Q&A with Lisa Kathleen: What to Look for in Elementary Virtual Learning

An AMI-Montessori Educator answers questions about how elementary children should be learning when education is delivered virtually

Jenna Wawrzyniec

Content Specialist

As a parent still navigating the early childhood years, I have only seen glimpses into the elementary stage of development from other families ahead of me. I am already enthralled with children’s natural desire to advance their learning during these bigger and bolder years. Looking beyond my own family’s dynamic exploration of at-home virtual options for my two preschoolers, I wanted to better understand how at-home learning effectively functions for elementary families. As I suspected, it’s quite different!

Lisa Kathleen, AMI-Montessori Educator and Parent Coach, sat down with me virtually to answer my latest questions specific to elementary – how do children’s needs change during this period of growth, and how should learning – especially if delivered virtually during today’s circumstances – cater to the elementary child?

First, can you share a little bit about how children and their developmental needs change when we get to the elementary level?

The elementary-aged child is much more social, to start. It’s important that they have opportunities for collaborative learning and interaction with their peers. Elementary children are thinking more about how others react to the things they say and do, as well as what they are capable of and who they want to be.

Before this time, they were trying to find their place in the home or in a small group like school. Now, they are trying to find their place in the entire universe. Their motivation changes, as they are motivated to understand the big picture. In terms of their development, then, they are no longer as interested in naming things (the “what”), or categorizing those things, instead they want to understand the relationships between things and explore the “how” and the “why.”

I’ve noticed as a parent, it seems Montessori is a path that many associate with only for preschool, with less awareness of Montessori education as it advances. Can you speak to what it looks like for a child to continue Montessori in the elementary years?

The elementary Montessori classroom has some of the same elements of the Children’s House, since it continues to be child-led. The guide still presents lessons that the children follow up on, but in the elementary classroom, more of these lessons are shared with groups and small-group work is encouraged. The elementary child has more responsibilities, too. They work with the guide to set goals, and then work to achieve them.

The years between 6 and 12 are when children experience a sensitive period for understanding and developing social skills–this is the time when humans develop these skills most naturally. In a typical classroom, peer socialization is often limited to recess or when students are assigned group work. In Montessori elementary, daily peer collaboration and group work is the norm. Their social skills – the ones that will carry them forward into the workplace and as future leaders – are actively encouraged as a focal point in Montessori.

So, most of the time children work together to complete their work – which is thought of as cheating in traditional education! Children in a typical classroom are re-directed to complete work individually, whereas in the Montessori classroom, we see these collaborative skills as vitally important to the child’s development.

This reminds me of the term “project-based” that I hear in various circles on topics of education. Is project-based the right way to think of Montessori elementary?

Yes, but with clarity that it’s also child-driven. What that means is that Montessori students are choosing and planning their own big project work; it’s not assigned to them. By giving children the freedom to do this, they learn to deeply understand their own learning style. In time, they accrue the skills, motivation and ability to execute and follow through on big projects.

There are two other key kinds of work in the Montessori elementary classroom–daily skill development work and follow-up to other lessons that helps the child to solidify knowledge, go deeper into a topic, or discover connections between things. Some of this work is expected of the child, but there is always choice in when, with whom, even where, and definitely, how a skill is practiced or how a lesson is followed up on.

How can Montessori principles then, be incorporated in a virtual learning program? What has the Guidepost network done as an example of this? 

First, if you would have told me as a longtime Montessori guide in the classroom that you could do Montessori online, and it would look like Montessori, I would have been highly skeptical. But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Today's circumstances inspired a need for innovation–and we innovated. The children are taking initiative, concentrating on challenging work, and directing their learning, just like they do in their Montessori classroom. The result has been elementary classrooms online that overflow into the child’s home. This gives the child two things:

  1. Continued opportunity to interact with peers, in classroom groups and with teachers, which taps into their highly social motivation.
  2. The framework to conduct the majority of their work offline, in the physical environment around them in a concrete way–which is exceptional.

In this context of virtual learning, it’s easy to assume that because elementary students are technically more capable of learning in abstract ways, that abstract learning is just as good for the child. But in fact, especially with lower elementary from ages 6-9, children are still heavily reliant on using concrete materials for optimal learning. The learning materials in our brick-and-mortar classrooms are quite physical for that reason–the golden beads, sentence analysis work, grammar boxes. Across the country and world, our educators are continuing to innovate to find the best ways we can deliver concrete lessons for children at home.

The ability to find a virtual program that still inspires hands-on learning is a huge pillar I would want to know; what else should parents look for when it comes to choosing virtual programming at this level?

As you just mentioned, they should look for that opportunity for the child to engage in the real world, off of the computer screen. They should also look for built-in opportunities for the child to include others in their learning–particularly peers. The third thing I’d recommend is to look for a program that has a clear daily framework with multiple touch points that include collaborative goal-setting between teacher and child, connections to the classroom community, and accountability. And one more thing–a really robust, challenging curriculum. Elementary children can do much more than is often expected of them.

What is the parent’s role when supporting their elementary child with at-home learning? 

If the parent is stepping into the role of the guide–using our Elementary Album lessons, for example–it’s important to keep in mind that the child will have more buy-in into the work they’re doing if they work with the parent to decide what they want to do–rather than the parent assigning specific, limiting activities. The parent can present more open-ended lessons and coach the child to choose how to practice a skill. For example, rather than, “Complete this set of questions,” parents should openly prompt the child to determine for themselves how many questions they need to do to master the new skill.

Why? In order to maintain enthusiasm for learning, develop initiative, and promote decision-making backed by follow-through, children need to practice initiating and deciding and following through! That whole “failure to launch” phenomenon that has been much discussed recently has a lot to do with the fact that our students in schools are told what to do all the time. Even if they do things they’re told effectively, it’s bigger than that–to achieve something meaningful in the world, they need skills well beyond just doing what they’re told.

So, the best thing parents can do is to think of their role as more of a coach; support the child by helping them learn how to stay organized, and helping them learn how to set and achieve their own goals, and create space for the child to truly become the driver of their own learning.

Guidepost Montessori runs Montessori elementary programming for children ages 6-12 at its various campuses around the world, and online through Guidepost Virtual School.

Meet the Author

Jenna Wawrzyniec

Jenna is a trained journalist and writer whose parenting journey transformed after implementing Montessori at home with her three children. She is a passionate advocate for bridging Montessori to the mainstream as a means to build community, empower parent-child relationships, and honor learning as the lifelong journey that it is.

Sign up for our newsletter

Get started with our community today! Sign up for resources.