Waldorf education’s founder, Rudolf Steiner, like many social scientists at the turn of the century and beyond, had well thought out ideas about human development, child development and therefore education’s role in helping to shape a better society for a rapidly changing world. When it comes to theories of child development, Steiner is joined by Freud, Montessori, Piaget, Erikson and others who broke development into stages. And like his peers, Steiner had earmarked a stage for children shifting out of the wonderment and ego-less phase of early childhood.

Maria Montessori referred to it as moving from the “absorbent mind” to the “reasoning mind.” Jean Piaget called this a transition into the concrete operational stage. And Erik Erikson labeled it a phase of Industry vs. Inferiority, where a child begins to ask, “Who am I and how can I be good and competent in a larger world?”

Nine-year-olds are watching teachers and other authority figures and are seeking to answer questions like: “How do people walk in the world? How do I make decisions? What is important?”

Steiner called it  “The Nine Year Change,” although it occurs around and between ages nine to ten. He concluded that this was the time in a child’s life where they awaken their ego-consciousness and become self-aware. Where they once felt one with everything, the child now sees themselves as separate, and this new perception changes their entire world and with it their behavior, emotion, and thinking.

We spoke with Cynthia Way, teacher of our current first grade and of two graduating classes, to better understand what this stage of development looks like in children, both at school and at home, and how adults can support children during this transition. 

Cynthia tells us, “What’s happening before they’re nine is that children are living in a world where they are part of everything and everything is part of them. They think everything is alive. They might know that’s not true, but they have a strong feeling that the tree and rocks are alive and connected with them. Between ages nine and ten, children begin to become self-aware and understand that they are separate from these things. That means they are starting all over again with new perceptions of the world and it’s a little bit scary.” 

Nine-year-olds are watching teachers and other authority figures and are seeking to answer questions like: “How do people walk in the world? How do I make decisions? What is important?”

Waldorf education’s curriculum in third and fourth grade has been designed specifically to help support children at this age so that they can create the answers needed to be confident and critical thinking grade school students and set a solid foundation for social-emotional growth and academic learning. 

Cynthia says, “While they work on these questions in their interior life, we work to reflect these same questions, and some answers, exteriorly in the curriculum. We try and reflect on what’s going on with them in what we teach.”

For example, third graders are re-understanding their place in the world, quite literally, and need to be active, so many lessons seek to stimulate movement and practical arts to help orient students. Math takes on measurement and a practical application such as shelter building.  And the shelter block also answers the question of how to “be” in the world depending on orientation and need. They are building an inner house and in their environment building outer houses. 

Third graders also learn about the old testament, not as a religious exercise, but because the metaphor of being cast from innocence, finding the way, and relying on authority so acutely speaks to the nine-year-olds inner state. 

From their third grade curriculum, as they come to the end of their transition, they move to fourth grade, which addresses building internal strength while understanding the nuance of separateness and also how we each of us, separately, play a part in the whole. This is a wonderful time to learn about fractions, geography and maps (orienteering and orientation) and, in science, what distinguishes plants and animals from human beings and one another.  

While Waldorf education supports nine to ten-year-olds in the classroom, families can be intentional about supporting their third and fourth graders outside of the classroom too.  Cynthia says parents may see this new uncertainty through new behaviors around this time. Children may be anxious, have nightmares or previously unseen fears, and they can become critical of themselves, their social situation and those in authority. 

So what can parents of third and fourth graders do to help their children as they move through this important developmental stage?


Show Loving Patience

“This is a time when a child may come home and say, ‘No one at school likes me,’ when in truth all the children in the class feel that way because of these new feelings of being separate,” says Cynthia, “but they don’t know their peers are having that shared experience too.”

While this is happening, it’s important not to deny their feelings or try and fix the situation for them. Be a good listener, be willing to let your child have their own inner emotional life, and reassure them that no matter what, they are loved.

“Just accompany your child on the journey, don’t rush them and don’t worry,” says Cynthia. “A good exercise is to try and remember when you were nine. The most important thing for parents to do is to assure their kids that the parents are in control and are taking care of the child and the family.”

Be an Authority

As parents, some might notice the child questioning rules and boundaries that were previously accepted without question. Recognize the child’s need to establish a new respect for adult authority, versus the blind following they had when younger, and honor this new relationship. Present a united front without feeling the need to justify your actions all the time. 

Cynthia says they are not looking for logical or intellectual answers to why a rule exists, but simply for reassurance that their parent or guardian is still in charge, knows what to do, and does, in fact, offer the security the child has come to rely upon. 

Cynthia assures parents, “It’s not necessary, as a parent or teacher, to prove things to the questioning child in this stage of development. When asked why something is done, a parent can still say, ‘because I said so,’ because ultimately the child just wants to know that you’re still in charge.”

Model Positive Behavior

Cynthia encourages parents to model the behavior they want to see the child emulate someday. And know that children don’t need perfection from parents, just genuine efforts toward being a secure authority and resilient being.  

Cynthia says, “Children ask their parents to try; not to be perfect. Children lose respect for people who give up.  So when times are difficult, try to radiate authority and resilience and problem solving and management of new things. That’s good medicine for them. It shows them that grown-ups have things they do that are worth doing.”