The importance of completing the third year of a 3-year cycle in Montessori
Dr. Montessori, along with other developmental scientists, observed that the child’s development follows a path of successive stages, each with its own particular needs and dispositions —cognitive, social, physical, moral and emotional; and much occurs during each plane in preparation for the succeeding one. The science is: the more fully the child realises his potential in each plane, the stronger the foundation is for the next stage of development.
Why is there a 3-year cycle?
Conventional education bases its structure on age and the 'normal' rate of development, recognising that each child develops at around about the same rate. Unfortunately or fortunately, children don't always follow a 'norm' in terms of meeting developmental milestones, leaving some children developing later and others sooner. This is an important reason why Dr Montessori grouped children together in 3-year spans: all are working towards the same developmental goals characteristic of their respective plane with the third year in a Montessori classroom being the 'capstone'; literally the 'finishing stone of a structure', as described by Kinderhouse Montessori School. It is also the "culminating academic experience for students." This is truly where all the pieces come together, where the child's learning is solidified, the knowledge consolidated and new possibilities for growth and learning begin to emerge.
So what if a child doesn't complete the 3-year cycle?
Of course, all children go through the same developmental phases whether or not they are enrolled in a Montessori program. However, the advantage of completing the 3-year cycle or three years hangs on the “sensitive periods” characteristic of each developmental plane — Cycle 1, 2 and 3. We know that ages 3 and 4, Grades 1 and 2, 4 and 5, and 7 and 8 are years of academic and intellectual explosion, however according to Dr Montessori the child's greatest work is social and emotional, which lays the foundation for the next "explosion". She concluded that unless the social and emotional growth is addressed directly and effectively, rather than suppressed, academic growth could slow and suffer. Rather than fighting the social and emotional growth of the children in the third year of each sequence, Montessori encourages it. How? Instead of making those students in their transitional years the youngest of the children in a sequence, we make them the oldest and most mature in their group. We give them age-appropriate responsibility. We make them educational and civic leaders in this community.
Why is the third year so important?
The leadership of the older children has remarkable impact on the health of the 3-year community they help lead, and it allows the oldest children in each cycle to stand tall with confidence during an uncertain time while internalising the academic work of the first two years. The children share their knowledge and expertise with the younger students in the group.They become role models for the younger students, who aspire to reach their level of academic accomplishment and community responsibility.
Montessori embraces the maxim, "You do not understand something until you can teach it"; giving lessons to the younger students in the group requires that the oldest children reduce complex concepts to their simplest elements and then convey them with clarity and understanding. If they cannot, it is clear that “they” need a lesson before going on. This means, without fully realising what they are accomplishing, our "third-years" internalise and consolidate the academic skills they have garnered for two years before exploding into the next 3-year cycle.
The full benefit of the educational program accrues to our children in the third and 'capstone' year of each cycle, and a student’s educational experience is greatly diminished without it. So too, is the program and the educational experience for the younger students left behind without the gift of the leadership, mentoring, and instruction from the older children they have come to admire.