Accommodating children from ages 2 years through 6th grade (and soon to be 7th grade) and comprising four programs, including preprimary, primary, elementary, and middle school, The New Century School has always focused on how to make the transition from program to program as smooth as possible for students. Continuity is built into the school’s approach, arising as a very natural consequence from its philosophy and mission. No matter what point a TNCS student starts from, he or she is headed toward the same basic goals of self-motivated inquiry and discovery as well as how to be a nice person along the way—the TNCS “invisible curriculum.”
Perhaps the most challenging transition that TNCS students (and their parents) face is moving from the pre-primary program up to the primary program when the child turns at least 3 years old. At age 2, they might well still be in diapers—still babies, practically—then, a year later, they enter a completely new milieu, with new teachers, new classmates (most of whom are older), and a whole new set of expectations. They become, in short, tiny students.
Historically, this shift has always been more difficult for the parents. The toddlers, meanwhile, accept these changes more or less in stride, even eagerly. It’s safe to say that the children’s ability to adapt so quickly and so well has a lot to do with TNCS’s very well-considered transitional process. On Thursday, January 19th, Head of School Alicia Danyali; the three Lead Pre-Primary teachers, Lin Laoshi, Señora Noletto, and Señora Valas; and Lead Primary teacher Ms. Mosby, held a Pre-Primary Workshop to walk parents through what this process entails. It was a full house; pre-primary parents are clearly curious, if not anxious, about what lies ahead for their kids. Rest assured, Mrs. Danyali’s and the teachers’ presentations—as well as some very helpful perspectives shared by pre-primary parents who also have other children in upper divisions—allayed all concerns!
The talk focused on three key aspects of the move to the primary program: 1) the differences between the two programs, 2) the necessary milestones each child must have met in order to move up, and 3) how each child is placed in one of the four primary classrooms. All of these themes are interrelated, as will become clear.
TNCS Pre-Primary and Primary Programs: Key Differences
The two biggest differences between the programs is that the primary classroom is not a language immersion environment, and it is a classic Montessori environment. These differences start to become less striking, however, when you consider that the children are introduced to the Montessori materials as well as the Montessori teaching style of nurturing guidance the moment they step foot into the TNCS pre-primary classroom. Thus, 3-year-olds will enter the primary classroom with a good deal of familiarity with their surroundings and with the manipulative materials they will be working with. And, as with the pre-primary classroom, the primary classroom is specially engineered and furnished to accommodate their size. For more on how the Montessori classroom functions at TNCS, please read previous Immersed posts “Language, Math, and Science—Montessori Style!,” “Inside the Montessori Classroom,” and “Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education.” The main point here is that Maria Montessori knew that kids need, above all else, to feel secure for optimal development; therefore, in the TNCS Montessori primary classroom, new skills are introduced when the child is ready for them, not when the calendar arbitrarily dictates.
Regarding the shift away from language immersion, that, too, is really only a partial shift. Although the class is “led” by a Montessori-trained teacher, a second teacher who speaks exclusively to the children in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese is also always on hand. Even better, these teachers switch back and forth among the classrooms on alternating days to ensure that the primary students are now receiving exposure to and instruction in both languages.
Is Your Child Ready for the Primary Classroom?
Some of the current pre-primary students have only just turned 2. Their parents might be wondering how conceivable it really is that their child might be sharing a classroom with kids who are starting to read and write in under a year from now. In diapers in May but using the bathroom by late August? Able to don outdoor clothing independently? Able to articulate daily needs? Those are some of so many hurdles jumped for lots of kids, towering obstacles for others. These milestones are, however, prerequisites for moving up to primary. No matter where your child falls along that continuum, the overriding message that emerged from the collective presentations was that the child will be supported and nurtured along the way to readiness. “We give toddlers the tools to help them master skills for independence,” said Sra. Salas. “We emphasize routines. We work in groups, and we work independently on using words, practicing in the bathroom, and on time management. Your child will get there,” she continued. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Lin Laoshi had a similar message: “We focus on language enhancement to get pre-primary students ready for the primary classroom. We give them time; they will get there.” In other words, if they aren’t ready just yet, they can spend more time in the pre-primary classroom until they are.
These benchmarks are not in place for ranking or comparing student achievement, by any means. They are simply necessary from an operational standpoint. The primary teacher cannot sacrifice time away from giving the very specific Montessori lessons or helping a student master a task to change diapers, for example. The primary student is able to use the bathroom and get dressed to go outdoors more or less independently (assistance and guidance are always readily forthcoming, of course, and supervision is a constant).
This might sound rather stark at first. In fact, however, the first steps toward such independence have already been taken in the pre-primary classroom, where independence and competence are very tenderly fostered. The TNCS student has become a fairly autonomous classroom resident even at age 2, as these photos attest. Their ability to pursue their own interests will serve them very well, academically. They are internalizing/honing the four pillars of Montessori: Concentration, Coordination, Independence, and Order. Order? Indeed. Primary students are not only expected to select an activity that they want to work with, but they are also expected to complete that work as well as put it away correctly upon completion—it’s the Montessori “Work Cycle,” and it teaches accountability and a sense of accomplishment in addition to the importance of maintaining order. All “works” are designed to absorb the child (concentration) and also to develop both large and fine motor movements (coordination).
Placement in a Primary Classroom
Although not an exact science, this aspect of the transition out of preprimary is very thoughtfully undertaken. Many factors are weighed in the decision-making: your child’s proclivities, the prospective teachers’ proclivities, and the ages and genders of the current students in the class. Each Montessori classroom should have a well-rounded mix of girls and boys ages 3, 4, and 5 in order to function optimally. (Please see above links for the rationale behind the mixed ages of Montessori classrooms. In short, they promote incredibly fruitful mentor–mentee relationships that continuously evolve.) Some parents expressed concern about their children being treated well by kids up to 2 years older, but other parents quickly spoke up to describe how beautifully the ages mix and advised visiting a classroom to see it the magic in action.
The child will remain in the primary classroom for 3 years, so a “good fit” is critical. TNCS may not be able to honor specific requests in all circumstances, but your child will always be placed in a classroom environment fully devoted to addressing each student’s needs.
What You Can Do in the Meantime
Even though the advance to the primary program is made as smooth as possible, TNCS students do face transitions and changes, as all students do. The important difference at TNCS is in the thoughtful, child-appropriate way these transitions are managed. As always, parents, you are encouraged to see how it all comes together for yourself—you’ll be amazed, gratified, and reassured. Here are four great ways you can do so:
- Attend the Primary Workshop, “Montessori Curriculum” being held January 26, 2017 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm.
- Talk over the upcoming year during the parent–teacher conferences scheduled for next month—your child’s teacher and you are partners in this endeavor.
- Sign up for TNCS’s much-loved summer camps—registration for summer 2017 is now open! Mrs. Danyali suggests enrolling your toddler in at least one primary camp to help ease the transition into the primary classroom (and taste some of the fun in store), preferably during the latter part of the summer.
- Read any of the related Immersed posts linked above, or simply search with keyword “Montessori” in the Immersed archives.
- Read Mrs. Danyali’s recommended books Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius (Angeline Lillard), A Parents’ Guide to the Montessori Classroom (Aline Wolf), The Child in the Family (Maria Montessori), The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students (Daniel Rechtschaffen), Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents) (Eline Snel),
Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (Shauna Shapiro and Chris White), Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children (Thich Nhat Hanh), and Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Daniel Goleman).
Parents are encouraged to reinforce the expectation of independence at home as well. Children can be allowed to pour their own drinks and zip up their own outerwear, for instance. Pants with elastic waists and shoes that fasten with velcro straps can facilitate their ability to get dressed by themselves and develop their confidence with such processes.
Finally, Mrs. Danyali asked parents to always remember that TNCS meets your children where they are—“should be” is nothing more than an arbitrary construct in this context!