Take a moment to consider your child’s greatest social-emotional need. Alfred Adler, an early leader in psychology and student of Maria Montessori, said the primary need of every child is to feel a sense of belonging and significance. In fact, our children have such a strong desire to belong or feel significant that they sometimes do goofy things to achieve it. For example, when four year-old Jason asks to help make dinner and you say, “sorry honey. Just for grown-ups,” his misbehavior of hitting your leg or screaming may be a way of saying, “I don’t feel I belong or have significance right now.”
As parents we can improve our child’s sense of belonging by looking for ways that they can contribute and feel valuable/significant. Of course Jason can’t cook the meal, but maybe he can set the table. In the classroom, the Montessori “Grace and Courtesy” lessons provide wonderful ways for children to gain a positive sense of significance and belonging by building their social skills competency.
In Montessori, there is a strong focus on respect for peers, teachers, and even the classroom materials. This respect is intentionally created through first preparing the environment and then taking time to teach respect in “Grace and Courtesy” lessons. These aspects, along with other Montessori principles, create an environment in which children can thrive.
“There is a great sense of community within the Montessori classroom, where children of differing ages work together in an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competitiveness. There is respect for the environment and for the individuals within it, which comes through experience of freedom within the community.” Dr Maria Montessori (as cited in Elizabeth Hainstock, 1986, p. 81 – The Essential Montessori)
Adler believed that young children had a great need for social order and would be the best members of their community if expectations were clearly understood. Montessori teachers introduce “Grace and Courtesy” lessons in response to the young child’s need for order by taking time to discuss appropriate ways to share, apologize, ask for something, etc.
“Grace and Courtesy” lessons are specific and usually occur in circle time, wherein the teacher gives the children the vocabulary, actions, and steps required for him to build his social skills. This in turn gives the child a sense that he is competent in his community, and that leads to a sense of significance and belonging. When a child knows the behaviors and words that will allow him or her to feel valued in the social group, they have learned how to be significant and to belong.
In order to encourage your child’s progress in social skills and to meet his primary social-emotional needs, you can apply these principles in the home or classroom. One such lesson I recently learned comes from Nelson and Lott’s Positive Discipline in the Classroom. It is called “Bugs and Wishes”. The ideas is that you can hold a toy bug in one hand and a decorated wand in the other, and tell the children, “When you are upset by another student, you can use these tools to remind you to say, ‘It bugs me when you____, and I wish you would____’.”
An example could be, “It bugs me when you are not sharing the table space, and I wish I could have a turn at this table”. Nelson and Lott remind us that the child will often say, “I wish you would stop”. Take time to brainstorm with children various ways to ask for the person for what you want, instead of just asking them to stop.
Over time, and occasional reminding prompts from the classroom environment, the child will become more skilled in how to express their needs, and likely decrease any discipline issues that could otherwise arise in such a moment. Whether in the classroom, or at home, teaching grace and courtesy skills will benefit your child’s behavior and allow for a more pleasant classroom as well as a more pleasant environment wherever the child may go.