A Toddler’s First Steps into School Starts at Home: Montessori Principles & Transition Strategies for Parents
The end of summer marks a very exciting, but often anxious time known as back-to-school season. For families with toddlers, however, an entirely different set of challenges are presented with the transition into school for the first time.
At this age, children are experiencing dramatic changes in body and brain to support the emergence of a wide array of motor, perceptual, and intellectual capacities. Simply put, it’s a crucial time in the child’s development and necessary steps should be taken to ensure a smooth transition into school and set young children on the best path for lifelong learning. Because of its all-encompassing approach to education, the Montessori method is being embraced now more than ever — for school selection and at home.
Families are practicing new approaches with toddlers, adopting strategies into day-to-day life with Montessori principles that apply directly to the toddler and pre-primary age. As a result, parents are seeing increased development in personal independence, concentration, and self-motivation in their children.
Here are some considerations and simple strategies to help ease the transition into Montessori learning environments, while supporting toddlers as they develop to become more engaged, competent, responsible and respectful individuals.
To be a toddler means to be curious. Parents know this about their little ones, but what’s often misunderstood is the child’s enthusiasm and motivation for independence.
A child’s desire for independence should be embraced at an early age. Their motivation becomes the basis for learning, helps them earn self-esteem and acquire skills for daily living. For example, the many activities happening around them— that up until now have been handled by a parent — are seemingly irresistible: getting dressed, using the toilet, preparing lunch, setting the table, sweeping the floor, etc. Being able to do things for themselves creates an instantaneous surge of pride.
In a Montessori environment, the child’s natural curiosities are embraced and as they continue to develop, their range of responsibility will also grow. They will find themselves relishing in the independence of taking charge of their own academic activities, helping to organize in the classroom and taking initiative in the community around them. These continued experiences drive Montessori students far beyond those in the regular classroom setting.
When a child transitions to Montessori later in their developmental years, they may not have experienced some of these practical skills. To help foster this motivation and help children gain independence, parents can implement a few strategies at home within the regular routine:
- Preparing Meals: Instead of providing food at snack time, invite your child to choose a healthy option. Put items like cereal containers, fruit bowls or cut-up vegetables on a low, accessible shelf and allow them to prepare food. Putting eating utensils in an accessible drawer can make setting the table a fun activity that can become a daily responsibility.
- Cleaning Up: Provide a child-size broom and dust pan, bucket and sponge and invite your child to join in the cleaning up process. After meals is an ideal time to ask your child to help.
- Getting Dressed: Strive to make your child’s closet “child-friendly.” Limit options to appropriate choices activities and give your child the freedom to select. Along with the freedom to choose outfits comes the responsibility of laundry. A second laundry hamper that your child can reach can teach the process of sorting clothing, and where to put them away when laundered.
Children are born to learn, but what they learn and the level of independence they earn over time depends greatly on their teachers, experiences, and environments. Learning styles, the pace in which the student advances and their freedom to explore are critical factors.
When placed in a traditional classroom environment, students are restricted to learn at the pace of others in the class and to follow a strict schedule set by teachers. A Montessori classroom, in contrast, offers students freedom within limits. Working within parameters set by their teachers, students are active participants in deciding what their focus of learning will be, with teachers acting as guides rather than just telling children what to do.
Through careful observation of the children, the educator is able to link each child to whatever aspect of the environment will enhance the child’s physical, psychological and social development at any given time. Activities are positioned around the room for toddlers to choose independently. Each activity deals with theme, skill, or subject of value to toddler development, allowing them to begin to experience concepts of sequence, form, shape, movement, and sound. The activities change and evolve as the child grows physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
It is important that toddlers embrace their freedom and pursue answers to their own questions. Parents who are not used to this kind of freedom — and want to help ease the transition to Montessori — should entrust their child with more responsibility at home by considering:
- Trying New Tasks Independently: Identify the tasks your child can do on their own, like selecting an activity at play time, getting dressed, making the bed, helping prepare food, etc. Make sure they can do the tasks and coach them where needed.
- Creating a Routine: Learn a step-by-step process for getting ready in the morning or preparing for bed and try to ask “what’s next” instead of telling them to do a certain activity. This will help the child build independence and trust, with sequencing and pattern practice.
- Asking Questions: Rather than critiquing the child’s performance, ask what went wrong and what went well. And make sure the child wants to continue working on the task. If there is something they would rather do, it is best to encourage them to explore another part of their daily routine.
Embrace a Prepared Environment
Toddlers have an innate ability to connect learning when doing rather than just seeing. It is a critical time during human development when the child is biologically ready and receptive to acquiring a specific skill or ability, such as the use of language or a sense of order — and is therefore particularly sensitive to stimuli that promote the development of that skill.
In a Montessori prepared environment, the teacher prepares the classroom to meet the developmental needs of each student. Carefully selected, aesthetically arranged materials are presented sequentially to children using the space. Each material isolates one concept or skill that has been specially designed in a way that children are naturally drawn to with little or no nudging from adults. Each material has also been designed so that a child can normally check their own work, manipulating and investigating until they master the lesson inside.
This learning environment also allows toddlers to enjoy freedom of movement and the ability to choose their own purposeful activity; and they are given the time necessary to complete what they start. They are free to interact socially with their peers in the classroom, in conversation, and in their play. As a result, children grow in personal independence, concentration, and self-motivation, while retaining their innate love of learning.
Of course, no parent could replicate a Montessori classroom environment — and they don’t have to — but to help your student feel more at ease as they transition to Montessori, it can be beneficial to implement some of the following strategies at home:
- Prepare a Work Space: Montessori environments contain appropriately sized furniture, low sinks, reachable shelves, and child-sized kitchen tools — elements that allow independence and help develop small motor skills. At home, parents can set up a child-sized work space with a rug, accessible shelves and a small table and chair with arts and crafts, puzzles and other materials. Work towards rules that permit one activity at a time and encourage the child to tidy up before exploring something else.
- Engage the Mind and Body: Developing fine motor skills and deepening cognitive development is important, and there are more than a few ways to start this at home. For example, the kitchen is an excellent place. Things likes peeling eggs can help strengthen muscles, while measuring ingredients to a specific level, scooping flour or pouring water requires concentration and motor control. A game of catch outside can also help children learn to confidently control their bodies.
- Follow the Child: In the Montessori classroom, the teacher gets to know each child as an individual, a principle for tailoring and differentiating instruction in a way that ensures potential is actualized. At home, use what your child loves as a basis for learning. If the toddler loves animals, take them to the zoo and make these teachable movements with engaged discussion. Sparking imagination and following students’ passion is a great way to build enthusiasm for learning, and to help them rise to their potential.
Montessori programming plays an important role for children in their key developmental years. While transitioning can be challenging, strategies to build independence, responsibility and freedom within limits will help toddlers prepare for the Montessori environment. At American Montessori Academy, carefully designed acclamation schedules planned by lead Montessori certified teachers have been customized for each age grouping and classroom to ease transition.
Of course, the more familiar your child is with their school, the more comfortable they will be. Try to incorporate a drive by the school into a daily routine so they can become familiar with the surroundings. Set up a time to visit classrooms and let the child explore the new environment, meet teachers, and play in the new space.
For more information on transitioning to a Montessori school, Toddler or Pre-Primary or other Montessori programs, take a look at our American Montessori Academy programs.