Are you looking at Montessori programs for your toddler? Do you not really know what to look for, or what it is you’re looking at as you go to tour schools? Are you attending open houses at Montessori schools, or searching for a preschool without possessing any actual understanding or knowledge about Montessori whatsoever?
It’s fully OK to admit if you are in that boat. Because just about all of us were at some point, unless you were raised in a Montessori family or are a trained Montessori educator.
There are distinct factors I wish every parent could know and consider about Montessori programs if you are looking for one for your child. Armed with the proper info, you can set aside the sales pitch from the school director for a moment, and make an informed decision about whether a Montessori school-based, out-of-home program suits your child’s style, needs, and temperament; and if it suits your family’s desires for your child, thereby justifying the financial sacrifice.
Most importantly, every parent must know and acknowledge this absolutely critical detail: Montessori education is NOT regulated. That means anyone anywhere can use Montessori materials in their program, anyone anywhere can call their program “Montessori inspired”. Anyone anywhere can call their program “Montessori School”, and not hire formally trained Montessori teachers to run the classroom. As parents and consumers of a service, it is your job to discern the difference between the “real” thing and what we call “Montess-sorta” programs.
The best Montessori school option out there is to find a school that is AMI accredited, or AMI affiliated. These schools are regulated by the AMI for quality and adherence to the AMI standard and method. If none of those schools are available near you, and you would like personal advice on how to discern the quality of a Montessori program of interest, feel free to PM me through my FB page for a personal advice session.
Just because a school looks beautiful isn’t the key reason to choose Montessori education. Sometimes you can’t ever know what’s really going on once you walk away (unless there is a live video feed constantly running in the background available for view remotely, paired with the knowledge of what is actually supposed to be happening in an authentic Montessori program).
Administrators can manipulate what visitors see and experience by only scheduling tours on particular days of the week when enrollment is lower, or when there are no children in the classroom at all, and by saying what they want you to hear. But the only way you can know what’s really happening is to observe frequently for yourself what’s really happening behind the doors of your child’s classroom, and to research what a Montessori program for your age level is supposed to look like (or ask a trained AMI educator). Administrators and even educators sometimes won’t or can’t tell parents the whole truth.
So here are my top 3 key points every family exploring a Montessori school for their toddler ought to know. These are followed by other factors also worth considering.
1. Is this really the best environment for YOUR child? While Montessori educators will always try our best to work with every child who comes our way, and while we certainly hope they will thrive, every now and then there are there some children and families who struggle with engaging effectively in this type of learning environment. And I secretly wish that certain families had been a little less enticed by our beautiful furniture, and chosen that other preschool in our city that lets kids run around outdoors with petting zoo animals. Or chosen a personal nanny.
Do I think Montessori is awesome? Of course I do. I just also wish everyone knew clearly what it was they were signing up for before they choose an out-of-home Montessori program. Sadly, I know that some parents are paying thousands of dollars a year for their child to literally run around the room all day on most days. If I’m lucky, maybe I can get the child to engage with a puzzle that day. But for the rest of the day, the kid is running around the room, rolling around on the floor, swiftly sneaking every object they can into the class fish tank, climbing on furniture, or compulsively dumping out every basket, tray, or vessel that has objects on it or water in it.
Or, parents are paying thousands of dollars a year while their kid is constantly getting disrupted by or hurt by the “challenging” child in the classroom; and no one is allowed to really talk about the truth.
Consistent, uninterrupted engagement with the materials is what produces the “exceptional” change that can be seen as a result of Montessori education. If the uninterrupted, consistent engagement isn’t happening, the Montessori method isn’t going to transform the child, no matter how many thousands of dollars you pay or how beautiful the environment is. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Likewise, you could be surrounded by water, but never have the opportunity to drink enough because you keep getting disrupted or hurt by your peer every day. This method is amazing, it’s just not guaranteed to be the ideal fit for every single child on earth. And the only way you will know if it is working for your child is to personally observe your child at school more than once, for longer than one hour.
2. How peaceful is the classroom truly, on a consistent basis? I’ll confess right now that some years, I have found myself working in an environment where “peaceful” has felt like the exception, not the norm. Sometimes it is a struggle to help the other adults I work with to “get” what the intended outcome of all of my efforts is supposed to be, so that we can work collaboratively and effectively to help all of these children. If the other adults in the equation don’t “get it”, sometimes they can thwart the lead’s efforts to create a peaceful experience for everyone. From adults who struggle to supervise effectively, to adults who are bona fide possibly crazy and mumble absurd things under their breath at work, to adults who wish they were the lead and don’t know how to humble themselves in an assistant role, to adults who own the school but aren’t trained and don’t support the teachers, there are reasons why the potential peace of a classroom isn’t ever fully realized.
A truly peaceful classroom isn’t something you can fake. For example, I have visited a program with over 20 toddlers enrolled that was insanely peaceful and there is no way they could have staged it because of the number of children present in the room. All of the children could sit at circle time, in an actual circle shape, and peacefully relax as songs unfolded, while they took turns one by one to go up to the teacher leading the circle and give her high fives as part of the song. There was no way the director could have staged when I would step into the classroom, or how the children were going to feel that day.
The peace of a Monetssori classroom also can’t be reached merely by hiring a trained AMI guide for the room. The guide must be properly supported at every important angle in order to unfold her program peacefully. and if s/he isn’t supported correctly, there’s no way authentic peace or authentic Montessori can happen easily or consistently. Parents should pay attention especially if you get to visit a school or classroom more than once, or at various parts of the day, and take note if the classroom is still peaceful every time. In most schools I have worked at, we are forewarned if there will be a tour. It is never spontaneous. So we know we are supposed to try and keep the classroom under control during tours. At one of my “craziest” classrooms, we never had tours during the work cycle. 100% of the tours occurred while the children were at outdoor play time, so parents could tour an empty classroom.
3. A third critical factor is that you should ask to see the lead teacher’s AMI or AMS Montessori diploma. If there is no diploma, or indication that the teacher has completed his/her diploma, you should be wary. There are teachers all the time who don’t finish the training, or don’t have any Montessori training at all, and still somehow run Montessori classrooms. The type of diploma may also matter, for example if the diploma came from some internet program, or if it was an in-person program. In-person training generally produces better educators.
So those are the 3 most critical factors: Is your child an ideal candidate for the Montessori method to appeal to them, is the classroom truly peaceful, and is the teacher actually trained.
Here are some other factors worth considering and understanding before choosing Montessori education for your child; just so you better understand what you’re potentially signing up for. Montessori is alternative education; and thus it can be a unique experience for the “uninitiated”.
Expect your child to become part of a community. You will also be expected to engage, as parents. Like a giant family of sorts. So if you think you can choose a Montessori program, drop your kid off and pick them up, and be pretty disconnected or hands-off, guess again. While you may not be volunteering in the classroom directly (or even allowed to enter the classroom during the Montessori day, for that matter) Montessori is not an otherwise “plain”, run-of-the-mill, “drop your kid off at 8:30, pick your kid up at 3, and you’re done” kind of childcare program. There is a method to this experience (after all, it’s called the Montessori method), and the communal aspect is not a random coincidence.
The community aspect helps your child learn better; and the intellectual aspects of parental engagement are designed to help parents help their children learn better from home. So parent participation and at minimum, wherewithal, is often an inherent expectation of joining a Montessori classroom. Be it attending parent info nights on special topics, providing a lot of supplies to support your child’s experience, communicating regularly with your child’s guide (teacher), or attending other events at school, you will connect. We all hope for continuity and connection between home and school, for the sake of your child’s experience.
There will always be this “uninterrupted work cycle” portion of the day. This “work cycle” is what sets a Montessori program apart from other versions of preschool. During the work cycle, the guide (head teacher) will be going around giving individualized lessons to children on how to work with materials. These individualized lessons are called “presentations”. The remainder of the day will essentially match other versions of childcare and school: snack, lunch, optional circle time, outdoor play, optional nap, and often extended care options for families in the mornings and afternoons that need it. For an additional fee, some schools even offer enrichment programs like aftercare “dance program” or “music classes” offered by another professional.
The work cycle is so important to Montessori education’s effectiveness that if you think you will probably show up late to school for drop off on a consistent basis, it’s literally not worth your financial investment. The “change” or “magic” happens in the work cycle. So if you’re child is missing most of it most days, you are literally wasting your money because the rest of the day is pretty standard activities, like lunch, nap, and outdoor play. And your child can do those things anywhere for much cheaper.
Toys and “play” are not the “meat” or “focus” of your child’s activity and engagement at Montessori school. Instead, self-development is the focus. We offer precisely crafted materials and activities that function as exercises and experiences to enhance a child’s self-development. Montessori called a child’s self-development process “self construction”. She believed that a child was born “incomplete” and still had a lot of skills acquisition, adaptation, and character building to do after birth to reach full maturity as a human being into adulthood. She believed this was the purpose and goal of education. Self-development.
It’s not all academics either though. A lot of people read the quote “play is a child’s work”, and misconstrue it to believe that all a child needs in order to learn is play; or they have heard the rumor that Montessori school doesn’t permit play and all we do is work on stuff. Nope. There’s more to it than that.
Self-development is a multi-faceted, holistic experience; and we all (hopefully) still do it even in adulthood. Right now, the work I’m doing, for example, feels very leisurely because I enjoy it; and although I’m not getting paid for it, it is a sort of work. I’m developing myself as a writer and a blogger.
There is a difference in a Montessori classroom, therefore, between a toy (blocks), a material (box with a ball to push), an activity (slicing steamed carrots), and an exercise (hand washing as an exercise). There is also a difference between work and play; and between skill building and academics (how to put shoes on vs can you count). These differences and details are critical to understand, so that you understand as a parent what your child will be doing in their Montessori program.
Your child is at school for self-development, which involves all of these things. They are NOT at Montessori school to play around all day. They aren’t solely working all day though, there is time for free play. It’s just that Dr. Montessori wholeheartedly believed that self-development is important life task. That’s why even though they are just toddlers, this experience is super important for their development. It’s self-development at the foundational level of their lifetime.
Don’t be fooled by the visual impression. Just because the material is made of wood isn’t what makes it “Montessori”. Toys are made out of wood too; but any old wooden toy won’t promote the learning and transformation that the Montessori materials and activities are designed to draw out.
All Montessori activities and materials have distinct learning or self-development outcomes that they help a child achieve. So engaging with the available activities is what we are doing during our work cycle. The available activities, and distinct Montessori materials is what you will see placed around the classroom on shelves and tables when you tour a school. You likely won’t find these kinds of specialized materials outside of a Montessori program.
Many Montessori materials and activities are very expensive or must be selected, curated, often hand-made, put together, and most importantly, presented to the children by a trained Montessori guide. It’s part of the reason Montessori education is so expensive. Even if you were to theoretically see Montessori materials at a school that wasn’t a Montessori school, the teacher of that classroom may not be formally trained on how, when, and why to deliver the material presentations (which are specially delivered instructions for a child of a particular age on how to use the materials ).
If you’re lucky, you might even get to see the guide give some children presentations during your tour, or if you visit for an open house, the guide might present something to your child.
Everything in the classroom should be very organized, and scaled down to the size of the children for whom the program is designed. Infant programs ought to feature a specialized infant environment with baby-sized chairs and very low shelves. Toddler programs have tiny toddler-sized furniture, and essentially all the furniture will “grow bigger” the older the children get, classroom by classroom. Every environment is specialized by age level.
The Montessori classroom features mixed ages in a range. That means it won’t just be all two year olds, all three year olds, all four year olds, etc. A classic AMI Montessori program will have a mixed selection of ages within a range (18 months to 3 year age ranges). Mixed age classrooms allow for student mentorship, and allows children to be both followers and leaders at different points in time. All of this enhances learning, self-development, and social development. For example, college features mixed age groups. People of mixed ages can absolutely learn together and learn from each other’s wisdom and example. It promotes a richer experience. So don’t fret if you child is the “youngest” or “oldest” in the room– in time, that will change because children transition in and out all the time.
Expect your child to get a LOT of freedom, and have to learn how to live with a lot of order to manage said freedom while they are at school. Your child will basically be permitted “roam” the classroom freely, able to choose whatever they want to do from the activities made available. With great freedom comes great responsibility, however. Because a Montessori community (classroom) has other people in it who are all roaming around freely, there must be order. And there must be structure. Otherwise it would be pure chaos. In some moments, it is pure chaos until the guide is able to pull it all back together. Most of the time it will not be chaos; it will be very calm and functional. Achieving this phenomenon is known as the Montessori buzzword “normalization”. Controlled and mostly peaceful, busy freedom of a bunch of children in a room working individually. Just like your workplace.
Freedom and independence also means your child will not have the teacher glued to your child’s side constantly directing every single one of their choices. Nor will your child always be required to engage in group-led phases of the day when group activities are offered. Some things will be mandatory (safety, care, toileting), a lot of things will be optional (work, food/meals, sleep, group-based activity options like circle time).
We are following the lead of your child, within all of this aforementioned structure. That is our goal. This high level of freedom and independence may not sit well with a lot of parents. Because what it looks like in practice is that yes, we will require that your child is always safe, well cared for, and encouraged to engage with the materials on the shelves. Yes, your child will always be supervised. But no, we will not force your child to use materials they show zero interest in. No, we will not be forcing your child to sleep. No, we will not force your child to eat if they are showing no interest in food. And no, we cannot force your child to learn.
So yes, yes it’s possible that you might pay $1000 a month, or more in some programs, and there will be days where all your child wants to do is scribble pictures with crayons. Or take their shoes off and put them on over and over. But again, our job is to follow the lead of every individual child. We are trained to know what is important for a child’s learning. And you have to trust that over a span of time, the learning will happen holistically. Or maybe it won’t. And that’s a risk, too. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. But this is the Montessori method. Take it or leave it. Most children do amazing things and excel as a result of the Montessori method. But it may not be the best format for every single child on earth.
Although we are following the individual child, and we offer a high level of individual learning and independence, it doesn’t mean that this is basically a nannying experience in group format occurring outside of the home. Does that make sense? Montessori school is still a format of group care, ladies and gents. I repeat: a Montessori program outside of the home, where parents leave and the children stay behind with teachers, is NOT nannying. It is group care at the end of the day.
Only for the nido (baby) level will the care highly resemble nannying. But from ages toddler on up, it will operate like a classroom, and will look nothing like nannying while 13 (sometimes more) other kids happen to be present in the room, too. (: I know that there are a lot of specialized individual needs that children require these days. I also know that attachment parenting is popular among a lot of parents who happen to feel drawn towards Montessori. But a Montessori program is still group care; and even the most loving, educated, and effective Montessori guide out there can’t change that. Even in the nido, for example, the legal ratio for infant group care in California is one adult for every four babies. So if you’re totally cool with your child not being constantly doted on every second of the day, this could be a wonderful experience for your family.