Monte-Somethings: Why All Montessori Schools are not Created Equal 


As parents read more articles about the rising demands of preschool and pushing children into rigorous academics too soon, as well as the lack of unstructured play, which can inhibit social skills and development, many are looking for alternative education options. Many schools are now clamoring for the Montessori label to meet parent interest. However, all Montessori schools are not created equal. Maria Montessori, one of the first female physicians in Italy, developed and perfected her method without trademarking the term. This means any school can refer to itself as “Montessori,” without actually adhering to, or in some cases, understanding what that means. 

Here are some things to look for in an authentic Montessori school:

  • Multi-age classrooms. In a traditional Montessori Primary classroom children are 3-6 years old. Younger children often learn better from older peers than they do even from a teacher, because they are more interested. Older children gain leadership skills and confidence in being given the responsibility of showing younger children what to do. 

  • Montessori materials. Montessori classrooms have hands-on materials that make abstract concepts concrete. If you do a Google search on Montessori lessons, you will find many wooden toys that are beautifully made, but do not necessarily have anything to do with Montessori concepts. A beautiful, hand-made, wooden toy, does not necessarily mean it is Montessori! 

  • Three hour work cycle. Traditional preschools structure their day with centers and circle times where children transition from one subject to the next. In Montessori, children have an uninterrupted block of time; for Primary aged-children it’s 3 hours and for PrePrimary about 2 hours. This way they are able to develop their ability to focus and concentrate, which is a difficult skill for a 2 or 3 year old, but essential for their success.

  • Montessori teachers that have gone through an accredited teacher-training program. Montessori lessons often have upwards of 50 steps and are presented in a very specific way. Teachers spend 1-2 years in class learning the steps for each lesson, which include the pace involved in presenting a lesson as well as the vocabulary used. After they have completed class they complete a 180-day practicum during which they are observed by another Montessori field consultant 4 times, and receive feedback on how to improve their teaching practice to best serve the children in their care. Simply having Montessori materials is only one piece of the equation. Having a carefully prepared guide to introduce the materials to the children is essential. 

It’s not uncommon to hear differing accounts of people’s experiences with or impressions of Montessori schools. Some report there is not enough freedom; while others feel there is too much and children run amok. Some Montessori schools claim they “follow the child,” while still insisting children meet arbitrary deadlines and engage in the same subjects at the same time. Some schools claim to be “Montessori-inspired,” though lack many of the qualities that an authentic Montessori school has - which have been shown to lead to better outcomes for children. Hyperlink to this article:

There is no such thing as “Montessori-like.” Without multi-age classrooms, authentic Montessori materials with trained teachers who know how to present them, and an uninterrupted work cycle, the effects of a true Montessori program will not be the same. As a teacher or parent be wary of the Monte-somethings.

The Power of Observation

“When dealing with children there is greater need for observing than of probing.”

Maria Montessori


I’m a doer. As a Teacher in the classroom, I prided myself on being able to bounce from child to child and deliver the lessons they needed at the exact right time for their individual development. I moved at the speed of light and in such a frenzy I was doing the opposite of communicating the calm nature I hoped to instill.

Montessori training teaches you the importance of slowing down completely to simply observe. Stop doing, and start watching.

What I found during my practicum when I was forced to take 20-30 minutes during the school day to simply sit and observe the children, was that they often didn’t need me nearly as much as I thought.

Some of the most meaningful learning came either from one another, or when they figured something out on their own. When I was rushing around, determined to teach them things, I was often inadvertently robbing them of the opportunity to discover things for themselves.

Recently I went out to the toddler playground. A group of children were busy washing the chalkboards outside but there was one little guy crying by the door to go back in. He was new to the classroom and having some transition blues. First I tried to comfort no avail. He wasn’t impressed with my offer of hugs or cajoling. So I went to plan B. I asked an older girl on the playground to check on him and ask if he was okay. Then I stepped back. This little girl went over, took him by the hand, gave him her brush to wash the chalkboard and proceeded to guide him on exactly how to do the lesson. He was fascinated; no longer scared, but engaged and excited. And the little girl felt pretty proud as well.


Children don’t need us to make them smarter, faster, kinder, stronger. They don’t even need us to tell them they already are. They don’t need us to chase their demons for them. They need us to step back and give them opportunities to prove to themselves that they are capable of slaying their own.

Positive Guidance: How to Give Firm and Kind Positive Directions (And Actually Get Cooperation!)

by Casey Hardigan


If you’re a parent or a teacher you have likely found that gaining cooperation from your child is the most difficult part of your job. When you’re too firm you end up feeling bad about yourself and perhaps gain compliance at best; at worst you may inspire thoughts of retaliation or rebellion. When you’re too kind you feel inadequate and frustrated with your child.

Positive Discipline, a method created by Dr. Jane Nelson, gives the tools to be both kind and firm at the same time and focuses on teaching children lifelong skills to successfully self regulate in the future when mom, dad, or teachers are not around.

What Does Positive Discipline Sound Like?

  • Instead of “calm down,” -  “It seems like you are [frustrated, sad, etc.] How can I help you?”

  • Rather than “stop crying,” - “I can see this is hard for you.”

  • Instead of “you’re okay,” - “Are you okay?”

  • Rather than “be quiet” - Use an inside voice.”

  • Instead of “don’t hit,” - “Please use gentle hands.”

  • Rather than “stop yelling,” - “Take a deep breath, then tell me what happened so I can hear and understand you.”

  • Instead of “Don’t get upset,” - “It’s okay to feel sad.”

  • Rather than “That’s enough,” - “It seems like you need a minute. I am going to go over here and you let me know when you are ready to talk.”

  • Instead of “I’m over this,” try “ It seems like you are frustrated. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s not okay to kick the chair. When you are frustrated you can take deep breaths, kick a ball, talk to me about why, etc.”

What Does Positive Discipline Look Like?

  • Have clear expectations - “As soon as you finish ___, then you may ___.”

  • Respond with a question - “Would you like to do this yourself, or do you want/need my help?”

  • Check understanding/knowledge - “What needs to happen before you can ___?”

  • Limited choices - “Would you rather get dressed now or take your clothes to school in your bag?”

  • Come to a mutual agreement - “If I let you ___, when will you ___?”

  • Follow through - “What was our agreement?”

Why Does it Matter in the Long Run?

Rewards and punishments are popular methods to gain cooperation among parents and teachers for good reason. Sticker charts, iPad time, and treats will absolutely tame a tantrum or award you a few moments of peace and quiet. Positive Discipline requires more thought, practice, and time. However, rather than teaching a child that he should listen and do the right thing to attain an extrinsic reward - Positive Discipline helps children learn self regulation, responsibility, cooperation, and the belief that they are capable.

In The Science Behind the Genius, Angelline Lillard discusses some of the research. While extrinsic incentives work in the short term, for most children, in the long haul, they “disrupt the very behaviors they aim to promote. Children’s motivation to engage in activities further, their cognitive functioning, their creativity, and their prosocial behaviors are all negatively impacted by extrinsic rewards and evaluations. [...] Research shows that if a person was already motivated to do an activity to begin with, expected rewards actually interfere with their subsequent interest in that activity.” (Lillard, 153-156)

Positive Discipline tools give children an internal compass and critical thinking skills. These things require a lot more patience and time as they require relationship building on the part of the parent or teacher, but are skills that will serve the child for the rest of his life, in every relationship, aiding in the development of an independent, happy human being.

There’s No Such Thing As “Montessori-Like”: How Montessori Tailors Education to Each Individual Child


I was recently asked if I had to give an “elevator speech” describing the best part about Montessori what I would say. There are SO many things that make a Montessori education special; however, if I had to narrow it down, the number one reason is its emphasis on individual development. Montessori education allows teachers to build a learning plan specially tailored to each child’s unique personality and needs. The curriculum is set. The lessons have been proven by contemporary research to work for not just some children - but every child.

Teachers don’t have to create lesson plans for a whole group every week, allowing them time to focus on each individual child. What excites them? In which areas do they need more support?

Careful, Expert Observation One misconception about the Montessori method of following the child is this means letting them do whatever they want. Parents fear that if Susie is drawn to math she will be able to sit and work on math work all day, every day, and never be taught to read or encouraged to paint. This is not the case. Montessori teachers are trained to observe each child’s interests, allow them the freedom and time necessary to practice the lessons they need, and guide them toward other areas as well when it’s time to branch out.


If a child is hesitant to visit another area of the classroom - we ask why. Are they hesitant to try writing because it’s challenging for them and they’re afraid to fail? Are they not visiting the math area because it’s simply not interesting to them?

Interest-Based Learning If the problem is interest - teachers use their powers of observation and years of preparation to decide how they can manipulate the material to draw the child in. When a child is struggling we don’t ask what is wrong with this child; rather how can we change what we are doing to engage and better support them.

In one of the Primary rooms at Suzuki we had a little boy who was OBSESSED with

monster trucks. He would smuggle them into school in his bag and spend hours, mesmerized, playing with them. Rather than become exasperated he wasn’t choosing lessons in math or language - the teachers observed his infatuation and used it. They adjusted a counting lesson by switching out spindles with monster trucks so the child wanted to practice learning numbers because now, it was something he was interested in.

Children Learn at Different Rates An authentic Montessori environment allows for the fact that different children learn and develop at different rates. For this reason you will find Montessori schools have multi-age classrooms. Some children are working on reading chapter books, while others are learning their letter sounds. Multi-age classrooms teach children at a young age that it’s okay to be working on different things at different rates. This sense of community (rather than competition if everyone is the same age, working on the same things) fosters opportunities for leadership, collaboration and teamwork,

Different Materials for Different Learners Different children learn in different ways. Montessori materials account for this. Children learn letter sounds by tracing Sandpaper Letters - getting kinesthetic, visual, and auditory input. Some teachers even incorporate purposeful movement for children whose brains work best when their body is busy. All Montessori materials are intentionally hands-on, ensuring that all learners have the opportunity to process the concept. There are also several lessons that teach the same concept to ensure at least one will appeal to the child’s individual interest and needs. Montessori materials ensure that every child’s unique learning style is honored, rather than choosing one lesson plan that is meant to meet the needs of 25 different children at the same time on the same day.

Why It Matters Every child has a natural desire to learn. If you observe an infant taking in his environment it’s clear that children are scientists - constantly making and testing hypotheses in their interactions with the world. When we honor the fact, as authentic Montessori schools do, that children learn best when they are interested in what they’re learning, given the space and freedom to develop at their own rate, and learn in different ways, we raise capable people with a strong sense of self, a desire for exploration and innovation, and a lifelong passion for learning.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

50 Ways to Keep the Montessori Spirit Alive in Your Classroom

Whether you turn the tray at the end of a lesson, go from right to left or left to right, are AMS-trained, or AMI-trained - there are many foundational elements of Montessori philosophy we can all agree on. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the minutiae - remember the essentials. Below are 50 ways to keep the Montessori spirit alive in your classroom.

  1. Do things with the child, not for them

  2. Model the behavior you’d like to see

  3. Use fewer words - guide with actions

  4. Practice grace and courtesy with the adults and children in your classroom

  5. Move precisely and with purpose

  6. Follow the child’s interest to spark and maintain curiosity

  7. Accept that every child moves at their own pace

  8. Prepare the classroom so every child can be as independent as possible

  9. Embrace simplicity

  10. Own up to your mistakes and apologize if necessary when you’ve made one

  11. Respect the child

  12. Coach the child in acknowledging and managing their emotions - this is a learned skill

  13. Protect all forms of concentration once they begin

  14. Remember it’s okay not to be perfect! It’s important to model this for your children

  15. Be kind and firm - children need love and limits

  16. Trust that the materials are self-correcting - any interference from an adult is potentially a missed opportunity for the child to conduct his own experimentation and learning

  17. Evaluate if you are in constant need of being in control - and let go of it

  18. Have a sense of humor!

  19. Give effort-based praise

  20. Trust in the absorbent mind and sensitive periods

  21. Incorporate the outdoors and nature whenever possible

  22. Encourage curiosity and exploration

  23. Provide hands-on, concrete opportunities for learning

  24. Practice Practical Life activities again and again and again!

  25. Promote peer problem solving and don’t interfere unless absolutely necessary once it begins

  26. Leave the working child unless they are hurting themselves, hurting someone else, or damaging a material

  27. Keep an ordered environment

  28. Associate movement and learning as much as possible

  29. Give children the time necessary to complete a task

  30. Observe the child - what are they interested in? Where do they need encouragement?

  31. Allow yourself to be in awe of the natural instinct each child has to learn and grow

  32. Remark on exciting things in nature and allow yourself to be amazed when a child points something out to you

  33. Model self control and mindfulness

  34. Help the child take control of their learning by answering questions with questions - “What do you think the answer is?” so they are encouraged to trust their instinct or explore and experiment to find the answer

  35. Be an active listener

  36. Speak to the child on his level

  37. Provide feeling words whenever possible

  38. Prepare the room with child sized furnishings and all materials within their reach

  39. Use proper terminology for body parts, bodily functions, names, etc.

  40. Create an atmosphere where mistakes are acceptable and part of the learning process

  41. Accept the child for who they are - it is our obligation to see the light in each child even when their behavior is challenging

  42. Partner with parents as much as and whenever possible. The child is the one that benefits when we do so

  43. Do not seek to change or affect or modify or improve any other human - observe and accept the one that exists and prepare the environment to stimulate their continued engagement

  44. Pause long enough to recognize the difference between a child wandering and a child who is seeking a momentary break in between lessons

  45. Accept false fatigue as a natural occurrence and stay calm

  46. Be grateful in the gift you have been given to share in the lives of the children in your class

  47. Create opportunities for children to be active participants in the care of their environment

  48. Surround yourself with other people who seem to understand how to speak with children - the ones who see the magic. Talk to the teachers who stay.

  49. Find companionship in expertise and expertise in time.

  50. Above all - remember “Of all things - love is the most potent.” No child can learn before they know they are loved and safe in your presence.