The elementary years are years of vigorous, continual growth, stretched between the two poles of the first and third planes of development. Building on the foundation – whether solid or shaky – of the first six years, they aim for the heights of adolescence. Everything that we have a hope of understanding about these elementary children can be understood as a function of three things: the raw materials of personhood that they bring with them from early childhood; the developmental trajectory toward adolescence; and the quality of the support and protection they have from us along the way.
The years 9-12 are the flowering of childhood. All the preparation and hard work done in the Children’s House and the first three years of the elementary come to fruition. All the characteristics that we see in the first half of the elementary are present in the second half, but they are typically intensified or more complex in some way. The attraction to peers becomes an obsession; the impatience with not knowing becomes an impatience with faulty reasoning and explanations; the enthusiasm for trying out new things becomes a need to test and challenge oneself physically and mentally.
It is often during the elementary years that a child first experiences the death of a loved one – frequently a grandparent or great-grandparent, but sometimes and aunt, uncle, parent or sibling. These times can be very difficult and confusing for us as adults caring for elementary children. Younger children also suffer loss, but they may have an easier time accepting that this is just the way things are. It may be only much later that they revisit and truly comprehend the loss through a process of reflection.
“We would like to read two poems, if you are available,” one of them says. I come from behind my desk to sit and listen. One of the poems is about dolphins; the other is about insects. The children read aloud, taking turns with the verses. Clearly, they have made a plan and practiced how they will work together as readers.
One of the self-calming tools I have sometimes given children is the practice of “mindful walking.” This method has historical roots in the contemplative traditions of Asia, but it is in no way esoteric and is easily understood by children.
Elementary children need to experience themselves as increasingly powerful agents in the world. As their personal power increases with age and maturity, they begin to encounter all the classical questions about power with which humanity has struggled and continues to struggle. At the root of these questions is the fact that power and its uses define relationships.
Montessori teachers and school administrators often hear versions of the following questions from parents who are wondering how well their children are being academically prepared in Montessori programs: How does the Montessori curriculum compare to traditional curricula? Are Montessori elementary programs usually academically “accelerated” in relation to their traditional counterparts? How do Montessori graduates compare to other students?