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Back to School Transitions: The Montessori Way

Elizabeth Topliffe

It is almost here. . . . Days are getting shorter. There are retail opportunities no matter where you turn for Back-to-School deals, vacations are over, and we have another year in front of us to anticipate with excitement, curiosity, and wonder!

The first week of school is a time of transition for every member of a family: our students learn new routines, adults establish new routines, and siblings and pets adjust to the new normal. Transitions, even positive ones like going to school, create stress. To ease your family’s anxiety, we thought we’d share some pointers for you as you prepare for back-to-school.

Maria Montessori categorized our children’s development into specific planes, which we focus on here. If you’d like to learn more about Montessori’s planes of development, fear not! Check out this blog post, contact our office, or look at our website.

For the Entire Family

Talk to Each Other. 

One of the best ways to ease into the academic year is to simply talk about it as a family. Have conversations, asking every member of the family what aspects of going back to school create excitement, anticipation, or anxiety. Helping your children understand that everyone in the family adapts during this time can be helpful to them.

Prepare What You Can the Night Before. 

As a family, pack a lunch, a backpack with indoor shoes, a change of clothes, and even a parent’s computer bag. Plan your breakfast in advance. Ask your child to lay out their clothes the evening before or, in the case of young children, lay out two outfits for them to select from in the morning. Planning ahead will make for a smoother morning. Going to school is stressful enough without running around and trying to complete tasks that could have been done the night before. 

Adjust Your Internal Clock.

We all want to squeeze every last moment of daylight out of summer, especially in Michigan where winters are long. Resist that temptation for the benefit of your kids. It takes five to 10 days to adjust to a new sleep schedule. Experts advise us to make the shift gradually, being kinder to ourselves and our families in the process. Set an alarm clock for yourself and your child. Having your child participate in the clock-setting allows even young children to develop a sense of time, and it allows older children to develop a sense of responsibility for waking themselves.

Establish a Send-Off

Don’t assume that the good-bye hug or kiss that you used last year will work again this year or that your good-bye preferences will work for your child. Establishing a good-bye routine in advance will allow your child to express their opinions and needs. Likewise, for a child who is new to a school, having an established (and practiced) good-bye will help them to confidently enter school and separate from parents. 

Ask About Their Day and Listen, but Don’t Get Hung Up on It. 

At the end of the day, parents often want to hear all about school. After all, we’re as excited to hear about their experiences. Unfortunately, kids don’t always respond with details to questions about their day. Ask something specific like, “Who did you eat lunch with?” or “What did you have for a snack?” That allows your child a specific place to focus. 

But, most important, move on! Play a game as a family, do some chores, go for a walk, relax together. That, more than anything, can reassure your child that everything is ok and that even though they go to school, they come home to a family where their participation is wanted.

Label Anything That You Hope Will Return to Your Home. 

No matter what the age, kids lose stuff. It would be impossible for our guides and our school to keep track of what belongs to each child. Our goal is to teach independence, and that sometimes means learning that things get left behind. If you want it back, it is much more likely to find its way to you if it has a label. Don’t think this is just for little kids, our 6th graders and middle-school students are just as likely to leave something behind or drop it in the parking lot! 

The great news is that you can get labels and support our school at the same time at Mabel’s Labels. Or, if your child is way too cool for that, they can use a Sharpie with some masking tape.

Dress Appropriately.

Your child will be most successful when they can participate whole-heartedly with their classroom and outdoor environments, and with all the work those environments bring.

  • For younger kids who are just becoming independent on the toilet, this means clothes that they can remove themselves. 

  • For adolescents on our farm campus, this means shoes that can withstand mucking goat sheds.

A Montessori classroom is generally not a place where fashion trends are most important, and your child’s clothes should reflect that. Clothes should be comfortable, modest, easily replaced (if they become torn, stained, or both), and appropriate for the weather. Please, no characters on clothing, backpacks, or lunch boxes.

For Children in the First Plane of Development (ages 0-6)

In the first plane of development, our children are concrete thinkers. It will help them if you can be as direct and concrete about the new schedule and separation as possible. 

Practice or Role Play Your New Routine.

Make the routine concrete by using toy cars and trucks to demonstrate the trip to school. Re-enact morning drop-off and pick-up by pretending to go to car-line (for Children’s House) or ringing the classroom bells (for Infant/Toddler). 

Encourage Independence and Participation.

Children can and should participate in packing their lunches. Establishing a protocol helps--something like one protein, one vegetable, one fruit, plus two other options (along with pictures of choices) will help them make decisions about their lunches. Or even better, search for a chart that is already made. We like this one from Nourishing Meals

Create a Positive Drop-Off Routine

Say your good-bye and leave. Don’t sneak out when your child isn’t looking and don’t dawdle. Explain when and where you will pick up your child (if it isn’t you, be sure to explain who will pick them up). Time is not a concrete concept, so say that you will pick them up “after outside time” or “after nap.” Make it short. 

Trust us, your child will be fine. Our classroom guides are trained and educated about the needs of children. They know how to entice a child into the classroom, but if you’re standing there, the guide’s work is much more difficult. If you’re really worried, feel free to email the office or call us. We get it, and we can check to be sure your child adjusted. 

Convey a Sense of Confidence. 

Your child senses your feelings and emotions. When you convey confidence in them, they will be more confident. When you convey confidence in the school, they will also have confidence in the school and in their teachers. 

For children in the second plane of development (ages 6-12)

In the second plane of development, children are not the cute preschoolers they once were. They are interested in their peers, in justice, and instead of testing limits with tantrums. They push buttons with rudeness or deliberate pokes at the rules. 

Remind Your Child That Everyone Feels a bit Nervous

At this age, it can be reassuring to know that friends and others are experiencing similar feelings and anxieties. 

Talk About the Positive Aspects of School

Having a conversation with your child where you reminisce about some of the fun times from the previous year can help them focus on positive memories.

Ask Your Child to Choose Indoor Shoes

Your child will be familiar with the concept of indoor shoes. Give them an opportunity to choose comfortable shoes that they would enjoy wearing indoors (just avoid characters and cartoons). 

Talk About the Schedule

Let your child know what time school starts and ends. For younger elementary students, this is a great way for them to start thinking about telling time. For older students, they can practice abstract planning for deadlines and time management.

For Adolescents in the Third Plane of Development (ages 12-15)

In the third plane of development, adolescents are interested in doing things themselves. It is something of a repeat from a toddler’s request to do it themselves! This doesn’t mean that they are not anxious about starting school. 

A Different Kind of Anxiety. 

At this age, your adolescent is less anxious about school and more anxious about peers. Talking with them about your expectations, such as “school is a place to practice doing your best work rather than doing perfect work”, can help alleviate some of that stress. Asking them about times that they felt successful and then asking what you can do to help replicate the factors that led to their success can help them create a mental picture of success at school.

Get Organized.

Your adolescent’s brain is developing faster than it has since they were a toddler. With it comes some brain fog. Having an organized room, dresser, desk, or backpack is likely not at the top of their list, but starting there can help them avoid some of their natural fogginess. You can’t put something away if there isn’t an established place for it, after all. Helping your adolescent organize their space before school starts, will help them stay organized for school.

Listen.

It can be easy to step in with advice at this age, especially if and when your adolescent seems anxious about something “small.” Listening and asking questions is often better than giving advice (kind of ironic that you’re reading this in a blog full of advice). 

Well-posed questions can help your adolescent think rationally and logically about a problem; they can usually get to an answer that works well for them and is often better than any advice a parent could offer. It also helps your adolescent develop coping skills for managing their own life. 

Ask Them Serious Questions.

Ask them if one year from now they could say that this school year was the “best school year ever,” what would it take? Then, ask how you can create those conditions together. Ask them what they want from you as a parent for support. And, if you offer it, deliver. 

We’re Excited for Another Year Together!

The whole Stepping Stones community is looking forward to getting back to campus. We can’t wait to hear about all of your summer adventures! We’re also anticipating a year that celebrates meaningful work, growth, and community. We’ll see you very soon.


Opera 2016!

Elizabeth Topliffe

The Miracle Tree—An Ecological Opera by William Bokout

Performed by Stepping Stones Montessori Students

April 29, 2016 at 6 PM

St. Cecilia Music Center, Royce Auditorium

Alumni Reception Immediately Following in the President’s Room

Stepping Stones’ guides are constantly looking for challenging and thrilling opportunities for our students to stretch themselves, while remaining in touch with what a child is capable of doing. That is why I’m thrilled to share that our students (Kindergarten through Upper Elementary) will all have a stage role in the 2016 Opera--The Miracle Tree by William Bokout.

Spring operas and musicals have an honored place in Stepping Stones Montessori School’s history. In the early years of the school, students performed on-stage at Civic Theater. They produced playbills, posters and memorized lines and songs.

A student-made poster advertising a spring musical from the 1980s

A student-made poster advertising a spring musical from the 1980s

Boy, did they memorize them! When touring the school or telling me about experiences they had at Stepping Stones, alumni most often reminisce about musicals and operas. I even had an experience in a bar where an unknown patron noticed my Stepping Stones shirt and demonstrated some of her dancing cow moves from her childhood musical!

Sarah Danielski, an alumna, parent of current students and staff member also refers often to her musicals. “I remember the rush of getting dressed as a grasshopper with tights and antennae. It was just exciting to be on a real stage with my peers, having to learn lines. It was all exciting.”

Why is an event like this so important? A theater production is an incredible undertaking, and provides our students with opportunities to lead and think creatively. Students will be directly involved in set construction and costume design as well as staging and the theatrical components of the production. In order to pull it off, elementary students will focus only on opera during the week of April 25-29.

Ryan DePersia, an alum, currently working as an architect in Chicago remembers, “Although I’m no longer involved in theatrical endeavors, I really love that I had the opportunity when I was at Stepping Stones to be a part of several plays. I really enjoyed my acting roles in the productions as well as my role as a part of something bigger. The lessons of teamwork and collaboration that these events provided were invaluable.”

Teamwork, creativity, collaboration and receiving constructive feedback are all important aspects to this transformative experience. “It’s an incredible adventure and they will come out of it a different person. No doubt about it,” notes Jav Caniff, upper elementary guide.

Students aren’t the only ones to benefit from these experiences! One of the most compelling aspects of the opera are the opportunities for parents. “These events are truly community events. Parents help sew costumes, build sets, chaperone students and offer transportation. They are part of the transformative experience of creating something for our whole community,” says Jan Reed, lower elementary guide.

"They accomplish something that they probably would never otherwise try in all of their lives, and it exposes students to a form of art that they might not otherwise experience," says Wilma Kiefer, former Upper Elementary guide.

"It is a great community event. It helps children understand that it is a process and it takes everyone to make the product beautiful. It is work. It is effort, and in the end, it is magical," notes Erica Shier.

This year’s event will take place on the stage at St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium, a beautiful and historic stage in Grand Rapids.

Royce Auditorium

Royce Auditorium

We are hoping to fund this event through underwriting. If you, a family member or friend wish to help enrich the experience of Stepping Stones Montessori students with the gift of opera, please consider making a donation to support us.

UNDERWRITE OPERA NOW

Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and supporters of all kinds are invited to join us at the opera! We hope to see you there!

Skills for Real Life

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

Recently, the upper elementary students served their Fancy Dinner to 10 guests, all of whom purchased a seat at our November Auction for the Love of Learning. The students prepared all of the food, used formal place settings and served the guests.

Leading up to the event, Jav and Marcus (the upper elementary adults) assured parents that while it was a great deal of work, the Fancy Dinner offered lessons for real life. All of those references to "real life" left me wondering what was so real or so different about these lessons than those offered every day at Stepping Stones Montessori.

As the week unfolded, I can confidently say that the preparations leading up to the evening were chaotic and electric (with a tinge of panic).  The students learned a lot about project management, collaboration, and themselves.

As adults, it can be easy to forget all of the steps involved with putting on a Fancy Dinner. I’ll take this opportunity to remind you of some of the steps involved.

  • Research menu ideas & present them
  • Research recipes
  • Apply multipliers to recipes in order to plan for 10 guests
  • Calculate grocery quantities
  • Shop for groceries
  • Prepare food
  • Write rubrics for each task and assign them
  • Set a formal table
  • Prepare a map for where guests will sit and what they ordered
  • Learn how to serve at a formal table

I look at that list, and I see some pretty solid academic skills being applied—math, writing, mapping, and research. Even better, our students got these academic lessons in a high stakes environment. They had guests counting on them for accurate math, writing, mapping and research.

Some students failed in their efforts. Baking bread was one of those lessons. Students ended up finding another avenue for bread on the table. They also learned that a single stove and oven meant that they had to adjust on the fly.

As a guest, I can confidently say that despite the failures, the adjustments and the craziness leading up to the evening, it was lovely. I was prepared to be impressed, and the students exceeded even those high expectations.

I wondered how the students felt about it. None of them mentioned the math, writing, mapping and research. Instead, this is what they said:

“I learned that I couldn’t pay attention only to my work and my assignment. I needed to help other people because if only my work got done, it wasn’t going to work. We all had to get our work done together.”

“The biggest thing I learned was not to rush. If you do, you get overwhelmed and freaked out. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re like that.”

“I learned communication is key. If you don’t have it, you’re sunk.”

“I learned that a cook’s job is a lot harder than it seems. We don’t think about where our food comes from enough.”

And, lest you think it was all work and no play… “I learned not to mess with lasagna!”

These lessons are so much more relevant to success in the world than math, writing, mapping and research.

Throughout it all, Jav and Marcus (the adults in the community) focused on acting as guides, coaches and models. If they had focused instead on telling the students what to do, I wonder if they would have had the same answers. Would students have learned how to navigate some of the problems presented in the evening?

Research indicates that Montessori educated students have strong academic skills. They also have better executive function, are better able to adapt and have a stronger sense of community. Check out this synopsis of some of that research here. Based on our students’ responses to what they are learning, I’m not surprised.

What a lovely reminder of the richness found in our elementary community.