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Help! How do you help a new-to-Montessori student transition in the later years?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, what is your experience regarding students who begin Montessori later in the elementary years, instead of having had the benefit of beginning from Casa? For example, a student switching from public school to grade 5 Montessori. How realistic is it to make the transition academically viable? I’m Casa trained and know hands on knowledge of the materials is very important in the early years.  Are these materials still required as a foundation in upper elementary? As teachers, how is it advised to help a new student entering your Montessori class for the first time to adapt?

William M., Virginia

Dear William, I understand your concern. I have had experience with older children entering my Montessori elementary classrooms. It definitely varies based on the child and their experiences up to this point in their education career. Most older children transferring into Montessori do so after many years in a traditional school, whether public or private. Some transitioned seamlessly into the Montessori environment, as if this is what they have been waiting for. Others have required more time and direct guidance to adjust.

Some students who transfer into a Montessori environment in Upper Elementary struggle with time management. In their previous environment, their learning was more teacher directed. They were most likely told  what to do and when to do it. Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science happened at the same time each day, for the same length of time. Most of the time in class was spent in very structured teacher lead activities, with independent work mostly assigned as homework. When they leave the more traditional program and enter a Montessori environment, they have to adjust to an entirely different approach to education.

In the Upper Elementary environment, there is a high expectation for independence and internal motivation. If a child has not had the opportunity to develop these skills, then navigating a Montessori independent work cycle can be very challenging. While Montessori environments, by nature, work toward cultivating intrinsic motivation, students from a more traditional setting may not have had the opportunity to develop that internal sense of satisfaction that comes from doing your best, for yourself. Therefore, when they are faced with follow-up assignments during the work cycle, they can feel very overwhelmed, and have very limited internal organization strategies to apply to this framework.

Once you’ve observed that the student does not have the internal organization skills to approach assignments and an independent work cycle efficiently and successfully, part of your work then becomes to give them lessons on how to approach their tasks. After all, we are here to serve as the link between the environment and the student. Time and its management is definitely a part of the environment at the Upper Elementary level. Learning how to manage one’s time effectively is one of the main elements toward cultivating independence in the child at this age.

Regarding the use of concrete materials for the new 5th grader, there are many ways to approach this topic. It is, of course, important to begin by assessing the child. If the child has mastered the concepts that a material is designed to teach, then they will most likely not be open to that material, and should not be required to learn the material for the material’s sake. Another consideration is that many of the Upper Elementary materials are built upon experiences students have had with the materials during the younger years, especially in math. Therefore, if a teacher encounters a child for whom a material seems appropriate, it is important to see what prerequisite materials might need to be introduced. It is also necessary to remember that the materials were designed to support Sensitive Periods, so if the child has already exited that particular Sensitive Period, then use of the material may not be very effective. One may need to be creative in finding a different more developmentally appropriate approach to present or strengthen the concepts or skills.

After considering all of these points, I believe that materials are a vital part of an Upper Elementary classroom, and students should have lessons on them and opportunities to work with them. At the Upper Elementary level, the child is generally abstracting concepts at a much higher level than in younger years and materials will serve more as a key experience. The amount of follow-up work with the material will vary for each child. There is still a great deal of foundational learning happening at the Upper Elementary level, and the more solid we can make that foundation, the better we are serving the child.  Our patience and commitment to observe and adapt to the needs of each student will play a big part in making this later transition to Montessori work.

Missy McClure, M.Ed., has been a Montessori educator for 21 years. She is certified 3-12, and currently teaches Middle and High School at Heartwood Montessori School in Cary, North Carolina. She is also on the faculty at CMTE/NC, and serves on the board of the Montessori Association of North Carolina.