By Judith A. Orion
I am often queried about the optimal time to move children from an Infant Community to the primary class. It is a question raised in schools, raised by parents, and questioned particularly by the class directress/director on the “receiving end.” Over the years I have seen many children remain in environments which no longer meet their needs (an Infant Community) only to watch these “normalized” children regress into "deviated" states and then be deemed “not ready” for the move to this next level.
Before the beginning of Assistants to Infancy Courses, AMI diplomas for the primary group had the age 2.5 – 6+ on them. It was considered normal for a child between the age of 2.5 and 3 to begin in the primary class. With the introduction of the 0-3 courses, the AMI diploma ages became standardized: 0-3, 3-6, 6-12. This change created many problems over the past 30 years and has recently been reconsidered by the AMI Scientific Pedagogy Group, resulting in a change back to the original ages on the primary diploma: 2.5 – 6+. As this change filters back into primary training courses, perhaps more primary teachers will be open to this younger child being in the primary class.
In the early environments designed by Dr. Montessori, there was little difference between the 3-6 classes and the elementary environments: for example, simply shelves, or low walls. Due to requirements from licensing agents, most schools today have walled separations between the age groups. This makes it much more difficult for children to “move up” when they are ready. It then becomes an adult-managed transition.
How best can we prepare teachers and parents to anticipate the move and be open to this transition when the child is ready, not when the administration or teachers are ready? Like all transitions, when a preparation is planned for, when the child’s behavior is observed closely, when we can take advantage of a flexible transition policy which allows children to move when they need to, the transition usually goes without much fuss or angst. This presupposes that the parents and the teachers involved are fully prepared for the transition prior to its beginning.
If we remember that the child at the end of the first sub-plane of the first plane of development is exhibiting signs of the transition from the unconsciously functioning absorbent mind to the consciously functioning absorbent mind, we can observe definite physical, social, cognitive changes in the child. These “signs of readiness” are easily observable by someone who knows the child well, who can observe subtle changes in behavior.
We observe concentrated cycles of activity in the child, especially in the longer practical life exercises or work with language materials.
We know that the child constructs himself through his own independent work. We also know that for children this age, the practical life activities and those activities involving language materials are THE materials in the Infant Community that engender concentration, prolonged cycles of activity and interest. The practical life activities, in particular, are those needed to be done, BY THE CHILD, to begin to eliminate those budding psychic deviations. We know that it is the child’s own work that aids that subtle move from the unconscious to conscious absorbent mind.
The child’s level of spoken language has noticeably advanced and the child frequently engages in conversation with friends at meals or when in group activities.
There is repetition in the use of nomenclature cards; for example, a child works with cards, giving the names to another child or repeating a lesson given to her.
The child demonstrates a higher level of independence and lower level of mess during lunch and/or snack.
The relationship to toileting may not be 100% independent but needs to be on its way to mastery. If the child is not wearing underpants yet but is ready otherwise, the transition is dependent on the primary directress’s decision or a further dialogue between the adults involved. When parents put children in paper diapers from birth and continue to use them once the child is walking and perhaps interested in using the toilet, the entire process is often delayed. The result is usually a child who is detached from her bodily functions; this child may take even longer to independently use the toilet. When we delay the transition into the primary class, due to a delay in “toileting readiness” we are, in essence, punishing the child because of a situation created by the adults in the child’s life. We ask a child to put her intellect “on hold” until she chooses to use the toilet and use it independently. The timing of this usually coincides with a psychological stage known in traditional literature as the “opposition crisis”; we refer to this crisis as the “crisis of self affirmation.” The child’s favorite word during this crisis is “NO.” To insist on using the toilet during this time often results in temper tantrums, at worst, and extreme manipulations by the adults, at best.
From my experience, if we allow the child, in underpants, to begin the process of transitioning to the primary class, where everyone uses the toilet somewhat independently, the child will simply begin doing what everyone else does in this environment. We know that if we trust the innate wisdom of the child, do not manipulate the child but give the toileting over to the child, it may take a few weeks but the child will come around and choose to use the toilet as everyone does.
The child demonstrates a social awareness of other children and is comfortable in an environment interacting with ten or twelve others. With the increase in spoken language abilities, we see an increase in social awareness and a desire to communicate with others about their work.
The transition needs to be flexible to meet the needs of each individual child. The Infant Community directress invites the primary directress to observe the child for at least a half-hour. To arrange this visit, the administrative staff have to plan coverage for the half-hour period of the visit. The infant community and primary teachers function as a team in preparing the parents for this next developmental move to an environment with larger numbers of children (25-35) and a three-year age span. It is as hard for parents to envision their child in this expanded environment as it was for them to watch their child go from the two adults: 1 child ratio of the home or the one adult: 3 babies ratio of the Nido to the two adults: 10-12 children ratio of the Infant Community. The first step is, as was done prior to the entrance to the Infant Community, a home visit from the new teacher and possibly a “preparation” parent conference with both teachers and the parents. The parents will also observe the primary class and be given time to formulate and ask questions and voice concerns about the change. They need to be aware of the basic differences between the two environments.
The Infant Community adults usually communicate daily with the parents during arrival and/or pick up; this is often not a possibility in the primary class.
The primary classroom has perhaps four times the material of an Infant Community and the expectation for the level of work and concentration will increase.
Some activities in the Infant Community are group activities, or become group activities, and take up much of the morning, e.g., language activities, some food preparation, snack. In many primary classrooms food preparation is individual work, and snack is eaten with an invited companion. It takes the children time to adjust to this change. Also, the idea of needing to be invited to join someone’s work may be new to the transitioning child.
The Infant Community directress takes the child for a visit to the primary class to point out similar materials and familiar children. Most of us already have some flow throughout the school, with the Infant Community children taking compost to the worm bin, or paper clippings for animal bedding or gluing exercises to the primary class; so there is some familiarity with the primary directresses and classrooms. One could also take a “community” walk with the Infant Community children to peek into the rest of the school. One I.C. directress I know keeps, as language materials, little booklets and language cards of some of the primary materials thereby familiarizing the toddlers with the names of some of the materials they will encounter. After this initial visit the child may make several short, or long visits, depending on the child. An older child may serve as a mentor, going to invite the younger child to visit the class or offering to “teach” early sensorial lessons or vocabulary cards. The Infant Community child can be invited to join the primary class on the playground. The Infant Community child can be invited to have lunch with the primary children. The celebration of the “real move” could involve formally moving the child’s belongings from the cubby in one room to the other.
In keeping with our philosophical stance of being ready to “discover the new child each day,” when the Infant Community directress passes on the child’s records, she needs to emphasize the lessons given and mastered not the child’s behavior. These children are ready for early sensorial work, sandpaper letters and vocabulary enrichment cards plus challenging practical life lessons, when they enter the primary class. They may be the “baby” of this class, but they have much experience in self-care and independent work already behind them. They already have the habit of taking a piece of work, doing something with it, then returning it to its place on the shelf. If the child is presented with lessons she has been doing for some time, or materials that are too simple to satisfy her intellectual needs, her needs will not be met and the child will show signs of regression or deviation. If a child in the Infant Community has already been doing, for some time, table washing, washing linens, bread baking, and she is offered bean spooning or water pouring, the child’s logical response would be to try to do something interesting with this otherwise boring material. If the class “tradition” is to begin the morning with a class lesson (hopefully not!), this young child, ready to work, may also show behaviors labeled “naughtiness.”
One school created a situation where the non-3-6 trained Infant Community teacher was shown by the primary teacher how to present the first touch board. When an I.C. child was showing signs of readiness to transition, the I.C. adult and the child would go to the primary class the child was transitioning into, borrow the first touch board and return to the Infant Community. The I.C. teacher would then give the child a lesson on the first touch board. The other I.C. children were in awe of their classmate who would soon be “moving up.” When the child moved into the primary class she already had one piece of materials she knew, knew where to find, and could work on independently.
We do not move primary materials into an Infant Community because the children are ready for them. We may, in a special situation, borrow a piece of material – IF the IC teacher is also primary trained – or as in the situation above, the teacher has been shown how to introduce the material – and bring it into the IC for a short period of time. This does mean, obviously, that the child is not free to do this material anytime he would like. He either has to go to the primary class to do this work – or go to borrow this material. The primary materials are an entity unto themselves and are not to be “watered down” and brought into an Infant Community nor brought in to the Infant Community intact. They remain with their group in the primary class.
The child should move to the primary class when he is ready. “Holding patterns” are not the ideal situation for the child or the Infant Community. School administrators need to cooperate with the directresses and families to work out the logistical and financial aspects of these transitions. I realize that there are times, at the end of a school year, when a transition is not possible. However, to keep a “ready” child in an Infant Community for more than a month is not advisable. Some schools have set months when transitions are allowable. This policy needs to be re-evaluated.
We do know that the child can only construct herself in an environment that meets her developmental needs. An environment which does not satisfy those developmental needs is one in which deviations occur. We see this phenomenon in all the planes of development but development is occurring so rapidly in the first plane that when a child is held too long in an Infant Community, there is a rapid deterioration in behavior. The child who yesterday seemed to be an example of “toddler normalization” may today, suddenly, exhibit what Montessori called psychic deviations – a deviation from one’s normal path of development. To avoid creating a situation promoting deviations developing, the adults guiding the child and providing an environment for positive self-construction must be willing to observe, plan, prepare and allow transition to occur naturally. We must continually ask ourselves: “For whom does the school function: for the needs of the adults or the needs of the child?”
“To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely. A child is passing through a period of self realization, and it is enough simply to open up the door for him.”
Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood