The Elementary Child's Group Instinct
by Amanda Riley, North Shore Montessori School Elementary Teacher, Glendale, Wisconsin
I'd like to share with you a little snippet of Montessori philosophy. It's relevant to the social life of our classroom, and is at times all consuming for some of our students. I'm talking about a concept Dr. Maria Montessori called the "gregario" or "group instinct".
Dr. Montessori noticed that small children in the primary classrooms play together somewhat, but still identify closely with their parents and family members. They seek out the emotional safety and comfort of home. On the other hand, she noticed that elementary children shifted their interest more toward their classmates. They often rejected activities they had once enjoyed or belongings that seemed "babyish" to them and were too connected with home life. Instead, elementary children tried to copy their classmates. They wanted to be alike: play the same games, dress alike, have jokes among themselves. Elementary children create a sort of mini-society in the classroom. They are interested in how groups are formed and are willing to try new things, sometimes things that previously were frightening, in order to feel a part of the group.
This is a natural step in the child's separation from his/her parents. The child moves toward independence by identifying with a larger group and trying out new roles and activities. In many ways, the gregario instinct is very positive for the child. It can cause him/her to take on challenges that he/she wouldn't otherwise attempt, or to stay with a difficult activity because his/her friends are still working at it. This process results in the development of new skills and confidence.
As a teacher, I call upon the gregario instinct when creating lesson groups. Group work contributes to academic success in a number of ways. There is the benefit of "extra teachers" as children help each other complete work, or explain concepts to each other as they work. They share their different background knowledge of the subject, enriching each other's experience. Reluctant children who fear academic failure can be distracted from their anxieties by the presence of the group. They are so interested in their relationships that they think less about their fears and are more likely to attempt the task at hand.
Often children inspire each other with ideas on how to express their understanding of concepts. In a Montessori classroom, children can develop their own project based on lessons given. For example, last week I gave a lesson on building three dimensional solids. Children traced all six faces of a cube onto cardstock, then cut out, scored, folded, and taped the shape into a replica cube of their own. The process can be repeated for other geometric solids, such as prisms and pyramids, even cylinders and cones with some practice. The children who received the lesson are now free to repeat the work, and already they have created some interesting house and robot constructions. Other children are drawn to the work as well, and have learned how to build cubes from the original group of children. I can help as needed, but I anticipate that the draw of the group and the activity itself will be strong enough that children will work independently, and the work will spread to other classmates. Some of the children may not even recognize me as the source of the work. It will just be part of their group culture for a while, until a new interest captures their imaginations.
Sometimes the group instinct can be stressful to children, and it's good to be aware of this as well. For example, a child may want to be part of the group, but feel intimidation or genuine disagreement with some aspects of the group culture. This can happen a lot with playground games. Many children enjoy battle games with good guys and bad guys, but others find them too loud and stressful. These are the kinds of conflicts we address at school through class meetings. It's a time to make children aware of different realities, and of how the group can help support individual members of the community. It's also good to talk through things like this at home with your child. It helps to understand that the desire to be a part of the group is very strong and may contribute to your child's emotional response. Elementary children can become very emotional if they think their friends are angry with them or reject them in some way. If this kind of thing comes up at home, please let me know so that I can help bring the group back together in some productive activity that renews their bond.
One way that I help the class develop a positive culture is through singing and rhythmic exercises. When we sing or create rhythms, the children feel that they fit into the larger whole. It is easy to put aside individual differences or fears because clapping and singing are relatively accessible skills. Additionally, when children know the same songs, they can sing together at any time, creating opportunities to heal rifts in the group.
I hope I was able to share with you one aspect of the elementary Montessori classroom. When we recognize that children have different realities and different values from adults, it helps us to better support them in their learning. It helps us be more effective teachers and parents.