The youngest elementary children…the beginning of a new cycle.
When the 6 or 7-year-old child enters into the elementary classroom, teachers sometimes struggle with understanding this newly emerging second plane child. When I was teaching and had the benefit of observing my students in their primary classroom environment before they transitioned into elementary, it was always so interesting to see the contrast between their first plane and second plane selves. The child who I originally observed as being an independent, self-directed and responsible leader in the 3-6 environment is no longer behaving like the child I once observed! Instead, we are faced with a child who is in many ways lacking in independence and self-direction, who all of a sudden seems very young, almost like a 3-year-old entering the Children’s House all over again!
Why the change?
Remember, the young elementary child is not only entering into a new classroom but also a new (and very different!) plane of development. While the child in 3-6 has very defined work based on the order in the external environment, the goal of the elementary child is to develop an internal sense of order. That does not happen overnight! While everything for an activity is confined to one tray in primary, the elementary child has to think about the materials he or she needs, and to then roam about the classroom collecting the various materials needed to complete a project. While the older children are well versed in this routine, the new elementary child might take some time to adjust to this new way of acquiring the tools necessary to prepare for the deeper work that happens in elementary.
Think of it this way: Your new 6-year-old is very similar to the new 3-year-old in the 3-6 classroom. Just as the 3-year-old is doing a lot of wandering and observing at first, so will your 6-year-old…and allowing some time and space for that is okay! Children are still learning through observation at this age, and in fact, are still on the tail end of the absorbent mind stage, so they tend to be soaking in much more than they are producing.
Some helpful tips when working with the young elementary child
1. Remember that they just came from primary!
These children will feel much younger than the rest of the class. You as a teacher might have a few initial experiences with a child that will cause you to wonder if they are “ready” for elementary, and question as to whether or not they should have stayed in primary for a bit longer. If this happens, it is important to keep in mind that your youngest children from the previous year have already experienced a full year of growth, and your new community members might seem much younger in comparison! Your self-directed 7-year olds were once your unsettled 6-year-olds who also lacked the skills that your new students currently don’t have, and it is easy to forget about the foundation that needs to be laid at the beginning of the year in order to properly support these blossoming 6-year-olds. This foundation requires patience and the belief that the children will eventually respond to you and the environment. In time, these children who aren’t behaving like a normalized elementary child will soon get there. The lack of focus in the early weeks often has to do with acclimating to a new environment as well as a new way of thinking and doing. They are now exercising their powers of imagination, and you are there to help them navigate this new and exciting stage of development.
2. Be explicit about work expectations
The children are no longer working solo…collaborative work is the name of the game! While some children naturally adapt to the collaborative nature of the elementary classroom, other children need very clear instructions on what it means to be a group member, what it looks like to contribute to group work, and how to delegate tasks in group projects.
3. Provide external structure if needed
The child of this age might need more external structure from you while they are developing their internal sense of order. At first, having your youngest children in many lessons and teacher-initiated follow up activities throughout the day will not only keep your younger students busy but will also help them develop a sense of “I have a lesson, then I can do follow up work related to that lesson.’
4. “Transition Shelf”
Have a “transition shelf” in your elementary classroom, with some popular primary materials that the children will be familiar with. This shelf can also include items such as puzzles and pattern blocks. Introduce your young children to the transition shelf, and let them know that when they are not sure what work to do, they can always choose work here because it is familiar work that they can easily do independently.
5. Find a partner/mentor
For those who are having additional struggles, you might want to have them “buddy-up” with an older child in the class who can both guide and model. Remember that children of this age are very much into hero-worship, and some of their heroes are the elders in the classroom, who they look upon as leaders in their community.
Remember, patience is the key with these younger members of your community! They do not come into your classroom knowing the skills needed to navigate the environment with independence and ease. You are there to help them learn this new skill, and with time, eventually, these young elementary children will become those leaders in the classroom who they so greatly admire.
Letty Rising is an international Montessori consultant. She holds an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as Montessori Elementary Teacher, Education Coordinator, and Head of School with several different Montessori communities over the years, including the LePort Schools. See More
Seemi holds a Master's degree in education, and an AMS Early Childhood credential. She has twenty years of experience in Montessori as a teacher, school administrator, and school owner. Seemi is the founder of TrilliumMontessori.org.