This is part II of the “How will this year be different?” blog post. The first part deals with children from birth to age three. If your child is age three to 6, you’ve come to the right place. Feel free to go back and read part I. Maybe it will be a fun reminder of how far you and your child have come. The impetus for this post came from an inquisitive father who, after seeing the enormous growth in his child last year, wanted to know what he could expect from this year.
As in part I, the answer is very subjective (and a bit long, sorry). Because Montessori (and child development itself) is cumulative in nature, this year of your child’s life will be based in part on his or her experiences in the previous years. The Montessori classroom follows a three-year-cycle. This is intentionally based upon Dr. Montessori’s four planes of development. Each plane consists of six years and is broken into two, three-year segments. Each level of Montessori encompasses an age range of three years (birth to 3), (3 to 6), (6 to 9), (9 to 12). The method is such that children emerge from each cycle with the skills necessary to succeed in the challenges of the next cycle.
While progressing through these three years, the child remains in the same room with the same teacher. This allows the child to form a strong bond with the teacher, who is able to understand the child’s unique needs and abilities. Because the teacher has known the child for one or two years already, a returning student to Montessori is able to pickup exactly where he or she left off in the previous year.
In Montessori, we try to avoid generalities because of the uniqueness of children. In truth, one child’s year in Montessori may vary significantly from that of another child. The equalizing factor is always the final year of the cycle. The first two years allow the teacher and child to set the stage for the final year when it all comes together. The following is a common, but by no means the benchmark experience for a child in the primary (age 3-6) Montessori.
Age 3 years to 4 years (4th year):
The child’s first year in the mixed-age (age 3-6) primary classroom. It is through the development of the skills in the previous years that a child’s academic progress will come into view. Indeed, concentration, self-regulation, problem solving, patience and internal motivation represent the foundations of learning. Without them, academic learning may be hindered and frustrating to the child. Never the less, many programs jump into academics before and sometimes to the exclusion of the development of these important ideas. In Montessori, it is important to note that the lessons a child receives in language and math depend in large part upon his level of social and emotional growth. Social success leads to academic success.
Sometimes, a child’s experience will vary more wildly this year than in either of the subsequent two. Some children may learn to read this year and others may only just begin to learn the phonetic sounds of the alphabet. To parents who seek academic learning first, this year may seem like a “wasted” year. However, a closer look at what is going on inside the child reveals that the first year is anything but a waste. Keep in mind that many children have not experienced Montessori, or even school at all up to this point. Many have not separated from parents for the last three years. Our first priority is to help the child develop familiarity, routine and comfort with his or her new environment and the people in it. Nothing will happen for the child until these points have been solidified.
Practical life materials form the basis for the child’s independent work. Here he learns to care for himself, others and his environment -accepting responsibilities for them along the way. Repetition of these materials at the child’s volition strengthen concentration and the all important pincer grasp. For children coming from our birth-to-three program, language and Math have been presented indirectly up to now. However, having developed self-directed learning skills, many children are now ready for direct lessons with concrete concepts such as quantity and phonetic sound as they begin progress toward abstraction. Lessons given by the teacher will be much longer, more detailed and will include more spoken language. Therefore, increased concentration and patience is required. Exposure to these concepts does not necessarily mean immediate mastery. Each child will work with the materials at his or her own pace as the teacher observes effort to determine individual work plans.
How this looks at home:
Toward the end of this year, if focus has been given to the child’s abilities in independence, a parent should notice less power struggles and a more obvious manifestation of internal will. This equates to the child learning to follow directions and grasping his or her own responsibilities -with occasional reminders. The routine of household chores provides even more opportunity for independence and a sense of family belonging.
Mistakes, which will happen often at this age, should be seen as welcome opportunities to learn. They should not come with a penalty. At the same time in cases of success, praise should be given carefully. Responses such as “Wow! You must have worked really hard on that. How do you feel?” should be used to focus on effort as opposed to result. The child is developing his own work ethic and is driven by his own motivation. Parents should take care not to supplant that motivation with a need to please the adult.
Academic interest is on the rise, but parents should remember that the best way for children to learn these skills at this point is by choosing them on their own. Even for a child who may be struggling with beginning academic concepts, there is no need to push these things at home. The academic staple of reading to your child is crucial at this stage. Continue reading to your child and letting him or her see you read for your own enjoyment. Specific concerns should be shared with the teacher and the parent should be sure to take advantage of all opportunities to learn about the Montessori method and materials. Make time to develop the parent/teacher connection. It will serve you well now and in the future.
Age 4 years to 5 years (5th year):
This is the middle year in the second three-year cycle. Opportunities present themselves from all sides as older children act as valuable mentors and the younger children provide an outlet for practicing leadership. Children have been focusing on decision making and may choose challenging work because or in spite of the fact that they know it will be difficult to complete.
Children in the second year of primary often seek and accept more responsibility. Other evidence of maturity will be more common this year. Independence is growing and academics such as language or math are very interesting to the child. However, it is normal for a child to resist an area of the classroom. The trained Montessori teacher is keenly aware of this fact and creates a unique learning path to ensure each child is exposed to the full array of work. The skills the child has developed in practical life and sensorial work allow for greater success and mastery of academic concepts. The success breeds confidence. Children may begin to be aware of their innate love of learning and become active partners in the pursuit of work as entertainment. Because the child has received so many lessons from the teacher, he or she is able to self-direct learning throughout the day. The teacher begins to step back more as the child begins to step forward.
How this looks at home: Because the child is firmly seated in the mini-society that is the classroom environment, he or she feels a stronger sense of belonging in life. Knowing one’s place and feeling needed leads to, frankly, a much “easier” parent-child relationship. Where the child once sought control where it wasn’t appropriate, he or she now can usually understand the line between parent and child responsibility. However, there may be a disconnect between what the child thinks she can do and her actual ability, but no one ever said all goals must be realistic.
The child has begun to hone in on very specific skills but some have developed more quickly than others. In some cases, academic learning may have surpassed maturity and for others, vice-verse. Because of this, the second year in primary represents a turning point for the child. Unfortunately, this point comes at a time when parents are deciding what to do for Kindergarten next year. Leaving Montessori at this point, as some parents do, absolutely robs the child of reaching his or her fullest potential -and most importantly, of the opportunity to develop skills that will ensure a successful transition to whatever comes next. Parents, therefore, should schedule classroom observations and meet with the teacher often to understand the child’s needs more precisely.
Age 5 years to 6 years (6th year):
The most important of all the child’s years in Montessori. Five years of life have led to this moment. It is a magical time in the child’s life as he or she approaches the end of the first plane of development. All the skills that have been mastered will provide the backbone for the mastery of others. In some cases, the child’s overall development will appear to equal or exceed that experienced in the previous 2 years combined. So much of that growth is evidenced by behavior as children learn to make choices and consistently demonstrate patience, problem solving, concentration and leadership.
The mixed age environment really plays a key role in this year. Here, even the most shy child has the opportunity to lead. There is always a younger child in need of mentoring. Teachers empower the children by providing them with classroom jobs and leadership roles. Kindergarteners seek out classmates in need of assistance and have learned to assess their roles in the environment. Where they once entered the classroom with a narrow view, Kindergarteners exhibit a new presence which is difficult to describe in words. One thing is clear, the Montessori classroom has become a second home to the child. In many ways, she is master of her domain and finds that she may operate in the room for an entire day without needing assistance from any of the adults in her environment.
The Kindergarten year is also a time of academic achievement. Children posess the patience to stick with lessons that just a few months ago would have been impossible. Because they have had ample experience in choosing their own work, they recognize the need for diversifying their efforts. They will accept new lessons from the teacher even when they don’t especially feel like working at that moment. They may have entered the year still learning to encode words, but very often they will leave this year reading comfortably. Because of the concrete, hands-on math materials with which they have worked for the previous 2 years, children tend to progress well into math operations including multiplication, subtraction and division. Many have reached a point where they are able to present these lessons to other students who are still learning. This act, learning through teaching, happens many times each day in the mixed age classroom and each year, the once student, becomes the teacher. She will take all that she has learned with her, wherever she goes.
How this looks at home:
Even though it has been 5 years in the making, sometimes this transformation happens so quickly, a parent may find herself caught completely off guard by the child’s new-found maturity. She will also find that the child does not require praise for everyday tasks. Children recognize the rewards of their efforts and parents should continue to focus on the process of work as opposed to the product. It is common to see a child behaving in a certain way not in an effort to avoid penalty, but out of an understanding of responsibility and a desire to relate to others and the environment.
During this year, and all the previous years, parents should try to take stock in all that the child has achieved up to now. It is nothing short of mountainous. Because of their brain development, Kindergarteners are beginning to recognize that they live in a much larger world. They have built for themselves a comfortable and supportive environment and they will begin to sense a desire to step out of it. Exposing children to that larger world by visiting museums, cities, countries and varied cultures will help them to knit together the bits and pieces of the world they are just beginning to understand.
Parents must recognize their importance in the child’s life, you are the rock star to the child. The social brain of a six-year-old ensures that they will be paying very close attention to everything we say and do. This is a time of social trial and error as children begin to experiment with different methods of engaging friends. Not all of it will workout. As children spend more time away from parents, much of this experimentation will happen without us there to reinforce the underlying concepts. These awkward miscues that result are important character-building moments, crucial to the development of empathy and social skills. Parents should take the time available to them to model the behavior they wish to see in the child. Family discussions are another great opportunity to share ideas.
We have now covered six years of life. I use the term “covered” very loosely. In spite of my extreme wordiness, By all standards, we have only scratched the surface of the myriad possibilities, which await your child. It bears repeating that your child WILL NOT experience Montessori exactly the way I have described in these 2 blog posts. There will be hurdles and missteps as well as challenges and success. The beauty of the Montessori environment is that each day, from the first to the last, the environment, the teachers and students, all meet your child exactly where she is. The result is truly preparation for life.