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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



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.


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.

Holidays the Montessori Way (Practical Life for Families)

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

November 1. That is the day the radio began blasting holiday tunes into my vehicle, lists started appearing, and more physical space was given to store aisles dedicated to the “holidays”. You’ll find plenty of curmudgeonly material available bah humbugging about how the holidays have crept into every corner of our lives, earlier and earlier each and every year.

 This post is not one of those.

Instead, this post is a celebration of the gifts of Montessori education during the holiday seasons of October through April (yup. 6 whole months).

 I should say right up front that we don’t have big holiday lessons or celebrations in our classrooms. Even as an adult, I still vividly remember the day a woman dressed as a witch, with a broom, arrived in my sixth-grade classroom, serving apples with a cackle. It turns out it was Donna’s mother, our “Room Mother” (with apologies to the fathers), who had arrived to run our classroom Halloween party.

 I remember it as my first all-out, holiday party after moving to a new neighborhood and new school where holidays were celebrated in grand style. Birthdays were also celebrated with cake, treats and lots of sugar in the classroom. In between, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, and even Easter made an appearance in that classroom. I think that first party remains so vivid because it stood in stark contrast from the regular classroom routine. When I think back on it as an adult, I cringe for the parents who received hyper, unfocused, and nutritionally-deficient children at the end of the day.

That just isn’t the Montessori way. You will find a dearth of parties and only subdued references to the holidays of the season. Before you accuse me (and others) of being “fun-suckers” who have taken the joy out of the holidays, I thought I’d share why we take this approach.

 Our classrooms offer our children the gift of time, the gift of routine, and the gift of peace. Adding holiday parties would minimize those gifts.

Holidays are cultural and family events, and we do not presume to overlay our traditions over those of your family. Our students in Infant/Toddler through lower elementary understand holidays through the lens of their own experience and their family experience. Even if they have been told and can recite the stories behind these holidays (religious and otherwise) the importance of the event is their time with their family and their family traditions. Developmentally, they are not ready for the underlying stories and histories of the holidays, and we therefore ask questions like, “How do you do it in your family?”

 For our older students who are developmentally ready for deeper conversation, we approach them with questions rather than answers. How do you imagine it happened? Why do you think people do it this way? What do you enjoy about this tradition? What do you wish would change? What have you read? Are there other perspectives? Like all things Montessori, we do not presume to have answers or even something to teach. Instead, it is our hope that we can foster learning and help ask really great questions.

For us, one of the richest gifts of our school is the importance of varied and vibrant traditions within our community. Students are encouraged to talk about how their families celebrate holidays and to share the importance of family traditions with friends. Friends in our community have shared traditions like Diá de Muertos, Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah, Eid Al-Fitr, etc. Just as we do not presume to overlay our traditions over family traditions, we likewise do not presume which holidays to celebrate.

That does not mean that ignore holidays altogether. If you were to observe our classrooms, you would likely notice that work may take on colors, shades, and shapes of the seasons, with golds and reds in the fall, silvers and blues, reds and greens in the winter, pinks and reds in February. Art shelves often become filled with materials for students to express holiday traditions through art projects and creative expression. Pouring and transferring work will also reflect these new shapes and colors.

Books on shelves will likely reflect holiday stories, poems, and songs. These stories and poems are largely impressionistic in nature, designed to evoke feelings of generosity, kindness, sharing, and peace. Most Montessori schools, including ours, welcome book recommendations and donations!

 In some classrooms, students will bring the energy of gift-giving into the classroom, making special gifts for family members and one another. They often direct these gifts, making something unique and personal.

Personally, I’ve come to love the pace of holidays in a Montessori classroom. In the midst of holiday parties, gatherings, family feasts, and the harried pace of our larger culture, our classrooms are places of peace and refuge.

 As a parent, you can extend these gifts into your home with some of these more practical ideas:

1.     Share the work—Many family traditions include large meals and gatherings. Invite your children and adolescents to share in creating menus, cooking dishes, setting tables, and decorating your home. These a great opportunities for them to experience the holidays as a time of coming together rather than being relegated to a separate part of the home while the adults have stress-filled moments.

2.     Ask how they want to feel and what is most important to them—Rather than asking your children what they “want”, ask them how they want to feel and what is most important to them. This is a great opportunity to hear from them about the importance of time with family, traditions, and slowed-down moments. For older kids, ask them how your family can work together to achieve this goal.

3.     Invite hand-made gifts—If gift exchanges are part of your family tradition, suggest to your children and family that you make gifts together for friends and family. Handmade soaps, cookies, and wood-working projects are excellent containers for the love and joy of the holidays, and they have the added bonus of the gift of creative time.

4.     Emphasize the care of the environment—In our classrooms, we emphasize the importance of caring for our environment. For younger children, this may mean keeping a room clean, sweeping floors, or cleaning mirrors. For older children, this can mean regular responsibilities for rooms and larger chores. The holidays are wonderful times to create and build on the tradition of caring for our homes. Just be sure that children have appropriately sized tools (ideally, stored together in an accessible location), and any aids they might need due to their size (like aprons and step-stools).

5.     Practice grace and courtesy—The holidays provide innumerable opportunities to practice manners: writing thank yous, offering hospitality, and even shaking hands. As a parent you can model these behaviors. Even better? Take time during a non-stressful, non-busy moment to talk about your expectations and give a lesson for these courtesies.

 Above all, practice kindness to your child, to yourself, and to all those you encounter. That is the highest and most beautiful celebration of any holiday!

 The gifts mentioned above offer your child the opportunity to feel valued as a member of your family. They offer opportunities for confidence-building. They offer your child peace and security. Opportunities like these allow your entire family to know each other and yourselves better and at a deeper level.

Best, these gifts offer you a moment to slow down as well. You might even create a new tradition!

You likely won’t see many construction paper holiday crafts coming out of our school. But, you will find a great deal of respect for your child, heaps of love, and an outpouring of grace and acceptance.

 Happy Everything!


On Time

Elizabeth Topliffe

Does anybody really know what time it is?
— Chicago

By Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

Parents often wonder why we’re so regimented about start times at our Montessori School. I can assure you that we aren’t maniacal time-keepers or rigid people! Rest assured. The reason is that it is important to your child, and we take that pretty seriously.

Three Hour Work Cycle

To begin, I need to back up to Maria Montessori’s research. When observing children, Dr. Montessori noticed that children (even very young children) reach deep levels of concentration and learning. It was during these deeper periods of concentration that children were able to work with materials and lessons to achieve mastery, returning to the concept or materials with repetition until they became satisfied with their work.

All of us are familiar with the feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. For adults that comes in many forms. It may be figuring out what has been holding us back and using our morning to solve that problem. Or, we might complete a writing project or presentation. Or it might be something physical, like cleaning up a tree that has come down in the yard. It is just so gratifying to see our efforts pay off.

Children feel this same sense of joy and gratification when they master something or complete a project. Dr. Montessori noticed, however, that children did not reach this state of concentration (many of you would call it “flow”) until they had worked through some shorter, easier tasks, and then experienced a state of “False Fatigue”, which is a period of restlessness that sets in about 1 1/2 hours into the work cycle. The same is likely true for adults. We settle in to our days and then get to work on our own work cycles.

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

As a parent who has been late my fair share of the time, it is easy for me to think that my daughter didn’t miss much when she was late. Maybe she missed only the time to hang up coats, chat with friends, etc. She is pretty adaptable and can jump right in. I assumed that she hadn’t missed out on anything important—the meaty stuff.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. We can’t skip the small stuff. A child arriving at school will still take time to settle in and put away their belongings. They will check in with friends. They might wander in the classroom to find work that intrigues them. If they cannot find work, they might receive a short lesson. A child often completes one or two smaller, easier tasks not long after they arrive, repeating something they have already mastered. They will likely have snack.

These tasks are what allow the child to settle in to the concentrated work. Children (and adults for that matter) need to do those things first in order to reach that state of flow or deep learning.

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

When we’re late, we take time away from our children’s deep learning. If we’re ½ hour late, our child may not reach that state of flow at all during the work cycle. It doesn’t matter how much effort and energy we put into a carefully prepared environment, if a child is not there to receive the work, it is wasted. We are pretty attached to our students, and we do not want them to miss out on this important time!

It is also important for parents to say their goodbyes somewhere other than the classroom. Saying goodbye at the door or front-office allows children the dignity of caring for themselves. It sends the message that you think they are capable, resourceful, and whole. They receive that message from the staff and the entire environment of the school, and this is a way you can reinforce that. It is an act of dignity and agency to walk into a work environment on our own, without emotional assistance.

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Montessori schools, teachers and administrators really do understand. We know snow storms, dentist appointments, lost shoes, etc. happen. We get it. We know that sometimes being on time is a challenge. It is our hope to help you understand why it is worth some up-front effort to build some consistency in arrival.

An Invitation

Our work is to establish peace. The first step in doing so is to respect our work, the work of others, and to respect ourselves—our agency and our dignity.

The best part is that every one of us is invited into the work of peace, grace, and courtesy. Our age, economic-class, social-class, religion, education, etc. have no bearing on the invitation.

You are welcome here. Your child is welcome here.