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June 02, 2023

Montessori Parenting: Navigating the Differences Between Lower and Upper Elementary

Maria Montessori observed that children move through a variety of phases of development from birth until they reach full maturity around 24-years-old. While Maria Montessori identified the second plane of development as ages 6 to 12, many Montessori elementary classroom environments are divided into "lower elementary" and "upper elementary" Lower is from ages 6 to 9 and upper is 9 to 12. 

As a Montessori parent, I've found it important to keep this distinction in mind as I approach my children. There are distinct differences in the children in lower and upper elementary children.

To be clear, these differences don't happen overnight. There are not huge shifts that you see between the first two halves of the first plane of development, for example. The changes are subtle and happen on a unique timeline for each child. 

Lower Elementary Children

Lower elementary children are so incredible. They are filled with wonder for the entire world and the cosmos. They have a passion and a curiosity that I haven't seen at any other age. They are constantly asking "why" and proposing unique solutions to the problems around them. It's a whole shift in how they interact with the world compared to the first plane. A few characteristics to keep in mind: 

  • Use of concrete materials: still need and enjoy the concrete, especially as they learn new concepts
  • Increase in social awareness but still individualistic: the group becomes increasingly important but still have individual work, thinking about how the work serves them. 
  • Huge amounts of enthusiasm and curiosity: the cosmos are open to them! Have a huge breath of interests and a willingness to learn 
  • Emerging independence, empathy, and responsibility: the desire is there, but the skills aren't necessarily matching 
  • Sass Factor: age of rudeness mostly toward familiar adults or from a lack of understanding of social expectations

As Nora moves out of lower elementary, and Gus moves into lower elementary, I have really gained an incredible respect for this age. Their passion, their helpfulness, and their spirit is really unmatched. They still need a large amount of scaffolding to complete big work, and to learn new concepts. As parents, we can still think about the skills they need to be shown in order to give them the opportunities to exert more independence. 

Upper Elementary Children

Upper elementary children are really just as incredible as lower elementary children. They are just able to go deeper with the skills to actually meet some of the ideas that they create. These children don't just have the idea, they are so incredibly capable of seeing their ideas through to the end. They truly have the potential to lead their peers in self directed activity. A few characteristics to keep in mind: 

  • Abstract and research based learning: learning is less concrete and research becomes increasingly important in the work that they are doing
  • Power of the Group: individual work is far less interesting and often part of a larger group task, needs to work collaboratively instead of just near peers 
  • Leadership and global awareness: need leadership opportunities and start to see their role in a larger global context
  • Emerging skills for time management, decision making, prioritizing tasks: more executive functioning skills can expect that they will be able to see a project to completion 
  • Sass Factor: age of rudeness extends to peers, peer dynamics change and exploring more social norms between their friends and classmates
I think what has struck me most about upper elementary has been the absolute capacity for big work. It's not just ideas anymore, but truly bringing things to life. Scaffolding is more about executive functioning, or connecting to the right materials, and less about skill building for the actual projects. As H leaves upper elementary, and Nora enters, I'm excited to watch this unfold again. 

Key Differences Between Lower and Upper Elementary Montessori Parenting 

It has been so interesting to parent elementary aged children. There is a stability through this period that makes these differences more difficult to recognize because they happen so slowly. So, I think the biggest thing to remember to parent specifically based on your observations of your child. 

In lower elementary, it's been a lot of navigating social and familial expectations, and foundational skill building. It's also been a lot of learning to see their big ideas and making space for what is realistic in our home. It's been opening up new and challenging opportunities for them. 

In upper elementary, it's been independence. It's been learning to take a step back to allow even more control over the process to the child. It means watching them fail sometimes as they learn these new skills. And, it is also scaffolding them to make safe and healthy choices based on our expectations and values. It's been deeper conversations about our values, why we hold them, how to be a good person, etc. And, its' been providing the resources to do deeper learning on their own. 

Adapting our parenting strategies to align with the changing needs of our children is our work as the prepared adult. Creating a prepared environment that promotes independence, providing age-appropriate materials, and maintaining open communication are essential strategies for both lower and upper elementary stages. We can best support them by balancing support and fostering independence, establishing consistent routines, and being their guide as they navigate the larger world. 

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