Helping a Child Transition from Primary to Elementary

This is a question that I am often asked by parents: how can I help my child make the transition from primary (preschool) to elementary? Or, from an elementary teacher, how can I help the incoming first graders make a smooth transition?

My Montessori trainer, Sister Mary, used to tell us that transitioning from the 3-6 to 6-9 environment was one of the hardest things a child had to do. Most of that was because of the differences between primary and elementary.

The Academic Difference

In the primary (3-6 year old) classroom, a child is mostly free to explore the environment. The teachers do a lot of observing, and present materials when they sense that the child is ready, but otherwise they practice “following the child”, believing that the child has an inner sense of what work they need to do.

In elementary, the expectations change. Now the child is required to learn certain things and work with certain materials. The elementary children may be given a contract or work plan that they have to complete in a week or month. Most lessons will be for a group rather than one-on-one.

Sometimes, children find this a difficult adjustment to make. They may have problems choosing appropriate work, keeping track of their work, or finishing their work plan within the allotted time frame.

boys_reading1The Social Difference

In the 3-6 class, much of the work will be done independently. Each child is on his/her own “track”, and works with the materials as needed for as long as is necessary. While working independently, the child develops concentration and focus.

In elementary, children gravitate towards each other. They become extremely social, wanting to talk and work with friends. Some of this may be seen in 3-6, especially in the 6 year olds, but it becomes even more prevalent in elementary. This can be an adjustment—a child may find it difficult to focus when working with a friend or a group of children. Too much socializing during worktime can take away from the quality and quantity of work.

The Emotional Difference

A child in elementary is faced with a new set of challenges. Children at this age are becoming more aware of the world around them, both in the microcosm (being hurt by bullying or gossiping) and the macrocosm (becoming aware of injustice in other countries). If a child feels that there is no one who understands his/her feelings, they may be carrying around unresolved or unexpressed feelings that make it difficult for them to flourish.

What Can Teachers and Parents Do?

There are several ways that teachers and parents can ease this important transition.

1. Acclimation: In the spring or summer, many schools have 6-year-olds who are graduating to elementary spend a day or even a week in their new classroom, trying out the materials and making friends. Because of the 3-year-cycle, they have a chance to get to know some of the children that they will be with when they start first grade.

2. Communication: Parents should be able to meet with the elementary teacher(s) before school starts to get to know them, share any concerns, and ask questions. The teachers can also give the parents an idea of what they will be studying and what kinds of skills the child needs to succeed.

3. Preparation: I once had an elementary teacher tell me that the one thing she expected of incoming first graders was that they be able to get out a rug, take a material to their rug, work with the material, then put the material and the rug away. In other words, complete a work cycle. “I can teach them how to count, read, and write,” she said, “But if they can’t complete a work cycle, they won’t get very far.” The primary teachers should be aware of this and make sure the children leaving their room can complete a work cycle.

4. Cooperation: One of the most fulfilling things I ever participated in was a joint primary/elementary teacher workshop. On a warm summer day, our school’s primary teachers and elementary teachers came together in an elementary classroom. The elementary teachers walked the primary teachers through the 6-9 materials with demonstrations and discussions.

Later the primary teachers told us how helpful it was to know exactly what the children would be doing when they graduated from primary. Then they knew what to prepare the children for.

5. Encouragement: Parents should be ready to help their children through this transition. They can be supportive and encouraging when school starts, and be prepared for a few bumps along the way. These bumps do not mean that your child does not belong in Montessori, or is not going to be successful, just that they need time to adjust to the changes.

6. Comfort: Teachers need to be sure that first graders are comfortable in the classroom. Some ways to do this include pairing up each first grader with an older child who can help them if they need help with their work or with finding something in the classroom.

Another suggestion is to start the year with a rug in the middle of the room where you place any work that you present to the first graders. They’ll know exactly where to find it—after a few weeks, you can show them where it goes on the shelves and put it back.

7. Observation: Teachers should be observing the children every day and noticing when something needs to be tweaked. For example, some children cannot handle a weekly or monthly workplan and need a daily one. Some cannot handle working the whole day with other children and need some time by themselves to recharge or focus. Others may need help from a teacher or older child to complete work.

The goal should always be independence, but it’s okay to reach it in little steps. Sister Mary taught us to “take each child where they are at” and that means tailoring our approach to fit their needs.

If It’s Not Working…

As with any transition, there may be a point at which you just feel like it is not working out. This may be the last hurdle right before everything clicks, or it may be a sign of issues that need some teacher/parent discussion. If teachers and parents are observing the children and keeping lines of communication open between the children and each other, they should be able to figure out what needs to be done to help the child feel comfortable and secure.

Any other ideas on how to bridge the transition between primary and elementary?