Montessori Preschools: What You Need to Know

By Amanda Morin
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At a Glance

  • Montessori preschools take a child-centered approach to learning.

  • Montessori programs promote independence and cooperative learning.

  • Montessori may not be a good match for some kids with learning and thinking differences.

Knowing which type of preschool is best for your child can take a little research. There are many types of programs and philosophies for teaching young children. Is Montessori a good fit for your child with learning and thinking differences? Here’s what you need to know.

The Montessori Philosophy

Montessori takes a child-centered approach to learning. It focuses on the whole child—not just academics. Most classrooms are multi-age and include kids in a two- to three-year age range. (So in preschool, a Montessori classroom might have kids from ages 2½ to 5.) And while teachers guide learning, they aren’t the only instructors.

Even at the preschool level, kids are encouraged to learn from each other. Interacting with other students is a key part of learning. Older kids often help younger ones learn new skills.

The Montessori Classroom

The preschool classroom environment is important, too. Montessori uses hands-on learning materials, such as beads, blocks, puzzles and educational toys. The room is set up carefully to best encourage interactive learning.

A typical classroom has a large open space that has different areas. For example, it might have a kitchen space, a reading corner, an area for language arts activities and another one for math.

Kids are encouraged to take work materials from these areas to small tables or use them on a work mat on the floor.

The materials are all self-correcting, meaning that a child knows he’s done a task correctly because all the pieces fit into place. For example, if a child is a using a “dressing frame” to learn how to button, he’ll see two pieces of fabric. One side has five buttonholes and the other side has five buttons. If the pieces don’t fit or a child misses a button, the mistake is obvious. And the child can go back and correct it.

The preschool curriculum focuses on five main areas:

  1. Practical life: Kids learn to do everyday tasks, such as getting dressed, pouring their own juice and cleaning up after themselves.

  2. Multisensory learning: Kids have all their senses engaged. For example, when learning about leaves, kids may sort them by color and size, feel leaves from different trees and taste edible leaves (such as lettuce).

  3. Cultural topics: Kids find out what it means to be a global citizen. They learn about other countries and cultures through music, movement, science, art and literature.

  4. Mathematics: Kids use hands-on materials to learn math concepts. For example, they have to put the correct number of wooden rods into different sections of a spindle box marked with numerals.

  5. Language arts: Kids gain pre-reading skills and verbal expression skills. Students are taught words to express their feelings and thoughts, and they’re encouraged to use them. They also use multisensory techniques to learn literacy, such as tracing sandpaper letters. With this activity, letters are cut out of sandpaper and mounted on different-colored tiles. Consonants go on one color, vowels on another and key phonograms (such as th and sh) are double size and go on a third color. Kids can make words with the tiles and trace the letters with their fingers or with pencil and paper.

The Benefits of Montessori

Montessori emphasizes cooperative learning. There’s a lot of focus on respecting and celebrating diversity. This sense of community and inclusion is reinforced by having the same preschool teacher and classmates for more than one year in a row. Kids in a Montessori classroom benefit from:

  • High-engagement materials: Hands-on, colorful and multisensory materials keep most kids interested in what they’re doing. Kids can focus on their strengths, and teachers can guide them to work on areas of difficulty.

  • Individualized learning: If a child has difficulty learning a skill one way, there’s often another way to learn it. Each task builds one skill at a time.

  • Independence: Kids choose their work for the day, serve their own food and wash snack dishes.

  • A well-organized environment: All items have a specific place in the classroom. Kids learn the system, clean up after themselves and return things to the correct area.

  • Opportunities to learn from mistakes: Self-correcting materials and natural consequences help kids see that their mistakes teach them things, too.

Montessori and Kids With Learning and Thinking Differences

For kids with learning and thinking differences, there are some things to consider before choosing Montessori. Classes may be large, which can be distracting for kids who have trouble focusing. More importantly, a larger class makes it hard to ensure that kids get the one-on-one attention they may need from the teacher.

Large class size can create difficulties for some kids who struggle with social skills. But it can be a plus for others. Having strong models—especially older students with more social practice and experience—can help young children build their skills. And having younger kids in the same classroom can make a child’s social challenges less noticeable as he works on those goals.

Most of the teachers don’t have specific training in special education. Many Montessori programs are private schools, not traditional public or charter schools. If your child needs extra support, it’s likely that services such as speech therapy will have to be done outside the school environment.

The focus on personal responsibility and independence can also be hard for kids who have developmental delays. And kids who are easily overexcited or who have trouble with less structure may have trouble adapting to the self-guided nature of Montessori.

Each situation is different, though. Once you know your child is ready for preschool, schedule a meeting to see if it’s a good match. For many kids, a Montessori preschool is a good introduction to formal learning.

Key Takeaways

  • Students in Montessori preschools work on life skills and academic skills.

  • Kids learn from each other as well as from teachers.

  • Montessori schools are not always prepared to teach kids with special education needs.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Virginia Gryta, MS 

teaches and mentors students working toward master’s degrees and certification in special education at Hunter College.

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