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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.

The Fundamental Choice

It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was. Dr. Maria Montessori

Last May, I had the opportunity to observe a kindergarten and first grade class at the local elementary school my then 5-year-old daughter would have attended in fall, if we went the public school route.

The school I observed is about as good as it gets in public education. It’s a “Blue Ribbon”, “California Distinguished” school, with standardized test scores in the top 5% of the state. It has families all over the city vying for spots. The principal, whom I had the pleasure to talk to at length, is a kind man and a good listener; he struck me as the type of educator deeply dedicated to providing the students in his charge with a quality education.

private-school

Generally, public schools are reluctant to allow observations by prospective parents. After I shared that my daughter attended Montessori school, and that I was concerned how she would transition to the public school environment, the principal made an exception to his usual policy and invited me to observe some of his best classes.

I saw a lot in the time I spent in each of two classrooms. The kindergarten students were working on individual letter sounds q, v, and z. The 1st graders were writing 3-4 sentence paragraphs and working with numbers up to 100. The contrast with a Montessori classroom was dramatic. Kindergarten-aged children in a Montessori environment are reading real books and writing multi-sentence stories in cursive, and elementary 1st year students are writing page-long stories, reading chapter books and doing arithmetic into the thousands.

But while the contrast was dramatic, it wasn’t surprising to me. I went in expecting this difference in academic progress. What really took me by surprise was just how deep the difference between the programs went. The traditional classrooms I observed were, in a thousand ways large and small, training students to conform passively to adult rules and expectations—a completely opposite behavioral mindset than the active-minded independence we encourage in Montessori preschool and elementary programs.

Let me share just two small observations among many, one from each class.

First grade: Teachers as guides or as servants? Children as independent actors, or passive observers?

In the first grade class, the children were studying how seeds grow into plants. Each child was asked to observe how a few lima beans and sunflower seeds germinated, and to record their observations in a science journal—a project that you might well find in a Montessori lower elementary classroom.

But here is how the project was implemented in this classroom: the teacher walked around the tables in the room, stopping by each child. She tore off a paper towel, put it on a plate, and sprayed it with water. She then had the child put the lima beans and seeds on the paper towel. After that, the teacher folded the towel, and inserted it into a zip lock bag, upon which the child had written his or her name. Over the entire 15 minutes I observed, the teacher was occupied making these kits for the children, while children were apparently supposed to be working independently on other tasks, but in fact spent much time chatting and mingling without a clear purpose, as the minutes ticked by. The teacher completed the kits of approximately 6 out of the 30 students in the room, suggesting that she was going to be occupied by kit making for well over an hour that afternoon.

private school

As someone familiar with Montessori rooms, I could not believe that the children had such a passive role! This was a class of 6 ½ to 7 ½-year olds, fully capable (one hopes!) of tearing off paper towels, of wetting them by using a sprayer, of counting out beans and seeds and placing them on a towel, and so on. These children could have and should have made these science kits by themselves! Instead, the teacher did it for them. The teacher was in charge, the students, outside observers of their own education.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with how the same experiment would happen in a Montessori classroom. The teacher might take 10 minutes in the morning, collect a group of students ready for this experiment, and give them a brief introduction, describing the purpose of the work and demonstrating how to assemble the experiment. She would then set up a table with all the materials, and invite the children to make their own kit. The children would autonomously make their own bags, taking turns at the table. They would have ownership of their work, and reinforce many practical skills in the process. They would help each other if one got stuck, with the teacher monitoring from afar to ensure that the peer interaction was to mutual benefit. The teacher would gain over an hour to dedicate to her actual job, helping students learn, rather than spending her time in essentially the role of an unwanted nanny or servant, doing things to children perfectly capable, and almost certainly eager, to do them for themselves.

Kindergarten: Respect for intellectual independence, or conformity and obedience?

In the kindergarten class, I arrived during a silent work period. I was pleasantly surprised at first: after all, independent, engaging, self-initiated work is the core means to develop concentration skills in children!

But when I observed more carefully, here’s what I saw: these 6-year-old children were totally silent. Not one word was spoken. They were glued to their desks, upon which were found things like play dough, simple coloring pages and other very basic activities typically undertaken by 3- or 4-year-olds in a Montessori class. Some children were engaged, but many more seemed bored and disengaged.

And then the work period ended. The teacher turned on the light, and started counting, loudly: “Five, four, three, two, one. All eyes on me!” Without giving children time to process her expectations, she immediately started directing her students: “Sara, put that down. Ian, stop. Look at me, now. Come on class, remember our agreement: when I count, you stop working. Let’s try that again. Put your fingers on your noses, all eyes on me!”

I stood, stunned, as I saw these twenty-odd six-year-olds touch their noses, line up, and stare at the teacher. I cringed as they were ordered to clean up, pronto (“you have three minutes to clean up, then please find your spot on the carpet” and “Peter, you are late, pick up your pace.”)

Compare this scene with the work periods I observe regularly in Montessori classrooms. There, children have 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work time, twice a day. During this time, the classroom is calm, but not eerily silent, as children are free to move about, talk in appropriate volumes as they work with friends, and select from a wide range of stimulating activities much more engaging than play dough or coloring pages.

private school

In such a Montessori room, here’s how the work period might end: the Montessori teacher would ring a small bell, and speak gently in a quiet voice, “Children, I invite you to finish up your work and put it away if you are interested in coming together in circle.” After this request, children are free to complete their activity, and to put it away on their terms. A child immersed in an advanced task might continue with it, even as the other children join the circle and the teacher starts reading a book or singing a song. Another child might leave his work out, with his name badge on it, so he can continue and finish it in the next work period.
Consider the difference. In the public school class I visited, the implicit theme is obedience to adult rules. In practice, students learn to conform habitually and unthinkingly to cues and prompts and commands. In a Montessori class, in contrast, the theme is respect for each individual, and the result is that a child develops the ability to responsibly take care of his own work, learning how to act freely while also considering the needs of others.

I cannot be sure how representative my observations are of public schools in general. As a parent, if you’re considering public school, you should definitely make the time to observe the school and classroom your child would be joining. What I know is that this was a highly-rated school, and the two classrooms I observed were chosen by the principal as examples of what a good public school education can look like.

If what I saw is indeed indicative of a pervasive characteristic of public education (and sadly, I suspect it is), then the implication is that in choosing between a public school and an authentic Montessori school, you are making a choice that goes far deeper than just the difference in academics. You are choosing the type of implicit values that will be emphasized to your child: respect vs. obedience, creativity vs. conformity, active-mindedness vs. passivity.

As Dr. Montessori put it, it is the child who makes the man. I’d encourage you, in judging your child’s future classroom, to ask yourself what kind of man or woman you want your son or daughter to become.


This blog post was originally featured on the Maria Montessori website.

How to lay the foundations of literacy in preschool

private montessori school

What differentiates a child that learns to read joyfully, becomes a voracious reader and succeeds academically, from one that struggles to read at grade level, and falls behind?

Decades of research provide a clear answer: for a child to become a reader, he needs three things (1) instruction in phonics, (2) a systematic way of building a store of "background knowledge" to help him make sense of what he reads, and (3) an early start to reading, definitely during his first six years before he enters Kindergarten.

Our preschool program at LePort provides your preschooler with all of these. We start pre-reading skills in our toddler program, and throughout make learning to read enjoyable for your child, so he will become a capable, eager reader by the time he graduates from the 3rd year in preschool/primary (the equivalent of traditional Kindergarten.)

private montessori school

What makes the Montessori approach to learning to read and write so effective? And why and how is it different from the way literacy is approached in other preschools and elementary schools? Here are five key highlights of what we do at LePort:

  1. Teach "phonemic awareness" early and playfully. Research tells us that one fundamental difference between children who learn to read easily and those who don’t is that "the former can discern individual words in sentences and sounds within those words. … The ability to discern sound seems to reflect some basic difference in neurological wiring." The good news is that these critical phonemic awareness skills can be taught. At LePort, toddlers play "sound games", where the teacher guides them to isolate the "d" sound at the beginning of "dog." Slightly older preschool students pick out an object from a tray based on its beginning sound. And preschool children as young as 3 or 3 ½ year old learn to associate these sounds with the corresponding letters, as they say the sounds while they look at and trace "Sandpaper Letters." (This sound-focused approach is in sharp contrast to most preschool programs, which teach letter names, a la the ABC song, which do not help children learn to read!)
  2. Break skills down into a careful sequence of steps. A key success factor for teaching preschool children is to make the process of learning rewarding. In our preschool classrooms, children have many opportunities to learn component skills of writing and reading through activities they enjoy. They learn to control a pencil as they create artwork by coloring in geometric shapes with the "Metal Insets." They sit down on the floor and "build words" using the "Moveable Alphabet." They take a box of small objects, and engage in independent reading, by decoding little labels and placing them next to a fan, a cup or a dog as they work with the "Phonetic Objects Box." No worksheets here, no boring drills, no rewards or punishments; just joyous, child-chosen, purposeful learning!
  3. Teach writing first, then watch for the "explosion into reading." Writing is putting symbols together to form words, and it is a more natural process than reading, more akin to speaking, where we put sounds together to make words. That’s why, in Montessori preschool, students build words with small moveable letters, before they read. Then, usually between age 4 and 5, comes a moment of beauty, when the child discovers he can make sense of the black scribbles on paper: he "explodes into reading", in a joyful, natural discovery of his own capabilities.
  4. Immerse children in a language-rich environment. Study after study show that a strong vocabulary at age 3 or 4 is a predictor of reading success later on: "The three-year-old test subjects who had the highest rates of vocabulary growth turned into third graders with the strongest language skills and highest reading comprehension." That’s why language development is everywhere in our classrooms: teachers read aloud to students daily, and students learn vocabulary in carefully structured "three period lessons" all over the classrooms, from colors to shapes, from naming dimensions, to learning the names of animals for toddlers, and the names for the parts of animals later on.
  5. Guide children carefully from decoding to reading for meaning. English is a complex language: the 26 letters of the alphabet are used to represent 44 different sounds, which can be spelled with over 70 phonograms, or multi-letter combinations, such as "ck" or "oo" or "igh." Because of this complexity, children need explicit instruction in deciphering the "advanced code", as well as appealing, yet deliberately controlled reading materials that allow them to enjoy reading as they gain practice. That’s why our Montessori program offers many ways of practicing reading "phonogram words". It’s also why we have recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in designing and implementing an outstanding reading program called Books to Remember to all of our primary classrooms, going much beyond what even other high-quality Montessori programs offer.

Does it work? Here’s what one LePort preschool parent says:

Every day at preschool is a learning process: my children are never bored. Early on, my daughter came home all excited about the sandpaper letters – and I didn’t even know what they were. But now, with the help of the sandpaper letters, my daughter writes in beautiful cursive: she writes all the birthday and thank you cards for the family, and she’s just 6 years old!

This summer, before my daughter started in 1st grade, she was reading the Wizard of Oz by herself. She would stumble over some of the big words, of course – but she read the whole book! And it’s not just that she reads, and how advanced she reads: it’s the way she reads, her clear pronunciation, the expressiveness of her reading: it’s almost perfect. And I think a lot of it is due to the Montessori Method: they learn the letter sounds, not the letter names. At first, I was concerned that she didn’t know that "A" is called "Aye"- but when they start reading, it really makes sense to just do the phonetic sounds. It’s hard to believe: my daughter is reading real books, fluently and with expression – and she just turned 6 in April!

Preschool Parent

The most exciting part of this, of course, is that it is also possible for your child.

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

montessori-daycare-day-care

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:

    huntington-beach-daycare-preschool

    huntington-beach-daycare-preschool

    montessori-preschool-daycare-day-care

  • 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

montessori preschool

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.

montessori preschool huntington beach irvine

montessori preschool huntington beach irvine

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.

Five differences that enable Montessori elementary students to thrive

I remember setting foot in that Montessori classroom. I sat down on a 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 exactly what was different at first, but this was unlike any classroom I had ever seen. It felt different too. Peaceful. Purposeful.

Trevor EisslerMontessori Madness

Montessori elementary classrooms are fundamentally different from traditional elementary school rooms. In fact, they are so different that it can be hard to understand how they work, and why they are so great at helping children thrive.

While it would be easy to write volumes about this topic (and some have: read Paula Polk Lillard’s book, Montessori Today, if you want a detailed description of the Montessori elementary classroom), here are five key differences, and how they matter to your child’s success.

montessori preschool palos verdesTeachers are guides, not lecturers. They individualize instruction to keep each child optimally challenged. In traditional elementary education, much instruction happens at an all-class level; students generally move through the same curriculum at the same pace. This is more true now then ever, as mandatory standardized testing forces teachers to ensure that all students meet common minimum standards. This approach by definition fails to optimally challenge most of the students, most of the time: a child who is advanced in a subject will be bored; one who is behind will quickly become anxious and concerned about his shortcomings. Montessori is different. Most instruction happens in small groups: teachers observe students and bring together children who are ready for a particular lesson. After a lesson, each child has time to practice a skill or further explore an area, either alone or with freely chosen partners. Writes Lillard: “Because the children are in a period when they have immense energy and curiosity, the secret to maintaining their interest is to keep them challenged.”In a Montessori classroom, an advanced student will be challenged to perform at his best: it’s not unusual for a 3rd grade Montessori student to tackle what would typically be considered 5th grade math, for example. At the same time, a child who struggles can get the extra support he needs, without suffering the negative effect on his self-esteem that comes from needing remedial work in a traditional elementary school setting.

montessori preschool palos verdesChildren have choices, there’s no one-size-fits all curriculum. Students are encouraged to be curious; they are engaged and love learning. When do you do your best work: when someone makes you do a task, or when you freely choose it? Autonomy is a huge factor in motivation, and Montessori elementary enables children to have a say in their learning. Of course, each child has to learn certain skills; mastering arithmetic isn’t optional. But instead of forcing each child to complete the same worksheet, the Montessori elementary classroom ensures repetition by offering a variety of materials for practicing a given skill: multiplication practice includes work with the Bead Chains, the Stamp Game, the Checkerboard, the Large Bead Frame, and the Flat Bead Frame. When we take our students on field trips, the people we encounter, from museum guides to park rangers, regularly comment that our students are the most curious and engaged group of children they have seen. This is a common refrain for Montessori elementary schools: the children love learning, because they have a chance to be actively engaged in the process.

montessori preschool palos verdes

The classroom is full of materials instead of textbooks and worksheets. Children learn to solve problems and think, instead of repeat memorized jargon. Much traditional elementary school work is unfortunately focused on work with textbooks and worksheets. While there is nothing wrong with books (we love free reading time!), you will not find traditional textbooks and worksheets in the Montessori elementary class. Dr. Montessori viewed the early elementary years as a critical stage in the mind’s development, when the concrete thinking of the preschool years matures into abstract thinking. During the Primary years, children explored many materials, such as the Trinomial Cube or the Golden Beads, primarily for the sensorial interest. Now, in elementary, children use materials to understand how the world works. They are interested in the why and the how of things; they’ve become “reasoning explorers of the abstract”, in Lillard’s vivid description. The materials in Montessori are not mere instructional aids:  Just like in Primary, much of their learning happens as the children use the materials to explore topics from grammar to division, from the fundamental needs of man, to the role of water in erosion. With the materials, learning is focused on the world; children acquire a mindset of thinking about things and figuring them out, rather than memorizing words or processes on an adult’s say-so.

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The day has two 2 – 3 hour work periods, instead of a schedule where activities are constantly changed. Protecting children from interruptions when productively engaged is key to their development of concentration and interest in their work. Dr. Montessori commented that traditional schools have broken up the day in many short time periods, in an attempt to hold the children’s interest, and that they have failed miserably, as children remain mentally fatigued despite the alleged benefit of variety. In contrast, writes Montessori, Montessori schools have proven that children need a cycle of work for which they are mentally prepared; such intelligent work with interest is not fatiguing and they should not be cut off from it by a call to play. Interest is not immediately born, and if when it has been created, the work is withdrawn, it is like depriving a whetted appetite of the food that will satisfy it.
This is why there is no morning recess in your child’s class, and why we don’t provide you with an hour-by-hour schedule. It’s one of the often-overlooked benefits for Montessori elementary students: author Paula Polk Lillard notes upon observing in a Montessori elementary class that the children “have time to think. That is what impresses me most, I realize. These children are thinking.”

montessori preschool palos verdes

Children learn with and from each other, in a mixed-age environment.  Instead of competing with each other, they grow into a community, and practice all-important social skills every day.  In traditional education, the emphasis in preschool is on “socializing” the child, and children are expected to do much together in groups. Come elementary schools, class time is largely focused on individual work, in strictly same-age classrooms, and social interactions are limited to recess and lunch.This approach—focus on group activities in preschool, and individual activities in elementary school—is fundamentally wrong, according to Montessori. Young children in preschool, left to their own devices, often choose to do things by themselves, and much activity in a Montessori Primary class is in fact individual work. As children near the end of Primary, they often start to work together in pairs. In fact, becoming interested in and able to work with a peer is one indication that a child is ready to move up to elementary!In Montessori elementary, children interact with each other, across age groups, all day. You’ll often see 2-4 children working together on projects, negotiating roles and learning social skills in a safe, supervised setting as they choose co-workers and figure out that they can work with a range of companions, not just with their closest friends.

A Montessori elementary classroom is very different from traditional schooling. These five highlights are just a start to understanding this unique learning environment. We encourage you to explore more: Read up on how we teach each of the subjects on our web site. Pick up Paula Polk Lillard’s book. And, most importantly, make time to observe in your child’s Montessori elementary classroom!

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