Wednesday, February 17, 2010

False Fatigue

     An interesting occurrence that takes place in Montessori classrooms is false fatigue. This is something that often happens about 1 to 1.5 hours into the morning provided there has been a period of focussed work beforehand. Almost as though on signal, most of the children seem to finish their work, behaviour becomes disorderly, and the noise level rises. However, if the teacher does not over-control at this point, the children will return to work by themselves and that work will be at an even higher level than before. By anxiously stepping in and 'managing' at this point, teachers replace the child's will with their own. In fact, interference will actually prolong the period of false fatigue. Difficult though it may be, during false fatigue, a teacher must step back and trust both the method and the children. "If in the period of 'false fatigue', at 10am an inexperienced teacher, interpreting the phenomenon of suspension or preparation for the culminating work as disorder, intervenes, calling the children to her, and making them rest, etc., their restlessness persists, and the subsequent work is not undertaken." (Montessori) False fatigue is a requirement in order for the children to return to a higher level of focus and concentration.

     False fatigue can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 20 minutes. This may sound odd but if one thinks about it, false fatigue is not much different than an adult taking a coffee or tea break after a period of work. After the break, we are refreshed and ready for more concentrated work.

     This is another reason why the uninterrupted, 3 hour work period is so very important. If the morning is constantly being interrupted by children arriving late or specialists coming in to give language or music lessons to large groups, the children never manage to achieve that deep, prolonged concentration that I'm talking about. This long, uninterrupted block of time is fundamental to an authentic Montessori program because it allows the children time to select the work required to hone whatever skill they're practising and gives them time to practise as long as needed. If this process is constantly disturbed by others (other children, teachers, specialist, etc.) the full development of a child's focus and concentration may never occur.


Patricia White said...

This is excellent, Cynthia! I'm amazed at what I don't know even though I have helped in classrooms. I understand the tendency to sometimes take control when kids get unruly. This is really well-written!

montessorimatters said...

My frustration is when parents or administrators drop by to observe right during this period, and then pass judgment based on the 10 minutes of chaos that they've witnessed (even if the rest of the morning went swimmingly). I feel like posting a sign: "False fatigue going on, come back later". :)

Cynthia Dyer said...

I totally agree. False fatigue is really difficult to explain if the observer hasn't seen the work being done before or after the occurance.

Adventures in Montessori said...

What should a teacher do during this time? I have only substituted in a classroom as I am still training, but what I noticed was engaging in imaginary play and misusing materials and furniture, so how do you deal with that without over managing?

Cynthia Dyer said...


That's a very good question. Give me a few days and I'll post something about that.


RD said...

At the AMI conference in Jacksonville a few weeks ago, I specifically asked Shannon Helfrich (the director of training for the course in China) about false fatigue and she said that it should not happen at all - hence the name "false" fatigue.

Her suggestion was for the assistant and the guide to both position themselves in chairs about 30 min before the typical "breakdown", and watch for who is unravelling the work period. When a child begins wandering and disturbing others, one of the adults would then assist the child in choosing new work. By that time, perhaps another child would require some attention and so on until all of the "loose ends are woven back in" and the group has not fallen apart. Shannon said it should take about two weeks of this for false fatigue to no longer be an issue.

We have been practicing this in our classroom (albeit a little inconsistently) since, and I can say that we no longer look up and say "Oh, it's 10:00, no wonder..." This isn't to say that a "wandering child" should be required to get to work immediately, but rather that rest does not mean using a loud voice, running, or flopping around on the floor.

Cynthia Dyer said...

Without having the opportunity to speak with Ms. Helfich about this, I did what I always do when looking for answers. I went back to Dr. Montessori's books.

In Spontaneous Activity in Education, Dr. M. describes false fatigue quite succinctly in Chapter III. "At 10 o'clock there is a great commotion; the children are restless, they neither work nor go in quest of materials. The onlooker gets an impression of a tired class, about to become disorderly. After a few minutes the most perfect order reigns once more; the children are promptly absorbed in work again; they have chosen new and more difficult occupations."

Later, in that same chapter, she says "If in the period of 'false fatigue', at 10am an inexperienced teacher, interpreting the phenomenon of suspension or preparation for the culminating work as disorder, intervenes, calling the children to her, and making them rest, etc., their restlessness persists, and the subsequent work is not undertaken. The children do not become calm: they remain in an abnormal state. In other words, if they are interrupted in their cycle, they lose all the characteristics connected with an internal process regularly and completely carried out." (p.99). (I quoted this in my original post.)

I would be concerned that by guiding those who seem to be unravelling the work period we may be interrupting that cycle? That is not to say that we should allow the disruptive behaviour to continue but one might be inclined to stop the disruption without assisting the child in finding another work. However, with all that said, I'd also want to know if the child who is doing the disturbing has actually been involved in focused work beforehand. If not, then the child is not experiencing false fatigue and something else may be going on.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Inspired Montessori said...

Each day I know when this is happening because I look to the clock for a relief. We have found that the staff needs a 10 minute break at this time while the class works on. So we do a rotation of "quick get out of the room" for the adults. Yes, this is impossible to explain to a visitor and so our school only accepts visitors near the end of the day.
Our visits are now very pleasant.

Anonymous said...

This natural "lull" in the action is what spurs tradition educationalists to have a story time, snack, rest time, or planned activity around 10 o'clock . It is this response that we must resist --because if we do so, the child will begin to expect and depend on those activities to sooth their slight feeling of discomfort.

However, if do not rush in to rescue, then something amazing happens --which is that the child chooses their "grand" work. Having exhausted their easier options, they gather up their courage and challenge themselves to delve deeper into concentration and their creative abilities.

I completely agree with Ms. Helfich. Dr. Montessori warns us of the phenomenon, and admonishes us not to respond in ways that will reinforce its occurrence, or strengthen the daily habit. I believe this includes not allowing the "children who are not yet peaceful" to disrupt concentration at a certain time each day.

If snack is available throughout the morning, the "coffee break" becomes staggered according to each child's needs --and the child's ability to manage their energy increases. False fatigue is replaced by normalization (and trust in the peaceful and protective environment).

Cynthia Dyer said...

Beautifully put! Thank you for those comments.