Orientation in the Elementary Program

Maria Montessori described the psychological characteristics of the Elementary age child nearly 100 years ago.  These characteristics, which are echoed in more modern developmental psychology research, offer some insight into why the first day of school offers so much excitement for 6-12 year-olds.  Children at this age need one another and their classroom, as well as the continued support of family and home, to engage with their developmental tasks.  To summarize the psychology of elementary age children would be to paint a picture of a child who is intensely interested in their social group, in the morality of the group and the family (rightness, fairness and justice), who is alive with curiosity and the desire to explore their world through collaboration and work with peers, and who continues to advocate for their own independence and desires the skills to support that independence.

The first task of a child new to the Elementary environment, is orientation.  Leaving the familiarity of their Children House classroom or other early experiences, they enter into a more mature community of children and must learn the ropes and rules of group life.  In the spring, children entering our program will have visited their classroom, received a note from a future classroom and perhaps even participated in our summer camp. Come September, the Guide and the other children have prepared for the new students and offer each child a tour of the space, a partner to host them through these first days and answer questions, and a lot of language and focus around describing and modeling the processes that allow the elementary classroom to run smoothly.  Along side this social and communal orientation, the new child is receiving their first lessons so that they are able to begin connecting with the exciting world of work that lies ahead. 

Most children will display an enthusiastic response for all the work and activity.  Some children may feel understandably overwhelmed, especially if this is both a new school as well as a new classroom community for the family and they do not have the anchoring of at least a few familiar faces.  In these cases we work directly with the family and the child to develop a plan to ease the transition.  Most often, by the third week the classroom is settled.
Responsibility is often the second level of orientation for new children but also for returning children as we are always raising the bar incrementally higher.  This is an important counterpoint for the children as freedom without responsibility is a recipe for confusion.  How will I manage my time and make sure my work is done?  How will I handle my behavior and treatment of others?  How can I express my thoughts and my emotions appropriately within the group? Both the Guide and the child’s classmates will hold one another accountable based on the agreed upon community standards.  The larger task here is to practice the skills of living in community that set the stage for future citizenship while also developing the individual child’s work ethic and academic skills.  These questions come up and are worked through within the daily in the life of the classroom.  It is a fluid experience as each child navigates their own challenges and successes, as classroom dynamics shift and change and the family, too, continues to evolve around the needs of it’s members.  Happily, the children appreciate the respect and trust that are within these raised expectations for behavior and work and ultimately feel a well-deserved sense of pride and confidence at the end of their six-year journey.

Recently a parent shared the story of observing her 5th-grade son have a miserably anxious evening at home.  Despite the parent inquiries and offers of help, he would not share why.  The next day, his teacher shared a note her son had written to his Guide confessing that he had not completed a certain work and had actually been covering up this fact.  In the letter, the child took responsibility, apologized, shared a plan to make up the work and promised not to let the situation happen again.  The Guide, of course, accepted this brave gesture and everyone moved forward.  It is a small moment, but one that speaks to our larger work.  This child engaged his own moral compass, held himself accountable for his decisions, generated a solution, and trusted those around him to respond constructively while still holding him accountable. Imagine this child taking these traits forward into college and the adult workplace.  This is quite a journey from those first days of school when he was oriented to his elementary classroom and its components of freedom and responsibility that would provide the seeds for this moment of lifelong learning.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School