I Am Capable! Nurturing Independence in Elementary Students

A look at Guidepost Montessori's approach to helping 6 to 12-year-olds achieve independence + 5 tips for nurturing independence at home

By the time a child is 6 and ready to enter a Guidepost Elementary classroom, his mental abilities have started to undergo a radical transformation. Gone are the days of the absorbent mind, when he unconsciously soaked up ideas from his environment. In its place,there are the beginning buds of a new kind of mind: a reasoning mind. 

The elementary-age child is eager to use his newfound power of abstraction. He wants to learn consciously—to investigate questions, make plans, project future possibilities, evaluate the reasons for things, and actively pursue the knowledge he needs to achieve his goals.

Because of this, he is no longer interested in achieving basic functional independence like infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Rather, he is most focused on building intellectual independence. He wants to understand things for himself and sink his teeth into ever-greater and more abstract challenges.

1. Independence in a Wider World

When the child goes out, it is the world that offers itself to him. Let us take the child out to show him real things instead of making objects which represent ideas and closing them up in the cupboards.

Dr. Maria Montessori - From Childhood to Adolescence

An elementary child is no longer satisfied with mastering the physical tasks of life, like dressing himself and washing his hands. He has the ability to imagine the world beyond his immediate experience and surrounding environment, and he wants to learn all about it.

For example, he wants to expand on the tasks of daily life in increasingly challenging ways. Just as a toddler is fascinated and challenged by the work of chopping a banana or putting on a coat, an elementary child is captivated and challenged by the work of planning and following through on his plans. 

If he wants to bake a cake, for example, he wants to go beyond the work of adding, mixing, and pouring. He wants to answer questions and solve problems that require him to think ahead and explore possibilities. What are all the ingredients he will need? Where can they be bought? How should he decorate the cake once it’s baked, and what tools and skills will this require?

His imagination and creativity encourage him to venture beyond the four walls of a classroom or a home. In a Guidepost Montessori classroom, elementary is the time when children begin to plan “going outs.” A going-out is more than a field trip: it is an opportunity for an elementary child to exercise their knowledge, skills, and curiosity in the world. When elementary students plan a going-out, it is inspired by their lessons. They may plan a trip to a chocolate factory after learning about the history of cacao. Another group might plan a trip to a flint mine after learning about prehistoric humans and flint knapping.

The going-out process is controlled by the students from beginning to end. They will suggest a destination and a purpose: where to go, and what to do when they arrive. They will then plan the trip, from the budget, to the transportation, to the timing. They learn to call vendors and ask for prices; calculate gas mileage or bus fare; and set personal goals for what they hope to learn, experience, or take home from the experience. When they return, they will report on the adventure to their classmates.

With each going-out a child plans and executes, he sharpens his reasoning skills—he learns to select a goal and determine the best way to achieve it, to assess risks and how to mitigate them, to organize everything he needs for success—and gains increasing confidence in his ability to navigate the adult world.With each going-out, the elementary child takes the next big step toward becoming an independent, capable adult.

2. Independence in the Learning Journey

From baking a cake to algebra, an elementary child wants to dive deep into a topic. It’s not enough to simply know a fact—that there are 7 continents, for example. She must ask: why are there 7? What are their similarities and differences? What kinds of animals and people live there, and why? She wants to go beyond the surface level to understand causes and connections between the different facts she’s learning.

It’s also not enough for her to passively listen or memorize new information, an elementary child wants to do Big Work using what she’s learned. She wants to write a story, create a poster, do a research project—something that requires her to grasp relationships, pare things down to essentials, and fully demonstrate her mastery of a topic.

Beyond the specific content or her choice in how she demonstrates mastery, the elementary child wants to take broader ownership over her learning journey. She is interested in learning how to manage her time so that she uses her energy and resources wisely, and so she finishes her projects on time. She wants to experiment with her schedule and create the routine that works best for her. In short, she’s intent on expanding her self-mastery by widening its scope and extending its demands across longer time frames.

In Guidepost’s elementary classrooms,every child is empowered to take ownership over her learning. During a flexible, 3-hour work cycle, the child can go deep into a topic, start or make progress on a passion project, or seek help from her guide (teacher) or peers.Guides also work with the child to create work journals. In these notebooks, the child keeps track of her daily work—what she works on, when, and for how long. She has regular meetings with her guide for accountability and to help her troubleshoot any issues. Over time, the child gains the ability to think and plan on long timescales, to problem-solve when she finds herself reneging on her plan, and to know what it’s like to fully understand a topic.

3. Independence in a Social World

With her new ability to think abstractly, the elementary child is no longer constrained to learning alone through direct experiences. She can ask probing questions and tap into the thoughts of others. Corresponding to this new ability, then, the elementary-age child is eager to learn socially. She wants to collaborate with her peers, to bounce ideas back and forth, and to embark on ambitious goals together. 

Passion projects, therefore, often become a social endeavor. Groups of children come together with a dream of planning a field trip to a local museum, for example, and with earnest devotion for achieving their common purpose, they brainstorm and envision what they will need to accomplish their goal,establish a leader to direct their progress, and divvy up the work among themselves.

The desire for collaboration and social learning open up new avenues for the elementary child to achieve independence. Questions of fairness, justice, and the right social mores and rules are of prime importance—and are something the child wants to evaluate for herself.The child is focused on maintaining her independence of mind, while working within a community toward a common, chosen goal.

This is a challenging feat of independence, one that adults often encounter for the first time in the workforce and often struggle with. In Guidepost’s elementary classrooms, children get repeated, meaningful practice building the skills they need to think for themselves, come to agreements, and work together to achieve their goals.

The pursuit of independence which began with crawling, then walking, then eventually tying one’s shoes and preparing a meal independently, continues in the elementary years with even greater challenges. When we give elementary-age children the opportunity to take their independence into the wider world, to dive deep into more ambitious topics, and to navigate social dynamics, we give them deeply meaningful ways to shore up their confidence. A child who is supported and inspired to build greater independence in the elementary years is then abundantly ready for the greater intellectual, social, and emotional demands she’ll face in middle school, high school, in their career, and in their life as a whole.

5 Tips to foster independence in elementary-age children:

  1. Involve your child in planning outings and events. If you’re planning a trip to the park, the library, or a family gathering, invite your child to plan with you—what to pack, what to leave at home, what you will do at each location.
  2. Allow your child to walk/bike to nearby places to complete a goal. If your child wants to buy something at the store, rent a book from the library, mail a letter, or play at the park with friends, allow them to take the lead and work towards doing the activities all on their own.
  3. Empower your child to help create home routines and rules. What should the bedtime policy be? Where should things be put away? What chores should be done each day? Invite your child to help you think about and evaluate the routines and rules involved in running a home and living together.
  4. Encourage your child to dive deep into a topic of their choice. If they’re interested in video games, fashion, animals, or sports, encourage them to take their learning to the next level. Give them the opportunity to research, experiment, and create products that demonstrate their learning.
  5. Provide opportunities for your child to plan projects. Maybe they’re bored with their old toys and clothes and want to run a garage sale or maybe they want to set up a lemonade stand. Inspire your child to dream big and work with them to think through the steps to achieve their goals.