023: Is a Montessori preschool right for my child?

It’s that time of year: daycare and preschool tours start ramping up and parents have to try to figure out which is the right option for their child.  And many parents are overwhelmed by the options.  Montessori?  Waldorf?  Reggio Emilia?  How are they different?  Will my child be messed up if I pick the wrong one?

This episode is the first in a mini-series to help us think through the questions you might have as you explore the options that are available in your community.

Today we’re going to learn about Dr. Maria Montessori’s approach to early childhood education and what it’s like to have a child in a Montessori preschool with Mary Ellen Kordas, the President of the Board of Directors at the American Montessori Society.



Gray, P. (2011). The special value of children’s age-mixed play. American Journal of Play 3(4), 500-522. Full article available at: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ985544.pdf

Isaacs, B. (2012). Understanding the Montessori approach: Early years education in practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lillard, A.S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lillard, P.P. (1996). Montessori today: A comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood. New York, NY: Schocken.

Louv, V. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. New York, NY: Algonquin.

Montessori, M. (1971). The Montessori Elementary Material (Trans. A. Livingston). Cambridge, MA: Robert Bentley, Inc.

Wentworth, R.A.L. (1999). Montessori for the new millennium. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Read Full Transcript


Jen:  [00:05]

Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is called Is a Montessori Preschool Right for my child? I sort of skipped the whole preschool touring and decision making thing. It turned out we had a nanny at the time and I had planned to actually to work with her friend the somewhat long term, but she decided to work with a family with a younger child. So we found ourselves rather abruptly in need of care and I’d been doing a lot of research on the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education at the time. And we were actually lucky enough to find a daycare that had space for her on short notice. And so we just kind of went with that. But I know a lot of parents are able to plan ahead and spend a bit more time choosing between the different options that might be available to them. And so to help with that process, I wanted to do a little mini series of episodes where we learn about some of the options that might be available in your community and today we’re going to learn about Dr Maria Montessori’s approach to early childhood education and what it’s like to have a child in a Montessori Preschool with Mary Ellen Cordis. Mary Ellen is the incoming President of the Board of Directors of the American Montessori Society and has over 40 years of experience as the head of a Montessori school in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as an advocacy champion of Montessori. Mary Ellen’s school was the first accredited Montessori school in the state. Welcome Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen:  [01:43]

Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be here.

Jen:    [01:45]

Thank you. So I wonder if you could first start off and tell us a little bit about how you learned about Montessori and what about it called to you and how you went through that process of becoming a leader in the Montessori movement.

Mary Ellen:   [01:56]

If I’d only had you in my life, I may not have had to do all the research that I did, but this is exactly how I got involved is I had a three year old and I was looking around for what type of program I might enroll him in. Although I had come from the Midwest and preschool wasn’t that popular. People went to kindergarten and then they went to elementary school and that was pretty much how it was. So when a neighbor came around and said to me, I’m going to send Kathy, my son’s best friend, to the Montessori school. I said, what’s a Montessori school? And that began this journey. So the school had just opened. There were six children. My son was now going to be one of them and I fell in love. I found what really I thought was exactly what children needed. I was working with abused and neglected children at the time, and so I walked into a place where children were honored and respected and treated well and it just made my heart sing, so that was really my beginning.

Jen:  [03:02]

Wow, that’s awesome. And so you’ve been at this for awhile now and I understand that there’s probably not one single Montessori experience, but I wonder for those of us who haven’t been to a Montessori school, can you kind of walk us through in your mind what it’s like to be in a Montessori classroom? What does the room look like? What are the children doing and how do they move through their day?

Mary Ellen:    [03:24]

Sure, absolutely. Because it’s what drew me when I saw them in action. So first let me tell you that there are different levels in Montessori education. So what I’m going to choose to walk you through is a three to six classroom and that’s ages three years to six years, which is typical because there’s multiple ages in Montessori classrooms. So when you first enter a classroom, I think what you’re struck by first is the beauty that has been very intentionally created in the classroom.

Mary Ellen:  [03:56]

The furniture is child-sized. There’s often plants or flowers on the table. The classroom is not cluttered on the walls with a lot of pictures of things. It’s usually tastefully done pictures, if they’re hung it all, are hung low enough for the children. It’s definitely designed for the children. There’s low shelves, often made of wood that surround the whole classroom and materials, that’s the usual, the working apparatus in the classroom are on those low shelves so that the children have free access to them. So what you would see in the classroom is children moving about the classroom freely, taking something off a shelf, taking it to a rug. The reason that you see rugs in the classroom is it just sort of defines a space for a child. There’s nothing magical about it, but because there’s usually 24 children or so in a classroom of mixed ages, it just helps define a space.

Mary Ellen: [04:53]

So they’ll take the material that they’re going to work onto a rug. They may work alone, they may invite a friend, you may look across the room and see a teacher sitting with five or six children doing a presentation. You probably would see a table with two children or three children sitting at it, having a snack and conversing amongst themselves. It feels very peaceful and when I hear people comment on what they see, when they see a classroom for the first time, they’re struck by the calm, and yet there’s a real energy because the children are working at their own pace. They’re taking things off the shelves as they want to work on them, and so it feels peaceful, yet you can feel the energy and the spirit of the children.

Jen:     [05:38]

Wow, that sounds really awesome. Is there a kind of a set structure of the day that they do certain things for certain amounts of time?

Mary Ellen:   [05:47]

So that’s an interesting question. So what you would often see is upon entry to a classroom, let’s assume that the class goes from nine to 12. That’s a three hour classroom. That’s very popular. You see it all over in many schools as well as full day classrooms, but say it’s a nine to 12. You’ll see the children arrive and there’ll be greeted at the door by the teacher. There’s usually two teachers in a classroom, but they would be greeted probably they would shake hands. They would say hello, just have a few words and the children would go put their things away and they usually would go right to finding something to do. Then after the gathering of the group has occurred, they would bring the children together often for a group setting so that they… It’s sort of what you think about circle time, that more traditional word that you think because community is vital to the whole process in a Montessori classroom, they build a community of children with these two adults in the classroom that’s spend often three years together because a child coming in at three would often stay with those same teachers and as they matriculate, if you will, into an older level. That would be the natural progression, but they often have the same teacher. So you’d see maybe group time, then they would go off again to do some individual work where a teacher may have a presentation for a particular number of children, not necessarily all the same age, but they might, they might be choosing all the three year old and they might be mixing it up because the goal is to work at your own level and so the day then would usually end at noon, usually transition time for young children is done in group setting. So you might have them together again at the end of the day and then the parents would come to pick them up. So there isn’t 20 minutes for math and 10 minutes for language. It very much is a flow.

Jen:    [07:39]

Okay. And are they typically half day programs? Or do they do full day programs as well?

Mary Ellen:    [07:44]

They’re both I think in the current culture where so many of our families are, both parents are working and they really need a full day of the majority of programs you see now definitely are full day.

Jen:    [07:56]

OK. Alright. So let’s talk a bit about certification and accreditation is, it’s not fully clear to me how this works. I think there’s a certification for Montessori teachers, but I guess probably not all teachers are certified and I think there’s an accreditation system for schools, but there are different organizations that do that accreditation. Right? Can you help us make sense of all of that and how parents judge the quality of a school that calls itself Montessori.

Mary Ellen:  [08:20]

Oh, now we have three questions. So yes, there’s many accrediting bodies for schools, the American Montessori Society… And please know that my underpinning is all the AMS, the American Montessori Society because that’s the thing organization to which I’m affiliated primarily so we do accreditations of schools and so we are able to send a team in and look over self studies, review the school and then you often can become an AMS accredited school. The school that was at when I was in northern California also had accreditation through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges are better known as WASC, just like many high schools, colleges, public schools. There’s also the California Association of Independent Schools; that’s another accreditation. The school I was at had all three of those and that’s pretty much that runs the gamut of what you would do. Now if you’re outside of the state, of course there would be other organizations that would accredit.

Mary Ellen:    [09:24]

So that’s the accreditation piece for schools. What you get when you look at an accredited school for the American Montessori Society is, you know, the standard has been met with teacher training that has, that’s checked that box, that’s a done deal. The materials are in the classroom, the school has gone through all of the standards that are set and so that does give parents comfort. Now there’s other things we’ll look at in a minute, but let me address the teacher piece of it. So there’s a credential that is given to teachers when they go through training, but it isn’t as simple as just getting trained to be a Montessori teacher. You get trained at a level. So if it’s an infant-toddler teacher or an early childhood teacher, an elementary teacher all the way through high school. So you have to be in the classroom at the level to which you were accredited where you got your credential.

Mary Ellen:   [10:23]

Teacher training programs are offered either in universities or colleges or sometimes in standalone programs. So both can can happen. The teacher training programs themselves are also accredited. The AMS teacher training programs are accredited through MACT, which is the Montessori Accreditation Council for teacher training, teacher education. So that’s another piece. Now, if I haven’t lost you totally by this time, one of your other questions that was the most insightful of all I think is the one. How do you tell when you’re in a really good school, and I say to parents who sometimes waffle in their confidence in their ability to choose the right school at that moment, they may have Ph.Ds on hanging on the wall, but they sometimes at that point worried that they aren’t going to make the right choice and I think you have to have the confidence that it sort of the gut reaction.

Mary Ellen: [11:23]

You walk into an environment, you see respectful interactions between teachers and children. You see them paying attention to the children in a way that feels very respectful and of course you do want the school to meet certain standards. You want to see the children engaged in what they’re doing, not staring off into space. Although everybody does deserve the opportunity to stare off into space for a few minutes. We can’t be busy all the time. So that’s sort of I say trust your gut, you know, walk into school and see how it feels to you and then do some of the research. Definitely sit in a classroom. Definitely experience what it’s like to watch the children because it’s different. It’s very free-form. Different than when we were children. I will say me not huge and because there were a much more rigid look to schools where you went in, you didn’t speak to the teacher unless you were spoken to. You often sat in desks that fased one way in a Montessori classroom, the furniture is all over the room. Children are sitting on the floor, they’re sitting on a chair, they’re sitting in a library looking at books quietly and there’s so….there’s all kinds. So that’s, that’s really a little bit of a bird’s eye view at 30,000 feet of accreditation and credentialing and how to trust yourself.

Jen:    [12:41]

Great. Thank you for that. So let’s, let’s go into some of the nitty gritty of what really makes Montessori Montessori and I know that one of the first things that I think of when I think of Montessori is the concept of work and the, the idea that there’s a correct way to use materials in it often in a progressive sequence. Can you tell us about that?

Mary Ellen:  [13:00]

Sure. This is one of those very challenging aspects of Montessori because it gets misunderstood a lot.

Mary Ellen:   [13:08]

So the, the materials are arranged in a sequence order in the classroom. Now that isn’t obvious to the children, it doesn’t have a number one for the first material you’re supposed to use because there are many areas in the classroom. There’s practical life, there’s sensorial, there’s cultural subjects, there’s math, there’s language, there’s all of those. The materials within those groupings are on the shelves left to right and top to bottom. You probably know because our culture reads left to right and top to bottom. That’s one of the very small indications of the deep thought that was put into this. The children begin to know, oh gosh, I moved through these materials sequentially. Now the reason you move through them sequentially is they build upon one another in terms of challenge. So the first thing, maybe a very simple thing, the next thing on the shelf would take what was on the first piece of material and then build on that to make it more complicated. There’s also something called isolation of difficulty. So children can self correct the materials themselves. They do not need to say to a teacher, did I get this right? Is this okay? They know because everything fit together perfectly. Oh, this was right. And that does build quite a bit of competency and confidence because you can self-correct. Now it may sound rigid, but it isn’t meant to be that it’s meant to help with the flow.

Jen:    [14:36]

Mhmm. Alright, so, so you said a couple things there that I wanted to tease out. I guess firstly, the, the idea that you move through this progression does the who decides that the child is ready for the next one? Do they know, Oh, I did number yesterday, even if it’s not called number one, but I did this one yesterday and I think I’m going to try this one today. Or how does that process work?

Mary Ellen:    [14:57]

Yeah. Um, this is where the teachers, magical match really comes into play where the teacher is observing the children all the time. That’s one of the hallmarks of Montessori teachers is they can observe children. They can begin to see, oh, I know what should be next for this child, or introduce something in a way that draws a particular child. For instance, if a child loves dinosaurs, they might actually create something in the classroom that could be counting dinosaurs or doing something with dinosaurs because a particular child really loves that. So there’s a lot of personalization that goes on within the classroom. The children do know; they model on the other children. Three year olds coming in can see four and five year olds already using the materials and they really model on those older children as their examples and their teachers because they can see how that all works.

Mary Ellen:  [15:55]

That’s the beauty of only having a few children come into the classroom every year and having the returning four- and five-year-olds be part of it, that whole process. So they do learn that they also will move into different areas. There’s something called a sensitive period in Montessori and that’s where children don’t develop every skill all at the same time. You probably see with our own children at home, they’re very interested in one thing at a time until they sort of master it. I think it’s true of adults too, you know, if you are, let’s say, something as, as simple as paint by number, you know, an adult who wants to learn that skill. They work at it and work at it and work at it, and then they feel like, I think I’ve mastered this and they move on to something else. It’s very much like that with children. They master something and then they move on. So you’ll see them sometimes spend a great deal of time in a reading or a math area or a cultural area, and then all of a sudden you’ll think, wow, look at that. They spent three months thinking about a couple of things and now they’re moving on. So that’s, it’s a very even and easy flow.

Jen:    [17:01]

Okay. Alright. The other thing I would just want to get back to what you said was the idea of there being a right way to do things and that the equipment itself kind of guides you towards a logical conclusion. I’m wondering what space there is in that environment for a kind of artistic ability and creativity and how does that fit in with the, the concept of there being a right way?

Mary Ellen:    [17:26]

Right. So the right way. That’s where we get tagged with a that name because there is a way to go from point A to point Z and wind up having it be a linear progression. But yes, there is room for children to experiment. The one thing that is really emphasized is respect for the materials. So instance, there’s a material called red rods and they’re a meter long and there’s 10 of them because everything in a Montessori classroom is based on based on, based ten if somebody wanted to use that as a sword, that would not be an appropriate use of the material because it’s not designed for that. Now there may be another opportunity to do something like that in another area, but materials are not used in that way. So there is a lot of opportunity. In fact, there’s an artistic area usually in the classroom where the media changes often.

Mary Ellen:   [18:24]

So they might do clay, they might do painting, they might do pencils and they might do a whole different range of things throughout the year. So definitely I think Montessori is misunderstood, is sometimes artistic versus creative. Children can be creative and it doesn’t necessarily need artistic and vice versa. So, um, we definitely are wanting creativity because we’re not asking children to do what we say at all times. In fact, questioning is a wonderful thing. Questioning the teachers, questioning one another question and maybe their parents. I always say, if you want a child who totally complies with everything you say, don’t send them to a Montessori school because we’re trying to create minds that say, I wonder why, or I wonder if that’s how it has to be.

Jen:   [19:10]

Okay, so let’s try and tease that out a little bit. So when I’m trying to understand is how you get from this idea of there being a way to use materials to a child who questions everything. How does that happen?

Mary Ellen:   [19:25]

Really, the teachers are masters at this. They will observe a child, they’ll see how they’re using something. They might introduce a different material that would be more appropriate or be able to take them to that new place that they want to go. They might go to a different area of the classroom, but there is within each of the materials, as I said, it’s a defined area where they definitely can accomplish…get to the end of this task by following, you know, so many steps. Does every child sit down and do one to 10? No, absolutely not. And in fact, you wouldn’t have a child go through every material in the classroom either because they make leaps and you have to be able to respect that. They would make a leap of knowledge that you’re like, wow, look at that. They moved on. So it doesn’t, it, it can sound rigid, but if you see it in action, you’ll go, oh, I see. It just really doesn’t feel that way at all.

Jen:  [20:22]

Okay, good to know. So I’m wondering about the social aspect of learning in a Montessori environment. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mary Ellen:   [20:30]

This is one of the most important arenas in a Montessori classroom. Because the community is key to the success of the program. The children learn to be with one another; they learn to be with people who are different than they are. They learn to be with people who learn differently than they do. I’m from different cultures, from different economic backgrounds, the whole gamut. And it’s really important as we hope children become stewards of the earth and stewards of the community, that they learn to be together and they learn to talk to one another in a way that resembles a peaceful conversation. So you’ll see in a classroom, an area, in fact, the Peace Table where if children are having a conflict, the teacher will help them come aside and children at three and four and five don’t often have the language to resolve challenges. But with guidance and support, they can realize, oh, I misunderstood. That child looked to me to be aggressive and really what they were trying to do is get my attention and they did it in a way that didn’t really help me understand that’s what they wanted. So there’s ways to work this out and peace and care and respect for one another is key. In fact, when you take Montessori children out on field trips, often you’ll see people will say to you, what did you do to these kids?

Mary Ellen:   [21:57]

Where did you, what did you do? Did you give them Benadryl or something before you got here? Because they’re engaged with one another and they take care of one another and it’s really remarkable. It’s, I think, the only path towards a peaceful universe and that is something that we do strive for.

Jen:    [22:14]

Yeah. And when you say we strive for it, it almost seems like it’s a fairly central goal of the theory, right?

Mary Ellen:   [22:21]

It is, it is. Montessori began, began her work in war time and peace was something that she was very much seeking.

Jen:   [22:29]

Yeah. Yeah. Someone who has a child involved in a Montessori school sent me some resources from a parent’s evening at their school talking about, how to talk with your kids about issues related to peace and how to establish that kind of environment in the home and the school.

Mary Ellen:  [22:46]

And climate and the earth and water and all of those things that matter so much to so many people within the state of California at least. And I hope other places we’ll hope…cross our fingers.

Jen:  [22:59]

Yeah. Okay. So, uh, you, you mentioned the idea that there are children at different ages within the same classroom, and that’s actually one thing I wish I saw in my child’s classroom is a greater variety of ages. Can you talk to us a bit about what that means for children as they’re learning?

Mary Ellen:  [23:16]

Sure. For me, I don’t like to spend all my time with people, everybody my age. I like a mix because you and I would have a conversation that would be different than if we were both the same age and had the same experiences. It’s a richer environment, but my favorite analogy with this is think of yourself as the parent of quintuplets where all five children, have all the same needs virtually at the same time.

Jen:    [23:42]

I could not imagine myself in that scenario.

Mary Ellen: [23:46]

It’s much more challenging than if you have five children who might be three, five, nine, 10, you have, then you have the opportunity for older children to help the younger children to be role models. The younger children learn from the older children and it’s very inspirational for the younger children to be able to have that as well as the older children becoming role models and teachers to the younger children in a classroom, you will often see a five year old give a lesson to a younger child, so that’s definitely part of it. It also makes for a much easier classroom to manage. That wasn’t the goal, but you see people at different levels of needs and we all develop differently. It really helps if the children aren’t all needing the same thing at the same time and you can ask a child, would you be able to help that child go and find where the snack is today and they can. It’s really a confidence builder.

Jen:    [24:39]

Yeah, and it’s not just the young child that benefits is it. It’s not like we’re using the older children to babysit the younger child. From what I’ve read, it’s really powerful for the older child as well.

Mary Ellen:  [24:48]

It is, and if you take that beyond the early childhood classroom too an elementary classroom or a middle school classroom where you will see sixth year or seventh grade students, eighth grade students that might be doing advanced Algebra and other children who are doing geometry. I mean I’ve seen it all over the map where children are doing even AP classes and another child at the very same level is doing something different, which is okay. We all, you know, you’ll have a brilliant reader and maybe somebody who struggles a little more in math so it all becomes okay to grow at your own pace.

Jen: [25:29]

Alright, so let’s talk about something you mentioned briefly earlier, how it’s okay to stare off into space for just a minute. I think Dr. Montessori didn’t believe in the importance of play, which I know some other theorists on child development think is quite important and some theorists that I even call it for children should be bored some of the time and that seems to have been anathema to Dr. Montessori, why didn’t she think play is useful?

Mary Ellen: [25:55]

Well, really it wasn’t played. First. We have to get to the language in play. She what she was trying to emphasize is that children’s growing and their development is very important and when you call it play often we can decide that that becomes unimportant. Whereas sometimes in cultures, ours, I guess work is important and it’s something to be valued, so what the children are doing are growing and interacting and communicating and it really is play, but it’s looked at as a much more serious thing as if…it is their work play is their work and it’s what they need to do to progress. Now there are times in a classroom where a child does need to sit and and look at other children. Observation is okay. They can watch other children do things. They can also just kind of sit and think, which I think is important to provide for children. Now if a child sits immobilized for six months, I think we would kind of decide that isn’t appropriate. Something’s going on, but I’ve seen teachers have the capacity to allow for a lot of that kind of thing to happen in the classroom. So work is really the word that we use to value what they’re doing, but in fact it certainly is part of play; it certainly is just another word.

Jen:  [27:22]

Okay. And is there also a time for kind of unstructured, free play where perhaps the children go outside and run around with no agenda?

Mary Ellen:  [27:31]

Absolutely. In fact, it’s unfortunate that nowadays when children don’t have the option to go outside and play as much as they used to, I see parents put children into and please, no, none of this is negative, but there’s a violin lesson at four and there’s a soccer match and then there’s a taekwondo and you know, it’s like four or five, six, seven. Pretty soon you’re like, wow, this child is pretty programmed. So the opportunity to go out and really have a good time is important in every child’s day at home. And it happens at school too. There’s always time devoted to outside time. I don’t know if you’ve seen the book, Last Child in the Woods?

Jen: [28:07]

I have, yes.

Mary Ellen:  [28:10]

Okay. So that is, that’s really an important component to the whole development process.

Jen:   [28:14]

Okay, good. Alright, so tell us a bit about reading and writing, please. When does that happen in a Montessori environment, because it seems as though that’s a bit of a different process than in other environments.

Mary Ellen:  [28:24]

Right. So from the moment a child enters an early childhood classroom, there is a language area in the classroom and of course the first thing that children learn with languages, speaking to their parents, they have rich vocabulary that they hear at home, sometimes multiple languages that are spoken at home and that enriches the child’s ability to grasp language as they move forward in a more structured, if you will. Environment in the classroom there are opportunities for the children to learn letter sounds; there’s something called sandpaper letters and it is exactly that. Where a child can trace a letter, they can feel the letter, they can see the letter, they can hear the letter. So it’s also always, many modalities to get that through. They work on, usually soft vowel words first. There’s also vinyl cut out letters because a child’s ability to write contrary to where you see parents handing one year olds pencils, they don’t have the muscular ability to hold a pencil and to do that, but they are able to construct words with these movable alphabet or these vinyl cut out letters where you can begin to say, oh, look – C-A-T- I can spell that, and that’s cat.

Mary Ellen:   [29:40]

And uh, often there is a picture of a cat. There’s some, there’s always ways to capture that. So sometimes people say the children learn to write in a Montessori classroom before they learn to read. And the reason, the reason for that is what I just mentioned is they begin to build stories with these movable alphabets. But it is really interesting how the flow goes. Lots of opportunity for reading and writing. And it’s, it’s very, it’s similar to what you’d see in other places with consonant vowel, consonant rebuild from small. And then you develop the ability to do phonograms and to do all of more complex language.

Jen:  [30:21]

What age does that normally start?

Mary Ellen:  [30:23]

It’s available in early childhood classrooms. So at three, if a child you might be, sometimes you see children come in at three who are reading, now often they’re not sounding out the words. Some children have an amazing mental ability to see a word and remember it and they really sight read. That’s not as common. Most children learn sounds of letters and then begin to do that. So often you buy four or five, you will see them develop quite a bit of competency by six. Most children, unless there’s an issue, which is often when it arises, you begin to say, is there something going on that we need to get a little help with beyond what we’re doing here? Or being begin to identify some challenge the child might have.

Jen:   [31:08]

It seems pretty early reading. Most children reading by six.

Mary Ellen:  [31:12]

Yes. The majority of children have the simple reading skills by six.

Jen:   [31:18]


Mary Ellen:   [31:19]

Very different than somewhere they wouldn’t even be introduced maybe till like seven.

Jen: [31:23]

Yeah. So I wonder if you can help me understand why it is introduced at an earlier age.

Mary Ellen:  [31:28]

It’s introduced definitely from the point of view of the child’s interest in it. You wouldn’t be force feeding somebody to learn language at three and four, but if they have an interest in doing that, then they certainly are able to do it. Sometimes they will just use the sandpaper letters. They’re tracing, not always getting exactly where it’s leading, but that muscle memory does come into play and they begin to put together, of course they see five year olds who are doing it then, you know, three year old love to see what five year olds are doing and, and six year olds, so, and they’re being read to. There’s a lot of that going on. So it’s definitely of the child’s interests for language and they often are drawn to it.

Jen:   [32:14]

Great. Can you tell us a bit about discipline in a Montessori school?

Mary Ellen:  [32:17]

Sure. Or discipline in any environment. That’s such an interesting thing. Discipline is at the core of, of a classroom because it’s respectful. Interactions are very important. Safety is one of the things that parents look to have the most. We like to bring our children a place where we trust the adults and we trust the children. And, and that often goes to discipline because if your child comes home with a black eye or you know, bleeding fat lip everyday, that doesn’t feel very good. So it’s really important to have the underlying respect for each other. And that really is the discipline. And once again, people will say to me, how do you get them to do this? But if you instill in them that we really do respect one another, we care about one another. If a child gets hurt at the hands of another, the child who did the injury is invited to come along and maybe get a little bit of ice for that child’s injury. They’re often asked to sit with them, maybe put their hand on their arm just to show the caring. But it’s all done with the children’s willingness. Nobody says, now go apologize to that child because it has to come from a true sense of, I want to be forgiven for this. Sometimes a child will be, will sit aside and watch how the community functions to get a sense of what it looks like to be in a harmonious, well developed community. And that’s really where discipline comes in because it’s all about self discipline.

Jen:  [33:54]

Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Okay. So I’m wondering if there are certain kinds of children that do really well in a Montessori school and whether there are other kinds of children that would just be a better fit in a different environment.

Mary Ellen:   [34:09]

Sure. This is a question that I think comes to parents a lot. They might enroll their child in an early childhood Montessori classroom and then when the child gets to six or seven or eight, they think I need something that feels more like what I’m used to. So the trust factor kicks in. In fact, I say, you know, the book Where the Wild Tings Are. When a child turns six, they become where the wild things are. They all of a sudden are developing their own sense of self. And it isn’t always what we saw when we looked at them as they’re charming little three year old selves. They have much more of a will of their own. So in a classroom, generally, as I said, don’t look for a child that you want to always do what exactly you’re telling them to do, turn the page, now it’s time to move on because the children that we’re developing are really self-motivated, self-regulated self-starters, which is why you see these companies that had at the start like Google and Amazon for two that were self-starting people.

Mary Ellen: [35:14]

That’s who we are working to develop. So in and when you see them move on to I’m more self directed or some less independent environments where the teacher wants to tell them what to do. It sometimes is a little bit of a challenge. I remember when my son went to high school, that was his first experience in public school and he went, I dropped him off at the parking lot and I said, why don’t you go in and get your schedule? And he came back to me and he said, they won’t give me my schedule. It’s apparently your schedule.

Mary Ellen:   [35:49]

So he was involved in a program that they respected him and gave him what he needed. So really children who are drawn to be self-directed, independent learners now, there’s also a lot of information available now about learning challenged children. That’s one of the things that we hear about a lot and the occurrence of more autism, more Asbergers, definitely more some learning challenged situations and we remember in the past, so sometimes they can be accommodated because the classroom was really designed by a physician who knew what children need to do. If you look at a map, for instance, of the Montessori classroom, the capital of the state is a knob that goes onto that place, so a child putting a state back in a map, holding onto the place where the capital is… That took a lot of thought and those kinds of things are in a Montessori classroom constantly, but generally very seldom do I see a child who isn’t able to be very successful in a classroom.

Mary Ellen:   [36:59]

When children have come into programs that I’ve been involved with at middle school. That’s more of a challenge because they’re coming into a program where children have been independent and self-directed for a long time and what you tend to see is very interesting. You tend to see a child who’s not quite sure a if teacher is their advocate or they’re an adversary, so they have to learn. We’re a team. We’re all working together for you. So I’d say to children at that age, this is up to you whether it works or not, it’s on you. If you want to come in and be part of this, we welcome you. If you need to be told that you have to do this at every moment, then you’re probably not a good fit at that upper level. But in the early childhood, most children do fine.

Jen:    [37:48]

Yeah, and I’m just. I’m just trying to tease this out for my listeners is there any chance a parent might say, well, my kid is just so high strong or you know, she’s really attached and she has a hard time leaving me in the morning. Or are there any sort of circumstances like that where a different kind of program might be a better fit as far as you know?

Mary Ellen:  [38:09]

I’ve seen it all. So, um, I do see there’s children that come to school and feel sad when they’re leaving their parents and it’s usually not about coming to school. It’s about usually leaving their parents because children love their parents. They feel that connection and feel very comforted by that. So it’s a process. Sometimes you’ll even invite a parent to spend a little bit of time if, if separation is a challenge. Have the parents spends a little time in the classroom, so slow rebate can withdraw and remove themselves until the confidence is there for the children. We’ve seen spirited children, we’ve seen not spirited children, we’ve seen it all. I think at the early levels definitely it’s, it’s all, it’s all fine. They really do succeed.

Jen: [38:56]

Okay. Alright. And then as we start to wrap up here, I’m just wondering about the parents’ role in a Montessori education. I did some reading that made it seem as though it’s very much centered on the relationship between the teacher and the child and the rhythm that the, the children move through their day. I know in some schools the parents are invited in and you know, talk about topics there that might interest the children are engaged in some kind of cooking activity or something. And it didn’t seem as though that kind of activity had a place in a Montessori environment. Can you talk to us a bit about what is a parent’s role in a Montessori education system?

Mary Ellen: [39:34]

Yes, of course. The parent is the first teacher for any child and it’s very important that there’s a three prong approach to any child entering a school. There has to be the child, the teacher and the parent because trust is built between all of those people. The parent has to have confidence that they’re going to be okay leaving their child with the teacher. Also, we invite parents to bring their expertise. You know, because I was in an area where there was a national laboratory, we had people, um, who were into astronomy or who did chemistry or did not so much the arts, I have to be honest because that wasn’t my environment, but if they did, it was wonderful or cultural things. If they could bring in what was important to them in there culture because once again, that develops the peaceful understanding of how people are different and yet at our roots we’re really all the same. We have the same needs, so it really is very important that the parent feel connected and can come and share what they know, come to conferences, come and observe, come be part of it, express their concerns. It can seem sometimes that the school can be standoffish or feel like the parent isn’t welcome, but that’s an important component. The parent is key. Sometimes even admission directors will make a connection with the parent and see if the match is there for the parent and the school. Nevermind the child. Because it’s so important.

Jen:  [41:02]

Awesome. Well thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. Mary Ellen. I have learned a lot and I think that this is really gonna help my listeners who are trying to figure out what is the right option for their child. So thanks again for sharing your time with us.

Mary Ellen: [41:15]

Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.

Jen:  [41:17]

So I do want to direct listeners to the references for this episode there at YourParentingMojo.com/Montessori and I’ll list the books that I read in preparation for this episode and I’ll also direct to you too, Mary Ellen’s organization’s website, which is AMSHQ.org. That’s the American Montessori Society’s website and there’s lots of research resources on there on how to find schools and more about what schools are like as well. So thanks again for taking the time to talk with us and we will be back again soon with another episode.


Also published on Medium.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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