Peace Education: Ground Rules in the Classroom
“The things he sees are not just remembered; they form a part of his soul.”
- Maria Montessori
The Montessori materials are designed to evoke both agency and inter reliance among the children, leading to classrooms that are abuzz with purposeful activity. Certain qualities in classroom management are essential, too, to establishing that society-by-cohesion, the precursor, Montessorians believe, to the society-at-large that children educated through the Montessori Method will help bring to the world.
First, initial lessons early in the year establish behavioral norms within which children can explore the materials with more freedom. For example, one of the first Montessori lessons children receive in Early Childhood classrooms teaches them how to carry, unroll, walk around, and roll a work mat, before returning it to its basket for other children to use. Observers might be curious by this lesson, which is generally offered in silence, to see children watching each move with care. Handling a rug is a basic skill in the Montessori classroom, required for the larger materials that are manipulated on the floor, but also as a means of reminding children to be aware of each other. For the child at work on the rug, the rug provides a visual boundary to his or her work space. Think about what happens when a child is playing with Lego blocks or another game with lots of pieces on the floor… pieces go everywhere. Picking up the game becomes frustrating and tiring. The space is visually overwhelming. Working on a floor mat allows the child a visually manageable space, so materials can’t get too far away, there is only a limited area that the child needs to pay attention to, and that area is distinct from the rest of the classroom. For the child walking by, the floor mat defines an area for his or her peer’s work, an area around which the walking child should navigate, and a social promise that, when he or she is working, his or her area of concentration will likewise be protected. Of course, both children are also practicing their gross and fine motor skills in navigating the classroom around the rugs, which support their ability to engage independently in all sorts of activities.
Similar lessons exist for most of the basic rules of the classroom: how to walk in the classroom, how to hold one’s body when waiting, how to carry a tray, how to move a chair. Each provides a foundation of social norms within which all children operate, establishing early a sense that one’s behavior necessarily influences other’s experiences, and that we are each, then, to be aware of our impact. But there are other norms in the classroom that also help establish the society-by-cohesion. The availability of only one of any type of material, for example, requires children to learn to wait patiently for the activities that interest them to be available. It increases the children’s responsibility to each other, reminding them that they need to return each material to the shelf in a condition appropriate for another learner to use. It draws their attention to the small details of the classroom, as the tools on any one tray are not interchangeable with other materials. And it reinforces for the children the sense that they are each a part of a larger community, responsible to and responsible for each other.
Finally, from the earliest days of the classroom, teachers help to establish norms for conversation and self-regulation, encouraging children to speak with each other freely and demonstrating curiosity and interest when they are talking to children, but also showing self-restraint in the volume of their voices and the pace of their language. Language is a carefully chosen tool in the Montessori classroom, used when it benefits the children and avoided when it distracts from more interesting concepts. The careful choices teachers make with their own language, from knowing when to redirect a child with eye contact and a smile from across the room to knowing how to kneel down to whisper a message into a child’s ear rather than reprimanding his or her behavior with an audience of other children, convey to the children that their work is respected and their contributions are valued. Montessori teachers don’t use the redirection of one child’s behavior as a “lesson” for the other children. Rather, when a child’s choices need guidance, the Montessori teacher demonstrates respect for that child’s intentions, supporting the child with gentle language that reminds him or her of the expectation and enlisting the child’s support in correcting the action. While this supports a more peaceful classroom in the moment, it also fosters that peacefulness between children and across months together, reminding each child that, when problems arise, they can be handled with kindness and trust rather than embarrassment or shame.
Like the design of the materials, the structures of classroom norms help to support the intrinsic peacefulness of children and to protect a classroom climate in which that peacefulness can prosper.