a question about their work while I am with their brother, they are to first ask their other brother.  Both of my older sons agreed that they can help C with most of his work, and that E can answer a lot of W's questions. W pointed out that he can help E with questions about supplies or work they both do.

2.  Choose another work while you wait.  This is not a new idea for my boys, but it was one we needed a reminder about.  It can be hard to wait, especially when you don't want to lose momentum, but we decided that choosing a simple practical life activity, getting set up for another job, or just reading can help them relax and stop them from distracting others while they wait.

3. Write it down. E sometimes becomes frustrated because he has forgotten what he wanted to say by the time I'm available.  This was his solution, and I loved it.

4.  If it absolutely can't wait, say, "Excuse me," before interrupting.  We decided that injuries, dangerous behaviors, and seeing our little dog trotting up the street (as sometimes happens!) are all interruption-worthy.  

The three of us felt confident about our plan, and I had no doubt my boys had every intention of following it. 

But I also knew interrupting would be a hard habit to break.

With that in mind, I shared a silent hand signal that I would use to remind them of our agreement - something to make them aware of the interruption and give them a chance to change tack, without speaking, myself.    

The two fingers, I told them, represent the brother I'm working with and me.
The boys shared our plan with C the next morning at breakfast before heading upstairs to put it into action.  As I suspected, there were times they began to interrupt, but when I signaled them, they immediately remembered to ask a brother for help or find a job to do while they waited.  It was a completely different experience - our school room was a peaceful, productive work place, and we all loved it.

We've been using our plan and hand signal for almost a month now.  During that time the interruptions have decreased, drastically - and not just during school time. More and more often, I see my children assessing my interactions with others, reading social cues, and waiting patiently for their turn to speak, sometimes touching my arm to signal me that they have something to share. 

I'm not going to say the habit is broken.  It's a tough one, for both kids and grown-ups, and we still struggle with it - more often after I stumble on being consistent. But we've made a start. And a pretty good one, at that.

I'm sharing this post at Montessori Monday with Living Montessori Now.


  1. Your post brought me back to my son's Montessori years. The hand on the shoulder approach saved their beloved teacher many times. I wonder on the "ask brother before mother" approach, as I work hard to keep my boys from interrupting each other (with the 13 year old being far more invasive than the 17 year old). I think their time to think is just as important as my time to teach/work/think.

    Anyway, I was interrupted once while writing this, so obviously we've not solved the problem here. I'm still encouraging them to read the social cues and WAIT. Good luck to you and yours this year!


    1. Thanks so much, Sarah! I know exactly what you mean about the "ask brother before mother" - mine can get pretty silly if I leave them alone together for more than a couple minutes during school time. I had to do a lot of thinking on that one. I decided that, for right now, I'm basically available ANYTIME except when I'm working one on one with one of the boys…during which time they would be interrupting two people if they asked me. And so far, they mainly assume (probably correctly) their brother can't help, and choose something else to do in the meantime. But you are right - everyone's time to think & work is important. Best of luck to you & your family this year, too!