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Building Skills for Peace: Social-Emotional Learning in Lower Elementary

Lower Elementary (ages 6-9) is a time when children enter what Maria Montessori called the Second Plane of Development. During this time, children go from working and playing alone to seeking out interactions with peers. It is a time of moral development when children grapple with what is right and wrong; what is fair and unfair. It is also an age when children begin to explore big questions about the world and their place in it. Guided by our understanding of the developmental stages of 6-9 year olds, Lower Elementary teachers aim to give children guidance, support, and structure. This helps children develop a respect for themselves and others, along with an awareness of a moral code that allows the community, as well as the individual, to thrive. Within our classroom structures, we aim to give children opportunities to solve their own problems and learn about themselves through trial and error, making mistakes and discovering how to make adjustments to recover from them, in a safe environment.

Maria Montessori recognized that children’s impulses provide the spark that makes learning possible; however, unless tempered by an awareness of the needs of others, the community, the earth, and all of nature, these impulses could lead to conflict and discord. Therefore, in addition to the Great Lessons – which present the foundations of the Universe, the World, and Geologic, Biological, and Human History – she emphasized practical lessons in Grace and Courtesy. She observed, “Without impulses, we could take no part in social life; on the other hand, without inhibitions, we could not correct, direct, and utilize our impulses.” Montessori believed that an early childhood education which emphasized and promoted the interdependence and interconnection of all things in childhood was humanity’s greatest hope for a peaceful, interdependent, and harmonious world.

At NMS, the Montessori curriculum is one way that we plant the seeds for peace. We want to share some of the ways we help children build the skills for peace in the classroom on a daily basis.

This year, the Lower Elementary teachers decided to introduce a new curriculum for social-emotional learning based on the book, The Compassionate Classroom: Relationship Based Teaching and Learning by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson. At the core of this curriculum is the belief that students who learn to understand the role of universal human feelings and needs in their own behavior, and that of others, can begin to apply this awareness to communicate their own needs to others. Furthermore, they can communicate with a sense of cooperation and empathy, rather than using blame and judgement or exercising power over others when differences arise.

This approach, known as “Conscious Communication” can offer a means of effective conflict resolution between children, but its principles are also applicable to all relationships, including those among family members, co-workers, and between adults and children.

The Foundations of Conscious Communication

  • Our classroom is a ‘no-blame’ zone. All behavior is based on someone trying to get their needs met. Needs for such things as “attention,” “competency,” “respect,” “learning,” “safety,” “freedom,” “beauty,” “relaxation,” “fun,” and “friendship” lead to choices or actions. These are all legitimate needs, but may lead to behaviors which infringe on the rights of others. The point is not to blame a child when this happens, but to establish communication.

  • Children can learn to name these needs.

  • Children can learn to name the feelings that result when these needs are met (or not met). Such as, “happiness” when the need for learning is met. Or “anger” when the need for respect is not met.

  • Children can learn to observe behaviors without having to offer judgement: For example, saying “she stepped on my foot” rather than “she tried to hurt me,” allows for the other child to hear the facts without having to defend against an accusation.

  • Once feelings and needs are shared and understood, children learn to make a “do-able” request that would allow the situation (and trust) to be repaired.

  • Finally, children are offered an opportunity to repair the situation and forgive the action, allowing the trust between the classmates to be restored.

A Student’s Day in Lower Elementary: Sara’s Social Emotional Journey

  • When Sara arrives at the classroom door, she reads the Welcome Board and answers a daily class question. Today the question reminds her of the work she did yesterday in her engineering experiment, as it asks her which materials she used to create her closed circuit. As she checks off her materials, she is transported back to yesterday and to the collaborative work she did with her team. She starts her day ready for learning and ready to be part of a greater community. The board and the question often set the tone for the day—see another example below.

  • Sara comes to Morning Meeting where she greets and is greeted by her classmates – she feels acknowledged, significant, and a sense of belonging. She participates in our morning rituals which help start the day off in a warm and joyful way and create a safe space. These include:

  • Class announcements – students discuss recent class concerns, like a student noticing that some classmates are leaving their pencils out around the classroom.

  • Sharing time – Sara listens to 2 students who signed up to share their “Who Am I” work – a research project they did on an animal. The class guesses which animal was described.

  • Class game or song – we have fun together and learn to work together cooperatively towards a common goal. On this day, Sara and her class play a game where a student leaves the room and changes 2 things about his appearance, such as taking off his socks. When he comes back, the class guesses what changes he made. They have learned to raise their hands for the student to call on them, wait their turn, and participate respectfully.

  • During the morning work time, Sara chooses to do some work independently and some work with peers. She has learned to navigate this and plan her own time. She also attends a lesson, bringing the materials she needs with her and writes the follow up work in her work plan afterwards.

  • During the morning, Sara takes a short break from her academic work and chooses a practical life work from the shelf. It’s a labyrinth puzzle which she traces with a stick. She feels calm and focused through this exercise.

  • Sara and a classmate have a misunderstanding. They both wanted to use some salt dough to make a model of a landform, and when one of them used the last of it before the other had a chance, they decide to go to the table together to use the feelings and needs cards.

The students sit down facing each other. Sara identifies her feelings by choosing several emotion cards.

Sara: “I was surprised and frustrated to find there was no dough left when I wanted to do my project. Can you guess what my need is?”

Ella: “Do you have a need for “Fairness” and “To Matter”? (She puts those cards on the table)

Sara: “I also have a need “To be Heard.”

Ella: “You have a need for Fairness and To Matter and To be Heard?”

Sara: “That’s right.” (She looks satisfied that she has been understood.) “Would you be willing to check with me before you use up the dough next time?”

Ella: “Yes.” (They shake hands, able to move on as friends.)

  • Right before lunch a student rings a bell and makes an announcement to clean up and come to the rug. The students gather for a mindfulness activity, something the class does regularly to focus their awareness, be present, and learn to be emotionally calm.

  • Next it’s lunchtime. Sara finds her popsicle stick with her name on it, and sits with 3 other students. This gives Sara the opportunity to get to know students in the other class too, and talk to people that aren’t necessarily her best friends.

  • At recess, when Sara feels upset that a friend left her out, she goes over to the friend and tells her that she would like to share an “I-statement.” Sara then says, “I felt sad when you told me I couldn’t join your group.” The other student knows just how to acknowledge Sara, and says, “I am sorry; I didn't mean to make you feel left out. Would you like to join us?”

  • In the afternoon, Sara teaches a lesson to a younger student. Peer teaching is an important part of our mixed age environment. The teaching student feels empowered in this role, and the learner feels motivated by his older peer.

  • After Sara works very hard for a concentrated time, she determines she needs a break. She takes her name tag and places it on brain break, grabs a 10 minute timer and walks out into the hallway to one of the 3 brain break spots with activities set up

  • At the end of the day, Sara checks in on her personal community and social goals she had set for herself that week. Her community goal was to help keep the classroom neat. She remembers that she cleaned up after all her work that day and helped pick up pencils before lunch, so she gives herself a 4 (on a scale of 1 to 4) for her community goal. Her learning goal was to start with her math work, since she spent most of her time the previous week working on a big cultural project. Sara did math second on this day, so gives herself a 3. She then plans her work plan for the next day. In doing so, she checks in with a friend to see if he wants to plan to do a work together. Next, she has a teacher check over the plan, and they converse about today’s accomplishments and her choices for the next day. Sara feels ownership over her time, her work, and her environment.

  • Next, Sara does her class job which this week is to water the plants. Taking care of her classroom helps her feel ownership and a sense of belonging.

A practical benefit of a classroom where social-emotional learning is addressed, is that when children are feeling a sense of trust and security rather than guarding against possible threat, they have more of their attention and thinking power available for learning. They also are engaged in developing skills of self-regulation that can serve them for a lifetime. But even beyond this is a larger benefit: their education is giving them the tools to advance the work of making our society and our world a more peaceful place.

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