Freedom and Responsibility in a Primary Classroom

By Carol Palmer–Tawhai Teacher

Wander into a Montessori primary school class at any given moment and you may be likely to see small groups of tamariki working quietly with books and materials accompanied by the gentle hum of focused discussion.  You may also see a cacophony of tamariki researching, experimenting, recording and chattering excitedly about their intentions and discoveries.  Both of these scenes and the whole spectrum in between are signs of a well-functioning Montessori class.  But there are also times when tamariki become chaotic, distracted and side-tracked, or simply drawn to do something that is not in their educational interest.

Dr. Maria Montessori said, “To let the child do as he likes, when he has not yet developed any powers of control, is to betray the idea of freedom.”

In a Montessori setting, we tend not to have structured times and the students are free to choose what to do and when to do it.  In order to create a busy gentle hum, we have strategies to ensure that we do not lose the child to chaos (too often!)  We do this by offering the right amount of freedom with the right amount of responsibility.

While the application of the theory will vary slightly between classes and between children within a class, all Montessori kaiako use a few basic strategies to facilitate the child’s independent learning adventure, one that has a rich curriculum that allows for progression of learning at the child’s own pace.  These are:

Conferencing: Teachers conference regularly with each child.  Sometimes this is done individually and sometimes within groups.  Sometimes formal, sometimes informal.  Children should be used to hearing, “We’ll get back together in a few days to talk about how this mahi (work) is going.” This creates the understanding that the child is responsible for doing the work but it also ensures an understanding that we will come together to reassess and evaluate progress which creates the understanding that the child is responsible for doing the work.

Work journals: Children record the work they do each day in their journal. The teacher and the child assess the journal together and evaluate their work choices, use of time and lesson needs. Some children are given additional supports such as Work Plans, To Do Lists and Work Menus.  These will change throughout the year as children become better able to take on the responsibility of managing their own freedom.

Community expectations:  Montessori classes have a LOT of rules. The children set most of these rules themselves during community meetings.  These meetings allow them play an active part in the running of their community; understanding the purpose behind a rule (since they have all discussed and agreed upon each rule), makes them far more likely to follow it.  Often children will point out to one another that they are not following a rule, or meeting the community expectation of focused work during class time.

So how do we achieve the balance between enabling a child to find their own educational pathway and letting them do what they want?  With difficulty!  For kaiako, it is an art of constant observation, reflection and refinement.  Dr. Maria Montessori spoke a lot about the role of the adult, which is to ensure that each child has sufficient challenges to keep them engaged and productive but also to ensure they have enough time in between to follow their own interests.

These strategies can help you as a parent understand what is going on in your child’s class.  When trying to make sense of the cacophony you may see or hear, try asking: what did you record in your journal today? What was your favourite lesson? What is on your To Do List? What work did you last discuss with your teacher? What are you researching? How are you managing your freedom? Are you making good choices?

Using the same language they are used to hearing in school also helps children reflect on their own learning which gives them a greater sense of freedom and responsibility.

Nuturing the spirit of our tamariki

By Robin Wilkins – Pūriri teacher

Dr. Montessori observed that children go through four distinct and noticeable periods of physical and psychological development; birth to six (development of the absorbent mind and individual personality), six to twelve (elaboration of mind and personality), twelve to eighteen, (development of social independence), and eighteen to twenty-four (spiritual and moral independence). Development is intense at the beginning of each plane, then peaks and tapers down to the next plane. As ākonga move from plane to plane, absorbing all the lessons presented, they are also working hard to discover who they are along the way. Needless to say, stress and anxiety are part of this journey.

Mental health is essential, meaning we need to approach the care of feelings and minds as diligently as we approach physical health. Science tells us that when the body is experiencing excessive anxiety, it can be due to the connection between the amygdala – the brain’s “fight or flight” region and the prefrontal lobe – the regulating part of the brain. The frontal lobe is supposed to keep the amygdala in check, but in children and teens, that process is still under construction.

Tamariki are going to respond to stressors differently than adults do and may have a harder time regulating the stress-triggering part of the brain.

There are many types of stress and anxiety, which can make them tricky to spot. These can be mistaken as learning disorders because the behaviour challenges that result can impact a child’s ability to be successful in school. A child or teen dealing with chronic stress and anxiety may miss school a lot, frequently complain of stomach upset, have attention/focus struggles, be inattentive and/or restless, be clingy or even angry and disruptive.

An article entitled ‘Anxiety in the Classroom’ from the Child Mind Institute lists a variety of common types of stress/anxiety. Social anxiety – related to peers and social interactions which cause extreme self-consciousness; generalised anxiety – across the board stress response to a variety of stimuli; obsessive compulsive behaviour such as hand-washing; specific phobias – profound fear of certain situations, activities, etc. Stress can vary wildly between children in the same age group, e.g. one child may act out in a visible and audible way while another child could become withdrawn and inattentive. And as children become older, anxiety and stress become harder to spot – their struggles aren’t always visible.

While the social/emotional Montessori curriculum delivered in class helps ākonga to develop strategies for coping with anxiety and stress, the Child Mind Institute also lists some pointers to guide parents who wish to help their children escape the cycle of anxiety at

Kathryn Berkett, a neuro-science expert and Hutt local, also has many great links on how we can identify and support anxiety and trauma in our tamariki, as well as build resilience on her website

The Wā Ora Montessori School Graduation Questionnaire

By Thomas McGrath – Deputy Principal High School

Montessori emphasised that education is to be an ‘aid to life’. But, what does this mean in the final years of school (15–18 years) where a large focus is on gaining a formal qualification? Here are some questions that I would hope graduates of Wā Ora Montessori school could answer ‘Yes’ to from being educated at Wā Ora. Take the test yourself.

1. Do you know your place in the time and space of our evolving human and environmental history and the power you have to effect meaningful and long lasting change, both now and in the future?

2. Do you have the means and confidence to solve problems or resolve conflict for yourself or others, through understanding and empathy, especially with those who are more vulnerable than, or different to, you?

3. Can you work and sustain focus on an individual or collaborative task or project by necessity and/or choice, not only to receive remuneration, but for fulfillment?

4. Do you know how to take care of your physical, spiritual, mental and social needs?

5. Can you read, view, listen to, calculate, research, estimate, hypothesise, test, confirm, reflect upon, criticise and admire the world, both natural and supranatural?

6. Are you an independent and interdependent ‘life-long lover of learning’?

7. Can you speak confidently and genuinely, in more than one language, with another person/s using appropriate social/cultural etiquette?

8. Will you respect and uphold the rules that are required to govern society, protest or affect change to rules that are inadequate or even harmful, and be persistent yet gracious if your efforts are not immediately successful?

9. Can you safely use a range of appropriate tools and materials for a specific functional, survival, or creative purpose?

10. Are you aware of the many forms of waste humans produce and how to reduce, reuse, recycle, and dispose of waste correctly; and do you?

11. Can you sustainably and ethically earn your own money, understand interest and investment, exercise your power and rights as a consumer without getting misled by marketing and advertising?

12. Do you know how to care for a range of plants and animals?

13. Do you understand the role physical and digital technology plays in society, and how to use, and/or develop it for productive means?

14. Do you understand the significance of, and our duty towards, honouring New Zealand’s bi-cultural history, and that our nation is founded on the basis of mutual respect for the unique cultural and personal identities of all its inhabitants?

15. Can you play a range of sports or games fairly, for pleasure or for competition?

16. Do you appreciate the Arts as a means of personal and social pleasure, criticism, comment, documentation, and exploration?

17. Do you acknowledge that world peace relies on harnessing the diversity of all humankind, according to strength and with awareness of weakness, towards achieving a shared aim?

18. Can you organise and cook a healthy and affordable meal for a group and clean up afterwards?

Being “Restorative”

By Jason Johnson – Kawakawa teacher – High school

When I am asked to explain what ‘restorative practices’ actually are, I find it useful to think about what we are trying to achieve when using them. We use them when we are trying to restore relationships. At times when trust has been
broken and the relationship has become damaged.

As humans, we rely on trusting our fellow person to get on with our day. We have to be able to expect that they do not intend to harm us, or else we end up constantly vigilant. But more than that, we know that truly amazing feats are
possible when we work together, which can’t happen if we don’t trust each other.

Young people need help with relationships. We all do, sometimes. We make mistakes. We break the trust of others. Montessori taught that young people build their personality through action, by trying and doing things with their hands; experiencing their own success and failure. They also experiment with their words, sometimes with equally disastrous outcomes. It’s important that they have the freedom to make these mistakes, but also important that we address any harm that occurs as a result.

As their guides in this life, we are charged with helping them to restore the relationships that get damaged along the way. We use restorative practices to help them see that whatever impact a situation is having on them, it is having
other impacts on other people too; to help them see that until that impact or harm has been acknowledged, it hangs about in the air, continuing to erode the trust between the parties. Restorative processes keep the dignity of all
people in the foreground. They hold us accountable to others.

Perhaps most challengingly though, our young people inevitably look to adult relationships too. They notice the way that we interact in the world, and behave accordingly. It is up to us to model restorative behaviours in our daily lives.
We must try to avoid using totalising language, strive to understand the different lenses through which others see the world and be prepared to change our own views. It’s not always easy, but what part of being a parent is?

Tikanga in the classroom

By Krista Kerr – Pōhutukawa teacher

I am often asked as a teacher, “What can I be doing at home to be more aligned with school?” In answering this I usually talk about topics related to the special Montessori character of our kura; such things as allowing independence, providing order and consistency, having freedoms and responsibilities, etc.

However, another part of what we do and how we are at Wā Ora is related to bi-culturalism. Individual akomanga (classrooms) and te kura as a whole adhere to certain tikanga, which children easily and naturally absorb and follow.

An excerpt from explains: “Generally speaking, tikanga are Māori customary practices or behaviours. The concept is derived from the Māori word ‘tika’ which means ‘right’ or ‘correct’ so, in Māori terms, to act in accordance with tikanga is to behave in a way that is culturally proper or appropriate.”

A lot of tikanga are based on the Māori concept of Tapu and Noa.

“Tapu can be interpreted as “sacred” but also “not ordinary”, “special” or even forbidden. It is one of the strongest forces in Māori culture. People, places, events and objects can be Tapu and should not be interfered with. Also, everything associated with the human body is considered tapu in Māori belief.

Noa, “ordinary” or “known” is the opposite of Tapu and refers to ordinary, everyday things such as food.”

Some of these tikanga include taking shoes off before entering a class (to leave the puehu or dust we carry from the outside world at the door); not sitting or putting hats on tables, especially tables which are used for kai; saying a karakia before eating kai; and not touching a head of a child, unless invited to – this relates to the head being a very important part of the body (tapu). Using different cloths for different purposes is another example – we have different cloths for a table, for the floor and for bodies, such as hand towels. These are only used for their specific purpose and washed separately.

If you do come into an akomanga and are politely asked, for example, not to sit at a table or to remove your shoes, and do not know the reasons behind this, please do ask. To many, the tikanga adhered to in kura can be just as mystifying as some of the Montessori materials and philosophies we have, but both are great conversation starters and learning opportunities.

Some of you may already have similar tikanga at home or you may have different tikanga based on your own culture and customs. Just as I am sharing our Wā Ora tikanga with you so that you have an understanding of why we do some of the things we do, we love to hear more about your tikanga (what happens in the home lives of ngā tamariki) so that we can appreciate what is important to you and your way of being.



Work that is Worthy

By Amy Johnson – Kōwhai Head Teacher – Preschool

Recently, I came across this quote from Dr. Montessori and have considered it many times since: “The child is much more spiritually elevated than is usually supposed. They often suffer, not from too much work, but from work that is unworthy of them.” – The Child in the Family. 

So, how does one determine which work is “worthy” and which is “unworthy”? We know that children especially, are active learners. They remember or understand most when they are invested—emotionally, physically or intellectually—in their self-chosen activities. This is human nature. It is how people (of all ages) learn and it is helpful to remember when we are looking for activity or “work” that is “worthy” of a child’s attention, focus, effort and exploration.

It is easy as parents and caregivers to look to new activities, toys, books or games when we want to engage these wonderfully developing minds and bodies in “worthy” activity. One look at Pinterest or a google search and you will find all sorts of suggestions, some of them even labelled “Montessori” and a few with pretty hefty price tags. If it is expensive, it must be good quality and “worthy” of my child’s time and attention, right? Counterintuitively, these pricy toys and treasures are often the opposite of what Dr. Montessori was trying to describe. Often modern, electronic toys and games, with all their lights, sounds, bells and whistles can “entertain” children but do so in a way that completely overwhelms their natural sensitivities and tendencies to engage, explore and experiment.

So, if it is not the latest gadget that our children need to engage with to develop their unique and amazing potential, what can we provide that might be “worthy” of their “spiritually elevated” attention? Amazingly, what children need, more than anything else, is to be invited and involved in life being lived. Do your children take part in the day-to-day running of your household, with whatever level of skill and ability they possess? Or does it all happen “magically” when they have gone to bed, or while they are watching their favourite show? Do they help to plan and to shop for food or other items? Do they collaborate with others to take on chores or tasks that need doing around the house? Are they allowed time to experiment, get bored and make mistakes in everyday life with everyday objects? Do they have opportunities for rich, authentic experiences with: music, literature, nature, language, culture, comedy/silliness, exercise, cooking, creating, dancing, stillness/calm, gardening, conversation, assisting others? Very few of these opportunities require a lot of money but they do take time, priority and sometimes a bit of planning.

As the weeks pass this term and they inevitably bring us closer and closer to the craziness we call ‘the holidays’, I challenge you to keep this in mind as you consider what is “worthy” of your child’s time in these precious years we call childhood.

Reflecting on ‘Reflection on Reflection’

By Zena Kavas – Biology Teacher – High School

Continuing on from Stuart’s ‘Reflections on reflection’, I plan to delve a little more into the benefits and importance of reflection and some of the science to support this. Reflection and its close relative, meditation, have the slightly dubious reputation of being a bit flakey, for tree-hugging hippies and people who live in caves, rather than for people like you and me.

However, Maria Montessori says, “But it is necessary to consider not only the active occupations but the need for solitude and quiet, which are essential for the development of the hidden treasures of the soul (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 73). And what might these hidden treasures of the soul be? This is worth reflecting on, but I would suggest that these hidden treasures may be more than what we learn in our subject areas.

Reflection is defined as the bouncing of light or sound or heat from a surface. When the water in a lake or the sea is very still, we see an authentic reflection. But if there is movement on the water, ripples or waves, the reflection becomes distorted. And so it is with our mind. When the mind is still, our reflections are more real and authentic. However, if there is movement in the mind – busyness, distractions, worries, anxieties – then our reflections may be distorted.

One of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein, recognised the importance of reflection, or time in stillness. He said, “I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” His theories of gravity, space and time continue to astound scientist today. Archimedes (~300BC), the great astronomer, physicist, mathematician and engineer, came up with his theory of displacement of water while relaxing in the bath. And Sir Isaac Newton figured out his theory of gravity, while snoozing under an apple tree.

But reflection is not just great for intellectual geniuses. It is a very useful and cheap way to counter the stresses of modern life; the long to-do list, up-coming exams, stresses associated with social media, etc. Numerous studies have shown that reflection and meditation can calm the stress response, allow us to be more aware of our thoughts rather than consumed by them, reduce excess electrical activity in the brain, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and increase levels of hormone associated with happiness.

We often say that we will reflect when we have time, when we have finished everything we have to do. I encourage you to make reflection a priority, to set a good example to our akonga, and do yourself a huge favour by taking time to reflect.

Enjoy your reflection.

Reflection on reflection

By Stuart Mason – Chemistry Teacher, High School

‘Study without reflection is a waste of time; reflection without study is dangerous’ – Confucius.

In the high school we spend 30 minutes a week, early on Friday afternoons, ‘doing reflection’. Some students see it as a waste of time, others increasingly see value in it but might find it an awkward classroom experience to just sit without social interaction. Amongst teachers there is consensus that reflection is an important activity to incorporate into the school day, and it is a central part of Montessori teacher education that teachers write reflections on their learning.

It is well established that for learning to be permanent and meaningful there must be space made in the learner’s mind to process the learning, to compare the new learning with knowledge and understanding from before. Teachers acknowledge that a 30-minute block on a Friday isn’t the most sophisticated way of providing this opportunity but having a timetable slot does give reflection the importance it deserves. Incorporating reflection time into classes might run the risk of having it side lined in the usual rush to get everything else done.

There’s value in having time for quiet stillness, a mental respite from the barrage of input provided by the post-modern world. The question may remain for the reflective person, what am I supposed to do in that 30 minutes?

Zena has expertise in meditation, and runs popular sessions with Tāwari students using resonant bowls that provide the sound for reflection. Silent walking is another popular reflection activity. Activities already subsumed into the subconscious can be suitable: driving on uncongested roads could work for experienced drivers, but for new drivers there is too much of the conscious mind devoted to the activity of driving.

One school of thought argues that a meditation industry has sprung up, one that prescribes reflection as a panacea for the ills generated by a post-modern neoliberal existence: find the solutions within yourself to the anxiety generated by an unfit for purpose system of human existence. The conclusion here could be that we should spend reflection time plotting the revolution.

Here is my proposed NZQA-style assessment schedule for the use of reflection:

Excellence: achieves awareness of what is in the conscious mind, and the deliberate control of which ideas and feelings occupy the mind. This may allow thinking about the nature of one’s existence, or reassessment involving bigger life questions, or higher creative thinking.

Merit: a functional use of reflection time in which the only activities are ones that are entirely subconscious, allowing the mind to do processing of ideas that must happen for learning to be effective, or an equivalent of the ‘shower time’ effect when the mind knows it will not be disturbed so is able to think through a question more deeply or creatively.

Achieved: managed to sit still without being distracted for 30 minutes.

I come to reflection with a problem to think about, so I am usually operating at Merit!

Music in the Environment

By Joel Batson – Tōtara Teacher

Recently I have been reflecting upon my previous life experiences with music: singing with my family, listening to Mum sing and play folk songs on the guitar and flute, nursery rhymes, spiritual songs and my early experiences with instruments such as the piano, the guitar and drums.

I consider just how important those experiences were for my formation as an adult; being able to function and be ready to process the environment around me and make choices that have effects upon others.  And I consider I have been blessed.  You may ask what these things have in common with each other?

I am coming to see more and more, through experience and my own research (see anything by Lorna Lutz Heyge and Montessorian Audrey Sillick), just how much early music experiences have to do with the formation of the child as an individual and how (even in those pre-natal months) these encounters with the world of music help to prepare the individual for learning.

Experiences such as the early singing or chanting (possibly of folk songs or nursery rhymes) of the mother, father and/or other significant adults from when the child is in the womb up until the age of three or so, have such a tremendous effect on communicating with the child such things as human connection, a sense of belonging, integration into the family environment and even the transfer of culture from adult to child.

Singing with and to, playing rhythm games, and making up inane rhymes and joyful tunes – these all help prepare the child for learning and receiving what the world has to offer them, and indeed, what they have to offer the world.

So, should I be getting a specialist to do this with my child?  Possibly, if you’re wanting your 3-year-old to be NZSO material only!  Realistically my answer is no – you are the best person to give these early experiences to your child.  You, the significant adult, are best able to communicate the joy of life to your own child.

If we all did this a little more with our children, rather than being scared of stuffing it up or singing out of tune (because that actually doesn’t matter for real, heart music), I can’t help but imagine what a different place we’d help create.

I realise I have focused a lot here on talking about the early years.  You may be saying “Well, it’s too late for that!”  In some senses, once the child gets past certain sensitive periods in life, the full potency of those periods can never be fully recovered.

But I sincerely believe it is never too late to begin doing music with your child.  Any such activity can only help to increase both your child’s and your own sense of joy in life.

Grace and courtesy in the primary school

By Tania Gaffney–Deputy Principal Primary

As ākonga enter into their primary years they become a much more social being; they are also testing limits and are developing their independence.  As a result of this, grace and courtesy becomes very social, a negotiated construct within the community, yet still guided by the adult.

Standing alongside grace and courtesy is another term you will hear in the Montessori community–‘freedom with limits or responsibilities’. The limits or responsibilities are often the grace and courtesies that we need, to be able to get on in society–in this case, our school or class.  Mario Montessori Jr. said of freedom, “One can only speak of a true community when each member of the group feels sufficiently free to be himself or herself, while simultaneously restricting his or her own freedom for the sake of adjustment to the group. It is in seeking an optimal solution to this tension between personal independence and dependence on the group that the social being is formed.”  We can all struggle with this at times! Each area of the school plays its part in helping the child develop him or herself socially.

In primary, ākonga are emerging into independence for the first time, pulling away from adults in their lives and wanting to be with their peers more; looking outside of themselves for the first time, but often with a foot in both camps–self and others., Interactions therefore can be fraught as children begin to figure out and negotiate how they will be with each other. “What Freedoms will I insist on?” and, “What shall I adjust?” or, “What grace and courtesy will I use for the sake of my friends and classmates?” They (and in fact, many people) don’t always get it right especially at the beginning of this journey which is when we need to sit down, talk and negotiate to find a way through.

Much of what we do in the primary years is helping the child, both overtly and covertly to develop their grace and courtesy, e.g.

– setting up and negotiating the class rules at the beginning of the year;
– discussing etiquette around lessons or eating or setting up your work space;
– small role plays by the teacher or children about the many different aspects of class life (humour is often used at this age);
– regular class meetings where issues are discussed and solutions found;
– setting up the community jobs; and
– even when telling stories, we may be expressing gratitude for those that have gone before us.

A great persuader to using your grace and courtesy or thinking about your responsibility in the class is your peers–far more than the adult’s influence. This is why whenever possible so much is done in the social setting at the primary age.