What To Know About Montessori Schools

Overview of Montessori Schools

Montessori classroom
poplasen / Getty Images.

If you are looking for a school environment that offers individualized, student-led learning with an emphasis on social justice, citizenship, and personal growth, you have probably considered a Montessori school. Montessori schools are most popular at the pre-school level, but many parents end up sending their children to Montessori schools throughout their elementary years, and even through high school.

Since since most—but not all—Montessori school are private and may charge tuition, it makes sense that you’ll want to take some time deciding if Montessori is right for you — and most importantly, for your child.

So what is a Montessori education really like, and how can you figure out if it would be the best match for your child? Let’s take a look.

History and Background of Montessori Schools

Maria Montessori, MD, an Italian teacher, doctor, and scientist, founded the first Montessori school in 1906, in a poor, struggling district in Rome, Italy. Many of Montessori’s students had never been to school before and were thought to be difficult to teach. But Montessori believed in these children and decided to experiment with classroom techniques that would get them interested and learning.

It was in this first Montessori school—which Dr. Montessori called Casa dei Bambini—that many of the learning techniques still used in Montessori schools today were first created. Hands-on learning was emphasized, and children were taught to prepare their own meals and clean up after themselves.

Montessori found that given time, a peaceful, encouraging learning environment, and thought-provoking educational opportunities, these children actually were capable of teaching themselves.

Montessori’s school, as well as the learning techniques she’d developed, were widely popular in Italy, and more schools were soon opened up. Dr. Montessori authored several books and went on speaking tours. Soon enough, news of Montessori’s educational theories spread throughout the world.

The first American Montessori school opened in 1911 in New York; as of now, there are about 5,000 Montessori schools in the U.S., with about a million kids attending. Montessori schools are still popular worldwide as well, with around 20,000 schools spread throughout the globe, according to the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.

The Montessori Approach to Learning

The main tenant of Montessori learning is that—if given the opportunity, the right materials and proper guidance—children are capable of self-directed learning, deep concentration, and the ability to work on their own and at their own pace.

While there are certainly trained teachers there to guide the students, if you were to walk into a Montessori classroom, you would likely see a group of highly absorbed students—some on the floor, some at a desk—each working on their own individualized task.

Here are some other key components of the Montessori method:

  • Montessori classrooms are multi-age, usually with about three grades in each classroom.
  • The idea is that when kids are grouped together, the older kids can teach the little kids, and the little kids can keep the bigger kids curious and motivated.
  • Since everyone is working on their own projects and at their own pace, competition among children is lessened, and cooperation is emphasized.
  • Most Montessori schools do not use grades or textbooks, but more wholistic teacher assessments are offered.
  • Most student work happens individually and in small groups; there is very little teacher-directed learning aside from the initial explanation of a learning station.
  • Much of the learning is hands-on, with Montessori-specific learning materials such as wooden puzzles, colored counting beads, and geometric shape and math manipulatives, rods, and blocks.
  • Children are taught to pick up their activity area when they finish a project and participate in daily classroom chores, like cleaning up, setting the table, and meal preparation.

What Activities Do Montessori Students Typically Engage In?

The main activity students engage in is their work (called “free choice” or “uninterrupted work period”) which is celebrated and taken seriously in Montessori classrooms.

  • Work-time is usually broken into two and three hour chunks, and children choose their activity or activities based on interest with minimal guidance from teachers.
  • Although work is chosen by the students, it covers all core subjects, including reading, math, science, and history.
  • Time is scheduled for chores, caring for class plants and animals, as well as learning manners and conflict resolution skills.
  • After the first work period, it’s time for lunch and recess.
  • Younger children generally have nap time and no further work after lunch; older children typically engage in a second work time after lunch.

What Does A Montessori Classroom Look Like?

  • Classrooms are usually welcoming and homey with large windows and natural light.
  • There may be tables and chairs but traditional school desks are not utilized, and you won’t see a teacher standing at the front of the classroom teaching.
  • Children either sit on tables or work mats, which help delineate their individual space.
  • Classroom materials are stored on shelves throughout the room that are accessible to students—students are expected to select their materials and then clean them up after use.
  • Classrooms are orderly, with neutral, soothing tones and many classrooms will have plants on display or even a class pet.

Who Typically Attends Montessori Schools?

Demographics and Diversity

Since Montessori schools are mostly private schools with tuition on the higher end, they typically appeal to wealthier families. However, Montessori schools generally offer scholarships, which may open the door to families of varying economic means. Additionally, there are more than 500 public Montessori schools which can cater to children of lower income brackets.

Many Montessori schools are becoming more racially diverse, but some argue they still have a ways to go. In 2018, an article in the The Washington Post claimed that even among public Montessori schools, racial diversity continued to be an issue. However, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Montessori Research (and referenced by The Post) found "high levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity in public Montessori schools." 

Mira C. Debs, executive director of the Education Studies Program at Yale University and author of the study, wrote that "news media have reported disproportionately white enrollments at public Montessori schools around the country, leading to program closures, denial of charter applications, and threatened charter renewals." Based on those findings, Debs noted that public Montessori schools may have become more white in recent years as a result.

Tuition Costs

Public Montessori schools are free to attend, and many Montessori schools offer scholarships. Tuition-based Montessori schools vary widely in terms of cost. For example, as The New York Times reports, a Montessori preschool in Peoria, Illinois charges $6,970 a year on the low end, and a preschool in Boston charges $30,400, on the higher end.

Montessori and Special Needs Children

Because Montessori education is highly individualized, special needs children often do well at Montessori schools, especially students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. Gifted children often do very well at Montessori schools, as they can work ahead of grade level, if needed. Many Montessori schools work well for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Some schools may even have learning disabilities specialists or occupational therapists on hand to work individually with a special needs child. However, this is not always the case, depending on the school.

If you have a special needs child, it’s best to directly contact any Montessori school you are interested in and ask them questions about how they accommodate special needs students.

Waldorf or Montessori?

Many parents looking into a less traditional, child-focused school for their child may be considering a Waldorf school in addition to Montessori schools. Like Montessori, Waldorf schools de-emphasize traditional grading systems, allow children to “take the reins” when it comes to their educational programs, and generally offer more flexibility than traditional schooling.

Yet there are some key differences between the two, including:

  • Waldorf education emphasizes imaginative play more than Montessori does; in fact, singing, dancing, art, and nature appreciation are core components of a Waldorf education.
  • Waldorf education has a more teacher-centered approach than Montessori does.
  • Montessori classrooms are multi-grade; Waldorf classroom house only one grade at a time, and the same teacher stays with the class for all or most of the student’s schooling.
  • Waldorf students emphasize "play-based learning" in preschool and early grades and therefore do very little traditional academic work, whereas Montessori begins educational “work” as early as preschool.

Pros and Cons of Montessori Schools

Pros

  • Montessori classrooms allow kids to be guided by their interests, which can be very exciting for curious children.
  • Montessori teaches more “life skills” than most schools and strives to guide students toward being upright citizens of the world.
  • Hands-on learning can be helpful for children with different learning styles and who don’t always do well in more traditional textbook-based classrooms.
  • Montessori schools offer flexibility for children, boost self-confidence, and foster independence.

Cons

  • Tuition costs may be inaccessible for many parents.
  • Some children may not transition as easily from the Montessori model to a more traditional educational program or school.
  • Some kids do not do well with individual learning and do better in larger groups.
  • Some families may not want younger kids to be as deeply immersed in “work” and may prefer a more play-based school.

A Word from Verywell

Making the decision about where to send your child to school often feels like a monumental one! Luckily, you aren’t the only one who has felt that way, which is why most Montessori schools offer you opportunities to tour schools, visit classrooms, and speak to teachers and administrators before making any final decisions.

If possible, it’s always best to talk to some actual parents who have sent their child to a particular school so you can get some real-life feedback about what the school is like.

Regardless of how highly a school is recommended, it all comes down to whether it’s the best choice for your child, your budget, and your family. It’s a good idea to trust your gut on this one—and remember, too, that if you change your mind down the road, there are always other options for your child.

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Article Sources
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