by Letty Rising
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This is a question that comes up all the time with elementary teachers!
It is a Montessori truism that we protect the child’s work cycle from interruptions. We talk with our colleagues about resisting the urge to do the following:
- Pulling children out of the classroom for remediation
- Dropping specialists into the middle of the work cycle
- Stopping mid-cycle to announce that it’s time for recess or snack
We offer the children the opportunity to self-regulate during the work cycle by allowing them to determine if they are hungry or need to get up and move around a bit before returning to their work. This is not only an important freedom, but also a crucial aspect of independence that we want to see grow in every child. Therefore, we aim to create an environment with minimal interruptions in order to enable optimal conditions for flourishing.
Balancing offering presentations with honoring independent work
Some folks might say that the purpose of a lesson is to disseminate new information. Others might say that the purpose of a lesson would be to spark interest and sew seeds of knowledge. If this is the case, then, of course, we must offer these things to the children. Otherwise, the children would be engaging in independent work, but the framework of Cosmic Education would be missing. However, does the practice of giving a lesson come in conflict with the idea of facilitating a prepared environment devoid of interruptions? In other words, is it really okay to interrupt an elementary child who is working?
Concentration: still important to cultivate, but it looks different
During the first plane of development, ages 0-6, one of the primary objectives is to help children develop their powers of concentration. It is very clearly taught in all Montessori trainings for this age group that when children are focusing on an object, a material, or an activity, that we leave them be. However, is this notion as cut and dry during the elementary years?
The assumption can be made that elementary children have already developed those powers of concentration. Therefore, we can invite them to a lesson, and when they are finished they can easily return to whatever they were working on. This ability to put work on “pause” while attending a presentation is something that most elementary children can successfully do. So, for those who hold onto the notion that we cannot interrupt the child to give them a presentation, just know that this is an accurate and very important assumption to make for a younger child, but not for an elementary child. However, there ARE some times when an interruption may not be in the child’s best interest.
- The child is a young elementary child and their concentration isn’t fully developed.
- The child is new to a Montessori environment and has never had the opportunity to work on anything uninterrupted, for a length of time.
- The child has some challenges with attention and you want to offer as many opportunities for focus as possible.
To Interrupt, or Not to Interrupt?
In the elementary environment, presentations are most often given in small groups. So what if you are planning a small group lesson, the time has come, and you notice that one of the students you intended to invite is deeply engaged in a follow-up activity to the Fundamental Needs of Humans lesson that you presented the day before? The answer: It depends on the child and the situation.
If we are considering a child who is on solid footing in terms of their ability to concentrate, you can invite them to the lesson, and the child will easily be able to return to work in progress without skipping a beat. Even with a child who can return quickly back to focus after a presentation, you might come to the conclusion that the experience they are having is, at that moment, of greater value than pulling away for a lesson, and instead decide to invite them at a later time. You are using observation to inform your decision.
If it is a child who has difficulty concentrating, let him continue with his focus. You can give the presentation to him later in the morning, in the afternoon, or on another day. If it works for the rest of the small group you can delay the presentation to another time. You can also include the child on another day with a different group of children that hasn’t had the lesson, or you could give it to him solo. If you can delay the presentation to a later time, and give another group their presentation, that might be ideal. Through observation you are noticing patterns, and from the patterns that emerge, you will make informed decisions on how best to proceed.
When you are met with resistance
Sometimes, some children will resist invitations to lessons. You might observe that some children are always “too busy” for a lesson, especially those who tend to dive deep into their passion projects. Sometimes these children experience lessons as something that gets in the way of their true work. And after all, who are we to decide what is most important in their lives?
We must find that balance, between sowing the seeds, and creating an environment for child-initiated “big work.” So how do we ensure that we are introducing the elementary child to the exciting elementary topics? We invite them to presentations. And while we have the child who will come willingly and then easily return to work, we also have the following:
- The child who will come willingly to a lesson then struggle with transitioning back to previous work
- The child who will will come reluctantly and then struggle with transitioning back to previous work
How can we support these children who have difficulty with interruptions?
There are a few things we can do help the child who experiences difficulty with interruptions:
- Give them the lesson first thing in the morning. If they expect that it is coming then, it will become routine.
- Let them know in the morning at what time they might expect the lesson. Some children do better with the times listed.
- Speak to the child ahead of time, letting them know that you are planning to invite them to a lesson once a day, and collaborate with them on when would be the best time of day for that lesson.
- Give the child a 5-10 minute heads-up…say something like “In 10 minutes I’m going to be inviting you to a lesson.”
Is it an interruption, or shifting gears?
In the elementary environment, while we want to honor and protect children from interruptions, the act of focusing on an activity or project, then putting a pause on that particular area of focus, then returning to the activity or project, is a skill that we want to actively cultivate. With these children, trust that you can interrupt them in the middle of their clay rendition of the Layers of the Earth or their diorama on Ancient Egypt, knowing that they will be able to return to their activities with little to no trouble.
However, some children still need more of a first plane approach. Their concentration is still fragile, and breaking focus to attend a presentation will likely derail their efforts to attend to the task at hand. For these children, you will want to protect those long uninterrupted periods of concentration, because they haven’t yet developed the capacity to easily shift gears from one activity to another, then back. And over time, with opportunities to connect with the materials and the environment, the child’s ability to switch back and forth between engaging in concentrated work and attending presentations, will grow.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.