Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fairness and Character Development in the Montessori Environment

Elementary-age children, who are in the second plane of development, have an increased sense of justice and moral order. To them, following rules is extremely important. During this sensitive period for values and fairness, some children spend an inordinate amount of time observing others for infractions. This internal need for social order drives them to share their observations with others. Learning to tell the difference between reporting and tattling is a valuable skill.

NAMC Montessori fairness and character development young girl

Miss Michelle, she took my ball and won’t give it back.

Miss Michelle, they won’t play right.

Miss Michelle, Kalynn isn’t working.

Miss Michelle, Justin set the microwave on fire.

Montessori Character Development: The Sensitive Period for Fairness

One year I had a small group of lower elementary students who were very focused on relaying the social happenings of our Montessori environment. The students were constantly approaching me to tell me about perceived injustices, even interrupting lessons to proclaim their news. While it was important to them to discuss these events, they needed some guidance to understand the difference between helping and tattling.

Using our circle time for collective lessons was a great place to start. My assistant and I planned out some silly role-modeling scenarios to act out in front of the children. The main message of the scenarios was, “tattling gets someone in trouble, while reporting gets someone out of trouble.” After the lesson, I showed the students a new sorting activity which was meant to help them remember the difference between reporting and tattling. I told the students that whenever they had a hard time deciding whether or not to tell us something, they could work with the sorting activity to help them decide. The students thought this was a great idea and were eager to use this new grace and courtesy work.

NAMC Montessori fairness and character development puzzled boy

When it came time for recess, one of the students came running over to me, eager to share some news. I quickly stopped her before she started by asking, “Is anyone bleeding or dying?” She looked at me strangely and told me no. I asked if anyone was hurt and needed medical attention. Again, she told me no. Then I said that everything seemed to be okay and she could go back and play. This seemed to satisfy her and off she went. This became the routine over the next several days. Soon, the students would come tell me, “It’s okay, Miss Michelle, no one is bleeding or dying,” and off they would go. It did not take long for the students’ need to report settled down and they grew more confident in their ability to analyze the situation themselves.

Because the sensitive period for fairness occurs throughout the second plane of development, the need to report continues in the upper elementary years too. In a previous blog, I told the story of David, My Most Challenging Student, who felt the need to monitor and report on his teachers’ behavior. Cara was another upper elementary student who had a deep need to report perceived injustices and often felt that people were treating her unfairly. Since it was so important to her, I suggested that Cara write down each occurrence of unfair treatment as it happened and place her notes in our community meeting chest. We could then discuss each item at our bi-weekly community meeting. Having a day or two between the occurrence and our discussion gave Cara time to reconsider the event at a distance and helped her learn what was truly important. Often as we went through the topics, Cara found that what seemed vital at the time was rather trivial and not worth mentioning later on. When we came to an occurrence that still felt important to Cara, we talked about it as a class, and the other students offered suggestions to Cara about how to handle the situation if it occurred again.

We need to ensure that children know it is important to tell us when someone is hurt or in trouble. But in our effort to guide children toward independence, we must also help them understand the difference between helping others and getting others in trouble in order gain the upper hand.

Oh…and by the way…Justin really did accidentally set the microwave on fire!
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, February 11, 2014.


  1. Wow. This is the kind of week I've been having. It can be tough to hear your name called upwards of a thousand times a day! Working on bringing independence back to the class after the holidays. Great article! :)


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