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Mastery: The Third Phase of Any School Year

Phase III of a school year is often called the “Mastery” stage. Children in this stage have autonomy over their environment, personal self-help, and social skills. This autonomy is developmentally appropriate for their age.

Teachers can be conflicted in this stage. I often hear them comment, “The children do not need me” or They do not want me to play with them.” These bittersweet assessments are accurate. If a teacher has done his or her job, the children will feel emotionally safe and empowered to be active agents in their learning experience. Curiosity will drive this learning.  In fact, as an administrator, I worry if this has not happened at some point in the school year.

The downside to children reaching this level of mastery is that classroom management can become challenging for teachers. Said another way, if teachers allow children to direct their own learning without structure, chaos can ensue. Alternatively, children may perseverate on activities in which they have achieved mastery at the expense of trying activities that are emotionally or physically challenging. I often share the example of children who are masterful pretend players or have highly developed large-motor skills. Often, the mastery of these skills comes at the expense of fine motor skills such as writing and cutting with scissors. If a child is socially and environmentally reinforced by those skills she does well, there is very little reason for her to do the ones that are hard.

Therefore, while a teacher might not feel “needed” once his or her  group achieves mastery, I believe he or she is needed even more. This teacher must look for subtle and overt skills that have not yet been mastered. This teacher needs to plan activities that interweave unmastered skills with ones that have been mastered. Providing a familiar base in mastered skills to introduce unfamiliar, challenging or unmastered skills will entice the child to try. If, for example, a teacher has a student who is masterful pretend player, he or she can convert the housekeeping corner into a restaurant (Phase II). Introducing menus, writing instruments, clip boards, paper and other items to the restaurant can entice the child to practice writing skills.

Yes, teachers may not feel “needed” by their students during Phase III, the Mastery stage. However, a sensitive, observant and reflective teacher can use this phase to build on children’s independence to challenge them to master skills that are not yet part of their mastered repertoire.

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