Developing the Moral Compass in Lower Elementary

“We give the child nourishing food so that his little body may grow, and in just the same way we must provide him with suitable nourishment for his mental and moral growth.” 

– Maria Montessori 

Maria Montessori created a philosophy and a methodology of education that seeks to facilitate the development of the whole human being. This is achieved by providing children with the tools, relationships, freedom, and experiences they need to become self-actualized people capable of reaching their full potential as an individual and a contributing member of humankind. In this type of fertile educational environment, children acquire a wealth of knowledge and a never-ending desire to learn. They build an appreciation and understanding of the interconnectedness of all phenomena in the universe and of the role each person must play in maintaining its delicate equilibrium. They develop a desire to be of service, and a sense of purpose, meaning, wonder, and belonging that will anchor their character and endow them with the courage to venture out into the open ocean of the possibilities of life’s uncharted course. 

Of the elementary-age child specifically, Montessori observed that, “An inner change has taken place … arousing now in the child not only a hunger for knowledge and understanding, but a claim to mental independence, a desire to distinguish good from evil by his own powers, and to resent limitation by arbitrary authority. In the field of morality, the child now stands in need of his own inner light.” 

Learning about ethics and morality is an important piece of the whole in this holistic approach to education. Elementary children, who are in what Montessori coined as the “Second Plane of Development” (age 6-12), are not only developmentally ready to contemplate big questions of morality and ethics, they are also extremely passionate about them. The proclamation “It’s not fair!” is remarkably familiar to the ears of all parents of children who are in this stage. They are accustomed to engaging in lengthy conversations/debates initiated by their justice-seeking child/ren about a multitude of topics swirling around the dichotomies of “fair and unfair”, “appropriate and inappropriate”, “truth and fallacy”, “right and wrong”, etc. 

The Second Plane of Development is characterized by eight Sensitive Periods. These are temporary windows of time when a child will be most open, interested, motivated, and capable of learning particular concepts and skills. Two of these periods being experienced by the Elementary child include sensitivities for Justice and Moral Judgements and Social Relationships. During this time in their lives, they are learning to navigate the often-rocky terrains of individual relationships and group dynamics. They want to figure out how to behave and where they fit in, not just in their immediate social circles, but within the larger contexts of community, society, history, and even ecology. They are constructing a huge internal framework of knowledge that will shape how they see the world, other people, themselves, and their idea of right and wrong. They do this by seeking answers to big questions such as: Who am I? How does the world work? How have things come to be the way they are? How do I feel about “the way things are”? What can I do about “the way things are”?

As Montessori educators, we are charged with the responsibility of following the child, which means that we must strike while the iron of each Sensitive Period is hot. This means that Elementary is the prime time to engage the children in the study, contemplation, and discussion of morality and ethics. One of the ways we accomplish this is via our school-wide focus each month on a specific virtue of character. March has been dedicated to Honesty, and this month’s issue of the Crest & Current provides us with a platform to share how the exploration of the monthly virtue is one of the elemental ways that LEU weaves the study of morality and ethics not only into our curriculum, but into the very ethos of our classroom community. 


During each Morning Meeting in March, we have featured a quote about honesty that is read aloud by one of the children and then discussed as a group. Some examples are: 

“Honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into a failure.” – James Altucher 

“Honest disagreement is often a sign of good progress.” – Mahatma Gandhi 

“The greatest advantage to telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said”? – Rupesh Patil 

“If you want to be trusted, be honest.” – author unknown 

It is amazing to hear the children’s interpretations of these quotes and we are always impressed by their ability to articulately express their insightful thoughts.

Recently, the children have started the practice of writing in their Journals for the first 15 minutes of every day. On a few occasions, we gave them a writing prompt about honesty to create the opportunity for quiet reflection about the topic and to organize and express their thoughts and feelings about this virtue on paper. The Grade Threes have continued their exploration of figurative language. In this spirit, we asked each of them to first look up the definition for “policy”, and then asked them to contemplate the meaning of the well-known metaphor/expression, “Honesty is the best policy”. They recorded their thoughts in their Language books, and pictures of their completed entries are in the photo gallery at the bottom of this article. 

Throughout the month, we have also read, discussed, and written about an array of parables from around the world containing lessons about honesty, such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Woodcutter’s Axe, and How the Deer Got his Horns. We have also discussed the lives of historical and contemporary figures who champion/ed truth and are/were famous for their honest words and actions, such as Greta Thunberg, Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Mahatma Gandhi, and Socrates.

We have materials in the classroom and in our library that pertain to each virtue of the month. In March, we featured books and poetry about honesty on our display shelf, and we have a set of virtues cards that remains permanently on the shelf for the children to explore.

The Montessori Elementary environment incorporates many practices, rules, and routines that encourage the children to cultivate within themselves and their classroom community the group of virtues cut from the honesty cloth: accountability, trustworthiness, and integrity. Giving the child a balance of freedom and responsibilities is crucial. A child cannot prove trustworthiness without being given the freedom to demonstrate it; a child cannot show accountability without being entrusted with responsibilities. To develop personal integrity, a child needs to be in an environment that encourages her to explore morality and ethics, share her opinions, consider the opinions of others, and learn the art of respectful disagreement. A child must feel that her voice is heard and valued to become brave enough to express her honest thoughts. She also must feel the assurance that it is okay to make mistakes if they are met with accountability and result in learning. 

Our weekly class meetings on Fridays provide fertile ground for the cultivation of these virtues. We discuss successes and problems, and the children are at the wheel, giving suggestions about how to make improvements to their classroom and solve ongoing issues. It is a safe forum where they can discuss their feelings and thoughts with honesty. They are the ones who come up with ideas about how to hold one another accountable and inspire trustworthy behaviour. For example, our ongoing messy bathroom problem was recently solved when one child suggested a system involving a sign-in sheet on each bathroom door that would render accountable the person who last used the washroom when a mess was discovered. It worked!

The expectation and opportunity to be honest, trustworthy, accountable, and to act with integrity is also built into our daily work cycle. Aside from formal lessons, the children are free to choose what work they intend to do each day and they record their intentions in their personal planners. At the end of the work cycle, the teachers have a brief meeting with each child to see if they have accomplished their plans and to ensure that their plans consist of a balance of activities from different areas. This is a system that teaches the children good work habits and accountability, while encouraging them to develop integrity by striving to meet the academic expectations of a student, and – even more importantly – their own expectations of themselves.

Maria Montessori said that “Education of even a very small child … [should] not aim at preparing him for school, but for life”. One of the most significant components of an education as a preparation for life – not just any life, but a life characterized by purpose, meaning, service, and relationships based on love and respect – is the cultivation of virtues like honesty. Considering this goal of Montessori’s philosophy, along with her scientific conclusions about the needs of the child in the Second Plane of Development, it is easy to understand why helping children orient their moral compasses is such a big part of the Elementary teacher’s work. 

Montessori saw children as “both a hope and a promise for mankind” because she understood that “It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was.”. The foundations for morality are thus laid in childhood, and the compass that is set then will guide the decisions of the child and the adult he will become throughout their lifetime. And these are decisions that will not only impact the individual and people close to him, but also the fate of humanity and the world, given the collective power of all these adults born of the children they once were.

Helping the child cultivate the virtues that will lead him to become a kind, peace-loving, and honest person is therefore not simply a component of our curriculum, it is our moral obligation. We must do our best to provide each child with the necessary tools to switch on “his own inner light” so it can “illuminate the path to a life well-lived” and a better future for all.  

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