Learning to be Social in a Montessori Classroom

By: Kevin Kalra

Will my child learn to socialize in a Montessori school? This a very common question that parents ask during their visit to our Montessori school.

A common misconception about Montessori education is that Montessori (as an educational approach) promotes the idea of independence by teaching a child to work alone and not learn to work with others. 

This is false.

Let us first examine the definition of socialization. Socialization is a “continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns norms, values, behavior, and social skills.” When parents ask about socialization when they visit a preschool, they normally mean the process of how children learn to interact with one another within acceptable social norms.

In a Montessori school, we believe independence means learning to be self-disciplined and self-aware – AND working constructively and harmoniously with others.  It does not necessarily mean working alone.

A Montessori school teaches socialization in many ways.  The prepared environment – or the classroom – is designed to foster a calm and cooperative working environment. This helps facilitate social interactions.  The low shelves help children freely access activities, and the child-size tables and chairs allow the child to work as they wish (and where they wish).  Think about your office environment – in what ways does the built environment help you feel focused and collaborative?  Does the design and look of your office affect how you interact with others?

Each classroom is equipped with a set of rugs.  The small rugs delineate a child’s work area, and they give visual cues so children can respect each other’s space. Children may opt to work collaboratively within a work space or on their own.  Very often,  a Montessori Guide will  actively encourage children to work with a more social classmate or older student, if they need support with their social skills.

Parents may have noticed that a Montessori classroom is always equipped with one of every type of activity (or material).  This is intentional, and this practice helps children learn to wait their turn.  We want a child to learn an amicable way to resolve a conflicting  situation where two children may want the same activity. The adult may step in if a resolution cannot be achieved.  For example, in this scenario, we may model how to resolve the situation by asking: Who accessed the material first?  Would you like to work after another child finishes with it?  Would you like to work together?  or Can your friend bring the work to you after they finish?

Mixed ages in the classroom also support social development.  Older students model positive social behaviors for our younger students.  And many times, older students are expected to behave as an older sibling or mentor to the younger student, demonstrating skills in empathy and kindness.  These types of relationships are actively coached and supported by the Montessori Guide, due to our training.  

We model socializing with grace and courtesy through everyday interactions and events and large parties.  For example, every year, we organize a children-only Halloween Carnival.  The children arrange the games; work with younger students to show them how to play; demonstrate good manners, grace, and courtesy when interacting with one another; and learn to wait their turn.  The absence of family members and adults during the event brings additional confidence to each child’s social skills. Children also practice grace and courtesy in the classroom.  They learn to set the table; use acceptable manners like saying goodbye to their parents when they enter the school; and learn to clean their areas after lunch. 

Good socialization is never forced.  We would never say: “You need to share your activity” in a Montessori environment. We must consider the following: What if the child does not want to share?  And what if the activity is not intended to be shared?  Children must learn to assert themselves and their needs with grace and compassion.  Think of a time when you needed to assert yourself as an adult. Perhaps you needed to tell your boss you do not want to reply to emails late at night.  Or maybe you needed to tell a relative that you do not like their behavior at a family event. These situations are challenging – and induce anxiety – but this can be overcome with guidance and support at an early age. 

The parent is the most important teacher for good socialization. A child always watches their parents and reflects their behaviors.  When you are frustrated with a person, consider how you would want your child to react in the situation. For that matter, have you ever reflected on how you are reacting with your child’s teacher? Or with your partner or older relative? Well-mannered interactions with your child’s teacher will go a long way in developing proper social skills in your child.

A final consideration on good socialization is preparing ourselves as adults to observe good (and not so good socialization).  As adults, if we notice a child not actively talking to others, does that truly mean the child is anti-social?  If we have a child who is older and talkative – and a younger sibling who is more quiet – does it mean something is “wrong” with the younger child?  Reflecting on our biases on what “social” means is important when helping our child.  If we are prepared to observe our child in a detailed manner, we can better support a child’s social skills. After all, a child should learn to socialize in their way (not the adult’s way).

We’re reminded of a story where a nearby Gymnastics coach called our school, explaining that he always knew who our students were.  He said the Montessori Preschool students were the ones who waited their turn, respected the coach and other parents, and asked for help when they struggled.  And they always cheered on the younger participants.  Effective socialization is rooted in self-awareness, self-discipline, and grace and courtesy with others.  Children learn by observing others, modeling their teachers – and most importantly, modeling their parents.  

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