First, what is “relatedness”? Since I’ve been using a self-determination framework to think about Montessori and independence, I’ll adopt Deci and Ryan’s (2000) definition, “Relatedness refers to the desire to feel connected to others—to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.”
On the surface, it might seem as if independence and supporting a sense of relatedness are opposing goals for the child, but in fact it is key that a child feel safe and feel a sense of belonging in their community in order to strive for independence. If a child does not feel welcomed, or does not feel they are getting the contact they need from guides and peers, it is instead likely that they will either withdraw from the environment, or act in ways that bring them the attention they desire. When a child has a clear sense of being safe, cared for, and that they have a place in their community and are able to contribute, they are more able to take on new and challenging work (Ryan & Deci, 2000b).
One of the key roles of the Montessori guide is to set the tone of the classroom. Modeling is so important. It is essential that the adults in the environment bring peace to that environment by modeling the behaviors and attitudes they wish the child to adopt. For example, to promote peaceful interactions among children, the guide is careful not to shout instructions across the classroom. Instead, they walk over to a child and ensure they have the child’s attention through closeness and eye contact to give them a message. Similarly, when a child is acting in a way that is inconsistent with the expectations of the classroom the guide, instead of instituting punishments, offers reminders or opportunities for practice in skills by repeating a lesson and giving the child time to practice. In this way, the child is able to internalize peaceful behavior within the community because they see through practice how their relationships with others improve.
The Montessori classroom is multi-age, children see the fruits of long-term growth, and are motivated to emulate their older peers, who serve as models for the younger learners much in the same way that guides serve as models. However, because the older child is much closer to the younger in age and ability, their modeling is likely to make a greater impact. The older children, in turn, are able to exercise their leadership skills through both service and modeling, which provides the foundation for even greater independence as they transfer those skills from the classroom community out into the world.
At the primary level, the child’s opportunities to contribute are mostly within the context of their classroom community. Young children learn in the beginning of their Montessori experience how to respect one another’s space and concentration by walking around mats and maintaining appropriate inside voices. The practical life skills they learn allow them to build up to complex develop skills like dusting, cleaning, and flower arranging that allow them to maintain the beauty of the prepared environment. Children are motivated to develop other skills such as food preparation and serving that allow them to help meet the needs of their fellow learners. Through these acts of community, the child develops both a sense of responsibility for their fellows, but also an independent pride at a task well-done in the service of others.
As the child develops and matures, the Montessori curriculum expands with the sensitive periods of the child. Children in the second plane of development (ages 6-12) are in a sensitive period for social development as well as an understanding of ethics, justice, and rules. “At the elementary level, a key is to provide opportunities for them to design and implement personally meaningful and socially contributing experiences” (Seldin, 2006, p. 46). It is typical during this plane of development for children to work together or independently toward goals that involve serving the community outside of their school. This type of community service requires a great deal of planning and contact with adult members of the outside community, which may serve to build upon a child’s sense of independence while at the same time strengthening those ties to community.
The Montessori Method and Philosophy are incredibly rich and complex in their support of children’s growth and development into independent contributors to a healthy society. It is because of this complexity that it may be helpful for guides and parents to use the framework of Self-Determination Theory to think about ways that this independence (self-determination) is supported both in terms of the prepared environment and the interactions the child has with guides, other children, and even parents.
Thinking about specific ways that the Montessori environment meets an individual’s needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness may aid in thinking about ways they can better support children in gaining independence. For example, it is possible that a child may be having trouble feeling a part of their classroom community and that because of this they are less motivated to take on works that involve connecting with other children, when that sort of connection is what they really need. If the guide observes this lack of interaction (or unhealthy interaction) with other children they may be able to connect that need with withdrawal behaviors more easily through this framework, leading them to not only support the child’s social skill development, but also their development into goal-directed learners. In other words, it is possible that Self-Determination Theory might serve as a reflective tool to aid the guide in connecting the child with the meaningful work that drives the process of becoming independent.