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Help! How do we help Elementary students with no Montessori background?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, soon a student will switch from their public school to grade 5 at our Montessori school. How realistic is it to make the transition academically viable? I’m Early Childhood trained and know that hands on experience with the materials is very important in the early years.  Are these materials still required as a foundation in Upper Elementary? What would you recommend that we do to help a new student entering a Montessori class for the first time?  

Dear Upper EL Guide, when I was teaching in an Upper Elementary classroom, we had many students over the years join our class from other schools, mostly traditional, without any Montessori experience. The transition can be bumpy, but there are things that you can put in place to help the child flourish.

In terms of your question about the materials and experiences in the Casa classroom that the child missed, you want to meet the child where they are. This means taking their age into account. I would tend to say that you will not bring in materials from the Casa room for the child to use. You will want to observe and see where the gaps are and present opportunities for the child to gain those skills in a way that matches their developmental level. For instance, you wouldn’t have the child practice a spooning exercise, but you will provide cooking or mealtime experiences for the child to develop the same skills. It is important for the guide to learn about the interests and skills of the child and work to build on those skills to facilitate the building of confidence and comfort in the classroom.

In addition, you will want to meet with the parents and get a clear idea of why the child is moving into your classroom at this time. In turn you will provide parents with as much information as you can about how you will approach both social and academic work. Then you will want to assess the child’s academic standing. You will need to plan for many one on one lessons at the beginning of their transition. For example, they may already know how to do long multi-digit multiplication with pencil and paper, but you will want to show them how to do it on the checkerboard and get them comfortable with using the materials. This is where I have seen the most resistance, but over time it becomes easier and they see that all of the other children are using materials for learning and working, too.

Planning some community building activities for the whole class at the time of the transition is very helpful in bringing the child into the fold and culture of the classroom. It is helpful to talk about what the class as a whole can do to create a welcoming environment for the new student. Preparing the current children for the addition to the community is a necessary component of this process.

I believe that it is important to always be working on building a culture of inclusivity in the classroom. Having grace and courtesy processes in place for welcoming visiting and incoming children and adults is important work that Montessori Guides need to see as a priority in their classroom. These processes take time, thought and effort on everyone’s part. The effort is well worth the positive outcome. Creating this foundation of inclusivity is what will allow the new child to be able to try new things, and be open to getting to know the other children. When a strong culture of kindness, hard work and fun is in place you have a high probability of the new child coming into your classroom transitioning in a positive manner.

You have many skills already that will help guide you in these types of transitions. Observing, planning and connecting are the hallmarks of our approach. Just the fact that you asked this question shows that you are a caring and thoughtful Montessorian!

–Stephanie Pullman, Elementary Level Associate Director at The Center for Guided Montessori Studies

Stephanie Pullman has taught at the Toddler,  Lower Elementary, and Upper Elementary levels in her career.  She has served as a teacher trainer for five years at MWTTP, and currently serves as an adjunct instructor of Child Development at Cerritos College, Cerritos, CA.  Stephanie holds a Master’s Degree in Education with a Montessori Emphasis from St. Catherine’s University and received her AMI 6-12 Montessori credential in 1993.

Located in Long Beach, California, she enjoys visiting museums, movies, yoga, and reading.  In addition to her role as a CGMS Elementary Level Associate Director, Stephanie has served CGMS adult learners as an online instructor, residential session instructor, field consultant, and practicum advisor.