Selecting the right early childhood setting for your child can be daunting. If you are reading this, you have probably done your research and decided that Montessori is the way to go. You have discovered Montessori prepares children for lifelong social, emotional and academic success.
Unfortunately, selecting a Montessori school can be as overwhelming as deciding that the method is right for your child. “Montessori” was never trademarked, so anyone can use the name. Be wary, because not all Montessori schools are created equal. Because of its growing popularity, many schools have adopted parts of the approach. You are certain to hear the phrase “Modified Montessori” in many centers. Don’t let this fool you. For children to receive the full benefits of a Montessori education, “modified” won’t cut it.
Ready for some good news? The authentic schools are usually easy to spot! You simply need to know what to look for. Lucky for you, I have compiled a list of characteristics you should expect to see in any authentic Montessori school.
- A Prepared Environment:
Montessori classrooms are prepared environments. This means that the teacher prepares materials that interest and challenge her students. She ensures each material is complete and beautiful. You will see natural materials like wood and glass, which provide a link to nature. Shelving and tables are arranged in a way that provides space for movement as well as open floor space. Children have freedom to work on the floor with a rug or at a table. Shelving divides the class into the five areas of learning. these areas include: practical life, sensorial, math, language, and culture/science.
- Montessori Materials:
Montessori materials are unique and beautiful. They encourage a child’s curiosity through their natural qualities and scientific design. Children must receive lessons on the materials to learn how to handle and use them. This process instills respect for the materials and preserves their uniqueness.
Some teacher made materials will also be included on the shelves. These materials are generally created during a teacher’s training. They are a crucial piece of the Montessori curriculum. Teacher made materials should include the same beauty as the traditional wooden materials.
- Life Skills:
Children in a Montessori school are absorbing real life skills. These skills help them become independent and productive members of society. There will be many activities involving pouring, scooping, stringing, folding and cleaning. Equally important, the daily routines incorporate life skills. Meal times are a good example of children practicing manners and cleaning. Children take responsibility for their own messes and mishaps. They learn about empathy, leadership, resolving conflicts, and respecting others. In this environment children engage with their imagination. They play out scenarios on their own, or with peers, to practice these valuable life skills.
- Work Cycles:
In authentic Montessori schools, students participate in an uninterrupted work cycle each morning. The length of the work cycle varies based on the age grouping. The primary class (3-6) will have a 3-hour session in the morning. Older children will engage in an additional 2-3 hours of work in the afternoon. This is a time where children choose work they know how to do or receive lessons on new work. Other than a short gathering time at the beginning of a work cycle, you will rarely see the class as a whole group.
Toddlers should be provided with 1 ½ to 2-hour work cycle each morning. Infants schedules are based on the individual child’s needs. Their work times will happen when they are most alert.
- Multi-Age Classrooms:
A primary classroom (aka Children’s House) should have a mixture of children ages 3 to 6 years old. (some classrooms may start at age 2 ½) This mixture is a cornerstone of the Montessori method. This mixture allows children to gain experience in leadership and mentorship. Children this age learn best from peers rather than adults.
Infants and toddlers are typically separated into their own classrooms.
- Freedom of Movement:
From an early age, students are encouraged to be independent and self-directed. They should be free to move about the room engaging in activities of their choice. Permission is not needed to get a snack or use the bathroom. Listen for a busy, yet calm, hum of activity as children engage in the prepared environment. You may see children receive individual or small-group lessons, ask questions, assist another child, or work on their own.
From the beginning, teachers model behavior and teach lessons in grace and courtesy. When necessary, they redirect undesirable behavior in a positive and loving way. The use of “time out” should not be involved in the traditional sense. A teacher may ask a child who displays undesirable behavior to sit out. In a Montessori environment, this is often called a peace place. This is a calm space in the environment that allows a child to reflect on his actions.
Montessori believed in the concept of intrinsic motivation. Children should strive for their best based on the way it makes them feel, rather than for a physical reward. Be wary of schools who give out prizes or rewards for good behavior.
- Teacher Training:
An authentic Montessori school will have a Montessori certified teacher in each classroom. There are many ways for a teacher to become certified. Thus, additional questions may be necessary to determine if the certification is legitimate.
Legitimate training programs require in person, hands on training. It generally takes between 1 and 2 years. They also break down into age groupings for infants and toddlers (0-3) or Primary (3-6). There are a few responses to look for which may indicate the training is not legitimate for teachers. Training completed online or during an intensive six-week course are common examples. This type of training can be great for parents or assistant teachers. However, it is inadequate in preparing leaders of a Montessori classroom.
- Individualized Instruction:
Montessori teachers go through training to learn how to observe their students. They have spent countless hours learning the scope and sequence of the curriculum. Children receive lessons on materials based on their individual interests and development. They advance to new concepts at the pace that suits their needs.
- Record Keeping:
Montessori teachers are trained on keeping checklists of children’s activities. These lists consist of the different works that a child may do while in the classroom. The progress is tracked using a progressive scale of introduced, progressing and mastered.
The bottom line is that Montessori schools want informed and involved parents. The more invested you are in your child, the more successful the school will be. An authentic Montessori school will not tire of your questions. Furthermore, they are typically happy for you to schedule an observation. Do not be afraid to speak with the director if your observations do not align with your expectations. However, if they hesitate to answer your questions, you may want to continue your search.
Now that you have done your research, the most important thing you can do is trust your gut!