How to Start A New Class
Today’s post is about what we do during the first few days in our classroom. This post ended up being a lot longer than I had originally planned. It’s also coming a few weeks late since all of you are back to school already. But, I hope it helps for the future!
Start A New Class
A typical Montessori classroom will add a few new students each year. Two-thirds of the students in the class are generally those who are returning for a second or third year. They have already learned the rules and routines and are able to function independently in their classroom environment. They provide a solid grounding energy that is able to absorb the uncertain, tentative, and sometimes chaotic energy of the new students.
Things are different at the start of a new class or one where the majority of the students are new. There aren’t any/enough role models for the students to follow. There isn’t a sense of peacefulness already established that the new students can lean into. Such a class needs some special tactics to get the year off to a successful start.
In this post I will share the strategies that have worked for us. We sometimes find ourselves in this situation with our half-day classes. A couple of years ago, for example, most of our students graduated so we welcomed an almost brand new class the following year.
Going From New to Normalized
“Normalized” is the Montessori term used to describe a human being who is in touch with his/her inner self. Montessori observed that when children were provided an environment prepared for their needs, they began to show certain characteristics not often associated with young children- a love of work, deep concentration, peacefulness, empathy, self-discipline, and more. This she called the Normalized child.
Coming into a new and unfamiliar environment can throw anyone off and feel far from normalized. Young children in particular have a very strong need for order and predictability and can be deeply affected by their transition to school. It is crucial to provide a strong structure during the first days and weeks to help the children ease into their new class.
The structures we put into place when we start a new class at the beginning of the year are designed to help the children in the following ways:
- Feel safe and secure
- Feel connected
- Learn the routines
- Experience concentration
Feeling Safe, Secure and Connected
Every human’s most basic need is a sense of safety. If this need is not met, the child will be unable to attend to anything else and will often exhibit his anxiety with behaviors such as inconsolable crying or “acting out”.
The first step to help with this as you start a new class is to help the child build a trusting relationship with the adults in the room. There are many ways to do this. Many teachers will host a picnic or party, or schedule a private orientation at school before the first day. At our school we conduct home visits with all our new students. The teachers visit the child at home a few days before he starts school. This way the child is in a place where he feels in control and can take the lead in showing the teacher his favorite things.
The home visits are followed by a structured orientation week during which the new students come for a short time each day. These short days and gradual introduction to the class help them deal softly with separation and the anxiety of being in a new place with unfamiliar expectations.
During these first few days the children look to the teacher to give them a sense of security. The child has to see the teacher as gentle, friendly and equally if not more importantly, in charge. The child has to trust that there’s someone in the room who knows what’s going on and will not let him drown in this ocean of newness.
Common anxiety triggers during the first days are:
- Not feeling connected to anyone in the room. Older children in particular need to make a social connection with peers quickly. Younger children are usually satisfied with a sense of connection with the teacher.
- Chaos in the environment. Children will start to feel anxious when others are behaving wildly around them. This often causes them to act out too and leads to a downward spiral into utter chaos if the teacher does not redirect quickly.
- Boredom. Staying engaged in some sort of meaningful/interesting activity is the path to Normalization prescribed by Montessori. Children in a new environment do not yet know how to self-select appropriate activities. When they find themselves at a loss for something to do, many children will experience anxiety.
- Lack of predictability. This age group is characterized by a strong sense of order. A lack of order and predictability in the environment and routines will almost always make a young child feel uncomfortable. There is much to be said about the importance of the Montessori Prepared Environment that we won’t be able to go into here.
We take these first few days to establish a number of routines that will help the children eventually function independently in the room. First we lay the groundwork with some important messages:
- This is “our classroom” and we all take care of it.
- We are friends and we help each other.
Some essential routines for the start of the year:
- Arrival and Dismissal prcoedures (including how to walk in a line if necessary)
- How to walk in the classroom
- How to use a quiet voice
- Work is done on a rug or table
- Work is put away when done
- Bathroom procedure
- Snack procedure (start very simple and add more steps as the weeks progress)
- (See more details below)
The First Day
When we start a new class, new students come to school for just one hour on the first day. A few select materials are visible for the children to use. Some teachers put everything away in cupboards. We just turn our shelves around or cover them with a cloth when we start a new class.
We greet the children at the door with a handshake and show them our arrival procedure. We’re also alert for first first-day separation anxiety!
If all the children come into the classroom at the same time we may start with a circle. If you sense your students will not be able to manage a circle to start with, you may want to get them engaged in activities right away.
We have a variety of familiar toys set out on rugs or tables for this purpose.
Examples: puzzles, blocks, crayons, pegboards, playdoh etc.
We end the hour with a circle time and talk about how tomorrow there will be materials on the shelves and we introduce the concept of a “lesson”. Music and movement games at circle are also important as they help the children end the day with laughter and positive feelings.
The Second Day
On the second day, the children may come for an hour or an hour and a half.
We still have some materials out on rugs and tables ready for the children to use as they come in, but today we also have some beginning practical life materials on the shelves. Examples: Pouring, spooning, finger transfer, bead stringing etc.
Today, the two teachers in the room will have specific roles.
Teacher 1: Supervise and assist children as they move between activities already set out. Depending on the needs of the students, this could be the more experienced teacher or the less experienced one. If the children need a lot of support, I prefer to have the more experienced teacher take on this role.
Teacher 2: Take a small group of children for lessons. I recommend choosing short essential lessons such as beginning fine motor exercises that will keep the students’ attention from beginning to end. Try to give every child in the room at least one formal lesson today.
Some things to focus on during these lessons:
* Show them how to watch a lesson (we put our hands behind our backs like in the image below and are very quiet)
*Show the complete cycle from beginning to end. Start at the shelf, show how to handle tray, how to do the work and how to put it away.
*Show how to walk and sit.
During circle we review a few items from this list of essential grace and courtesy lessons:
How to handle a rug
How to sit at a table
How to handle materials with care
How to ask for help/get attention
How to ask to join/watch and how to respond
Learning how to walk around a rug without stepping on it
Practicing how to roll and put away a work rug
The Third and Fourth Days
On the third and fourth days the children attend for two hours. We put most of the toys on a designated shelf instead of having them out on rugs. We help the children practice taking the materials to rugs and completing a work cycle.
We also try to give a lot more small group lessons. We have found it helpful to invite wandering children to follow us from one lesson to the next. My favorite strategy for managing these small group lessons in the first days is to take a group of 4-5 students, show them a lesson, invite one of the children to try it independently while I take the rest of the group to a different lesson. I can cycle through the entire room with this strategy and get quite a lot of lessons in while also keeping many children engaged. I usually feel like I’ve had a workout by the end of the two hours, but it’s worth it!
The First Few Weeks
During the first days of school the children should have picked up on some basic routines and have learned how to work with some basic materials. Once they start coming for a full 3-4 hours, we focus on mastering the routines and introducing a wider variety of activities.
Teacher 1: During these first weeks the children need a lot of assistance developing independence in the bathroom and with snack. We usually have one teacher focusing on this and assisting with general management when possible. This is typically the role of the less experienced teacher in the room.
Teacher 2: I feel strongly that the more experienced teacher must devote her attention during these first few weeks to reinforcing and supporting the children as they practice the work routines. She ensures that children are finding activities to do and helping them get started. She repeats the basic lessons constantly so that the children can see the procedures over and over again. It is crucially important for this teacher to be fully aware of the whole classroom and to be able to prioritize where to provide assistance.
During these first weeks we find it helpful to make slight variations in work to keep children interested in repeating basic lessons.
A simple way to vary things is to change the color of the items on the shelf.
Here are some of the mistakes I have made over the years when trying to start a new class:
- Trying to give long individual lessons when the rest of the class is chaotic and the other children have not found something to do. Expecting the assistant to be able to engage an entire class in work is unrealistic. It is imperative that the teacher not get lost in a lesson and ignore the needs of the class as a whole.
- Not thinking through the detailed steps involved in the routines you want the children to follow. Just as the lessons in our albums have up to 30 steps for something as simple as pouring beans, so must we spell out the steps needed to function in the classroom by analyzing our movements and isolating all the difficulties involved.
- Not giving enough support to children while they are in the practicing phase. The practicing phase is called Second Period in most Montessori lessons. Many of us forget that the children need support during this phase. We cannot expect the children to show mastery of the routines after just a couple of days.
- Not having a strong adult presence at the beginning. This can be one of the trickiest things for a teacher to master. We need to learn how to have a strong presence when the children need us but then to disappear once they have become independent. When the children are not independent, they are dependent and they need us to provide the emotional security in the room.
- Using too many words. Sometimes we’re tempted to describe and explain the routines to the children and admonish them to do the right thing. This. is. futile. We must demonstrate the desired behavior and support them while they practice, using only simple language when needed. Example: If a child is running in the classroom, we don’t want to stop them and explain all the reasons we should not run. I would simply get in their path, make eye contact, smile, and say “We walk like this in class” and demonstrate walking.
- Keeping the children at circle too long. At the beginning of the year most of the children simply do not have the attention span and self-control to attend to a group activity for too long.
- Not giving enough lessons that can be repeated independently by the child. The majority of the lessons we give during the first days and weeks should be things the children can attempt to repeat on their own during the start of a new class. Our goal is to give the children a large repertoire of activities to choose from that they can do independently. This will eventually allow the teacher to be freed up to give the classic longer Montessori presentations to individuals. If we spend most of our time doing group lessons and games that require the presence of a teacher, we will be stuck in that phase forever and the dream of a normalized classroom will remain a dream.
Simple Practical Life activities like polishing a penny can be repeated independently by the child.