Upper School Blog: The Work of Community in Elementary

Upper School Blog: The Work of Community in Elementary

Right alongside the lessons I plan with the trinomial cube, early human migrations, ecosystems, bookbinding, and principal and dependent clauses, are social-emotional lessons, often called grace and courtesy lessons, in Montessori communities. In the Elementary years, social-emotional intelligence is the foundation of a strong and healthy community, where a balance of freedom and responsibility, and joy, is observable in the daily functions of the group. 

Each fall, the community changes, absorbing new perspectives and personalities, while continually being guided by the oldest children and the teachers who pass down the customs and traditions of the class, and uphold and model the ideals and values of the school. Every year, it is a delight to see our oldest children celebrate class traditions like Writer’s Chair, History Time, the Economy Game, and class camping trips, or teaching the newest members of the class how to care for Lopez, our beloved and long-tenured bearded dragon, or how to properly put up, take down, and fold the American flag. 

Another major facet of these customs and traditions is in the way we work to cultivate a community of care and belonging. Borrowing from the celebrated Montessorian, author, and poet, John Snyder (from his essay, “A Community's Work Is Never Done,” Tending the Light: Essays on Montessori Education), here is a short list of the skills Upper Elementary children actively learn and consciously develop and practice through guided discussions, small group lessons, and in one-on-one meetings:

  • learning how to name what one is feeling
  • learning to handle strong feelings (joy, grief, anger, fear) without losing oneself
  • employing strategies for soothing one's own anxiety, fear, and insecurities
  • regaining balance when something pulls one off-center
  • learning to handle change and transitions
  • developing empathy and the ability to take another's perspectives
  • allowing others to change
  • giving and receiving compliments
  • looking inside, and accepting what you see
  • avoiding cliques
  • learning to appreciate people unlike oneself
  • dealing with competition or rivalry over friends
  • being oneself in the face of pressure to conform to others' ideas of how or who one should be
  • being able to set appropriate boundaries
  • knowing how to “back down” or “lose” gracefully
  • knowing how to create win/win solutions
  • setting realistic goals
  • being able to accurately assess one's abilities
  • being “friendly” with failure
  • being able to admit mistakes and make amends
  • risk-taking (for the timid) and thinking about possible consequences (for the daredevil)

As you read through the list, you might notice, as I often do, that these skills are at the heart of our adult relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and with ourselves. They are not easy to practice and develop. Some take great effort and awareness, especially in times of conflict or emotional dysregulation. And the older we get, the harder it is to develop these skills into healthy habits of mind. 

Rather than shaming children when they struggle to practice these skills, we lean on our strong working relationships with them and we offer them our compassion (and a growth mindset) along with our high expectations for personal conduct (“we can do hard things”). Rather than forcing apologies when mistakes are made, we demonstrate healthy repair, and how to sit with feelings of discomfort when a peer needs time and space to heal and rebuild trust.

At home, you might share stories with your child about a time you learned to avoid cliques at school, or a time you learned how to receive a compliment at work. Allow your child to learn from your life experiences and to see that these are not just the skills necessary to run a joyful Montessori classroom, but to carry throughout life. 


Julia Isaza

Sweet Gum Upper Elementary Lead Teacher

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