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How to help your four-year-old transition into Montessori

BP Transitions - 02Some parents who discover Montessori when their child is four years old are concerned about joining the mixed-age primary room mid-stream. “Will my child be playing catch-up? Some of the other four-year-olds are already reading ”, you might wonder. “I’ve just learned about Montessori, and I see how wonderful this environment could be for my child. She’s already four, though. Did we miss the boat?”

The short answer: Four is not too late! We’ve seen many four-year-olds blossom in our schools, just taking off in their personal development after joining our classrooms, and your child can, too.

BP Transitions - 03It is true that younger is better when it comes to joining a Montessori program. Starting as a toddler or a young three-year-old gives children the best opportunity to benefit from the enriched, carefully prepared classroom environment. As Montessori educators, we understand that the time between birth and age six is the most critical in a human being’s development. During this stage of growth, children go through rapid changes and develop the most important aspects of their personality and intellect.

Dr. Maria Montessori discovered that much of this change occurs through active experiences children have with their environment — at home, outside, or at school. Children between the ages of three and six go through what Dr. Montessori called “sensitive periods,” periods where they are naturally primed to absorb skills and knowledge in a wide range of areas. During these sensitive periods children can, for example, effortlessly acquire language skills (including learning to write and read), develop what is now called “executive function skills”(such as sustaining concentration, learning self-control, and strengthen their working memory), learn to interact graciously with others, and refine all their senses.

BP Transitions - 04While some of these sensitive periods begin at birth, four-year-old children are still in the midst of this amazing time. We regularly see four-year-olds join our class and become drawn to the materials on our shelves; they quickly begin “working” and become acclimated to their new environment. With the right support at home and at school, you’ll be surprised by how much joy both you and your child will get from his Montessori experience!

How to help your four-year-old transition joyfully into the Montessori environment

1. Enroll your child for five full days per week

By the time your child reaches four and is no longer napping, she is ready to attend school for five full days per week. A child who attends school for five days each week has the greatest opportunity for consistent spontaneous learning and will feel safe and relaxed in the classroom. The full day schedule (8:30 am to 3:00 pm) also allows the child to have more time to work through the materials during the morning and afternoon work cycles, and to receive many lessons from her teacher.

BP Transitions - 05This consistent time is especially important for your four-year-old who is new to Montessori. Dr. Montessori observed that many issues that children struggle with, from temper tantrums to uncoordinated movement, from disobedience to physical aggression, disappeared when children are allowed freedom in an environment suited to their needs. Often, a child would find some activity that spoke to him, become immersed in it, and repeat it over and over again. Once a child connected to an engaging activity, he became happier, more curious to explore more learning materials in class, and even became kinder and more benevolent to his peers.

For an older child, this process may take some time; he may need to wander, try different activities, and observe his peers, before he discovers something that would like to work with.  By enrolling your child for five full days, you can give him that luxury of time, and help him get the most out of his two Montessori primary years.

2. Be open to keeping your child in Montessori through the 3rd year of Primary

BP Transitions - 09The third year in Montessori Primary (the equivalent of traditional kindergarten) is the year when much of the foundational skill development solidifies, and many children suddenly experience huge growth spurts in writing, reading, math and  overall confidence.

Since your child would be joining during the second year of Montessori Primary, it is even more important for him to get to experience the third year.  From age four to five, he’ll be working hard on many foundational skills, from fine motor control to concentration, from learning to observe carefully to mastering multi-step processes. If you keep him in Montessori for only one year, he’ll never get to experience the astounding mastery he will attain from his hard work.  He’ll likely be just at the cusp of reading, just about ready to tackle the fun advanced math materials, and eager to move from being the rookie to becoming a classroom leader.

Parents are often amazed at what they see  during the kindergarten year. Please do consider giving your child this experience! While we do not, of course, require you to sign on for two years now, we do want to caution you against viewing Montessori as a one-year, pre-k experience aimed at getting your child ready for traditional kindergarten. That’s not how Montessori works, and we wouldn’t want you to sign on with wrong expectations!

3. Learn about Montessori

BP Transitions - 07The best way to help your child thrive in a Montessori environment is to better understand Montessori yourself. We make this easy for you: When your child joins our program, you’ll receive eight short, one-page handouts explaining key aspects of Montessori, and suggesting simple ways you can align what you do at home with what your child experiences at school. Throughout the school year, we offer Parent Education Events, where we discuss a wide range of topics: from how to support independence to learning math in preschool. Our blog also offers plenty of helpful articles. Your child’s teacher is also a great resource: Our trained head teachers are available via email or in person after school to answer all kinds of Montessori-related questions you may have and to help you understand how you can best support your child.

4. Support independence at home

“Never help the child do something that he thinks he can do for himself” — this is one of Dr. Montessori’s most famous quotes! Our classrooms and activities are set up so your four-year-old child will quickly learn to take care of his own needs such as getting dressed without help, pouring his own drink, and preparing snacks. Children love this new-found independence, and you can help your child feel just as empowered at home. Here is a blog post that describes some simple changes you can make to support your child’s budding independence at home.

5. Don’t compare your child with other children in the classroom

BP Transitions - 06One of the beauties of Montessori is the profound respect for the individuality we give each child. Montessori teachers do not compare their students with each other. We know that your four-year-old may need some time to get used to his new school, and that it would not help at all to compare him to other four-year-olds who had started before him.  Each Montessori teacher allows her students to develop at their own pace, and she trusts that the Montessori classroom will enable her students to reach their individual potential at their own unique pace.

We encourage you to take the same long-term perspective: Be patient and do not rush your child. Don’t put performance pressure on her by comparing her, even subtly, to the other children in the class. Yes, it can be hard to see other four-year-olds reading, while your new Montessori child may be preparing snack or working with the color tablets instead. Just know that by stepping back and letting her discover and explore her surroundings, you are enabling her to do very important foundational work. Once she’s ready, she may just surprise you with how quickly she “explodes” into writing and reading!

6. Do not introduce other academics at home

With today’s competitive environment, it’s easy to feel that your four-year-old needs to learn her letters or start to work on addition facts. Some parents become anxious and to want to accelerate their child’s learning by providing extra academics. Often, well-meaning, conscientious parents buy workbooks for their children to complete or enroll their preschoolers in structured academic programs, such as Kumon. We strongly advise against this!

Trust that your child’s teacher is introducing your child to academic skills that are developmentally appropriate for her. Support what your child is doing at school and do not introduce other academics at home that are contrary to what your child is learning at school. Enrolling in Kumon, making children complete worksheets, teaching letter names, writing letters and counting on fingers will only confuse your child! If you want to do more to foster literacy, this blog post provides some Montessori-consistent ideas you can follow at home.

7. Read, read, read at home

BP Transitions - 08If you want to support your child’s academic development, the best way to do this is to read with your child. Read a lot! Read a variety of books, discuss what you read, ask her questions about what you’ve read, follow along with your finger under text as you read, and explain vocabulary. That way, when she does finally master her letter sounds, she’ll be able to move along much faster. You can read more about how to apply Montessori ideas to reading here, find suggestions for setting up an environment that fosters literacy here, and view our thoughts on selecting books (and actual book lists), in this blog post.

We hope these points helped you understand how giving your child a Montessori education is a true gift that will last her a lifetime, and that with your enthusiastic support, your four-year-old will thrive in her new Montessori environment.

Is Montessori Preschool Worth It For Just 2-3 Years?

This week, a parent asked the following question on Berkley Parents Net, a well-read Bay Area forum:

Hi there,

We are looking for preschools for our daughter, and are wondering about parents’ thoughts on whether sending your child to Montessori for just 2-3 years is worth the cost over other play-based daycares. We can’t afford to do a Montessori school for her whole education–do the two years make a difference?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Parent on Berkley Parents Net

It’s a good question, and one that I bet many parents have.

At age six, my daughter just completed a mid-year move-up from the Montessori preschool class to the Montessori elementary class, after about 3 years in the Montessori program at two different Montessori preschools, and my answer is a qualified yes—if two conditions are met.

  1. Even 2-3 years of Montessori preschool can have a huge impact, especially if you can make it possible for your child to stay through the critical third year of Montessori primary (the equivalent of traditional kindergarten.) Montessori preschool, done well, is a 3-year cycle: a child typically starts at age three, and spends a lot of time learning foundational skills during the next two years. He’ll strengthen his arm, wrist and hand muscles doing activities such as pouring water, washing tables, transferring objects with spoons etc. He’ll develop the skill of concentrating, by building the pink tower, matching sound cylinders, and making maps of the world by tracing puzzle pieces and coloring in the maps. He’ll be introduced to the letters of the alphabet with sound games and by tracing sandpaper letters; he’ll begin to build words with the moveable alphabet, and start to learn about math with number rods, spindles, and the bead materials.

    If he attends right from age three, then by age 5 (i.e. before kindergarten), he’ll typically have learned his letter sounds, will be able to write the letters and sound out simple words.  He’ll have learned the basics of numbers to 100 and beyond. He’ll be able to choose activities independently, complete multi-step processes, focus on a task for an hour or more. He’ll have developed strong social skills: taking turns with materials, sitting attentively at group time, asking for help politely without interrupting, and looking out for his peers, helping younger ones at tasks he has already mastered. All of these will get him more than ready for traditional kindergarten: in fact, many Montessori 5-year-olds have already accomplished most of what is expected of children by the end of Kindergarten! Yet it would be a shame to take him out of Montessori at this point…

    California writing standards – Kindergarten

    Because then, in the third year, the magic happens: with the careful preparation of the prior two years, most Montessori children make a HUGE leap in their capabilities during the third year in the program. Suddenly, they go from sounding out individual letters, to reading 2nd or 3rd grade level books. They go from carefully writing a few words, in still tentative cursive, to writing multi-sentence stories, in handwriting that’s better than that of many 2nd or 3rd graders. And they get math, progressing from concrete materials (like the Golden Beads) to arithmetic into the thousands.

    I’ve just seen it with my daughter: In September, at the beginning of her 3rd year in Montessori primary (the time she’d have entered kindergarten), she read longer, but still phonetically controlled books, like Mr. Sanchez and the Kickball Champ. Now, shortly after she turned six, she’s able to read real books, reading aloud entire shorter books like Amelia Bedelia or Poppleton to us,or alternating pages with me as we read chapter books like The Boxcar Children or In Aunt Lucy’s Kitchen. She writes longer stories, and her handwriting has become much more neat and consistent.

    After three years in the Montessori classroom, she’s not only made great strides in academics; she’s learned that work is fun (the story in the picture is a voluntary, Saturday-morning effort, not required homework); she can focus for hours at a time, a crucial prerequisite for all future schooling. She’s independent in fulfilling her own needs, making her own snacks, helping with cooking at home, taking a shower on her own, and getting herself ready for school and bed with nary any assistance from us. And, maybe most importantly, she’s developed a great self-confidence in her ability as a learner, and an eagerness to mentor and help others (including her little brother, at least most of the time.)

    If our daughter were to go to traditional school for first grade next fall (which she won’t), my main concern would be that she’d be bored, and that she wouldn’t be happy at being told to do things in lockstep with a large group of children. She’d probably resent the mindless worksheet work all too common in many other schools, and the need to do busy-work homework with limited choices. But at least she’d have learned to love learning, she’d have mastered reading, writing and the basics of arithmetic, so that no matter what class she’d enter, or what teacher she’d encounter, the basics would be there, for life.

  2. Make sure that you enroll in a real Montessori preschool. Unfortunately, the name Montessori alone doesn’t mean much: it’s not trade-marked, and anybody can call their preschool Montessori, whether or not they abide by the philosophy. Many preschools, in fact, take some pieces of Montessori, but then mix it up with different ideas, so that some preschools are really mostly play-based preschools, with some Montessori ideas and activities thrown in.

    So what is a parent to do? I didn’t know much about Montessori four years ago, so I picked a “Monte-sorta” preschool for our daughter, and later found I needed to move schools to give her a real Montessori preschool experience all the way through her third year of the three-year Montessori cycle. Now, I have a cheat sheet for you: here are four things to look for in assessing whether a school is a true Montessori preschool.

    • Mixed-age preschool classrooms: ages 3-6 in one class. Much of the Montessori preschool magic depends on a family-like community of mixed ages, where one teacher leads a child through three years of development. So ask each school you consider, before you even tour: do you have mixed-age classes, or do you separate out the kindergarten aged children? Many schools bow to convention and have narrower age ranges (2-3, 3-4, Pre-K, K): those are not authentic Montessori programs.
    • A three-hour, child-led “work period.” Freedom of choice and time for child-led, uninterrupted exploration of the Montessori materials is indispensible for your child to have the full benefit of Montessori. Good schools offer 2 ½ to 3 hours of “work time” in the morning, and 2 hours in the afternoon—time that’s not interrupted by any mandatory group activities, such as circle, snack, or teacher-led arts & crafts. Many so-called Montessori schools instead have at most 90 minutes of work time, and then lots of play-based type group activities.
    • AMI or another year-long, in person Montessori training. Being a Montessori teacher is a challenging calling: the teacher must master hundreds of activities, each of which have special ways of presenting them, all of which need to be taught in a certain order, and only when a child is ready for them. That’s why the best training programs, such as that offered by the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), take a full year of full-time, on-site training under the guidance of master instructors—and why the best Montessori schools then pair up new teachers with a more senior, Master teacher, for at least 6-9 months, to learn the craft. Be wary of teachers who only have a “quickie” training, have learned their craft via a distance, internet learning course, or who are only trained “in house.” While some of these may be wonderful teachers, you can’t assume that; you’ll want to spend a lot of time observing in their class, or ideally have a knowledgeable Montessorian observe in the class to assess whether the teacher able to implement an authentic Montessori preschool program.

    • Teaching cursive handwriting. Most Montessori preschools, even some excellent ones, have bowed to the unfortunate standard of teaching print for handwriting first, then re-training children in 2nd or 3rd grade to write cursive. If you see a preschool that teaches cursive from the start, as intended by Dr. Montessori because it is consistent with a child’s motor development needs, this is a good indication that the school is taking Montessori seriously, and is willing to do what’s right, even if it’s not the easy path. But don’t take the lack of cursive as a death blow: while the first three criteria are must-have items for great Montessori preschools, this last one is just an indicator, and I wouldn’t throw out an otherwise good preschool if it taught print.

What Sets LePort Montessori Apart From Other Montessori Schools?

montessori preschool daycare palos verdes

If you are reading this, you may be looking for a preschool–and may be curious about whether Montessori is a preschool education that makes sense for your family.

As you research Montessori, it is important to know that Montessori isn’t a trademarked term, nor a franchised system, not even a national brand you can trust. Unfortunately, it’s not true that every Montessori preschool delivers on the promise that Montessori offers. As education-journalist Peg Tyre correctly states:

A school can call itself a Montessori program, and many do, without knowing a single thing about the educational philosophy developed by Dr. Maria Montessori.

Peg Tyre

In many major metropolitan areas (think Orange County, LA, or San Diego), you have many Montessori preschools to choose from. (The last time we counted, there were over two dozen Montessori preschools in our home market of Orange County alone, and we probably missed some!) If you’ve done your research and agree that the Montessori method is right for your child, the next step is choosing one of those preschools.

So what do you look for when you tour different Montessori preschools? What differentiates an authentic preschool program that takes the methodology seriously, from one that may be more interested in utilizing the Montessori name as a means of attracting parents, but does not really strive to apply the method in the classroom and preschool community?

Or, put from our perspective, why do we think you should choose one of LePort’s Montessori preschools?

A few years ago, I was in your shoes: when my daughter was about 2 years old, I toured a handful of Montessori preschools in Oakland, CA, where I lived at the time, and enrolled her in what I thought was a good program, conveniently located near our home. Unfortunately, as I educated myself about Montessori and joined the LePort leadership team, I discovered that while the school was a nice, friendly preschool, they were not serious about applying Maria Montessori’s educational principles. (They also fell woefully short on customer service to me, a working parent.) After more research, and much soul-searching, we moved her to another, better Montessori preschool, where my daughter and son experienced a good bilingual Montessori education. (We later moved to Orange County, where both of my children now attend our LePort Montessori elementary school program.)

Now, when friends ask me for a cheat-sheet for touring Montessori preschools, here’s what I tell them to look for:

montessori preschool daycare palos verdes

    1. Head teachers who have completed a year-long, intensive Montessori training program, preferably from an AMI training center. At LePort Montessori, our preschool head teachers typically have a Bachelor’s degree, and a credential from AMI, the Association Montessori Internationale, which is the original training organization founded over 60 years ago by Dr. Maria Montessori. While there are other good training programs we occasionally hire from (most are MACTE accredited), we have found that AMI consistently selects highly-motivated and skilled candidates, and provides them with the most rigorous training possible. Be aware that some schools conduct quick “in-house-trainings”, sometimes lasting only a few weeks, and that some teachers at other schools have learned their skills from books or online-only self-study curricula. Also ask about teacher experience and training: ideally, teachers new to Montessori have experienced mentors to work with and learn from, before taking over their own classrooms!
    2. montessori preschool daycare palos verdesMixed-age preschool classrooms, which combine 3- to 6-year-olds into a family-like community. Many so-called Montessori preschools have succumbed to the traditional preschool approach of splitting children into the “Twos”, “Threes” and so on, or are separating out Kindergarten-aged children into separate groups. A mixed age group is essential to a real Montessori preschool program: it allows children to learn at their own pace, to learn from older peers and become mentors in turn, and to build a strong bond with a teacher, who gets to know a child closely over the three years she’s in her preschool class, and can guide her as an individual. The final year–the Kindergarten year that the child starts when he has turned five–is a critical, cashing-in year, and allowing children to complete the full three-year-cycle in one classroom community is critical to reap the tremendous benefits from Kindergarten in Montessori. 
    3. Extended, uninterrupted, child-led work periods, preferably 2-3 hours in length, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Montessori is about enabling the child to follow his own interests, to learn at his own pace and on his own schedule. A good Montessori classroom offers him plenty of space and time to explore what interests him, in contrast to the adult-led, group-focused programs common in typical preschools.
    4. A high-quality, clean, bright, peaceful preschool classroom environment, equipped with a full range of Montessori materials.montessori preschool daycare palos verdesIt should go without saying that a child’s preschool environment should be clean, bright and beautiful, but unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of clutter and messiness at some preschools we’ve visited. Equipping a school with a full set of Montessori materials is not cheap (we budget about $20,000 for materials for each preschool room, and regularly invest in improving our programs, such as buying thousands of dollars in new books for our phonetic reading program!), but it is essential to ensuring the children get the most out of their Montessori preschool experience.
    5. A mature school organization, with well-honed hiring and teacher-training programs, and a strong leadership team. Finding great teachers is a learned skill, as is training them. Our schools have many head-teachers who have been with us for years. When we hire new teachers, we typically give them the opportunity to co-teach with an expert for several months to a year or two, so they can give your child the best instruction when they take over his classroom. Several part-time and full-time Montessori experts at all levels–from infants to middle school–and a full-time Head of School at each school, help us ensure that every classroom consistently delivers the highest quality experience for our students. Plus, they enable us to put on a lot of Parent Information Events and social get-togethers, which help you to be a part of making your child’s education the best it can be, and finding a community of like-minded parents, thus creating your own chosen village for raising your child.

montessori preschool daycare palos verdes

  1. A professional administration that understands how important convenience and customer service are to you as a busy parent. While your primary concern should rightly be your child’s experience, a good preschool also looks out for you as a parent. Nothing is more annoying than holiday schedules that leave you scrambling to find alternate child care, or not knowing what your child does at preschool day-to-day, or not being able to reach your teacher or the preschool staff when you have an urgent question. We take pride in running LePort to high standards in customer service, and always welcome parent feedback that helps us improve.

We hope that you are making progress in your preschool research, and we’d be thrilled if after careful consideration, you chose LePort Montessori as the preschool for your child.

Why Choose a Montessori Preschool

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

What if you could send your child to a preschool that follows methods which align with the latest, cutting-edge insights from neuroscience, and which have been proven for over 100 years, in thousands of preschools?

Such a combination is possible, and accessible to your child!

Authentic Montessori preschools, like LePort, educate your child in a carefully prepared environment, under the guidance of teachers trained to diligently follow the approach first developed by Dr. Maria Montessori over 100 years ago, based on her careful field study of how preschool children actually learn. Now, a century later, modern science is validating at a brain-cell level and in large-scale studies what Dr. Montessori observed as a field scientist over a century ago.

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

Unfortunately, Montessori is not widely known today, despite the compelling evidence that it works wonders for young children, and despite the fact that many famous people, such as Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, credit their Montessori education with helping them become the innovative, successful people they are.

Trevor Eissler, a jet pilot turned Montessori advocate and author of the book  Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education, describes how he discovered Montessori:

It just so happened that during the several months that my wife and I were discussing [preschool] options, a new friend of ours asked my wife if we had considered the Montessori school her daughter attended. We had not. Did we know anything about Montessori she asked? We did not. Had we heard of Montessori? Nope.

Trevor Eissler

You may be in a similar position, and we recommend the same next step Mr. Eissler took: come and observe in a Montessori preschool classroom. A Montessori preschool education is so revolutionary that you have to see it to believe it. Recalls Mr. Eissler:

I remember setting foot in that Montessori classroom. I sat down on a chair–a very, very small chair–near the door. I had just stepped into someone’s living room. Or was it a science laboratory? Or maybe an office building? I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was different at first, but this was unlike any classroom I had ever seen. It felt different, too. Peaceful. Purposeful.

Trevor Eissler

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

Mr. Eissler’s book is an excellent introduction to the Montessori Method of preschool education. He gives a tour of all the aspects that make Montessori unique. In the end, when asked why he chose Montessori, he boils it down to a simple paragraph:

Inside a Montessori classroom, children are laying a foundation for a lifetime of self-fulfillment. They learn to choose a project, work on it to completion, and reap the internal rewards that come with newfound knowledge and a job well done. They are not doing work for the good of a political system, a nation state, or a parent; nor to increase the gross domestic product, compete with the Chinese, or get a good report card. The children are learning to control the entire creative, planning, productive and evaluative processes from start to finish. They are learning to be fulfillment junkies. […]

The snowball effect of self-fulfillment is a gift that keeps on giving. Children in Montessori schools experience this process repeatedly every day. The design of the educational method strengthens the natural bond between positive feelings and learning.

Trevor Eissler

Interested in learning more about Montessori preschool? Here are a few easy steps you can take:

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

We hope you are intrigued, and we look forward to answering your questions, and to hopefully welcoming your family to our Montessori preschool.

Be Choosy: Not All Preschools Are Created Equal

Deciding on a preschool for your child is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a parent. Choosing a preschool is certainly more important than buying a car or even a house: the environment your child is in during the formative years between three and six can shape his very being. That’s why it is important to research preschools at least as thoroughly as you’d research a new car, or a house you’ll buy.

That’s why we want to encourage you, in the words of Peg Tyre, long-time education journalist, to "be choosy" about the preschool at which you enroll your child. Ms. Tyre’s book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve, explains the importance of judging carefully:

When you visit a preschool, it’s hard to see past the endearing and hopeful aspects of nearly any program. Four-year-old human beings–small, active, wide-eyed, and endlessly curious–seem almost by design to fascinate and delight us. To the untrained eye, all but the most troubled programs look like reasonably happy places. What we know, though, is that all preschools are not created equal. There is good data to suggest that our gauzy and trusting perceptions of preschool can hide a troubling reality: there are badly run preschools or badly run classrooms within an otherwise acceptable preschool.

Peg Tyre

She also explains that a label, even one as prestigious as Montessori, doesn’t make a good program: "[A] school can call itself a Montessori program, and many do, without knowing a single thing about the educational philosophy developed by Dr. Maria Montessori."

At LePort, we know how important the preschool decision is for your family, and we want to do our part to help you be an educated, smart consumer. If you are on our preschool newsletter list, you’ll receive a short email from us every 1-2 weeks, with information we hope will help you make the right preschool decision for your family. (If you don’t find these emails helpful, there’s an "unsubscribe" link at that bottom of each email, so feel free to opt-out at any time!)

To get you started, here are four key areas Ms. Tyre recommends that parents explore in evaluating whether a preschool program will help your child maximize his potential:

  1. Will the preschool program ensure your child is actively engaged in learning? Neuroscientists have demonstrated that the right type of environmental stimulation enhances brain activity in children, and may make a permanent impact on mental capacities. You want a preschool that engages your child’s brain.
  2. Will the preschool program lay the foundations of literacy? You want a preschool program that enables your child to build "phonemic awareness", isolate the sounds of language, and to connect them to the letters of the written word. A number of intensive research studies, including the national "Reading Panel", have concluded unequivocally: "the central building blocks of literacy must be laid down before kindergarten."
  3. Will the preschool hire highly-educated, smart and caring teachers? Your child’s first teacher is a key influencer of her love for school: she has to be a kind, nurturing positive person who treats your child with respect and caring on not only your child’s good days, but also her bad. She also needs to be intelligent and perceptive, so that she can observe your child and identify how to effectively introduce a wide range of skills. Many preschools hire high-school graduates who have earned only the minimum State-mandated twelve Early Childhood Education Units. Rare exceptions aside, that is simply not enough.
  4. Will the preschool program purposefully develop "executive functioning"? Executive functioning refers to that all-important set of cognitive skills, which enable a child to be able to choose an activity and stick with it to successful completion. Writes Ms. Tyre:

    Intellectual ability without self-regulation, it turns out, is like a Porsche with a lawn mower motor. Flashy? You bet. But it’s not going to take you very far. What we used to consider soft skills, like the ability to focus, to drown out distractions, to plan, and to persevere, are starting to seem like bedrock traits for sustained and lasting achievement. And research bears this out: kindergarteners, for example, who show high levels of self-regulation, do better in school than kids who know a lot of letters and numbers or who have a high IQ.

    Peg Tyre

We encourage you to actively judge LePort Schools by Ms. Tyre’s list of criteria for selecting a preschool. If you haven’t already, call us to schedule a tour. Read about each of our preschool teacher’s qualifications on our web site. Watch videos of children in our preschool classrooms, and read detailed descriptions about our curriculum, from preschool to middle school. Attend our Parent Education Events and Open Houses, or try-out LePort for your toddler with our Mommy & Me Montessori Program.

At LePort Schools, we want parents who are "choosy", because they’re the ones who recognize the importance of a good education. We are here to help you learn as much as you need to make the best preschool choice of your child and family.

When to start preschool: why earlier may be better

montessori-preschool-huntington-beach-irvine

When is the right time to start your child in preschool?

Often, the answer depends on your personal circumstances: if you have the opportunity to stay home with your child; if you have the time, energy and knowledge to create a stimulating, orderly, Montessori-like environment in your home; and if you are able to enrich your child’s experience with regular excursions out into the world, it may well make sense to delay preschool until your child is around 3 years old.

On the other hand, if your child will be in someone else’s care, it might as well be a quality preschool, rather than merely a safe, fun daycare setting!

Here are a few questions to consider, as you make your daycare decision:

    • Will your child be in an environment optimized to meet a toddler’s unique needs? Toddlers are at a prime age for learning, and everything in them is oriented towards this need. Yet all to often, a toddler’s needs for order and exploration are perceived not as natural opportunities for them to grow, but as challenging obstacles for parents and other adults (think tantrums, constant “no’s”, hyper-activity, and toilet training struggles!) Dr. Montessori observed that many of the allegedly abnormal behaviors toddlers exhibit occur because their needs aren’t being met. Toddlers want to be independent, yet our homes make it hard for them to be (think adult-sized sinks, toilets, shelves; adult-paced transitions like getting out of the house or rushing through a grocery store!)montessori-preschool-huntington-beach-irvine

      Toddlers’ brains are growing, and need mental stimulation just as urgently as nutritious food, yet often, parents, grandparents and daycare providers aren’t educators and don’t have the knowledge to consistently provide optimal mental nutrition for toddlers (think noisy plastic toys, too much stuff in overloaded boxes, TV time, and constant adult-led activity.)

      In contrast, an authentic Montessori toddler program is carefully designed around the child’s needs and offers much more than just daycare. The physical environment is child-sized, with low sinks and toilets, low open shelves with a few, carefully selected activities displayed so children can easily access them. The daily routine is slow-paced, which allows a toddler to do much more for himself: for example, snack time may well take 45 minutes, during which the children set the table, serve themselves, eat with their friends, and clean up afterwards. The activities selected have specific learning objectives. Usually, they are made from wood and other high-quality materials; there are no noisy plastic toys, nor is there ever any TV or video game screen time in a Montessori class! Trained Montessori teachers know just how to simplify the steps of a task so a toddler can understand it and, in fact, do it by himself.

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    • Who will be the adults your child will model? Toddlers learn by modeling after the adults they interact with. The adult’s approach to childrearing, and her ability to consistently, kindly implement it, matter a lot, especially at this tender age. In a Montessori toddler program, trained teachers consistently follow the Montessori approach. Their aim is to enable your child’s independence; they teach self-care skills (putting on shoes, pouring water, cleaning up spills) rather than merely taking care of your child’s needs (dressing your child, serving drinks in sippy cups, spoon-feeding your child to minimize meal-time messes.) They have a support system that enables them to be calm and patient all day: they have regular breaks to recharge their energy; coverage is available when they are out sick or for them to go on vacation; they have refresher courses and workshops to ensure continuous professional development; and they have colleagues and supervisors available to help them address any situation they encounter. 
    • Is there a clear educational plan to ensure your child maximizes his potential during a time of rapid brain growth? Toddlers have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn a tremendous amount, effortlessly. Dr. Montessori observed that during these early years, a child’s entire being is molded: his intelligence itself is being formed!  A toddler has an urgent need to learn, and a Montessori environment enables him to do so in a deliberate, systematic manner that’s often not possible in a traditional daycare setting.

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      • Supporting the sense of order. Young children need their environment to be predictable, orderly. Experience shows that if a child learns at age 2 to place his shoes on a mat upon coming in and to hang up his coat; if he learns to take out an activity, work with it, and replace it on its proper spot on the shelf; if he learns to sweep up crumbs he dropped and wipe clean a table—he will solidify his natural sense of order, and attain good habits that last a life time.
      • Developing an active mind and exploring with all senses. Toddlers love to explore: they are into everything, touching, smelling, tasting the objects around them. A Montessori toddler program enables your child to safely use all his senses to explore: there’s clay to be pounded, oranges to be squeezed and juice to be tasted, songs played together and mystery bags to be explored. We say our students work: their explorations are too important to be labeled as mere play!
      • Language development. Our trained Montessori teachers are deliberate about providing your child with rich language exposure, all day long. For example, we use full sentence, not short commands (“Let’s clean up, so we may come together for a story”, rather than “Clean up! Story time!”) We provide precise vocabulary through daily experiences (“Notice how sour this juice tastes!”, or “Look at how tall this tower is!”), as well as specific games to learn new words, such as matching objects/card games. We even start on phonemic awareness, with 2 ½ or 3-year-olds!

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  • Does the toddler daycare you choose provide a good start for your child’s longer-term educational journey? Even if you aren’t convinced that the daycare choice at 18 months is critical, it’s worth thinking ahead. Quality Montessori preschool programs are in high demand. Often, children need to join as toddlers to be assured of admission to the preschool program! Additionally, Montessori preschool programs require children to be fully toilet independent by age three, and to be able to act independently (take off clothes, wash hands, follow directions…) If you want your child to join a quality preschool, it may well make sense to enroll him as a toddler, rather than opt for a different daycare setting that is closer or less expensive. In the case of LePort Montessori, access to the preschool program also means access to our elementary school Montessori program, which is generally filled from within, as Montessori preschool students seamlessly move up to the 1st grade. Plus, we offer several incentive programs to make it more affordable for families to stay for kindergarten and into elementary, so an early start can pay off financially, too! 
  • What is the cost/value trade-off? There are many home-based daycare options cheaper than Montessori toddler programs: in many places, you can find in-home daycare providers that charge as little as $700 or $900 per month for 2-year-olds. Yet compared to a nanny, a Montessori toddler program can be a steal: one-on-one nanny care typically runs above $2,000 per month for full-time care; and even a 2-way nanny share is often around $1,400 per month, for 9 hours of childcare (with all the drawbacks of having only one childcare provider, who doesn’t get breaks, and may be out for illness or vacation time!) The question you should ask yourself is whether you believe that toddler daycare is a science, demanding a professional, nurturing approach. If you think the answer might be yes, we suggest you evaluate Montessori programs further.

If you need full-time daycare for your child, irrespective of whether or not you can afford a nanny, we believe your child will be best served by the benefits of Montessori toddler program. And even if you need less than full-time daycare, or have the luxury of staying home with your child, enrolling your toddler part-time in Montessori may well be worth it, to maximize his growth during these critical early years.

The Sensorial Area in Montessori Preschool: Where Young Scientists Are Born

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A preschool child is fascinated by the world around him: eager to explore it, always asking questions, constantly getting his fingers into everything.  As he does so, he acquires a tremendous amount of information – about animals, people, plants, common household objects, etc.  He makes observations at home, in the park, at the store, on vacation.

In the Montessori preschool environment, we help him organize his wealth of information into an orderly store of knowledge.  We guide him to observe carefully and provide him with a systematic way of conceptualizing the world around him.

The Sensorialareaof a Primary (preschool/kindergarten) classroom is where this training happens.  Children work with a range of materials, each of which varies in a single attribute; for example, the length of the Red Rods, the shade of each Color Tablet, the texture of the Fabrics, or the pitch of the Montessori Bells.  In using these materials, children learn to observe carefully and to order, match, or sort objects by their attributes.

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Each Sensorial material presents to the preschool child one special key to the world.  Dr. Montessori conceptualized the idea of keys as a way of introducing significant aspects of this vibrant world we live in to the young child.  Keys serve as jumping-off points for learning more about the world.

Work with the Sensorial materials also broadens a child’s vocabulary.  Once a child has experience with a material, the Montessori teacher introduces the appropriate words to fix the new idea in the child’s mind: “This rod is the longest”, “Feel how smooth this silk is”, or “Listen how these two bells have exactly the same pitch.”

Preschool children spontaneously apply what they learn from the Sensorial materials.  For example, a child who has practiced matching and grading the Color Tablets will naturally begin to notice things about color in his surroundings that he previously didn’t.  It is not uncommon for Montessori preschool teachers to hear a 4-year-old remark things like, “That’s dark blue”, “This green is lighter than that green”, or “This grey matches that grey.”  A child who has explored shapes from the Geometric Cabinet and has learned their names will start to identify shapes in objects around him (“That stop sign is an octagon!”), buildings (“Those windows are squares!”), even food (“The yolk is a circle!”).

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If a child is unsuccessful with a Sensorial material, we do not correct him directly.  Rather, we observe and note any errors, and re-present a lesson from start to finish at another time.  We might offer a point of interest, a detail that is important for the child to grasp in order to get full benefit from a material.  E.g. “Watch how I line up the Red Rods neatly along the edge of the rug as I order them.”  As always, we then invite him to continue working with the material independently.  The preschool child eventually learns to correct himself, as the control of error is often a combination of his own developing discrimination and the materials themselves.  For example, with the Brown Stair, the child will experience visual disharmony if he sees that the stair is out of order.

There are formal games and extensions that are connected with every Sensorial material.  With the Botany Cabinet, for example, the child learns not only to trace and recognize a variety of leaf shapes, but also to connect these to actual leaves he might collect on a nature walk.  Once he is writing, he might enjoy creating booklets about the different kinds of leaves or, more broadly, other parts of a plant.  The Puzzle Maps are a great example of work that extends throughout the Primary (preschool/kindergarten) years.  For instance, initially the child simply learns how to put the United States puzzle pieces back properly in the frame.  By his second year, he learns the names and locations of each state.  By his third year in Primary, he might begin to create his own beautiful map of the United States, carefully tracing and cutting out each state, pasting them accurately on a large poster-sized paper, and proudly labeling each of them.  A child is also welcome to make his own discoveries and variations.  Perhaps he might recognize the similarity between the Pink Tower and Brown Stair, and build them side by side!

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Beyond all of this, the Sensorial materials are significant in that they indirectly prepare the preschool child for later work in language and math.

Early Sensorial work, such as the Cylinder Blocks, indirectly prepares the child for writing and reading.  As he uses his pincer, or three-finger, grip to grasp the knob of each cylinder, he strengthens and prepares his hand for holding a pencil.  Touching rough sandpaper on the Rough and Smooth Boards will feel familiar to him when he traces his first Sandpaper Letter, the key Montessori preschool material for introducing the sounds and letters of our alphabet.  Tracing geometric shapes as well as puzzle map pieces increase his fine motor control and precision of movement.

The Sensorial materials also prepare the child for math work in a variety of ways.  Many Sensorial materials (just a few examples are the Pink Tower, Brown Stair, and Knobless Cylinders) are designed in series of ten, which reflects our base 10 number system.  Several others provide a thorough introduction to geometric shapes, solids, and the unique, constructive properties of triangles.  The Binomial and Trinomial Cubes are three-dimensional puzzles based on the binomial and trinomial equations, respectively.  The Red Rods, of course, are a prerequisite for the red and blue Number Rods, which solidify a child’s grasp of quantity and his ability to count to ten with one-to-one correspondence.

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Through sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound, the Montessori Sensorial materials provide opportunities for the child to classify and clarify the world around him.  If you are a LePort Montessori preschool parent, we invite you to enjoy getting a closer look at these materials and to see them in action during your next Watch Me Work Wednesday visit!


The Dual Purpose of Montessori Preschool Practical Life Activities

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The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy. Dr. Maria Montessori

Students new to Montessori preschool spend much time in the Practical Life area of the classroom, where shelves are filled with activities for dressing, food preparation, sweeping, polishing, and so on.  In a variety of ways, Practical Life activities provide the preschool child with skills for self-care, caring for the classroom environment, and all-around independence.

This independence is a critical aspect of a Montessori preschool education. As Dr. Montessori wrote:

If teaching is to be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the way to independence. It must initiate them into those kinds of activities which they can perform themselves and which keep them from being a burden to others because of their inabilities. We must help them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down stairs, to pick up fallen objects, to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All this is part of an education for independence.

Dr. Maria Montessori

A 3-year-old preschooler, with proper instruction, is able to do many things for himself and can start to contribute meaningfully within the classroom or family community, too. It is in the Practical Life area of the Montessori preschool classroom that your child learns these skills – and you can help him by encouraging him to be independent and helpful at home as well:

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  • Preparing food. 3-year-old preschool children love to do real work they see us do. In class, they often prepare snack for friends: peeling and cutting carrots, cutting and serving bananas, preparing apple and cheese trays.

    At home, your preschool child can become a true helper in the kitchen and participate in real cooking activities. Invest in some good tools, like the ones available from For Small Hands, and you’ll be rewarded as your preschooler begins to peel vegetables, measure ingredients, and clean up small messes. By a child’s 3rd year (age 5 – 6) she might be capable of taking over much of the meal prep:   My 5½ year old daughter recently prepared most of a taco dinner for us, cutting tomatoes, helping sauté the chicken, putting condiments into bowls, and setting the table for the family. She even surprised me by heating the tortillas in the oven, taking the oven mitt out of a drawer before she put the baking tray into the oven. I had never taught her that—I didn’t even realize she knew where the oven mitt was stored!  If you welcome your children into the kitchen while you work and narrate what you do and why, you’ll be surprised by how much they pick up, and how eager to participate they become! 

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  • Cleaning up. Washing a table is a favorite Practical Life activity. It involves many steps and materials, and we build up to it slowly, teaching each component skill: students learn to squeeze sponges by transferring water between small containers; they learn to pour water by first pouring beans, then lentils, then rice, then water with small pitchers; they learn how to operate a faucet, making sure to turn off the water when done; they learn to put on an apron; they learn to fold a cloth; they learn to put materials away after completing their work. The table washing activity puts together all these skills:  It’s amazing to see a 3½- or 4-year-old complete this rather complex, multi-step process.

    At home, you can encourage your child to participate in cleanup after a meal—from bringing dishes into the kitchen, scraping food into the trash, and placing them in the dishwasher, to wiping down the table and sweeping up food crumbs from under it.  

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  • Taking care of plants. All of our Montessori preschool classrooms have plants, and taking care of them is a great Practical Life activity. Students learn to dust leaves, cut off and dispose of dead leaves, and water the plants. They also learn how to arrange flowers to help beautify their classrooms!

    Your child can enjoy similar tasks at home by selecting a few small plants at a garden store with you and then being entrusted with their care.  Observe her pride and attentiveness as she thinks to water her plants and keep them healthy.  And, of course, if you have a garden, by all means invest in some child-sized tools so your preschooler can help you. Planting vegetables and fruits and harvesting them is not only a great Practical Life experience, it’s a great opportunity to awaken an interest in science, too.

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  •  Getting dressed and taking care clothes. The Dressing Frames are a set of Practical Life materials that enable children to learn how to manage common fasteners, such as zippers, buttons, snaps, belt buckles and shoelaces. Within his first year in the Montessori preschool class, your child will round out his dressing skill set. He’ll also refine other skills, such as folding cloths, sorting things by color, and placing things into their proper spots on shelves.

    With these skills, your preschool child will soon be ready to take care of much of his daily clothing needs. A 3½ or 4-year-old is usually able to dress himself from head to toe—if he’s given enough time. He’s also able to place dirty clothes in a hamper, even sorting them by lights and darks, and can put folded clothes back into drawers and shelves. Older preschool children can contribute more to the family’s laundry: try teaching your 5-year-old to load the washing machine, measure pour detergent, and get the load started! She’ll also be able to fold many of her own clothes, and hang up dresses and pants on hangers in her closet.

As we wrote elsewhere, a child who feels capable because he can act in the world, without needing to rely on Mom or Dad for every little thing, is a child who is developing self-confidence. Writes psychologist Madeline Levine:“Self-esteem doesn’t contribute much to success. But success contributes mightily to self-esteem. Kids have to ‘do’ something, and do it well, to get a self-esteem boost.”

Helping the child learn to do things for himself, however important, is just one of the goals of Practical Life.  Like all aspects of a Montessori preschool classroom, Practical Life has many learning objectives. Here are a few:

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  • To facilitate a smooth transition to school by providing familiar activities. Practical life is the part of the classroom where new students feel comfortable because they reflect similar activities to what they see at home.  Peeling a banana, pouring water, cutting with scissors, and cleaning spills are all familiar activities the young child finds comfort in.
  • To develop concentration.  Practical Life is usually where a child first connects with a material and immerses himself fully in a chosen, repeated activity.  A child who previously darted around the room, unable to pause long enough to connect with any particular material, might become fascinated with pouring water back and forth or with drying a table.  In doing so he learns to focus his mind for the purpose of mastering a new skill.  This is the start of a child’s attachment to the many Montessori materials, which build in complexity to help build concentration. 
  • To develop fine- and gross-motor skills.  Practical Life tasks are excellent motor skills activities.  Carrying heavy objects such as classroom chairs or buckets of water builds gross motor strength; pouring from a small pitcher or scrubbing a table increases precision of movement; peeling an egg, using a dropper, or picking up dropped beans all strengthen the three fingers needed for writing with a pencil.
  • To develop problem-solving skills.  Like most Montessori materials, Practical Life activities have a built-in control of error:  They enable the child himself to judge whether an activity has been done satisfactorily or not (water has spilled; a button is left without a whole; the loosely rolled rug won’t stand up in the bin).  With positive guidance from his teacher, the child learns to pay attention to these cues and acquires a habit of self-correction.
  • To develop logical work habits.  Practical Life activities progress in complexity and, in doing so, increase a child’s ability to work through a series of steps in a logical way from beginning to end.  This is vital for success with more abstract language or math work later on.

While many parents are eager to see their child progress to academic lessons in the preschool classroom, we hope you’ll see the hidden value in Practical Life, and wholeheartedly support your child as he explores the many fun and educational activities found in this unique part of the Montessori Primary class.

A True Learning Community: the Mixed-Age Montessori Preschool Classroom

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In addition to the unique Montessori materials, one of the first things you notice when you observe a Montessori preschool classroom is the wide range of ages in the class: 3-year-olds work alongside and sometimes with 5- and 6-year olds. Children stay in the same classroom community for a full three years: the traditional kindergarten year is integrated into the 3-year Montessori Primary program.

Often, parents new to Montessori preschool wonder: how will this 3-year-cycle work out for my child? Will my 3-year-old be intimidated by the much larger 6-year-olds? Will my kindergarten-aged child revert back to babyish behavior because she is around younger preschool children? And, maybe most importantly, how can one trained Montessori teacher possibly ensure that 20 or 30 students in her classroom are challenged and engaged, when she has such a wide range of abilities to accommodate?

The Montessori materials are one key factor that enables the 3-year cycle to work. But, in amazing ways, it is the 3-year, mixed-age environment itself that provides an optimal learning environment for all students!

In contrast to most other preschool or school settings, in Montessori preschool, your child will typically stay with the same teacher for three years. This has many benefits:

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  • No annual “getting to know you period.” In most other preschools and elementary schools, a teacher has to get to know a whole new group of 20+ children, each September. She has to assess their academic, motor and social skills. She has to get to know their strengths and weaknesses, discover their temperaments, learn about their home environments, and build relationships, with 20+ children. In contrast, in a Montessori preschool class, only about 1/3 of students are new each September!
  • The teacher can really get to know each child. Because Montessori teachers have each preschooler for about three years, they can get to know this child well:  Is she shy and needs time to warm up? Is he a strong-willed little person who needs very firm limits and immediate consequences? Does she love flowers—or machines?  Does he love to tell and write stories, or would he rather work quietly with puzzles?  Every detail that a Montessori teacher knows about a child is an insight that helps her to tailor the curriculum to that child.  
  • Teachers as partners to parents. Over a three-year period, you can build a relationship with your child’s teacher. This means you have a knowledgeable adult at your service who knows your child really well.  She is also a professional who spends significant amounts of time with many children of your child’s age, and can be a valuable resource if concerns arise regarding learning or behavior. 

And while parents may initially be skeptical of the mixed-age preschool classroom, there are benefits that are not immediately evident:

  • Older children—and their advanced work—inspire the younger ones. Children who are new to a Montessori preschool class often learn much from the older students. A 3-year-old may observe carefully as a 4-year-old works with the Sandpaper Letters, for example—and he will learn a lot in the process. One of our teachers reports being stunned when a little friend of 3½ years knew all the letters on the initial presentation: she had observed her older friend’s lessons and work, and absorbed all that knowledge! Just as importantly, the younger students desperately want to be as capable as the older students they adore. This is a great motivation for them to master the early materials: they know that there is a progression of lessons, and that in order to do the exciting Golden Bead work, for example, they have to first master their numbers to 10!
  • An ability to be the youngest and the oldest child, in turn. Most children have a fixed role in life: the big sister, the little brother, etc. In a Montessori environment, each gets a chance to have all roles: big sisters suddenly are the youngest when they arrive, and are able to find older friends as role models and mentors. Little brothers who complete the three-year-cycle finally get to be the leaders, to be admired by and to mentor their younger peers. This exposure to different roles fosters the astounding kindness and nurturing nature about which parents and others so frequently remark when they observe our classrooms or encounter Montessori children in the world!
  • A benevolent, non-competitive, growth-focused community. In a typical single-age setting, where all children do the same thing at the same time, it’s easy for children to start comparing themselves to others, rather than to focus on getting better themselves. They think, “I can read more than Susi,” instead of “now I can read books with phonograms: I’ve learned a lot since the summer.” In the Montessori preschool class, in contrast, each child works independently, at his level. The result? A benevolent community of young learners, each focused on growing, and none jealous of the others’ achievements nor frustrated by an inability to keep up with more advanced peers.

A tremendous opportunity to develop real confidence and leadership for those children who stay for the entire 3-year-cycle. Click here to read more about the significant non-cognitive benefits earned by those children who stay for the critical 3rd year of the 3-year-cycle.

The hidden benefits of your child’s third year in Montessori preschool

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The third year in Montessori preschool has sometimes been called the cashing in year or the leap year.  It’s the time when students put together all the different skills they have indirectly and directly prepared for throughout their Montessori toddler and preschool years.

Academically, the third year is often a flurry of activity. If you are the parent of a 3rd year student, you may already have noticed some of the interesting new work your child brings home: booklets of math facts practice; Books to Remember books to read to you; sentences cut into little pieces for analysis, and map shapes traced and labeled.

Students also tackle progressively longer tasks: they might spend multiple days creating booklets of different leaf shapes carefully colored and labeled; they might illustrate and author multi-sentence stories, or complete math problems using more abstract materials such as the Small Bead Frame.

In the third year of Primary, a typical Montessori preschool student achieves cognitive growth far above grade level.  He goes from walking to leaping, as a Montessori mother put it.  And yet, as impressive as this academic achievement is, the most important benefits of the third year in Montessori preschool may well lie elsewhere.

Over the past decade, researchers have come to question the role that cognitive skills by themselves play in a child’s success in school and life. While academics matter greatly, some researchers now say that

[w]hat matters most in a child’s development … is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years of life. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us often think of them as character. Wall Street Journal

The third year in Montessori preschool is a time when children mature in their personality traits or character.  It’s the time when students become self-possessed learners, confident in their abilities.  It’s where they emerge as leaders, benevolently sharing their skills with their younger peers.

After two full years, the Montessori preschool class is a familiar environment to these 5-year-olds. They know the daily routines inside and out; their teachers know them well and can readily work with their strengths and encourage them to take on challenges. They are conscious of being the oldest students in the room, having traveled the road from 3-year-old to 5-year-old.

When my daughter had just started her third year in Montessori preschool, I remember asking her what lessons she had gotten in the past week. She looked at me as though I were out of my mind. “Of course, I didn’t get any lesson this past week. Mom, it’s the first week of school, and my teachers are helping our new friends. I don’t need the teachers to tell me what to do. I just walk around class, pick my work, and do it.”

Third year students may indeed start the year by walking around the room, picking work independently but somewhat impulsively. Over time, their teacher works with them on bigger, more ambitious work, sometimes setting multi-day goals, in preparation for the increased independence and responsibility of Montessori Elementary.

But within this Montessori preschool classroom, when a child struggles a bit with these challenging tasks, she can take a step back, look around the classroom, contemplate the activities on the shelves, and observe the work that younger friends do.  She can realize that I know how to do all that!  

No, a 6-year-old does not explicitly think this thought.  But she knows that at some point, for example, it was challenging for her to form a letter, just like it is now for this 4-year-old friend—and that with hard work, she mastered it.  She has come to expect that the tasks she tackles in her Montessori preschool classroom may require persistence and repetition to master.  She knows that she’ll make mistakes—spill water or even break a beautiful ceramic bowl—but that these mistakes are okay, and that we can learn from them, move on, and still have fun in the process.

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During the second week of school this year, one of our Heads of School shared this story:  In one of her larger Montessori preschool classrooms, a 3-year-old girl was working on a Practical Life activity that involved spooning lentils from one bowl into another. Lentils had spilled all over the table, and the little girl looked as though she were about to cry.  A 5-year-old boy who had been watching her from nearby then came to her side and helped her. He showed her how to pick up the spilled lentils.  He showed her how to hold the spoon level when transferring the lentils, moving slowly, just like his teacher had shown him, two years ago. He stayed by the girl’s side, encouraging her in her work. Then, when she was done, he helped her put the activity away, demonstrating how to roll up the little mat and how to put the whole tray with the materials back properly in its spot on the shelf.

3rd year students in Montessori preschool naturally have many opportunities to become classroom leaders, and usually take them on eagerly.  A teacher might ask a 3rd year to help welcome new friends to class or to give lessons to a younger peer.  A 6-year-old might spontaneously read to a few younger preschool classmates, or even be asked by the teacher whether he’d like to read a book to the class at group time.  Younger Montessori preschoolers naturally search out the 3rd years for help: when a teacher is busy with a lesson, it’s just as easy to ask your friend to help you with a tricky word on a command card or to assist you in tying a bow!  And because the 3rd year student is so familiar with his classroom and has learned to value its beauty and order, he’s often the one who takes the initiative to tidy up or water a plant with limp leaves.

While accelerated academics are a great benefit of the third year of the Montessori preschool cycle, realize that your child is acquiring potentially far more powerful assets, whether you call them noncognitive skills, personality traits or character.

What’s the big deal with independence in Montessori preschool?

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Montessori preschool and toddler programs place much more emphasis on helping children become independent than other programs do.  Why is that?  Does it really matter whether a 2-year-old can put on his own jacket, or whether a 5-year-old can peel a carrot or tie his shoelaces?

When parents first see the snack routine in one of our Montessori toddler environments—setting the table, serving themselves and each other, and cleaning up after themselves—they are stunned.  Often, parents are concerned that their own 18-month-old won’t ever be able to fit into this group of toddlers who seem so mature and capable!

What is it about a Montessori preschool and toddler environment that enables young children to competently do for themselves things that much older children still can’t do in other settings?

According to Dr. Montessori, educating young children is educating them for independence:

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If teaching is to be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the way to independence.  It must initiate them into those kinds of activities which they can perform themselves and which keep them from being a burden to others because of their inabilities.  We must help them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down stairs, to pick up fallen objects, to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts.  All this is part of an education for independence.

Dr. Maria Montessori

Toddlers are naturally eager to learn these things.  “Do it myself” might well be the refrain for the toddler years!

Unfortunately, our day-to-day lives often make for less than ideal circumstances to help our children achieve the independence they crave.  Our homes are not optimized around a little person with his height of less than 3 feet:  Objects are hard to reach, too heavy, or too big for little hands to use.  Our days are not set up to move at his speed:  We rarely just happen to have 10 spare minutes to wait while our 2-year-old puts on his jacket!

Yet enabling a toddler to become more independent has huge benefits, both near-term and longer-term.

Power struggles decrease when a child feels more in control.  Temper tantrums are less frequent when a toddler is busy doing things for himself rather than resisting his parent’s efforts to do things for him!

A child who feels capable because he can act in the world, without needing to rely on Mom or Dad for every little thing, is a child who is developing self-confidence.  Writes psychologist Madeline Levine: “Self-esteem doesn’t contribute much to success.  But success contributes mightily to self-esteem.  Kids have to “do” something, and do it well, to get a self-esteem boost.”

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Children who start to contribute to the home’s smooth functioning in little ways reap many long-term benefits. A great recent article in Wired Magazine points out many of these benefits, and offers a great quote to the educational benefits of involving children in real daily tasks:

So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct.  But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but kindle motivation.  Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges.  If we pay attention, we see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play. Article in Wired Magazine

So if independence is vitally important, how do we go about fostering it?

Let’s start by quoting some hard-hitting words from Dr. Montessori:

We wait upon our children; and to serve them in this way is not less fatal than to do something that would tend to suffocate their own useful, spontaneous activities.

We believe that children are like puppets.  We wash them and feed them as if they were dolls.  We never stop to think that a child who does not act does not know how to act, but he should act, and nature has given him all the means for learning how to act.  Our primary duty toward him is to assist him to perform useful acts.  A mother who feeds her child without taking the least effort to teach him how to hold a spoon or to find his mouth, or who, when she is herself eating, does not at least invite him to watch how it is done, is not a good mother.  She offends her son’s human dignity by treating him as a puppet, whereas he is by nature a man that has been entrusted to her care.  Everyone knows that it requires much more time and patience to teach a child how to eat, wash, and clothe himself than it does to feed, bathe and clothes him by oneself.The one who does the former is an educator; the latter performs the lower office of a servant. Dr. Maria Montessori

A goal in our classroom is to act as an educator, in the sense that Dr. Montessori describes above, as someone who guides your child toward independence.  How do we approach this responsibility?

Here are four key principles that help us as we guide our students to independence. These principles hold true in the Montessori preschool and toddler environments, and you can apply them at home, too:

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    • Prepare the environment.  The Montessori preschool and toddler classrooms are optimally prepared to support children’s independence.  All furniture is child sized, as are tools, from small plates to low toilets, from miniature brooms to toddler-sized screwdrivers.  The classroom is entirely organized around the child’s day:  Shelves are filled with materials carefully selected for toddlers or preschoolers to handle successfully, on their own.  We even have dedicated activities to teach specific skills: color-coded trays with pouring activities that start with beans and progress to rice and then water; dressing frames to teach buttoning, zipping and so on; a multi-step set of materials to teach the skills needed to wash a table (sponging, folding cloths, pouring water…).Obviously, this is not an environment you can easily replicate at home!  But there are steps you can take to make your home more supportive of your toddler’s independence.  Here are some starter ideas:

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    • Give your child access in the kitchen.  Arrange plates and silverware for him on a low open shelf, or in a drawer.  Provide a step stool so he can reach the counter to work with you, or place a small table and chair in the kitchen for him to work at.
    • Organize the family room so he can participate.  Toddlers don’t deal well with clutter.  It’s best to offer low shelves with only a few toys out at a time and a place for each item.  That way, he can put his things away, and find them, when he needs them.
    • Set up his room and bathroom to support his growing independence in dressing and washing up.  Look for a high step stool that will enable our child to access the sink.  In his room, display a few (3-4 at most) sets of clothing on a low shelf or in shallow baskets.  Make there’s a clothes hamper for him to place dirty clothes in at the end of the day.
  • Teach individual skills, step-by-step.  Remember those toddlers conducting their own snack routine?  They didn’t learn all that in a day!  In a Montessori classroom, we build skills slowly, one simple step at a time.  This ensures children can succeed, which not only makes them happy, but also keeps them motivated to learn more.  So for the snack routine, we break it down into very small steps (e.g. placing the plates on the table, setting a napkin at each place, scooping one spoonful of raisins, etc.), each to be mastered one at a time, and teach each step separately.A similar, slow approach can help your child gain independent at home and feel like he’s contributing.

    Pick easy things first, and pick things your child wants to do.  They don’t need to be the most obvious things, either:  In our family, one of the first contributions my son made was to help make coffee; he loved scooping the beans into the grinder!  Over time, we added other steps: opening the difficult closure of the coffee bean container, then closing it.   Placing the cover on the grinder (tricky – it only goes on one way, and has to be totally vertical!) Getting the filter paper out of the cupboard, and carefully folding it so it fits in the filter cone.  He can’t quite make the coffee by himself yet (the full can of water is still too heavy for him to pour), but he sure feels like he’s making me coffee, and it’s become a treasured part of our morning routine!

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    Here are some skills your toddler might well be ready for:

    • Setting his place at the table.  You can make him a placemat with outlines of plate, spoon, fork and cup.  Or you can show him one thing at a time.
    • Feeding himself.  Start with finger foods, then introduce spoon and fork.  Allow ample time for your 2-year-old to feed himself—and resist the urge to take over!
    • Drinking out of a small glass or cup, not a sippy cup or other closed cup.
    • Carrying dirty dishes into the kitchen.  An older toddler can scrape his plate into the trash can, and perhaps even place it in the dishwasher with some coaching.
    • Putting on his clothes, especially underwear, pants and skirts.  Even jackets are a possibility, with the Montessori flip (see a video here!)
    • Taking off his clothes (with the exception of tight-fitting t-shirts, which can be a struggle for a while.)
    • Putting dirty laundry in a hamper after undressing.
    • Hanging up a jacket on a peg or even a small hanger.
    • Taking off his shoes and placing them in a designated spot (a basket or low shelf)
    • Washing hands with soap and water and drying them independently.
  • Slow down.  One of the benefits of the Montessori preschool and toddler environment is the abundance of time.  We are careful to preserve an unhurried day for our students, so that we can go at a toddler’s pace.  Teachers plan for snack time to take up to 45 minutes. It’s perfectly all right if it takes 10 minutes to get everything ready, and 15 minutes to clean everything up: that slowness is when learning happens!At home, you won’t always have the time to slow down for your child.  But it helps to think through your day to see if you can make time with those tasks where you’ll encourage your child’s independence. If weekdays are just too crazy (we understand!), then set aside an hour or two on the weekend.  Spend time together in the kitchen, for example, to jointly prepare a meal.
  • Embrace error.  When toddlers and preschoolers learn, it can get messy.  Things can and will get broken; liquids will spill; food will land on the floor.  In Montessori preschool, we view all of this as a natural part of learning, not as mistakes.  Cleanup is therefore a part of every activity, not something separate from it.  For example, when we work with water, there’s always a sponge or cloth handy to wipe up spills.Dr. Montessori called this being friendly with error, and it’s a valuable idea to keep in mind as you help your child become more independent at home.  Buy cheap plates that you won’t be mind seeing broken, for example.  I’ll never forget how I had repeatedly asked my daughter to open our trashcan slowly, as it would fall down hard if opened too energetically.  It didn’t sink in, until the cover one day fell down right onto one of her ceramic plates and broke it. Sure, there were tears and a mess to clean up.  But after that experience, my daughter rarely forgot to handle our temperamental trashcan with care!

Independence is a big deal in Montessori preschool for many reasons, a number of which we haven’t even mentioned in this post (indirect preparation for other tasks, motor skill development, problem solving capabilities: the list is long.  Feel free to ask us for more details any time!).

At a very fundamental level, though, the motivation for independence is clear.  As Dr. Montessori says, “These words reveal the child’s inner needs: ‘Help me to do it alone.’”

Selecting Early Readers For Your Child

As a parent of a new reader (my daughter is 5½ and will start the 3rd year of Primary this fall), I recently browsed the “early reader” shelves of my local bookstore. As much as I love bookstores—and browsing Amazon after the children are asleep—this particular excursion was not a pleasant experience.

Too many of the early readers available are plainly not suited for children who are just starting to read!

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In Montessori Primary, children usually learn to read phonetically quite early. They become proficient at sounding out phonetic words, that is, words that can be decoded using the basic sounds individual letters make. They also learn 2-3 dozen puzzle words or sight words (such as the, was, one, they, to, do, he),words that appear frequently and can’t be decoded.

Following this work, students are introduced to English phonograms: those tricky letter combinations (such as <ch>, <ir>, and <aw>) that make English such a challenging language to read and write.  There are more than 40 phonograms in English! 

This is a big task for a new reader.  It can take many months for a child to master enough phonograms to give her the fluency to tackle regular books.  Within the Montessori prepared environment, a child has a variety of materials that help her to practice phonograms.

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But where does that leave parents—who naturally want to provide their child with things to read outside of school?

If you turn to the commercially available early readers, such as the Ready-to-Read series or the I-Can-Read series, you’ll find that your Montessori emergent reader will struggle.  Why? 

These books define themselves as “early readers”, not by introducing a carefully sequenced progression of phonetic skills, but by using short sentences, 1- or 2-syllable words, and big print. The biggest problem is that a child cannot sound out many words in these books using basic letter sounds—and the phonograms that they do use are so frequent and mixed, that your Montessori child will flounder.  (The idea behind these books is that children are supposed to learn to recognize words by sight through repetition.  This sets a dangerous example to a young child that reading means memorizing whole words.)    

Here are a few random example sentences, with the non-decodable letter combinations highlighted:

“Class, don’t forget!”, Ms. Glass says. “Tomorrow is…” “Pajama Day” we shout in unison. (That’s a fancy word for all together.) –from Fancy Nancy: Pajama Day, a Level 1 I-Can-Read book.

He could ride him in a circle without knocking over the chair or the dresser. from The Horse in Harry’s Room, a Level 1 I-Can-Read book

It was almost school picture day at Robin Hill School. “There will be many empty spaces in our picture,” said Mrs. Connor. “Look at the Tooth Chart.”—from A Tooth Story, Ready-to-Read, Level 1

Ironically, almost every one of these highlighted sounds are standard English phonograms.  They are predictable letter-sound patterns that should become a central part of a child’s arsenal of decoding skills—if they’re presented to him in a sequential manner that provides sufficient repetition and review. 

But don’t despair: there is an alternative available: Flyleaf Publishing’s Decodable Literature Library. These books, written by former Montessori teacher Laura Appleton-Smith, are a treasure of decodable literature for Montessori preschool students who are becoming fluent readers.  That’s why we’ve invested in a full set of these books for each of our Montessori Primary and Lower Elementary classrooms.

Flyleaf Publishing’s books outshine the alternatives. It’s the one series we have found that enables our students to read independently and joyfully, and to acquire fluency and phonogram knowledge in the process. Here are just a few reasons why this series is the best early reader library that we have found in years of perusing offerings:

  • A focus on offering decodable text.  Reading Series 1 is over 95% phonetically decodable!
  • A careful progression through phonograms, providing lots of practice along the way.  Take a look at this excerpt from Frank the Fish Gets His Wish, with the phonogram highlighted:

Frank would sit in his pink shell and wish his wish, “I wish that I had a pal to swim with; to splash and swish and jump with. I would swim the rest of my swims in a dish if I just had a pal to be with.”

What’s more, Ms. Smith is a master at introducing many words with these phonograms, without sacrificing the quality of the prose!

  • A slow build on length and complexity of stories.  Children move gradually from short, simple sentences to longer sentences with more on the page, and more complex stories to follow. 
  • Great, engaging, fun stories. While many early readers are contrived constructions that are of low interest, this series offers wonderful stories children can relate to, and which are fun to discuss with our young readers.
  • Elaborate, beautiful language. In place of the choppy, repetitive sentences found in other early readers, these books have interesting vocabulary. This list of words is just a random selection from Pearl Learns a Lesson, the book focused on the /ûr/ sound and its different spellings: flabbergasted, hurled, alert, respect, blurted, disturb, smirked, fungus, damsel, goblet, velvet, perplexed, dismissed, lavender, yearned…
  • Beautiful illustrations. While many early readers’ illustrations are cartoonish, these books feature beautiful art that wonderfully complements the story, bringing it alive and supplying context clues to help readers make sense of the stories they read.

If your child is enrolled in LePort’s Montessori program, once he or she reaches the stage of reading the Flyleaf series, you’ll notice that she’ll bring them home to read with you as part of our 3rd year Primary and early Lower Elementary programs. (If you aren’t a LePort family (yet!), you may want to search out these books for your emergent reader; they are sold directly from Flyleaf Publishing via their web site.)

We hope you enjoy listening to your child—and rejoicing in her achievement—as she reads to you from this special series!

Summer Crazies or Summer Camp Fun?

Summer time with the children is so much fun. Except when it isn’t.

Every year when school ends and summer camp starts, parents eagerly look forward to more time with their children. Time to go on local excursions, check out the tide pools, the parks, the pool. An opportunity to sign up for a week of soccer camp, or zoo camp, or arts camp (or other summer camp programs.) A chance to take a summer trip to visit relatives overseas, or grandma in the next state.

Yet by mid-July, so many families stream back to our Montessori preschools to sign up, last minute, for Montessori summer camp. Parents are feeling exhausted, and despite big plans for two full months of time together, they guiltily change their plans and sign their children up to go to Montessori summer camp, after all.

Why? Why is it that, just when they get to do all kinds of fun things with their parents, for weeks on end, children go crazy? Is it poor parenting, or something else?

As Montessori educators, we strongly believe it is not poor parenting. In our view, the real reason behind the “summer crazies” is that without the right summer camp environment, children loose their bearings. Young children need the order and stability of their Montessori preschool classrooms. The same reasons why such environments are right for them during the year apply as fully during the summer.

Children benefit greatly from short, limited vacations or extra-curricular programs, as well as from quality time spent with family and friends. But too much a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. Those that don’t attend Montessori summer camp for too long regress in their behavior, losing (temporarily) the developmental gains they made in preschool.

Dr. Montessori pointed out that negative behaviors observed in many young children—possessiveness, clumsy movement and breaking of things, unkindness, whining, shouting, screaming and general noisiness, clinginess and boredom—disappeared once the child became engaged in concentrated work in the Montessori classroom. Writes Dr. Montessori:

One of the chief reasons for the spread of our schools has been the visible disappearance of these defects in children as soon as they found themselves in a place where active experience upon their surroundings was permitted, and where free exercise of their powers could nourish their minds. Surrounded by interesting things to do, they could repeat the exercises at will, and went from one spell of concentration to another. Once the children had reached this stage, and could work and focus their minds on something of real interest to them, their defects disappeared. … All these disturbances came from a single cause, which was insufficient nourishment for the life of the mind.

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Children need routines. They need an environment designed for them, where they can function independently, with little adult help. Their developing minds must find interesting things to engage with, and a controlled, well-designed space that allows them to engage without distractions, corrections or time pressures to move on to the next activity.

Summer can be exciting—but it can also be too exciting some times, and too chaotic. Too many trips, excursions and adult-led summer camp experiences (especially when swim camp follows drama camp follows cooking camp!) mean children can feel out-of-control and out-of-sorts. All these summer camp activities leave little room for quiet time. Even when quiet time finally arrives, outside a Montessori summer camp environment, children don’t have access to the carefully designed Montessori materials that allow them to focus their whole attention, and to attain the concentration their minds need to develop optimally.

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In LePort’s Montessori preschool summer camp, we ensure that children continue in their familiar, safe environment. We do of course add fun elements to make summer camp special and different from the school year: bi-weekly summer camp arts & crafts themes and sports activities; in-house summer camp field trips; splash days and pizza parties. But the key thing is that all these activities are integrated into a Montessori preschool environment, and led by experiences Montessori teachers, not temporary camp counselors, so that a child experiences the new and exciting within a familiar, reliable framework.

We actively encourage you to take some quality time off with your child, and to help him or her explore the exciting world out there. But at the same time, consider whether eleven weeks of summer is a long time, especially if your child is only three or four. Your child benefits greatly from being in her preschool classroom, and the calming intellectual life she lives there helps her to be happy and centered.

So what advice can we give to parents who worry about their children going crazy in summer? We’ll let Dr. Montessori speak for us:

Children need to work at an interesting occupation: they should not be helped unnecessarily, nor interrupted, once they have begun to do something intelligent. Sweetness, severity, medicine do not help if the child is mentally hungry. If a man is starving for lack of food, we do not call him a fool, nor give him a beating, nor do we appeal to his better feelings. He needs a meal, and nothing else will do. The same thing applies here. Neither kindness nor severity will solve the problem. Man is an intelligent being, and needs mental food almost more than physical food.

Montessori summer camp is the “mental food” a child needs to thrive in the summer. Spice it up with some trips, excursions and a week or two of another summer camp experience, and voila, the cure for the summer crazies!

Heike Larson

Focusing on Focus

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As parents, we know that children are not automatically able to focus. When a toddler loses interest in a toy, she stops paying attention. She can’t just will herself to keep going.

So how is it that a child eventually acquires the mental stamina necessary to master skills such as reading? How is it that in later years, a high schooler is able to resist the temptation to check her Facebook account and keep at a demanding essay?

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In his recent article, “Learning How to Focus on Focus”, the Wall Street Journal’s Jonah Lehrer suggests that it’s the child’s capacity to engaged in focused attention that marks the difference. The key, says Lehrer, is “what psychologists call “executive function,” a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses.”

“Executive function” refers to the skills underlying a person’s ability to choose to sustain attention on a particular task, despite distractions. Strong executive function is highly correlated with many desirable behaviors, not just an ability to study and succeed in school:

Children who could better regulate their impulses and attention were four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs and half as likely to become single parents. In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status.

Research suggests that executive functioning is a learned skill, and that a child’s school environment and curriculum content can make a huge difference. Dr. Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, has catalogued a list of activities that develop executive functioning. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain educational approaches, such as Montessori, consistently increase the capacity for executive function in children. Yet, notes Lehrer in his article, “despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function.”

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While “developing executive function” isn’t how we would have coined what we do at LePort, one of the reasons we champion the Montessori approach is that it teaches children how to focus. In Montessori, children are placed in a carefully prepared environment and then encouraged to choose from an array of fascinating activities. Montessori materials are specially designed to encourage extended engagement, so they can enable a child to build mental stamina. And extended, two to three hour long “work periods” give a child the luxury of time to persist with an activity much longer than a typical, adult-let preschool schedule of 30 minutes this, 30 minutes that would ever allow. It’s no surprise that the result is that our students acquire an enhanced capacity for executive functioning.

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When you see Montessori children engaged with the materials in their classrooms, intently focused on building up the Pink Tower, or tying bows on a Dressing Frame, or coloring in complex geometric shapes with the Metal Insets, they are getting a “two-fer”: they are learning about volume, practicing self-care and pencil control, while they are also building up that foundational skill of concentration.

As Mr. Lehrer writes in the article, “it’s not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills of executive function directly and creatively.”

In Montessori, it’s never either arithmetic or executive function. The beauty of Montessori is doing both at the same time.

Silence: An Unexpected Montessori Benefit

When parents first visit a well-run Montessori school, they often comment on how quiet the classrooms are compared to many other environments where groups of preschoolers come together. It’s true: our classrooms are quiet—not quiet in the sense of totally silent, but quiet in a busy, active, yet very civilized way. Read more

Don’t Redshirt for Kindergarten–Eliminate Fixed Timeline

Over the past year, much has been said about the right time to start students in Kindergarten. Starting in fall 2012, California will move up the age cut-off, so only students who turn 5 before September 1st can enter Kindergarten. (Previously, the cut-off date was December 2nd.) Researchers have reported on a growing trend that parents are holding back children who would otherwise be eligible for Kindergarten, so as to give them an extra year of maturity. Much of this concern is due to the “increasingly academic nature” of Kindergarten, and worries that students may not yet be ready, at age 5, to sit still and pay attention in class.

These concerns are understandable and valid in the traditional public school model, and many parents rightly agonize over the decision of when to start their children in Kindergarten.

Fundamentally, though, the issue is not when children should start Kindergarten, but whether the transition into Kindergarten needs to be as difficult and consequential as it is in the public school system (and many private schools). What is it about Kindergarten that makes it such a negative experience for so many children?

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More than anything, it is the artificial and unnecessary change in behavioral expectations and academic methodology. At age 5, public school children are suddenly expected to shift from a preschool’s free-play environment to the rigorous, group-based structure of a traditional classroom. They are required to sit still, to be quiet and listen, and to follow a tightly-scheduled plan of 30 minutes of this subject, then 30 minutes of that. They are expected to transition from playing with Legos or trains or doll houses, to completing monotonous worksheets. They are, on a dime, required to stop following their own interests and impulses, and to adhere instead to adult-set, adult-led procedures and goals. Without preparation or training, children are expected to transform their entire approach to school. No wonder parents are concerned about when and whether their children will succeed at making this transition!

This is all very unfortunate, because there is such a beautiful alternative to this whole manufactured struggle: Montessori education. Montessori schools do not require such a black and white decision about when to start Kindergarten. They do not subject a child entering her Kindergarten year to abrupt, radical changes that are inconsistent with their actual needs.  Nor do they leave a preschooler unprepared for the actual, gradual changes that are forthcoming.

In a well-run Montessori school, students aged 3-6 are grouped together in one classroom, called the Primary classroom. The classroom is equipped with a wide range of educational materials. It offers simple “practical life” exercises, such as pouring or sorting, for the youngest children, as well as very advanced academic materials, which can take some 6-year-olds all the way through reading chapter books, studying introductory grammar, and doing arithmetic into the thousands (skills typically not taught until 1st grade or later in most other schools.)

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In a Montessori program, each child progresses through the sequence of materials at her own pace, under the guidance of a trained, observant teacher. Because all of the work is individual, because children practice as long as they need to achieve mastery, because children move ahead only if and when they are ready, there is no need to make each child transition into “academic Kindergarten.” Academic challenges get tackled naturally, as the child is academically ready—not when it suits a school system’s artificial schedule. [Many Montessori schools also move children up to 1st grade when they are developmentally ready, not on a fixed September timeline.]

In fact, Montessori students are never forced to make the radical shift in behavior that public schools demand. Not in their Kindergarten year, and not in the higher grades. Instead, they gradually grow over time into more scheduled routines and abstract content (including class lectures and group lessons as it becomes age-appropriate). Using the Montessori materials, they steadily build their attention spans, learn to pace and plan their own work, and progress from concrete to abstract. For example, they first learn to solve multiplication problems with the Golden Bead materials, then, as they solidify the principles involved and become able to hold them more abstractly in their minds, they move to solving them with just pencil and paper.

By the time they graduate from the “lower elementary classroom” (ages 6-9), students are ready for the more conceptual, abstract studies of upper elementary, as well as for the more structured schedule, and are eager to discover the exciting insights that come next.

Fundamentally, the question is not when children should start Kindergarten, but why a system that so clearly violates children’s most fundamental developmental needs continues to be accepted as the norm for schooling in this country.

Heike Larson

Learning to Write Right

Should Children First be Taught Cursive Handwriting?

Cursive handwriting is one of the most polarizing topics in early education. Some argue that it is a core component of language arts training that every child should master. Others that it’s an outdated practice made obsolete by computer technology. The Wall Street Journal recently joined the debate. Author Gwendolyn Bounds published a fascinating article titled How Handwriting Trains the Brain. Bounds quotes recent research using advanced imaging technology that shows that “writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea compositi­­­­­­­on and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.”

At LePort, we fall squarely on the side of those who argue that learning to handwrite in cursive is an important skill. The benefits of cursive, in our view, go far beyond being able to produce beautiful script. Cursive minimizes errors involving letter reversals, and so facilitates reading development; it helps students distinguish separate words more clearly in their own writing, and helps visually internalize the word as a grammatical unit; it strengthens the fine motor skills involved in a smooth, prolonged motion.

Learning To Write RIghtBut in order to fully evaluate whether teaching cursive is a value, we think it’s equally important to consider the question of when it is to be taught. What is the proper time in the educational process to  introduce children to cursive handwriting?

According to Maria Montessori, children should learn cursive right from the start, before they learn to print.  Montessori points out that the motions involved in cursive writing come much more naturally to a child. Because cursive handwriting results in a much smoother and rewarding learning process, and because it facilitates subsequent development of reading and writing skills, it makes sense for it to come first.

Students at high quality Montessori schools usually begin writing in cursive at ages 4 or 5, using a special, tactile material called the Sandpaper Letters. Individual letters made of sandpaper are mounted on beautifully painted wooden boards, and children trace them with their “writing fingers”, as they listen to and say the sound the letter makes. Naturally, step by step, they transition to paper and pencil. This multi-sensory, active method of teaching writing works: 5-year-olds at such schools typically write full sentences in beautiful cursive, learn to read fluently at the same time—and thoroughly enjoy the learning experience.

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This is in stark contrast to the traditional method of first starting with block letters, and then retraining 3rd graders to write in cursive afterwards. As the Journal mentions, parents routinely balk at the idea of their children spending time learning cursive: “I can’t believe you are wasting a minute on this.” Given that their children are in elementary school (as opposed to preschool), these parents are right to complain. A major justification of teaching cursive is that it makes subsequent reading and writing easier to learn. Retraining cursive after learning print defeats that important purpose, and does indeed render cursive training both a source of frustration, and a waste precious classroom time and resources.

How much better to learn cursive from the start, with a method that is enjoyable for the child! Done in this way, a student gets all the direct and indirect benefits from fluent, beautiful handwriting, with none of the pain of learning it at the wrong time.

Ray Girn