Conflict Resolution in a Primary Montessori Classroom

A few months ago, a parent let me know their child overheard her and her husband having a disagreement, and confidently suggested they both use an “I message” to resolve their conflict. Her child had only been attending her new Montessori classroom for a short time and the mom was surprised to hear her four year old make such an empowering suggestion. The parent later asked me, “What is an I message and how is conflict resolved in my child’s classroom?”

With equal and often greater importance to any academic subject in a Montessori classroom of 3-6 year olds, are the Grace and Courtesy lessons on how we help children resolve conflicts.

How is this introduced?  While gathered with the children daily, the guide will first approach the topic of emotions and social learning by reading stories and singing songs about all kinds of feelings.  These stories and songs not only help the child develop a richer vocabulary around emotions, but also help build empathy and respect for oneself and those around them, and to introduce how we are all more alike, than different.

One of the most important books introduced is The Peace Rose, which was written especially for the 3-6 Montessori classroom.  This book introduces conflicts young children commonly encounter with their peers and shows how to use what is called an “ I message” when having a conflict. No matter how many times this book is read, the children are so engaged, you can hear a pin drop.  How to get along with others is the work of childhood as they so very much want to know how to be better understood and connect.

After the children are read this book, the guide will elicit from the children different conflicts they have encountered.   Based on their input, the guide will “make up” conflict scenarios. The guides will start by first showing how to role play a conflict and use an “I message” while another guide will model reflective listening.  The children will then take turns role playing different conflicts and are provided with scripted ways of being understood more clearly. As one example, we may pretend one child suddenly takes a ball from someone else.  Instead of a child shouting, “You’re mean” or “You’re not my friend anymore”, the guide will prompt the child to say, “I felt mad when you took the ball from me, please ask”. In response, instead of insisting a child apologize, we introduce reflective listening, which may be something like,

“I hear you felt mad I took the ball.” “I ‘ll ask next time.” “Can I play with you?” And so on.

Something about an “I message” appeals to a child’s better self. So even when some conflicts are more complex than the previous example, an “I message” is a tool for teaching children how to express feelings effectively and accurately and is structured speech they can utilize even when feelings are very strong or there is grey area.  Role modeling the ability to connect feelings with behavior is incredibly empowering. It is also a tool for the adult to encourage and show trust for a child’s ability to find solutions to problems. Learning how to use an “I message” allows a child a safe place to make lots of social mistakes necessary to become more skilled with their social selves, rather than to have an adult step in and do this important work for them. A major change we will see in a Montessori classroom is how much less children will tattle-tell on each other. Instead, we will hear children using  “I messages” and being able to resolve on their own more often, which is one of the ways we support a child’s independence and sense of self.

Pictured is the special shelf displaying the peace rose and The Peace Rose book available to any child. Primary classrooms have a special place children can visit when they are feeling mad, sad, or have a disagreement with a peer. There are materials about emotions and beautiful and comforting items a child can hold to help calm oneself down. It is not uncommon to hear one child suggest another child use an”I message” or to hand them the peace rose, which serves as a way of anchoring emotions.   The rose is held by the child giving the “I message” and passed to the other child when it is her turn to speak. Holding the rose provides a concrete way to take turns speaking and listening and can have a calming effect.

The peace shelf is also a “living space”, as a child can add items, poems, or symbols to share with others and express their genuine love and care, which in the young child, is profound.  

Written by Amy Nishikita of the Willow class; she has been the head guide since 2010 and has been teaching since 1995. Amy works in our primary program with students aged 3 to 6 years old.