Melissa wandered around the classroom listlessly without choosing anything to work on. I watched, just observing to see what she would do. She fiddled around with some materials on the shelves, then walked over and stared at a friend’s work. The friend, who had been completely engrossed in her math work, struck up a conversation with Melissa. They giggled. Melissa was developing a pattern of distracting others and seemed to lack direction.
I sighed inwardly.
In a Montessori classroom, students have a lot of freedom to choose what to work on and when. It can be fantastic because it allows students to follow their motivation and interests.
But, there can be momentary hiccups as well. New students aren’t familiar with the classroom patterns and the expected responsibilities. Other students can’t seem to get focused.
When these situations occur, the best way to deal with them is by providing greater guidance and direction and then slowly releasing responsibilities and freedoms back to the student.
How to Release Responsibility
Back in the classroom, I approached Melissa. “Hey, I noticed you’re having a hard time choosing something to work on. I’m going to help you get started.”
I gave her two choices of work to pick from, knowing that one of the options would really intrigue her. Then, rather than allowing her to choose her workspace in the classroom as customary, I helped her choose a quiet corner table where she could concentrate.
Over the next few days at the start of the work period, I helped her pick 3 items she needed to accomplish during the morning, always making sure to include 1 item in her favorite area of study, zoology. She had to work in the same quiet corner as day one. We checked in at the end of each morning to make sure she’d completed her list. As she proved herself to be responsible, we removed the workspace restriction. Then, slowly, I rolled back the number of items to accomplish from 3, to 2 and finally to 1 and then 0.
Melissa picked work on her own responsibly and kept up with classroom requirements and the goals we set together in our regular weekly check-ups (standard for all students).
Making a Gradual Release of Responsibility Work for You
Here are some helpful steps for releasing responsibility in the classroom:
- Clear Expectations
In order to release responsibility, you, the teacher, must assume the responsibility first. This means you must put checks and limits in place for your students so that they know exactly what is expected of them and when. In the example, I gave Melissa a workspace and tasks to complete. We checked in at the start of the day and before lunch.
- Developing Responsibility
By completing tasks correctly and on time, students can show that they’re responsible. Encourage students to develop their responsibility by checking in with them and recognizing their success. For example, “Thanks for working so quietly, it helps everyone concentrate.”
- Release Responsibility
Allow your students to make decisions on their own and grant them greater freedoms slowly. Have an end goal in sight such as a daily center-time of an hour where students pick their own work. Then, start by allowing students to work on their own for 5-10 minutes. As they show they’re using the freedom responsibly, increase the time. Whether you allow students to have choice of centers, let students pick their own project topics or give students the opportunity to pick an activity to enjoy on a Friday afternoon, it will help your students further develop their sense of responsibility and create a positive classroom environment.