The VELS domain of ‘Approaches to Learning’ creates guidelines and expectations for a child’s self development. A critical aspect of self-development is self-awareness. As parents and teachers, our goal is for children to develop and practice skills supporting their development into responsible, confident, and compassionate individuals. For young children, this looks like developing an awareness of his or her personality, characteristics, skills, and abilities. Self-awareness encompasses a child’s emotional intelligence as they become more skilled at recognizing and naming their emotions and their physical development as they refine their gross and fine motor skills. Self awareness can also include an awareness of effort toward a goal, as the common exclaim of “I did it!” so wonderfully demonstrates for the three year old. Young children may remember when certain tasks were hard for them and begin attempting more challenging tasks. In addition, preschool aged children may begin noticing differences and similarities between themselves and their peers.
The Montessori primary classroom is superbly prepared to support self-awareness in children as old as six. For those of you keeping up with this blog, you will have seen me write of the mix-aged learning environment of the Montessori classroom when discussing other aspects of the VELS. The composition of a primary classroom (approximately an equal mix of 3, 4, 5, and 6 year olds) supports an individual child’s development of self-awareness in many ways. Research into mixed-aged classrooms demonstrate that children are much more likely to imitate and observe closer aged-peers than adults. Maria Montessori specifically observed that children most benefit from an educational group composed of peers in the same developmental stage, or plane (birth to 6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24 years of age were the Four Planes of Development detailed by Montessori in many of her writings and lectures).
There is more variety in development in a group of three to six year olds than a single grade level. This blend supports the youngest children because they have many examples of the skills and abilities they will soon be developing. The example of their older peers only inspires quicker conquering of these social, emotional, and academic skills because they desire to be ‘one of the big kids.’ The oldest children similarly benefit because the mentorship they practice confirms for them what they know, the skills they have acquired over their several years in the classroom, and gives them opportunities to hone what they know by teaching others. This opportunity for mentorships also teaches patience and compassion as an older child recognizes that not everyone has the same skills and abilities.
While the mixed-age classroom provides a lovely cycle of feedback, motivating the younger children to emulate their peers and empowering the older children to teach what they know, the aspects of the physical Montessori environment support other aspects of self-awareness. The physical environment supports a child’s control and coordination of gross and fine-motor movements. The Montessori classroom is not set up with rows of desks or tables. Rather, it looks more like a child-sized home with little shelves, areas for eating and caring for one’s hygiene, cozy carpets and little work nooks. Children are invited to move about the room and freely choose activities and socialize with adults and peers. Thus, it is a bustling environment with lots of movement. One of the young child’s first skills to master in the Montessori classroom is how to physically navigate the space-- how to walk gracefully around other’s works spaces and how to carefully carry their own tray of activity to a work space and set it up. Materials are designed to give natural feedback to the children. If a child is too hurried in carrying their tray of materials, it may spill and they will need to pick it up. If a child is not watchful of where they are going, they may disrupt another’s work, beginning to learn that our actions can affect others’ feelings.
Another important aspect of the Montessori curriculum in developing self-awareness are the lessons the classroom guides provide called ‘Grace and Courtesy.’ These lessons are what I call an ‘invisible material,’ because they do not exist on a shelf; rather, they emerge from the adult’s observations of the classroom and the unique skills a particular group of children may need support in practicing. Grace and Courtesy lessons model very specific procedures, actions or phrases they children can use to navigate self-care or social situations in the classroom. Without pointing fingers, the entire class is invited to practice through role-play. These lessons name feelings (ie “frustrated”) and provide appropriate ways to respond (ie how to ask the teacher for help when I have asked my friend to give me space and they are still not listening).
Solidifying these skills of self awareness when a child is in preschool and Kindergarten is so important for their continued social and academic development. A child who has three years in the Montessori classroom benefits from experiencing a “complete cycle”, beginning as the less-coordinated, curious three year old and ending as a confident, graceful Kindergarten aged-child who is happy to help a younger friend. Self-awareness begins as identifying one’s own unique characteristics and skills, and can develop into an awareness of oneself within a greater community and how to function as an essential member of this community. What a wonderful skill for an individual as well as a gift to society!