What to Expect From Montessori Elementary (by Landon Smith and Susan Bennett)

“It’s like he’s a completely different person,” I once heard a father say about his elementary-aged son a few months into the school year. In his eyes, the quiet, organized, soft-spoken child of the past three years had been replaced by one who was noisy, messy, prone to tattling, and who tested boundaries in a way he had never done before. I ensured him that while difficult for parents; this change in behavior is completely expected and an important step in the child’s life. Following years of working with, and observing children, Dr. Maria Montessori noticed these same changes over 100 years ago. She observed that from childhood to adulthood, humans experience certain stages, or planes of development. There are two of such stages in childhood, from birth to the age of six, and another from six to 12. Then there are the later two, from 12 to 18, and 18 to 24. In each of these periods, “there is a specific goal in development, there is a readily identified direction being followed to reach that goal,” and “there are specific sensitivities given to human beings…which facilitate reaching the definitive goal for that plane.” Of particular interest to the young father mentioned above was the second plane.

The social plane, one may call it, is a time when children tend to shift out of their inner-directed mindset and begin to see themselves as a social part of the classroom. This typically develops from age six to nine, although for some children it can appear earlier, and others, much later. Children within the second plane begin to notice their friends in a new way, and test their roles within their peer groups as well as their family. This broadened sense of self extends to the global community. A better developed imagination coupled with real life experiences allows them to visualize the world in the abstract. This includes lessons of far off places, culturally specific values, people, and scientific ideas. Physical changes prevail, including the loss of baby teeth, an overall improvement in health, as well as growth in height. An almost insatiable energy drives the great curiosity and concentration of developing minds that allows them to quite literally build their brains on a daily basis. This curiosity allows children to learn as much as they can about a particular topic rather than simply settling for bits and pieces.

This is also a time when children can appear to distance themselves from their families. However, “It is not the family which the child seeks to leave behind but his or her role as a child within it.” They may be less inclined to spend time with the family as in years past. They become more interested in their friends, or their changing role in the household. Their proclivity for social interaction leads them to be interested in groups of friends, clubs, or games with teams and leaders. They strive for acceptance within the newly formed social groups as well. While their desire for friendship and independence takes them away from their parents, at the same time they desperately want affirmation that what they are doing pleases them. At home, as well as school cleanliness takes the back seat as they are no longer the clean and organized child of yesterday, interested in good manners and keeping things tidy and proper, but instead are quite content with being messy.

Children gain a new ability to reason, to think through abstract concepts and ask deep questions about how, and why. This later develops into a greater understanding of morality. How should one behave, what is acceptable in the classroom, what about society in general? This can manifest itself in misbehavior, testing one’s boundaries, or tattling on a friend’s questionable actions. In doing so they are essentially asking the adult to verify that certain actions are alright, while others are not, and to reaffirm why not. In developing their own codes of morality, in judging the behaviors of others they are establishing their own concepts of injustice. The second plane is also the era of ‘it’s not fair,’ a time when they are very aware of injustice towards themselves and others and are ready to fight it.

In many respects children in the second plane, are indeed very different people from those of the first. The observance of their role in the world, coupled by a newfound interest in the social expectations of the classroom as well as an intense curiosity about why things are how they are, lead them to a new understanding of morality and an eventual redefined relationship with their friends and family as they strive to understand who they should be. In the elementary classroom these changes can be witnessed daily. Although of course no child experiences these planes at exactly the same rate, in general, here’s what to expect in a typical elementary Montessori classroom.

Age six (first year):
With a Montessori background, a child walks into the Elementary classroom remembering her days in kindergarten. As a kindergartener she was held in such esteem. She was glorified as the leader of their classroom who knew the ropes, explored the most complicated of materials and was consistently relied upon to help the teacher and her peers when the younger ones needed it. A few had already begun to experience the shift into the second plane of development while others were still a year away. During the first year of elementary, the world changes. She is now a beginner in a new environment with eight-year olds working alongside her on materials that are completely unfamiliar; and takes time to adjust. At first there may be a hint of anxiety, and hindered self confidence, but worry not, it won’t last long. As they interact with other six-year olds, they will understand that others are experiencing similar emotions. Some internalize expectations quickly, while others take significant time to process the change. Six year olds are often described as noisy and sloppy, speed oriented, children whose competitive nature leads them to enjoy the process more than product. They may complain sometimes but they love a good joke, and are quite artistic.

How this looks in our classroom:
The elementary classroom can be quite a daunting place for the first year. In many ways, it may parallel that of the first year in a primary classroom. For some the draw of social interactions overrides interest in academic work. This can manifest itself as academic regression when compared to the successes of kindergarten. However the effort they devote to their own social development holds as much value as any other work they may choose. As children learn to manage the social undercurrents of the classroom, and begin to discover their roles and responsibilities in the new environment, eventually focus will shift back to more “academic” studies. Though this is far from a wasted year, the sheer amount of information presented to the six year old lays a strong foundation on which great strides will be made in the following years.

Home “work”:

For all those in this plane we advise providing the child with ample opportunities to interact socially with friends outside of school, in child-centered activities- not coach or adult-driven. Such as sports per se, but those that allow children the time and ability to work things out amongst themselves. Additionally provide opportunities to allow the curious mind to explore their interests in the reality of the world, limit screen time and fantasy.

Age seven (second year):
The child beginning his second year is well within the second plane of development. With thoughts and actions consistent with those detailed above, he realizes how much he’s accomplished during his first year, understands his expectations, and can more easily set long-term goals. At times, seven-year olds can be shy, moody, or sulky. They need security and structure provided by adults as well as constant reassurance. They have an interest in language, codes, and words. Hands on exploration, such as taking things apart also appeals to them. They are more able to produce higher quality work with a focus on presentation. They often need humor to temper seriousness.

How this looks in our classroom:

As the novelty of the classroom has diminished, second years, while still avidly social creatures striving to find their place within the elementary community, take on a new thirst for leadership opportunities. The expectations of self-management are greater as is their ability for sustained concentration. A good deal of their “work” exists in the form of social experimentation, especially on the playground and with respect to the new first years. They become fascinated with different world cultures, language skills, and scientific reasoning.

Home “work”:
Continue to support appropriate interests. Their mind is full of questions and they are in need of answers to find context in their world views. Continue to avoid fantasy in order to develop these concepts as realistically as possible. Montessori encourages a strong understanding of peace and charity. Give your children an opportunity to explore issues in the world and allow them to come up with selfless ways to help. Continue work on this selfless virtue by having them support the home without reward. When asked to do something and a child responds with “why?” (as they often do in this plane), it is okay to say “because that is what we do”. They do not need outside stimulation to do these necessary tasks for the home.

Age eight (third year):
Eight year olds have an energy that allows them to do things in a hurry, often with sustained concentration and interest. They thrive in group activities, and enjoy socializing. Their improved vocabulary allows them to express more complex ideas, and despite a limited attention span, they are able to focus on activities while also socializing. They are often full of ideas, enjoy responsibility but are not always successful with tasks. Though they tend to be sloppy, they are capable of neat work and enjoy both the process and product. They have a greater sense of morality and fairness which sometimes leads to arguments with their friends.

How this looks in our classroom:
All children, even those who developed some skills very late, find success in their 3rd year. And transition wonderfully into other programs. After two years in the elementary classroom third years are confident and eager. They are quick to take on leadership roles, and seek out opportunities, such as the circle manager, being a part of the leadership committee, taking on the more demanding classroom jobs such as laundry manager, and head zoo keeper. These children find joy in the completion of assignments and research. They have academic focus, an ability to work well in silence as well as in distractions, and thrive in their newfound responsibility to care for the entire school community.

Home “work”:
As independence has been a vital part of their success in the classroom, it should also be encouraged at home. They should be given opportunities to explore their interests, plan outings for the family, visit with friends, make shopping lists, and household goals. Allowing once again for unstructured play dates is also important.

Works cited:

Paula Polk Lillard’s Montessori Today; A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood, (Schocken Books, New York, 1996).

Chip Wood’s Yardsticks; 3rd ed., Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. (Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc., Turner Falls, MA, 2007)