According to E.M. Standing, in Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, Montessori Grace and Courtesy activities are a natural expression of communal life. They teach children how to interact with people in a respectful way. Learning how to politely greet others, interrupt respectfully, open and close a door quietly, sit and stand up properly, and tuck in a chair will inspire children to spontaneously extend hospitality and respect to others.
Montessori teachers start the year with grace and courtesy lessons to help children become oriented to the classroom and each other. "Manners" are a welcome side effect; however, the intrinsic value of courteous communication reaches much deeper.
These activities give children practical tools they can use throughout their lives to interact respectfully with the children and adults with whom they share the world.
Grace and courtesy lessons also prepare children for later social (and business!) encounters, at an age when they are eager to imitate (and ready to internalize) the social behavior they see around them. Young children in Montessori schools are delighted to start the day with grace and courtesy: they greet the teacher, shake hands, make eye contact, and say a pleasant, "Good morning."
As the year progresses, children become accustomed to greeting each other respectfully, using polite words, walking around each others' work without disturbing it, and even waiting politely for their turn to speak. By the end of the year, such courtesies have become practically second nature.
Those early experiences serve children well beyond the classroom! Montessori teacher/consultant Pam Personette remembers her recent encounter with the technician who responded to her call for computer repairs. "Steven arrived promptly at the appointed time, " Pam recalls, "He immediately extended his hand, introduced himself and said a polite, 'Good morning.'
"Steven listened carefully and patiently as I explained my problem; he spoke to me respectfully. I asked Steven if he had attended Montessori school when he was young. Yes! He had."
In the classroom, the teacher presents new tasks one skill at a time, without the pressure of a schedule. Later, children will spontaneously apply what they've learned in a real-world social setting. You can use the same principle to help children prepare themselves to interrupt politely, use courteous words amidst the social whirl, and write "thank you" notes after the holidays.
Before dinner out with the extended family or a visit with seldom-seen friends, find opportunities to practice grace and courtesy with your children—and watch how they blossom in a relaxed, familiar setting with plenty of time to practice.
Unfamiliar settings will be more comfortable for children if they know how to attract your attention appropriately. Montessori Grace and Courtesy consultant Pam Personette offers this comforting, non-verbal technique from her classroom days.
In Pam's classroom, a child needing her attention placed a hand on Pam's arm without speaking. In response, Pam placed her free hand over the child's, to let the little one know his "turn" to speak would come soon. Some teachers have reported that children would line up behind each other, waiting for their turn to "interrupt" respectfully!
Well in advance of the event, role-play interrupting with your child to teach the technique. A similar one is most likely in use at school (you might ask your child's teacher how it's done and use the exact same method).
"May I get you a cup of tea?" "Yes, please."
"Would you care for some butter?" "No, thank you."
"Thank you." "You're welcome."
Don't all parents use such courteous language all the time? As hard as we try, the truth is it's terribly easy for busy adults to forget ourselves in the rush. Yet modeling may be the most potent way for parents to help children extend their new social skills beyond the classroom. More important, these polite words and phrases set a climate of mutual respect within which your children will thrive.
Use the same simple, polite phrases at every opportunity. Rather than prompting children to offer appropriate responses, enlist a friend or family member (or an older child) to demonstrate courteous language. This kind of role playing is truly "play." You may even find children practicing with their friends (be they stuffed bears or children!). Children are naturally inclined to imitate your speech and will join in with the proper responses in time.
Tip: Children need lots of repetition. Rather than correct their early or incomplete efforts, choose another opportunity to role play again on another day.
When is it appropriate to say "Thank you"? Knowing is not as easy as it seems! Of course, parents can model for their children by thanking them verbally for their efforts and their company. Thanking friends, relatives, and guests in writing is an appealing activity for children, especially when they can participate in the whole communication process.
Children need little urging to draw or write on a postcard they will mail themselves. Let them watch you address the postcards. Children can then affix stamps and, if at all possible, carry postcards to the post box and drop them in.
Before the holiday season begins, find an occasion for your children to create and mail a few postcards or letters in this way and they will be eager to repeat the activity after the holidays.
Children love everything about a tea party! Having a friend to tea gives children a chance to write and mail an invitation, greet, serve, and thank a guest—every step is a wonderful opportunity to exercise grace and courtesy. After some time to practice individual skills, a tea party gives children a chance to synthesize what they've learned in a comfortable, low-key setting (before that big family dinner!).
When children have snack in the Montessori classroom, they chat quietly with each other and with adults. They take turns speaking and use their napkins. At the end of snack, they thank each other for the delightful experience, clear their dishes and glasses, and tuck in their chairs.
A tea party is a perfect chance for similar polite conversation at home. Parents can use the party to set the stage for a future event by pretending to be at a fancy restaurant (or Grandma's house!). Ask the children to dress up the table accordingly. Even simple decorative touches like a doily, flowers, and special serving dishes bring out their formal best!
Prepare small servings of child-friendly foods with your child. Think apple wedges and cheese, crackers and sliced eggs, veggies and dip—foods that will call on plenty of passing and serving are perfect.
The mother of Anna, a former Montessori Primary student now enrolled in a third grade public elementary school, stopped Pam Personette at a clothing store to thank her for Anna's early Montessori Grace and Courtesy lessons. Pam reports, "Anna's mother told me her child always tucks in her chair (at home, at school, and in restaurants). When other parents are prompting their children to say 'please' and 'thank you,' it comes naturally to Anna."
And then there is Steven, the college student who came to repair Pam's computer.
When asked about having attended Montessori school, Steven was intrigued. How did Pam know? It wasn't just the greeting! Pam says, "I prepared lunch for him (we have three computers...there was lots of work). He waited for everyone to sit down before he began to eat. We had a pleasant conversation and he thanked me for lunch. When we got up from the table... Steven tucked in his chair!"
Montessori truly is education for life! Montessori school prepares children to become citizens of the world and, whether at home or at school, it all begins with mutual respect—otherwise known as grace and courtesy.
—by Joyce Beydler (with Pam Personette, M.Ed., AMS) for Montessori Services; Ms. Beydler is a nationally published writer, parent, and former day care owner/operator. Her articles appear regularly on parenting websites and in regional parenting lifestyle publications on the west coast.
—Originally Published 2010.