Stories of Discovery

Social Development in the Montessori Elementary Environment

Categories: Faculty insight, Learning through discovery, Student life
Authored by:
Date posted: May 13, 2013


 As many parents of elementary aged children can attest to, one of the fundamental shifts that occurs in children of this age is one towards an increased interestin socialization.  While children in the first plane of development are usually content to work alone or side by side, these second plane children seem to gravitate towards each other, seldom wanting to work alone, and thriving best when working in collaboration.  You may hear increased requests for ‘play-dates’ and greater interest in and concern with the actions of their peers and how they fit in to this developing social structure they are a part of.   

Dr. Montessori recognized this stage as a sensitive period for cultural acquisition where the child needs to connect with others in the classroom and in the local community.  She has said that this child, as an individual, should participate in a truly social life.  Learning how to interact with others is a crucial skill needed both personally and professionally in adulthood and should be valued and nurtured just as equally as academic development.  The second plane child is also described as having a reasoning mind, wanting to know the how and why of everything.  Children begin to understand the relationship between cause and effect and want to test this at every opportunity. 

While part of this reasoning mind is academically focused, another important area of sensitivity is focused on moral reasoning.   Children are preoccupied with figuring out a sense right and wrong and with the judgement of both their own acts and the acts of their peers.  This often presents itself as tattling on others, comparing themselves to their peers, and testing boundaries both at home and at school.  These behaviours, while frustrating for adults, are a crucial part of self-construction in children as they attempts to solidify in their own minds what is morally right or wrong.  By allowing the child the opportunities to navigate these social and moral dilemmas early on during this sensitive period, they will be better equipped to deal with more complicated issues as they approach adolescence and continue on to adulthood.

The Montessori elementary environment was designed to support the second plane child in the need for social and moral self-construction.  Research in the US comparing traditional education with Montessori found that, “Montessori children displayed a greater sense of justice and fairness, interacted in an emotionally positive way, and were less likely to engage in rough play during break times.”  They were also described as having a greater sense of community at school and were more likely to choose “positive assertive responses” when dealing with unpleasant social situations. 

While traditional environments tend to prevent children from social interaction aside from at recess time, the Montessori elementary environment was designed to allow for social interaction at all times, recognizing the need for these social beings to work collaboratively with their peers.  Lessons are given in small groups according to ability and interest so as to promote social interaction and inspire group projects.   Children are given the freedom to work together in groups of their own choosing as long as they work productively and adhere to certain guidelines.  It is through group work that children create projects that are of interest them, being able to work with others that share their passions. 

Group work also provides them with the opportunity to solve problems, learn to take turns and compromise, and to inspire each other by sharing ideas. Children are also given the freedom to talk together as without it could accomplish nothing.  To an outside observer, the elementary environment may seem noisy when compared with a traditional classroom; however a buzz of conversation is necessary in order for children to plan, organize, create, discuss, decide and debate about their work. 

As a result of all this collaboration, conflicts will inevitably arise, perhaps more frequently than in a traditional classroom, where children are restricted from interacting with each other.  It is important to keep in mind however, that these conflicts are necessary in order for children to develop themselves fully during this sensitive social period.  Without conflicts, there would be no opportunity for learning how to solve problems independently.  It is often tempting for adults to jump in and solve social problems for their children, instead of guiding them towards a resolution independently.  It’s natural to think that you are protecting them from immediate hurt however it is important to keep in mind the long-term ramifications of this type of response. 

By stepping in and solving problems for children, they are prevented from having the opportunity to learn for themselves how to resolve a conflict so that they can be prepared for when it happens again in the future.   We are also giving them the message that we do not believe they are capable of doing it on their own.  Conflicts, challenges, and disappointments are a part of life and much as we wish we could, we cannot shield our children from them.  All we can do is be there to support them along the way and give them the tools necessary to become confident and capable of dealing with the ups and downs that are inevitable in life. 

As with other areas of development, Montessori education aims to provide children with the tools they need to navigate through social situations with growing independence.  That does not mean that we just sit back and let the children sort everything out on their own.  Dr. Montessori described her method as “help given in order that the human personality may achieve its independence.”  We must therefore find a balance between solving the problem for the child and letting him struggle on his own. 

As a general strategy we attempt to only give the child the assistance he or she needs.  This varies from child to child and from situation to situation.  When children come with a concern we first ask them what actions they have taken to help resolve the issue.  If they have done nothing but come straight to us, we may give some suggestions as to what they could try, ask them to choose one and send them back to attempt to resolve the conflict on their own.  The exception of course would be if the situation involved physical violence, in which case we would intervene immediately. 

If they are still unable to resolve the conflict and cannot move forward, we will then go and mediate.  By mediating, we try not to solve the conflict for the children but to listen to both sides and provide some guiding questions to help them come to their own agreements with each other.  We try to see the conflict from the perspectives of the children and not apply our own judgements or make decisions for them.  What may seem a simple problem to fix for an adult may not be for children and so we should be patient and understanding and guide them towards a resolution of their own making instead of jumping in, even if it takes more time.  

Giving opportunities to practice conflict resolution with growing independence enables children to empower themselves through the realization that they can stand up for themselves and resolve conflicts independently in a calm and effective manner.  When your children come to you with a concern, try to listen objectively and give support as needed but encourage them to come up with and implement their own solutions even if they don’t succeed the first few times.   It is only through their own trial and error that they can learn what does and does not work and to use those experiences to make more informed choices the next time.  

Children who are not allowed to practice conflict resolution independently will forever be dependent on others to solve their problems into adulthood or will avoid them completely.  Instead, let’s work together to empower our children to become confident communicators who take on new problems and challenges without fear and with the understanding that they are the ones responsible for their own happiness and success. 

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