Deciding between a Montessori School and a Regular School

I am a Montessori teacher, and from what I witness in the classroom and from the enthusiasm of the parents who I work with, I feel that there is no other way to go than Montessori, especially, but not only, for primary (ages three to six) education. The philosophy is based on the child’s development and is the result of one brilliant woman’s scientific observations of children over a career that spanned a half century. It has since been backed up by recent discoveries in developmental psychology, and has provided a great start for thousands of kids over the past hundred years. Here are a few frequently asked questions about Montessori schools:

What is the main difference between Montessori and “traditional” schooling?

The motto for the Montessori teacher is “follow the child.” The teacher gets to know the child well by observing his unhindered behavior and by offering choices in order to give his confidence and discover his preferences. The key is the “prepared environment,” which is carefully designed to allow the child to move and make choices within it without having to be told that there is something that he cannot touch or that he has to be still.

So the children can do whatever they want? What if someone is being disruptive?

The guiding principle is “freedom within limits”, which means that a child’s ability to make choices in the classroom is limited by the necessity that she use the materials carefully and that she respect the safety of herself and others. For instance, we never run in the classroom because someone could get hurt. We also do not interrupt another child who is focused on a task because it disturbs her concentration. Children need limits in order to feel comfortable and confident, and we provide these limits by explaining our expectations and by modeling appropriate behavior. All of our classroom customs are developmentally appropriate and based on the idea of safety and respect for one another.

So how does the teacher deal with “discipline problems?

The assumption is always that every child is doing the best that she can. A teacher will probably go up to the disruptive child, and whisper that she would like to give him a “lesson”. This is how the teacher refers to all the one-on-one or small group teaching events that she offers the children. This could be a lesson on walking gently through the classroom, or it could be a lesson on how to use one of the teaching materials that the teacher has observed that she is ready for. The redirection can be grounding for the child. If the behavior is persistent, the teacher might have a private (out of other children’s earshot) and respectful conversation with the child explaining that her behavior (not she) is disrupting the other children and she needs to make a choice about how to deal with it. The teacher then offers acceptable and attractive choices. This kind of respectful approach often ends discipine problems quickly, as children are motivated to get control over themselves so that they can receive lessons and use the beautiful materials in the room.

Then what are the expectations they you explain to the children?

All children have the right to use any of the equipment and materials within their reach, on the condition that they do so with care and respect. A child has the right to use materials for as long as she likes, on the condition that she is working with it steadily and constructively. Work may be done at a table or on a work rug, depending on the nature of the work. A child may not enter another’s workspace without being invited. Rugs must be walked around, and may not be stepped on (a delineated work-space encourages respect for each other’s work by setting clear boundaries). And finally, no person may interfere with or interrupt the work of another. A child will respond to the basic respect for the person that this last rule encourages; he will feel safe when he knows that he is protected form unexpected interruption.

What is the “work” that children do in Montessori?

Montessori education’s focus from the very beginning is education through the senses. All of the materials are hands-on, and in the primary classroom, most represent abstract concepts in a very concrete way. The more “advanced” materials gradually move into more abstract representations. Dr. Montessori discovered through trial and error that there are certain qualities in materials that children are drawn to. No one forces the children to work with the materials, and children have been known to happily work with them on their own for forty-five minutes at a time or more. What Montessori discovered, and what I have seen in my own classroom, is that when children start to do this they develop concentration and a longer attention span. Their discipline problems go away, and they develop self-discipline. Most importantly, they become happy and fulfilled.

So other than concentration, what do the materials teach them?

The classroom is divided into areas: Everyday Living, Sensorial, Math, Language, and there are usually also have areas for Science and Geography. Everyday Living is the first area that the youngest children encounter, and in it are examples of objects that allow the three-year old child to practice coordination and concentration and develop their independence. There are objects for them to practice carrying, and many materials allow them to develop and tune their fine-motor skills in preparation for writing. The sensorial materials are built to isolate one sense or quality at a time. One well-known material, the “Pink Tower” is one of the first materials a child uses to present the concept of size. The blocks range from one centimeter cubed to centimeters cubed. By stacking them to make a tower or arranging them in other creative ways, the child comes to understand the idea of Sequential Quantity, and develops her powers of perception. Other abstract concepts are represented, and each sense (visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory) is addressed. The sensorial materials are directly linked to the math materials, which the children will use to understand the abstract concepts of number and quantity. The primary curriculum includes materials for learning multiplication and long division, and the children experience no stress learning these concepts in a way that seems like playing.

What about reading and writing?

Children in a Montessori environment often begin writing, and then reading at an age that is considered to be “early” by those outside the Montessori community. There is no pressure to begin writing, but because many of the materials are specifically designed to prepare the skills necessary for holding a pencil, tracing a letter, using eye-hand coordination, and internalizing the sounds and their symbols, many children discover on their own that they are “ready” and suddenly begin using a pencil to put letters together. This is called the “explosion into writing,” and is a joyful time for the child. Reading naturally follows, as the child realizes that she can read her own writing, and then the writing of others.

What if I want to send my child to a traditional school later on? Won’t he have trouble adjusting?

Skills learned at Montessori school such as logical thinking and self-control translate well to traditional schooling, even if the rules and structure are different. Montessori provides a very solid foundation. There is no guarantee that your child will not experience stress in a traditional school setting, but research and our experience indicates that a Montessori background will not be a handicap. Many traditional private schools actively seek out Montessori students because of their reputation for internal drive and love of learning. You have to be sure, however, that you communicate to your child’s new teacher “where your child is” with regard to reading level and math, and make sure that she is able to address your child’s individual needs if he is advanced. Kindergarten is sometimes not the best time to transition a child from Montessori, because a major focus of kindergarten is learning letters, which your child may have already mastered. Leaving Montessori in Kindergarten will also mean you are missing out on the full three-year cycle.

What is the purpose of the three-year cycle and mixed age classrooms?

The length of time that the child is able to spend with his teacher and peers allows for a strong sense of community within the classroom. The teacher gets to know the child very well and because the Montessori curriculum follows each child’s development individually, this helps the teacher to understand the child’s needs. There is an important purpose to each of the three years in the cycle. The first year children are able to learn from observing and working with their older peers, who are often able to relate ideas to the younger children even better than the teacher! The third year (kindergarten level) is a very important one in the cycle, as it is the culmination of all the child has learned. It is usually during this year that the indirect preparation that the child has been working on previously comes together in reading and writing. It is also a time for the older children to look back with pride on where they have been. They regard the younger children’s struggles with empathy, and are often proud to be able to help. Teaching is a great way to solidify knowledge, and third year children get many opportunities to do this. The second year is a bridge, where the children can all see where they have been, and also where they are going. They have opportunities to teach and be taught, and all of these interactions strengthen their learning.

What happens after the priamry level? Is there Montessori for elementary level children?

During her lifetime, Dr. Montessori developed a full curriculum that went up through sixth grade. She also discussed ideas for adolescent education, which have been developed implemented by modern educators. The philosophy remains relevant for children of all ages, and the focus remains developing a love and responsibiliy for learning and the world we live in. If you are interested in learning more about Montessori at all levels, visit the American Montessori Society website at: