15 Questions to help parents find a quality Montessori school program for your baby or toddler

As a parent, how are you supposed to know that you’re choosing a genuine, and high quality Montessori infant or toddler program, given that you’re about to pay, in some places, over $1000 a month in tuition?

Here’s a thing a lot of people working in Montessori schools knows is true, but no one talks about…  People can and are  running and/or owning schools, and leading Montessori classrooms right now, as we speak– who have zero formal Montessori training, no certification, and sometimes, no teaching experience whatsoever. Yepp! 🤨  If you want to read more about this, the details are after the list of questions.

……………………………………………..

Here’s how not to get duped by what we call a “Montess-sorta” or a “Montess-something” program that isn’t actually upholding the authenticity or rigors of a quality Montessori program for infants and toddlers.    If you’re a parent looking for a quality Montessori school that’s actually Montessori, look for the following criteria and ask the following questions:

1. Is the teacher of the classroom completely trained? May I see the diploma before I commit?   Ask to see their diploma, or a screenshot confirming that they’re enrolled in a training program.  If they have one, proceed forward.  If they do not, reconsider. There are many other amazing educators and pedagogies out there who might not Montessori educators, but do a fantastic job at delivering early childhood education.  You really only want to pay for Montessori education if it’s legitimately Montessori.  And that can’t happen unless a trained Montessori guide is leading the classroom. It’s what sets him or her apart from other educators. Waldorf educators have Waldorf training. RIE educators have RIE training, Reggio people are Reggio trained, Montessorians are Montessori trained.  Period.  That’s how it works.

2.Is the school owner and/or head of school Montessori trained?  Yes? Awesome.  No? potential cue that this school may not be very authentic, but if the guide is fully trained, especially if they are AMI trained you’re good.

3. Is it a public Montessori charter school? Good. Because in order to be legit, public Montessori programs have to hire trained Montessori guides and follow distinct criteria. I’ll be honest that I don’t actually know if there are “public” Montessori programs for 0-3 year olds; but they do exist for 3-6 years and elementary.

4. Are there currently 12 or less infants or toddlers  enrolled in the classroom?  No more than 12 babies or toddlers per classroom is the ideal number for a top-notch Montessori 0-3 experience.  Any higher than this, and trust me, the whole method starts to crumble in quality and functionality.  It is impossible to deliver the high standards set forth by Dr. Montessori, or to “follow the lead of the child” when there are simply too many children in the room to keep up with.

I have worked in AMS programs that enroll up to 24 children per day.  Though I succeeded in normalizing the huge classroom with my AMI training, parents must understand that there is a portion of the day called the “work cycle”.  It’s when the children roam the classroom freely and I go about offering as many individualized lessons as I can with your children.  The work cycle for toddler classrooms is two hours long, then we do other things like play outside, optional circle time, lunch, and nap.  If there are any more than 12 children, it means that each of them potentially gets 20 minutes or less of my undivided individualized attention per day during our work cycle.  If there are 15 of them, each child gets 8 minutes of potential 1:1 attention from me.  If there are 20 (and I have guided AMS classrooms of up to 24 children in attendance per day), they get 6 minutes of individualized attention per day in a 2 hour work cycle.  Is that really what you’re paying $1600 a month for?

Additionally, if there are more than 14 children absolute maximum, it becomes impossible to put out certain kinds of work activities or a certain quality of materials because there are just too many children to make it feasible.   If there are 20+ toddlers in a room, it pushes everything to a volume that is frankly impossible to manage.  I’m not going to hand-embroider 20+ cloth placemats for lunch, for example.  Imagine the amount of toileting and diapering that must be done. Imagine the amount of food that must be provided for a family-style lunch– everything becomes huge in volume.  It’s the difference between hosting an intimate gathering in your home, versus a full-blown house party with a ton of guests.  A high quality toddler program has, in my experience, 12 children max.  12 toddlers is the happy number in group care in my opinion.

5. Is every aspect of the visible environment, indoors and out, clean, beautiful, well-maintained, and well-organized, with minimal clutter?.  The real giveaway of a poorly-run program is if you look in the cupboards, or catch a glance of storage spaces, and spaces not used by the children.  If spaces not meant for the children (like the teacher’s kitchen, the storage spaces, the teacher’s personal spaces) are full of clutter and disorder, to me that speaks to the school’s standards.

6. Is everything in the “body”/ or middle of the room (anything that’s not up against a wall, in other words) about 1.5 feet tall or lower, so that the adults have crystal clear supervision across the whole room?  Adults need to be able to scan the entire room at all times and know exactly what’s happening to every child in their care. Toddlers are aggressive, impulsive little people who move very quickly.  So it is imperative that adults can see every child at all times.  If there is anything in the way blocking the adult’s view of children, it’s not a good program. And I don’t care what anyone says.  There are ways to design an environment that don’t impede supervision. Sometimes guides can ask for environmental modifications to improve supervision, but the ultimate call may be up to the school owner.

7. Is the bathroom immediately connected to the classroom, with a potty and tiny toilets? This is also a critical detail in a strong Montessori infant or toddler program.  They are in the age and stage of toilet learning.  So if there are no bathrooms immediately connected to the classroom, that’s not good.

8. How is the staff turnover? If all staff have been employed consistently for multiple years in a row, that is an amazing sign.  I would go based off of how long the lead guide, and maybe the guide before him or her were employed.  If there seems to be a trend of year-long-and-quit employment terms, maybe ask the history for a couple guides back.  And if consistently, all of them are hired a year, a year, a year? That is not a good sign.  Feel free to ask about assistant turnover as well.  The longer the assistants stay employed, the better.  Sometimes you might get guides who quit year after year but assistants who stay for many years.  That’s better than everyone quitting all the time. 

9.  What style training does this school subscribe to? AMS people everywhere are going to hate me for this, but I am not AMS trained.  And I cannot speak on behalf of AMS infant/toddler Montessori.  If you want to learn more about AMS for infants and toddlers I would jump on instagram, find an AMS 0-3 practitioner, and DM him or her to ask all of your questions.  But what I can say is that AMI Montessori training is one of the best in the world.  Watch that link and see for yourself.  AMI Montessori guides are all trained in a really consistent and high-caliber way to deliver a very high-quality,  authentic “version” of the Montessori method.  Our training is from Dr. Maria Montessori herself.  AMI Montessori is pure, traditional, and classic.  This is how she wanted Montessori guides to be trained; and this is why our classrooms are so exceptional.  

In my experience, the AMS schools I have worked for all differ vastly.  Some of them utilize what I know to be primary-aged materials in the toddler classrooms. And they do odd things like push all the trays against the sides of the shelves (how can a child grab a tray if it is pushed flush against the side of the shelf?); or they use half the sets of the brown stairs or pink tower (it’s supposed to have 10 pieces which are all mathematically related); they don’t have PSM sections of the room at all (which is critical for toddlers and infants), or don’t have language sections of the room at all (when an infant/ toddler is learning to talk).

 Most odd, all the 0-3 AMS programs I worked for filled the room with primary materials, and toys that aren’t at all Montessori (pick up some toys while you wander around the room and look for the logos.  Things made by Neinhuis, Montessori outlet, TAG, or Adena Montessori are legit.  Anything made by Plan Toys is not).  AMS schools in my experience also use a lot of DIY , cheap-looking and poor-quality plastic materials (lots of laminated plastic hand-cut pictures taped to plastic trays, lots of dollar tree things).  I have worked at AMS schools that yelled at the children to get everyone’s attention.  That is SO not Montessori.  This is not to say that all AMS programs are bad.  Primary AMS programs tend to be incredibly similar to AMI primary classrooms because the creator of AMS was AMI trained before she tried to sue Mario Montessori and broke off to do her own association.

AMI programs will always be high-caliber.  We use real linens and textiles, real glassware and earthenware dishes, real water that isn’t artificially colored, real food preparation opportunities, real fresh flowers for flower arranging, real tools for cleaning.  The materials the children are using are so real that an adult could legitimately use them to create the same outcomes that are expected from the activity if the child were to use them– they’re just appropriately sized for a person who is only 2 feet tall and has tiny hands.  For example, I legitimately can use our glass cleaning set to clean our classroom windows when they get dirty.  I could sweep the floor with the children’s broom or mop with the floor their little swiffer mop if I needed to.  There is nothing fake in an AMI Montessori toddler environment other than language replicas; and that’s what makes it so beautiful and so exceptional.  AMI environments also utilize higher-quality materials that last years and years.  

10. Are parents and other staff allowed to observe within the classroom, or through an observation window? If  you are not allowed to observe your child at school whenever you want, that is NOT a good sign of a high-quality school.  In a good Montessori school, parents should be welcomed and invited to come observe whenever they want so long as the school is open.  Observation is a critical hallmark of the Montessori method; and a strong school should have nothing to hide.  

11. Are you given a tour during the morning work cycle? If not, chances are high that the director is tailoring or slightly manipulating your tour so that you visit during the calmest part of the day, like nap time or outdoor play time.  But in actuality, the work cycle, which is the most Montessori part of the day, might be  too crazy to let any prospective parents see  the truth of a poorly run school.  If I was a parent, I would ask to tour during the work cycle.  And if they couldn’t accommodate that, I would be wary.

12. Does the program provide a community-style lunch for the toddlers? In my experience, exceptional programs provide a daily, nutritious and well-balanced family-style meal for the toddlers, where everyone sits at a beautifully set table.  This is much easier for the staff to manage and serve, for starters; the food will be freshly cooked and not microwaved and sitting around.  It allows us to sit and connect with the children, eat with the children and model ideal dining behaviors, and it allows us to truly know how much food each child is consuming so we can report back to you accurately.  When toddlers dine in family-style, they tend to eat more veggies because “everyone else is doing it”, and the mob mentality runs hard in groups of toddlers.  It also guarantees that your child will be served veggies daily with lunch. 

13.  How does the school communicate with parents, and are they in the 21st century, while still devoting their time and attention to what matters most?

Technology has very little place in a strong Montessori toddler environment.  However, I believe it is outdated, financially wasteful, and environmentally unsustainable to be sending home paper daily reports.  We are now in an age where there are simple technologies available to educators that allows us to document information quickly, snap simple photographs for parents on a consistent basis of their children at work, and to provide simple feedback about their day.  I really liked Brightwheel for documentation and parent communication. I also worked for a great toddler program that never sent home a “daily report” and it helped the parents learn to just trust.  When your child goes to elementary school you won’t get a daily report.  Minimal daily reporting allows guides to focus our attention where it matters most: being with the children, in the moment, while the children are with us and awake.  

14.  what are the program hours?  Are they reasonable?  Or are they absurdly long?  A strong 0-3 Montessori program understands that children are just that: children.  In the case of 0-3, babies, actually.   So the program hours will be something like 7:30 to 4:30 in total.  If the program runs from about 6:00am until about 6pm, and permits parents to enroll the children for the entire scope of business hours, I’m sorry but that is not a good sign.  

It means that there will be families who take full advantage of that; and always send their child to school 5 days a week for like 10 hours a day.  It means the adults hired will spend less time at the school than those children.  If a program offers absurdly long hours, do they have a completely separate room for extra (before/ after) care?  If not, your kid will be in two places for 10 hours a day: in the classroom, or outside playing.  Would you stay in your home and backyard for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week straight?  No way.  You would HAVE to get out for a sanity break.  

As a grown adult I want to kill someone if I ever work more than 9 hour days because I can’t handle it.  I’m fatigued, irritable, exhausted– my brain is overcooked.  So to put a baby through that is just inhumane.  A solid program simply won’t be open before 7am ever (because waking up before 6am for a baby or toddler is considered ‘too early’ of a wake up time for infants and toddlers according to sleep experts). A good program  won’t be open past like, 5pm knowing that most toddlers need dinner, baths, and time with parents before they go to bed every night; and staff need time for meetings, and work-life balance too.  Pouring your energy into toddlers all day is work, as any stay-at-home mom can attest. 

15. Are there a lot of individual tables and chairs for the children to sit down at and work, based on how many toddlers are enrolled? If there are few to no one-person-at-a-time tables and chairs, it means your kid is going to be interrupted and distracted all morning long by their peers.  If there are individual table-and-chair sets, that means your child will be focused  and concentrating.  And this is how growth happens via Montessori education.  It also promotes a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.  Low stress is necessary for healthy child development.

15.  What does the playground look like? The playground is a very telling resource for how “on it” a school really is.  There should be lots for the children to do outdoors.  Dr. Montessori highly encouraged work outdoors, fresh air, movement, and sunshine for children.  If the yard is mostly cement, gravel, or lacks climbing structures and lots of fun ways to move the body, that’s not the best sign.

Bonus Question: Is this school AMI-accredited or AMI-affiliated? If so for what age ranges is the accreditation?  If a school is AMI accredited or affiliated, you can guarantee for a fact that you have stepped foot into a bona fide, audited, credible 0-3 Montessori program.  Which is like the jackpot of choosing Montessori programs.  

Want to know why these questions matter? Read More…

There are untrained, out-of-touch school directors and owners, acting as the mastermind behind everything, when s/he actually has no qualifications or skills to be leading a Montessori school.   Maybe they have the skills to run a business, but they don’t know anything about this particular industry.  Like someone running an auto body shop that knows nothing about cars. Except the product is children’s minds and spirits, not inanimate objects.  

The head of school isn’t working in the classroom anymore (or they never have a day in their lifetime), and they have no idea what’s supposed to be happening.  A lot of them don’t know what is actually happening in the classrooms a lot of the time, because they never observe.  They just sit in their office and deal with admin and money, and yet try to call the shots on what the teachers ought to be doing and how the school ought to look.

Worse, a lot of directors are money-hungry, and make decisions that are centered around the bottom line of a business, and not centered around the good of the children or Montessori education.  A lot of directors I have worked for are also borderline crazy; and have no qualms about lying to parents, or doing genuinely unscrupulous things like firing people because they’re black, or bouncing employee paychecks on purpose. Which is terrible and fully happening out there. It is rare to work for a director or owner with serious integrity and the courage to be honest with parents. 

If an untrained Montessori school owner isn’t bad enough, people are often  hired as teachers of Montessori classrooms with zero Montessori training, bad Montessori trainings (there are better trainings and worse trainings), and/or very poor teaching and classroom management skills.  So maybe it looks like an authentic Montessori school, but the person leading the classroom is not good or unqualified.  When this happens, the goal of delivering a Montessori program falls painfully short.  Things get butchered and distorted, the untrained Not-essori teacher doesn’t know what she’s actually supposed to be doing.  Money gets wasted because she doesn’t know how to supply, let alone run a classroom.  The children lose out, and most importantly as a parent you’re getting duped because you’re not getting what you thought you were actually paying for.

The Montessori Method is a “Method” for a reason.  There are protocols and declinations behind everything we choose to do that makes Montessori Montessori.  One can only know how to be a Montessori guide, how to design a superior school environment,  and how to run a quality Montessori classroom day-to-day  if you go get professional training.  You need to learn the theory, and understand the bigger goals  and outcomes behind the method if you want to offer a quality program.  Understand this critical point: without the formal training, an alleged “Montessori” preschool is in no way unique from any other regular, run-of-the-mill play-based preschool except that  maybe they tell the teachers to whisper and they put toys out on shelves.  

Trust me– this happens all the time.  Most schools I have worked at operate how I’ve described.  Parents just don’t have any clue about the reality going on “deep down”, or behind the scenes.  No one ever thinks to research Montessori, even if you did there is so much random crap on the internet you need to know what to look for, it’s impossible to know what to look for unless you went to Montessori school yourself or are trained.  

Even if you remember your Montessori experience,  chances are high it was a Primary Montessori program.  Infant/ toddler Montessori (0-3) is distinctly unique from Primary Montessori, because a baby or toddler is not the same “patient population”, so to speak, as a preschool child.  We’re talking “trucks” versus “cars”; Class B vs Class C driver’s licenses.  Infant/Toddler vs Primary.  So parents especially don’t know what to look for when touring infant or toddler programs.  Which also happen to be the programs people can fake or lie about the easiest.  And yet they involve the most vulnerable child population: the babies.  So it really behooves parents to know what to ask and look for. 

Let me put it to you this way: as a professionally trained 0-3 Montessori guide with a Master’s in Education and a director’s permit, based on the places I have seen and worked for (a lot of places) I would only send my child to two of the programs I have ever worked for; and I would pick up my kid before or as soon as the guide’s shift ends.   I have zero intentions of ever sending my own baby to a nido, unless I own and run said nido.  That’s how serious I am about knowing how bad these programs can be. And I want to protect your child and your financial investment with the information I’m about to share. 

In case you’re now wondering, “how can it be possible that Montessori classrooms aren’t run or even taught by Montessori trained people?”, here’s why this happens. The name ‘Montessori’ was never patented or trademarked; so literally anyone on earth who wants to call their school “montessori” can do so.  Literally any rando on earth who has the seed money to start a school can own one,  call it “Montessori”, and jack up the tuition price point just because it’s “montessori” and not “regular old preschool”.  Montessori implies that it’s “alternative” and “specialty”.  

There are no auditing agencies going around to every single Montessori school in America to ensure that they are hiring actual Montessori professionals and actually delivering Montessori curriculum.  In truth, nothing inside of said school actually has to be Montessori at all.  Odd, right? Odd, but frighteningly true.

I feel like this is one of the only industries that fully gets away with such a high degree of false advertisement/ false business offerings. Is a hospital a hospital if the doctor has  p M.D.? Is a yoga studio really yoga if the instructor has zero yoga training? No. Yet here we are with these fake and distorted “Montess-sorta”, “Montess-something” schools being marketed to parents desperate for a good preschool or daycare.  If you want a school that is audited, it has an affiliation or an accreditation.  

At the end of the day, I would rather send my child to a fully-prepared, well-supplied, complete Waldorf or RIE school than to a very poorly-designed, inadequate Montessori program. That’s how passionate I am about Montessori done correctly and done well. I would rather send my child to a program away from home that was beautiful, loving, and peaceful even if it wasn’t Montessori, knowing that  I can Montessori them myself at home because I’m a trained professional.  If you’re not a trained professional, you can use Montessori materials with some guidance by either hiring a Montessori trained nanny, or using MontiKids.  I don’t necessarily subscribe to untrained people trying to deliver Montessori, but at least MontiKids is owned and run by an AMI trained Montessori professional. 

I hope this list of questions empowers as many parents as possible so that you can start researching, knowing what you’re signing up for, and asking the right questions.  Because often times, parents who pay for Montessori programs are paying an absurd amount of money compared to parents who  are paying or non-Montessori (other kinds of early childhood) programs. And little do you know, while you’re over here paying a premium for this alleged Montessori school that’s not even legit, your child is literally just playing with toys all day in a room with lots of shelves (hopefully the environment at least looks authentic enough to fool you).  Their teacher has the exact same training as any other regular, run-of-the-mill preschool teacher.   Nothing else about the place is legitimately Montessori at all. They  just put the toys on shelves and trays.  And convinced you to pay $1600 a month in childcare fees.  I don’t support that, and I want real Montessori for you and your child. And so should you.  

Happy Montessori-ing everyone! I hope this list of questions serves families!  #keepmontessorimontessori

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s