Simply put, grace and courtesy is all about helping children to understand polite social norms, and how to be a part of a community with respect and treat themselves and others justly.
As a Montessori school, we understand that even very young children are capable of much more than is traditionally expected of them. For example, you might picture a preschool classroom in which children are running around or shouting loudly if they are excited. After all, children of 3 or 4 years of age can’t be expected to have mastered such behaviors yet, right? No, not even close!
When you observe children of the same age in a Montessori classroom, you will see calm bodies and quiet voices. Just as with any other skill, Montessori children are taught how to behave appropriately. This is not to say that they are never allowed to run around and be loud; outdoor playtime is a perfectly suitable environment for those behaviors. They have simply learned that the classroom is an environment dedicated to learning and concentration, and they must do their part.
Grace and courtesy starts with intentional modeling. Guides are very careful about how they behave in front of the children. When interacting with one another, or when interacting with a child, they are always thinking about showing the children what they hope to see mirrored.
If the guide expects the children not to shout across the classroom, she will not do so herself. When managing a classroom full of children this can be challenging at times, but we understand that the children are always watching us and learning from our behaviors.
Adults in a Montessori school are always very careful not to interrupt a child’s work. They have a deep respect for the child’s autonomy, but they are also aware of the power of their modeling. When adults refuse to interrupt a child’s work, the children learn the importance of doing the same.
Aside from modeling, Montessori guides give lessons to explicitly teach grace and courtesy. They will show the child step by step how a certain behavior or activity is done. Here are just a few of these types of lessons a child might receive:
- How to greet one another
- How to welcome a visitor
- How to get a teacher’s attention without interrupting
- How to participate in a group discussion without interrupting
- How to listen in a conversation
- How to walk carefully around the classroom
- How to follow directions
- How to resolve a social conflict
- How to unobtrusively observe another’s work
- How to hold a door for someone
- How to use polite words such as please, thank you, excuse me, etc.
- How to ask for help
- How to offer help
As children get older, they may have mastered many of the basics of polite behavior, but they still have plenty more to learn. There are two main differences as children move into the elementary years:
- Most (but certainly not all) of the grace and courtesy needs are related to friendships and social interactions.
- They have developed a sense of humor and tend to respond well when guides teach what not to do in a silly manner.
For example, a guide may notice children entering the classroom for lunch in a manner that is less than ideal. One day during a class meeting, she will address the issue by wondering aloud how we might enter the class for lunch. She may then act out a variety of scenarios, asking the children if she is going about the task in the right way, including:
- Running breathlessly through the door to grab the desired seat.
- Flinging a lunch bag across the room to the desired table.
- Weaving in and out of other children to get where she wants more quickly.
This is sure to bring on the laughter, because the children likely already know these are not the correct behaviors. Before the conclusion of the lesson, the children will contribute their ideas and tips for the teacher to try, who will then model the ideal behaviors. Ideally this exercise would be done just before lunch, giving the children a chance to practice right away.
Throughout the course of the school year, a guide at any level may notice certain behaviors that the children seem not to have learned yet. Guides consider these teachable opportunities and take the time to give the children lessons. We find that children are eager to copy our behaviors and follow our lead, we need only to give them the opportunity.
Parents can use Grace & Courtesy at home too. It is an excellent way to set expectations and empower your children with the tools they need to meet those expectations. Children are capable of much more emotional maturity and inhibitory control then most people give them credit for. They can and will meet expectations if they know how, and if the expectation is clear and consistent.
The key is to introduce Grace & Courtesy at a time when everyone is calm and emotionally in a safe space. If you see a behavior that is inappropriate or that you would like to change, don’t try to introduce a Grace & Courtesy in that moment. This can often lead to feelings of shame in the child. Instead, make a mental note of it, and then at a DIFFERENT time, separate from that situation, you can introduce a Grace & Courtesy around the behavior.
When you introduce a Grace & Courtesy make it clear, succinct, fun and role play. Start by saying, I’m going to show you what you can do when…, or I’m going to show you what you can say when…, or I’m going to show you what you can do with your body when…, or I’m going to show you what you can do and say when you feel…. Don’t mention the time(s) that your child did not do, act, or say what you are about to show. Just show by doing, by acting it out, and then invite your child to act it out. Practice together, practice with family members, even practice with friends if they are over for a play date.
Just like any other skill, the skills of how to be in the world with respect for yourself and others does take practice. Don’t be surprised if your child doesn’t respond with the appropriate grace & courtesy the next time they are in the situation. BUT, if you have already introduced the grace & courtesy, you can now refer to it in the situation. “I can see that you are really upset. Do you remember when we practiced what we can do with our bodies and what we can say when we are really upset?” And then you can model it again if need be and invite your child to give it a try.
Grace & Courtesy lessons can apply to almost any situation that you can think of. Your child will need reminders often, and time to practice in the real world before they master these skills, but know that your child is capable, and the more skills they are introduced to, the more opportunities they have to practice and learn how to be a part of a community with respect, and treat themselves and others justly.