SEL or Grace and Courtesy Skills?
Recently, I have been receiving several questions about SEL (social-emotional learning) programs as they relate to Grace and Courtesy lessons in the Montessori classroom. My answer has been usually brief, “Grace and Courtesy lessons are SEL lessons.” That is not to say that we have nothing to learn from those who have developed SEL programs for the direct teaching of social-emotional skills. There has been some excellent work done! What I am saying, is that SEL is not a new concept in Montessori education. Grace and Courtesy lessons have been a systemic component of Montessori philosophy and practice since the pedagogy was first developed. Because of the social conditions in our current environment, the children are showing that they need coaching on Grace and Courtesy more than in the past. However, before we look outside, let’s look inside at what we already have, and how to use it well to meet the needs of the children.
Teaching Grace and Courtesy Lessons Today
“What is social life if not the solving of social problems, behaving properly, and pursuing aims acceptable to all? – Dr. Maria Montessori, page 225, The Absorbent Mind
Grace and Courtesy lessons help children learn to successfully navigate the social environment of their classroom, and beyond! Children are not born with social skills, yet adults often treat children as if they are, scolding them for not using manners that they were never taught and may not have seen demonstrated. You probably have memories yourself, of being scolded for breaking a social norm that you didn’t know existed. It’s an isolating experience. Grace and Courtesy skills provide a roadmap to developing respectful relationships and achieving belonging and significance within the classroom. One of the wonderful components of the Montessori pedagogy is the idea that social skills can and should be taught proactively, at all levels, to promote an environment of mutual respect and dignity.
The National Association of School Psychologists asserts that well-developed social skills help to facilitate academic success and promote healthy relationships. Schools that actively teach social skills are more likely to have physically and emotionally safe environments, which also leads to increased academic success. (Axelrod, 2017)
We witnessed the importance of developing social skills when children returned to school after the pandemic. It was clear that missing critical opportunities for developing social skills impacts both the social-emotional and academic environment. The number of SEL (social-emotional learning) programs that were developed to meet the demand by schools for the direct teaching of social skills is staggering. While there is certainly much to learn from the work of others, the direct teaching of social skills has been an integral part of Montessori philosophy for over a hundred years.
Teaching Grace and Courtesy lessons (social skills) takes devoted time and attention. Unfortunately, even in the best Montessori schools, these “soft skills” are often the first to go as teachers begin to focus on giving academic lessons, meeting with parents, completing conference reports, writing newsletters, resolving conflict, and navigating their way through the day-to-day routine. After the initial Grace and Courtesy lessons are given at the beginning of the year, we move on to other “more critical” issues. Time is a precious commodity in every classroom and school. However, investing time to teach Grace and Courtesy skills, and allowing the children to practice them will always save more time than it takes, especially now as many children have missed key moments in their social development as many of them were in isolation during critical developmental years.
When we teach Grace and Courtesy skills directly, children learn the skills necessary to have successful social interactions with their peers and adults. Children who have more success in their social interactions experience a greater sense of belonging and less social discouragement; and less discouragement means less misbehavior! With less misbehavior to address, teachers have more time for connecting children to work. Research has shown repeatedly that children do better academically when they have social success. (Steedly, 2008)
As with the teaching of ground rules, teachers in the Children’s House take a more direct lead in the process, while elementary and adolescent teachers involve the children as much as possible to meet their developmental sensitivities. Here are some social skills and Grace and Courtesy lessons to consider teaching throughout the year. You can make your own list but one of the things to consider, as you are making it, is how much there is to learn.
Children’s House Classroom
- greeting someone
- asking permission to work with someone
- saying no respectfully
- receiving no respectfully
- introducing yourself
- apologizing (see chapter ___)
- using an inside voice
- taking turns
- speaking in a respectful tone
- saying please
- saying thank you
- waiting in line
- taking turns
- holding the door open for someone else
- shaking hands
- walking around other children’s work
- asking to join a group
- blowing your nose
- coughing and sneezing into your sleeve
- waiting for other people at your table before eating
- asking someone to watch them work
- offering food or drink
- sitting on a chair
- raising your hand in group settings
- basic table manners
- caring for work
- rolling up a rug
- keeping work on a rug
- making friends
- listening when others are talking
- resolving simple conflict
Elementary Classroom (in addition to the above)
- asking a group to play
- dividing labor in group projects
- resolving conflict with peers
- initiating conversations
- sharing classroom resources
- giving and receiving meaningful compliments
- appreciating the contributions of others
- working and communicating with others in group projects
- identifying and expressing feelings using “I language”
- active listening
- making amends
- allowing others to finish speaking before starting to speak
- telephone etiquette
- writing thank you notes
- asking for help
- inviting friends to a party
- more advanced table manners
- removing food from mouth discretely
- cutting food
- excusing yourself
- asking for seconds
- unwanted food
- trying new foods
- sitting through a meal
- asking to help with meal tasks
- introducing others
- changing the subject politely
- declining an invitation respectfully
- declining to answer an intrusive question
- responding to someone who is experiencing sadness or loss
- declining to participate in inappropriate games or conversations
- walking away from uncomfortable or inappropriate situations
- using people’s names in conversation
- declining unwanted physical affection
- asking for directions
- giving up your seat for someone in more need (elderly, disabled, pregnant, infant/toddler)
- holding the door open for others
- riding an escalator or elevator
- applauding at appropriate times during presentations or performances
- presenting work formally
- walking on the right side of the sidewalk
- community and group problem solving
- understanding and respecting cultural differences
- saying no assertively and respectfully
- advocating for a friend
- reading non-verbal cues
- navigating differences in family values with friends
- stating opinions respectfully
- disagreeing with integrity and respect
- listening openly to different perspectives and opinions
- confronting problems directly
- dressing appropriately for different occasions
- customer service etiquette
- sending professional correspondence (emails, letters, etc.)
- seeking out professional expertise (micro-economy, research, etc.)
- interviewing experts
- mentoring younger students
- representing the school in public
- cell phone etiquette
- social media etiquette
- understanding and respecting cultural differences
- negotiating conflict between friends
- declining to participate in risky or inappropriate behavior
- advocating for a friend in need
- when to hold and when to break confidence
- expressing empathy
- saying no assertively and respectfully
These lists are only a start. Having a list of essential Grace and Courtesy lessons that are taught at the beginning of the year to help students navigate the social-emotional environment successfully is step one. Step two requires observation. As you begin to observe behavior patterns in the classroom (interrupting, aggressive speech, foul language, passivity, etc.) record these observations. Then, identify social skills for each behavior that can be taught to students to empower them to find the belonging and significance they are looking for. For instance, if you notice children saying, “No!” aggressively. The social skill that might need to be taught could be how to say no assertively and respectfully (with both kindness and firmness). As you make these observations and identify needed social skills, you can then develop individual and group lessons and let children practice these skills. Below you will find a simple lesson template for teaching Grace and Courtesy lessons.
Lesson Template for Teaching Grace and Courtesy Lessons
Objective: To teach a concept or skill by demonstrating it, and facilitating a discussion where students draw their own conclusions, based on their observation and experience.
Materials: Flip chart or whiteboard, and markers.
- Create an opening statement or question that will draw students in. Example: “Sometimes people try to get other people to cooperate by telling them what to do. How many of you have ever been told what to do? How many of you have ever tried to get people to cooperate by telling someone what to do?”
2. Develop a short roleplay to demonstrate the concept or skill.
Demonstration role-play: have two or more students demonstrate the skill.
Compare and contrast role-play: have two or more students demonstrate not using the skill or concept (ineffective behavior), and then have the students demonstrate using the skill or concept.
- Ask Conversational Curiosity Questions
What do you notice about __________?
What might cause __________?
How would you feel about __________?
What might you be thinking if, or when __________?
What might people be deciding if, or when __________?
What might people be learning if, or when __________?
What might happen if __________?
How can we make sure __________?
If appropriate, give information about the skill prior to the role-play. However, the less explanation you can give up-front, the better. Whenever possible, use questions to draw forth from the students so they make their own connections.
With younger children use your judgement when you decide whether to do a demonstration or a compare and contrast lesson. If you are considering the compare and contrast role-play be sure to consider how your group might respond.
The Class Meeting and Grace and Courtesy Skills
Direct teaching of Grace and Courtesy lessons empowers students by teaching them the social skills, directly. This is the First Period of the lesson. The Second Period of the lesson takes place as children begin to navigate the classroom social environment, and “try on” what they are learning. If you’ve been in the classroom for any length of time, you know that this “trying on” takes many forms. Children may “try on” a new skill by using it, not using it, or awkwardly using it. Each approach will yield different results. They are working with the “material” and learning through trial and error and self-correction.
What many SEL programs do not address is the Third Period of the lesson. How does the child deepen their understanding, recall, and apply what they have learned? The Class Meeting is where the Third Period of the lesson takes place in a classroom that uses Positive Discipline. The purpose of the Class Meeting is to help each other solve problems, as a community. If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that children will make social mistakes (mis-taken attempts to find connection) and they will experience discouragement. Without a way to learn from those mistakes with support, that discouragement can lead to misbehavior cycles. The Class Meeting gives children a chance to learn from those mistakes in an encouraging and supportive atmosphere. This happens in two ways. First, children who run into social difficulties in the classroom bring their problems to the Class Meeting to get help from other members of the community. Children helping children. Second, children learn from the mistakes of others when they help them solve their problems. Have you ever found the answer to a problem that you were having by helping someone else solve theirs? This process happens almost every day in a classroom that holds Class Meetings (https://chipdelorenzo.com/how-do-you-know-its-a-class-meeting/), where children receive help and give help to one another.
For Grace and Courtesy lessons to have lasting impact, it’s vital that teachers continue to teach social skills throughout the year. In the beginning of the year those lessons are pre-planned and consist of essential skills to navigate the classroom environment successfully, based on the developmental needs of the children. As the year progresses, the adults can use their observations to identify patterns of misbehavior and identify social skills that need to be taught. The Class Meeting is a perfect place in the day to present those lessons. Teachers who use Positive Discipline often devote one Class Meeting per week to Grace and Courtesy lessons. Finally, as children learn these new skills and face social difficulties in the classroom, this social-emotional learning is reinforced through the process of helping one another in the Class Meeting.
Rose was a 3-year-old student in Casey’s classroom. Shortly after school started, Casey began finding lunch boxes open when she went into the cubby area where the children’s belongings were kept during the day. It turned out that Rose was stealing items from other children’s lunchboxes and eating them in the bathroom. One day, Rose left the classroom and was found on the stairs eating handfuls of Bisquick that a teacher used for a baking project. After checking in with Rose’s family, Casey found out that Rose didn’t have any medical issues (or food insecurity), but she did have a ravenous appetite. After some observation, Casey found that Rose was leaving the snack area and going directly to the cubbies looking for more food. She also noticed that very few of the children were asking to have seconds. That week, Casey conducted a short Grace and Courtesy lesson on asking for seconds in the Class Meeting. The children took turns practicing. Magically, children began to find their lunches unmolested in the cubby area when it was time for lunch. Rose began asking for seconds… and sometimes thirds.
Source: Nelsen, Jane; DeLorenzo, Chip. Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom. U.S.A., Parent Child Press, 2021