Friday, February 19, 2010

The Role of Peer Leaders in Small Group Settings

If I were to list the top five questions that teachers ask me regarding their classrooms and the work being done by their students, what to do with second year, four year old children who ceaselessly wonder would be one of them. A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about assisting four year olds in their development of decision making skills via fetching and pairing work. I also recently wrote a post about helping children bring work to a conclusion and included in that post a brief description of self-regulatory skills and their development or lack of development in young children.

However, when it is not just one four year old wandering throughout the classroom, but two or more, their collective movement can be very disruptive to other children and the work they are doing. I casually refer to it as “stirring the pot.” Also, the other obvious element of this wandering is that they are not engaging specific works for a period of time. When these children go home and tell their parents what they did all day (and every day for several weeks) is nothing, they are pretty much telling it like it is.

Yet, that is not completely true, as they still observe other children's work, participate in group lessons given by the teacher and are social engaged. Additionally, they participate in the flow of the school day and maintain familiarity with the routines of the classroom and the school at large. This includes arrival and departure routines, snack and lunch routines, outdoor or indoor play, school events, fire drills and the list goes on. A four year olds participation in daily classroom routines should not be understated. They maintain their citizenship - their membership - in the classroom and school community.

I point this out because it is significant. I would much rather have wandering children in attendance than ones frequently away on holiday during the course of the school year. Children frequently absent miss lessons, are eager to reconnect socially and are out of step with the routines and patterns of the school day. I have been surprised by the response of other children when a wandering four year old that is rarely absent is. They immediately note his being out and inform me of it with a surprised tone in their voice. I may see this wandering child as doing nothing but they see him as participating in the rituals of their day, which does not exclude his constant movement throughout the classroom but instead incorporates it into what the children perceive as normal.

However, the adults in the environment would like to see wandering four year olds "working." In my classrooms, small groups are mostly occupied by second year, four year olds. They are drawn to them like moths to a flame and find both social acceptance and confirmation of acquired knowledge within them. Additionally, a peer established leader is running the group. Generally these leaders are third (or fourth) year students. Maria Montessori wrote, "a...interesting fact to be observed in the child of six is his need to associate himself with others, not merely for the sake of company, but in some sort of organized activity. He likes to mix with others in a group wherein each has a different status. A leader is chosen, and is obeyed, and a strong group is formed. This is a natural tendency, through which mankind becomes organized."



Reading her quote, one can also understand why so many six year olds attempt to participate in these groups, as they too acknowledge the leaders in the classroom and want to engage with them. Yet, the work done in these groups hinders their participation as it is generally not at a third year level and too, four year olds want their opportunity to be with their leader without the intrusion of their classroom elders. These four year olds that seem to be lacking a commitment to work will openly verbalize their commitment and status as a participant in these small groups. They become very territorial in fact. Lastly, a six year old participant who is seeking status as a leader will compete with the six year running the group in hopes of displacing them. In my classrooms, this has even led to quarreling and disruptive behavior. At times I have had to ask my assistants to ask the six year olds seeking leadership status to leave groups so that its focus returns to the materials in use.

I attended Joan Bettman's Language workshop at an AMI refresher course years ago. During the workshop, Joan spoke of the importance of maintaining the integrity of a group. She stated that to continually allow children, who were not invited, to join a group after the lesson has started lacks grace and courtesy to those children who were invited. It is like having someone come into a movie theater after the film has started and asking out loud what they missed. Also, incorporating non-invited children dislodges a seated child from one place to another. They shrink the options for all children to individually participate and they often ask that the lesson be restarted as they missed the initial steps. Joan Bettman suggested that instead, the adult or third year student state to a child attempting to join an established group, "I am sorry, you may not join. This circle is closed."

I have promoted this in my classrooms and the results have been very successful. It is a clear and precise statement. I really feel pleased when I hear a student leader say it to another student. These two sentences have become group management tools for peer leaders.

Additionally, students who are not conducting themselves properly in the group (i.e., being very social or not responding to the peer leader's requests) may be asked to leave a group. I see it as my role and my assistant's role to support this request and to aide in the child's departure from the group once the request has been made.

Peer leadership offers so much to the students that occupy that role including public speaking experience, development of group management skills, self-evaluation and evaluation and assessment of peer conduct and performance skills and, too, confirmation of their own learned/acquired knowledge. Too, this type of peer leadership activity serves the child in regards to future community service performance such as in large school settings where elementary students assist Primary and Toddler teachers within their classrooms. Children lacking group leadership experience have to develop those skills in the moment rather than recalling and drawing from prior opportunities.



The initial positioning of a student as a small group leader is generally done via a request to me by the student wishing to be thus placed. It is therefore their self-evaluation and confidence that ultimately places them as leaders in the room. Yet, I have postponed this opportunity for third year students who I have consistently observed abandoning their own work. I have also found that when I position a child, who hasn't asked, to be a small group leader that it is mostly unsuccessful. The younger students quickly recognize the student's lack of confidence and abandon the group. I have attempted to make children stay committed to groups like these only to ultimately realize that their own peer intuition was correct.

Returning to the subject regarding tribes of wandering four year olds in a Primary classroom, peer led groups are one of my classroom management keys. I confess that I rely on them. I must also say that it also aides in the development of trust between the lead teacher and the peer leaders as I do not check up on their work or try to micro-management it from a far. Simply put, I don’t compete with them. I will end with another quote by Maria Montessori, one of my favorites, "The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, The children are now working as if I did not exist."

18 comments:

Susanne said...

Thank you for this post! I see this in our classroom daily. During this time of the year, the oldest children really have a grip on their role in the classroom and it is sometimes hard to visualize the second year children stepping up for next year. It takes time to grow into that confidence! It is like you mentioned, there is definitely a link between being a participant in group work led by a third year child, and becoming the that confident leader.

Margaret said...

I have been so guilty of allowing another child to join an already formed and working peer leadership group and wonder "what went wrong". I thank you and I am certain the four year peer working groups thank you.

montessorimatters said...

Additionally to the benefits you propose, peer leaders will often come up with creative and purposeful extensions of the materials, which I never would've dreamed up! It's always a joy to see this.

I've also noticed that my wandering herds of 4-year olds are the ones who will fly to get the broom and dust pan and spend 10 minutes meticulously sweeping up whatever spilled on the floor. They will also be quick to act when asked to straighten out/fix materials on shelves. Thank goodness for them!

I have learned to place my trust in their absorbent minds, and have noticed so many cognitive growth spurts after periods of nomadic wanderings...

Meenakshi Gautam said...

so, I am a mother of such a 4 year old (almost five). What usually happens to the wanderers in the final year? I wonder and worry about it. What kind of insights can you share with a parent?

Lavanya said...

I like reading your blog. Such a wonderful insight. I am the parent of a montessori child who sadly didn't get through the lottery to attend first grade. Please keep posting. I get lots of ideas to try with my two and half year old girl and five and half year old boy.

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