The start of school is upon us. We’re either already with our class full of glorious little souls or we’re just about to meet them. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind during these critical first few weeks of school.
First, if the children haven’t started yet, do your best to get every child in for a visit before the first day (see our Preschool Orientation blog post for details). If you can’t get them in, give their families a call to touch base and introduce yourself.
The next step is to have your environment fully prepared. We want breakable items in the room (yes, even the first week) but these items should have the possibility of breaking not the probability of breaking. So, at the start of school, lean towards sturdy. You can introduce finer, more fragile items once the children gain some capacity. But, at any time, if it will make you cry to see your grandmother’s stem glasses break, don’t put them in the room! If it upsets you, it will most certainly distract the children. Keep that in mind.
If you’re starting a new class, you may want to include a transitional shelf. This should be full of familiar materials that the children already know how to use (e.g., wooden blocks, easy wooden puzzles, board books). We need to keep them busy with something they like/are familiar with until you have time to give them enough lessons on what they really want (the Montessori work). Just remember that your aim is to remove all items that are not in your album after a few weeks of school. You can fill that shelf with the more advanced Practical Life activities or more advanced art/cultural activities or remove it all together,... whatever makes sense for your space.
Next, have a plan that focuses on Practical Life (Preliminary Exercises, Control of Movement, and Grace and Courtesy) and Spoken Language. If you invest here, it will be easy to branch out to Sensorial and all the rest later, once the children start to normalize. Think about the things that have been problematic in the past (if you have a co-teacher, enlist her help in making the list). Things you might include are clogged toilets, soiled clothing on the floor of the bathroom, faucets left running, disputes at the slide, etc. For each of those things, design a lesson to prepare the child to succeed. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
- How to get the right amount of toilet paper (about an arm’s length)
- How to turn on and off the faucet (no hand washing or anything else); you’ll have to figure out the hand position that will work for those tiny hands on whatever faucet you have
- How to politely tell someone they have mucous on their nose…and what to do if it’s your nose
- How to cough into your elbow
- How to use your cubby
- How to ask for a turn
- How to form a line and (next lesson) how to walk in line
- How to have snack and lunch
- How to use the play structure
These are the basics and the young child is interested in the basics. They want to know how to turn on and off the faucet…they don’t always care about what to do with the water that comes out (but that is most certainly a point of interest). The point is to isolate the stimuli and Preliminary Exercises focus on tasks that don’t necessarily have an end in themselves. They prepare the child for more complex work they will do in the future (like filling a pitcher or emptying a pail).
Also keep in mind that Practical Life lessons are about everything we need to skillfully go about our day. There’s much more than what is in your album. You must customize practical life lessons to meet the needs of your children. I remember once when Susan Stephenson (google her if you don’t know her…a most amazing Montessorian and artist) was staying at our house when my son was three years old. He was constantly moving really fast and crashing into things. So, Susan gave him a lesson on how to run really fast and stop before you bumped into something. How beautiful is that? I had no idea that Practical Life lessons included something so basic. I thought it was more about high-class, finishing school behavior. I am forever in her debt for learning that lesson (and my son, who is now 13-years-old, is doing quite well). So, whatever behavior you see that is causing difficulty, create a Practical Life lesson around it. Make sense?
As you do so, remember that the young child is just learning how to interact socially with others. If we want them to have the best chance for success, limit most lessons to one person at a time. Other children are always welcome and encouraged to observe (be sure to give a Grace and Courtesy lesson on how to observe) but the work is usually in the hands of just one person. When we do this, we isolate the topic we are presenting without adding in the challenge of social interaction. With that in mind, your room should have mostly one-person tables,…really, I’m not even joking. You will avoid all kinds of mayhem by making this change to your environment. Your snack table, however, should accommodate two to four children. We want them to have plenty of opportunities to chat but we are acknowledging that chatting is a separate skill from concentrating. Also remember to give a Grace and Courtesy lesson on how to move a table. This way, when they’re ready for chatting and working, they are free to do so.
Beyond Preliminary Exercises and Grace and Courtesy, you want to give plenty of attention to Spoken Language. Have a wealth of familiar childhood songs in your pocket and sing them at will (especially during transition times). Do the same for rhyming poems (those are the best types of poems for early in the year). But don’t forget all the other gems of Spoken Language, tongue twisters being one of my favorites. Spoken Language lessons are ideal for your co-teacher (if you have one) to offer to small groups of roving children, particularly around 10:15 am. When the room’s attention starts to fall apart, gather a small group for a song, poem, tongue twister, or read aloud. When you’re done (these lessons typically only last a few minutes), then one-by-one guide them towards work.
Finally, stay calm. Your goal is to be perpetually cheerful (even when they are making you absolutely bonkers). You want to overlook almost anything that doesn’t draw blood. Save your in the moment interventions for behavior that is:
For everything else, make a note and plan a Grace and Courtesy or other lesson to address it. For now, keep your eyes on the prize—the work. Remember, that wherever you put your attention, the children will put their attention. So, if you are all caught up in every tiny misunderstanding, the children will be too. However, if the children perceive you to be utterly and completely enamored of the Montessori activities (the work), they will be as well. It’s wonderfully uncomplicated with the 3 to 6 year olds in this regard.
How does this play out in real life? Well, if you see a child under a table, you ignore it and keep giving the lesson you’re giving. If another child reports to you that someone is under the table, you say, “I know. I have no idea what he is doing there. I’d rather be here.” Then turn your attention to the work. These little things generally become quite boring to the young child if they don’t entice a response from the adult.
At the end of each work period, take a moment to sit down and write down what you’re seeing. What is going well? What needs attention? Then, invest your energy there. The time you spend at the beginning of the year not only preparing lessons but also developing relationships with families and children, will pay off ten-fold.
Do you have other ideas that are key for your start of year routine? Post a comment below to share your wisdom. We could all use it!