What you need to know about Montessori school
When I’m first contacted by parents who are interested in sending their child to our school, I invite them to come and observe a class in progress, to give them an idea of how a Montessori classroom functions, and then I get together with them afterwards to chat and answer their questions. The most common remark I hear is: “your children are so quiet and well-behaved, but I can’t picture my child being like that!” I tell them that almost all of the parents of the children they have just observed said exactly the same thing! This quiet, productive activity isn’t something that is imposed by us adults - it’s something that develops naturally in a well prepared and planned Montessori classroom. If we have done our job well and prepared an attractive, well-organized environment where everything is visible and accessible, if we are offering challenging, stimulating and age-appropriate activities which they can complete at their own pace, then children very naturally work independently in a peaceful, co-operative way.
The first six or seven years of a child’s life are critical. Young children are active, sensorial learners - they learn by doing not by listening. They don’t have the vocabulary or the attention span to allow them to learn by listening to our words of wisdom - they have to explore and investigate and get input through their senses.
Early childhood experiences hard wire a child’s brain. By age two a toddler has 1,000 trillion connections or synapses in his brain - twice as many as his parents. By late adolescence half of these synapses will have been eliminated due to lack of use. How many of these synapses are retained is dependent upon the quality of early experiences. Because children have to “use it or lose it”, our goal at the Montessori School of Wellington is to expose children to as wide a variety of activities as possible.
Montessori education takes advantage of the young child’s unique ability to learn by absorbing everything from their environment. Adults have to work and study to acquire new skills or to learn another language, but consider how children can learn their mother tongue, including all its vocabulary, grammar and syntax, simply by being exposed to it. They literally absorb it, along with everything else in their environment, and use this to create the fabric of their being.
, One child may not be able to sit still for very long, so the teacher will incorporate lots of movement into her work. Another child may like to chat, so the teacher will devote more time to conversation with him. The children don’t have to fit into our program - we adapt to suit their needs.
The needs and tendencies of children during the first 5 or 6 years of life are universal. Whether in Canada, Africa or China, young children enjoy activities which involve sorting, counting, expanding their vocabulary, listening to stories and learning skills that allow them to contribute to their family and community. That’s why you can enter a Montessori classroom anywhere in the world and find children of many different nationalities and cultures responding in the same wonderful way to the Montessori materials.
The Montessori classroom is a “living room” for children. There are shelves containing geometric shapes, coloured beads for counting and sorting, the letters of the alphabet etched in sandpaper, puzzle maps and flags of the world. There are real china dishes, glasses, vases filled with flowers, baskets of colourful threads and knitting yarns, an inviting display of books in the library and beautiful artwork on the walls. The children can’t wait to get their hands on everything and it’s actually difficult for them NOT to learn in a Montessori classroom. There is a three-year age mix in each classroom so they are surrounded by other children doing different types of work which they are free to observe and learn from.
The Montessori approach is to take complex skills and break them down into simple, individual exercises. For example, learning to read and write can seem like a monumental task to a young child. So, what we do is introduce the children to a series of exercises, which may initially appear to have little connection to reading or writing. But, when each exercise is mastered and they are combined, it culminates in the child being able to read and write, and the skill is acquired in a stress-free, natural way. How soon this happens is dependent on the child’s level of interest and aptitude. At the Montessori School of Wellington we have had children of 3-1/2 who can read and write.
The Montessori materials are all success-oriented and many have built-in controls of error. This means that children can discover their own mistakes by themselves and use them as further opportunities for learning. If children can learn to look on mistakes as natural consequences, which have to be dealt with in the process of learning, they will develop problem-solving skills and a more positive attitude about their own capabilities.
If we could look at the world through a child’s eyes, we would realize that it’s the process and not the product that is important. We climb a flight of stairs in order to get to the top, a toddler will struggle up a flight of stairs only to bump back down to the bottom and struggle back up again. We wash a table in order to make it clean, a child will wash a table to watch the patterns that the water makes on the surface. This desire for repetition is still there when the toddler reaches 3 and 4 years. Repetition allows children to concentrate, expand their attention span and acquire real knowledge and understanding.
The Montessori classroom can come to be a haven of peace and security for many over-scheduled children. Young children long for what is familiar, consistent and safe - and that’s what they find here. Children stay with the same teacher for three years and there is a bond which develops between the Montessori teacher and her children which is unlike any other. The teacher comes to understand each child intimately - their different styles of learning, their social skills and their likely responses to different situations. Because of this deep understanding, the teacher is able to meet the needs of every child in the class.
We eschew the ‘empty vessel’ or ‘blank slate’ theories in early childhood education. It may sound contradictory, but the Montessori teacher doesn’t teach children. What she does is prepare the classroom with all the materials that any child needs for three to four years of development. She then introduces age-appropriate work, which provides enough of a challenge to spark the child’s interest. The child is then free to explore and make his own discoveries. So, the child actually teaches himself!
Although children at our school tend to excel academically, that is not our main focus. We are concerned with the whole child, the child’s ability to communicate and cooperate and, primarily, the child’s ability to welcome and master new experiences. There is no ‘busy work’ in a Montessori classroom and, as a result, initially there is very little work sent home. This requires a great deal of trust on the part of the parents because they are not receiving any tangible proof of the work that their child is doing. But gradually parents will start to notice subtle changes like putting things away, dressing themselves, organizing their belongings – all signs of their total development and the laying of the foundation for their growing independence.
It’s interesting to note that many Public School classes for ‘gifted’ children are set up exactly like a Montessori classroom, with children working with a variety of different materials, freely choosing their own activities and working collaboratively to find creative solutions to various problems.
The Montessori method has also been adopted by McMaster University in the treatment of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Their research found that, by using the Montessori method of breaking down complicated tasks into small components, Alzheimer’s patients were able to re-learn how to do forgotten tasks, such as making a sandwich or washing themselves, thus making them more self-sufficient. The 200 health care professionals who took these workshops are reporting back with remarkable success stories.
The list of people who have attended Montessori schools, have sent their children to Montessori schools or supported the Montessori method of education, is quite impressive. People such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders of Google), Prince William and Prince Harry, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Yo Yo Ma, Jacqueline Kennedy, Hellen Keller, Ann Frank, Henry Ford, Mahatma Ghandi and Sigmund Freud.
Unfortunately, there are misconceptions about Montessori education. One is that it is rigid and controlling. In fact, children in a Montessori classroom have more freedom and less adult control than in almost any other early childhood education setting. Children in our school are free to choose activities, free to socialize and free to move about, as long as they aren’t disturbing anyone else. This is how self-discipline develops within the child, as he learns through the consequences of the decisions he has been able to freely make without adult pressure or coercion.
Another misconception is that Montessori is only for very smart children. In fact, the whole Montessori method of education evolved from the work Maria Montessori did with mentally challenged children, through which she was able to bring these children up to a level where they were outstripping ‘normal’ children. At the Montessori School of Wellington, we have dealt with children with autism, Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy and a variety of other learning and social difficulties. The strong academic component in Montessori certainly offers children the opportunity to advance academically, and they usually do. But our main focus is on the development of the ‘whole’ child – we want to nurture their spirit as well as their brains, by creating as many opportunities for enjoyment as possible.
There has been a lot of discussion about “Windows of Opportunity” or “Critical Periods” or “Prime Times” during the early years. Maria Montessori had already identified these at the beginning of the last century and referred to them as “Sensitive Periods.”
These sensitive periods occur from birth to around 5 or 6 years of age. They are periods of intense fascination for the child in the acquisition of a particular skill. In a sensitive period, children can acquire skills in a seemingly effortless manner. A Montessori teacher is trained to recognize these sensitive periods and to help the child take full advantage of them.
HOW THE CHILDREN LEARN
Children are introduced to all the areas of the classroom right from the start - practical life skills, sensorial activities, geography, reading, writing, mathematics - and every area is given the same importance. Children don’t share the adult’s concern about the acquisition of literacy and can in fact develop a block in this area if they feel that they are being pressured.
We initially concentrate on activities which children are naturally attracted to, such as sorting, grading, colour coding, counting, and give them the opportunity to acquire skills in these areas. The exercises are all success-oriented so that, when the children start to master them, they feel more confident about tackling more complex skills such as reading and writing. Your child is never forced to do anything against her nature but is offered kind and subtle invitations to get involved.
The Montessori School of Wellington is fully accredited by the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators. CCMA is the only regulating body for Montessori Schools in Canada. We are also affiliated with AMI and CAMT. Our school is the proud recipient of an Award of Excellence for Best Practices in Early Childhood Education from the County of Wellington Child Care Services and the Ontario Early Learning Centre.
The teaching staff at the Montessori School of Wellington all hold AMI or MACTE Diplomas and our support staff are all Montessori trained. Glynis Hamilton, the owner of the school, was taught by Renilde Montessori, Maria Montessori’s granddaughter.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT MONTESSORI EDUCATION
"Is Montessori too structured/unstructured?"
The Montessori method of education is both structured and unstructured.
as each exercise represents the isolation of a quality or difficulty, there is a structured sequence to the introduction of the various exercises within most areas of the classroom, with subsequent exercises increasing in complexity
each exercise is very precisely presented to the child before he/she works with it
the work in one area provides indirect and direct preparation for work in other areas, therefore it is important that complementary exercises in different areas are introduced simultaneously
we introduce to the child the concept that all work has a beginning, middle and end. When a child removes an exercise from the shelf, s/he must complete the exercise and then return it, intact, to its spot on the shelf.
the physical classroom is structured in that all the materials have an allotted spot and must always be returned to that particular spot
there is no set curriculum; teachers observe the children and then present work to each child individually based upon the observed area of interest shown by the child
children are free to choose their own work once it has been presented to them
each child develops at his or her own pace
movement is essential to learning in young children and they move freely around the classroom
visits to the gym or outdoors are impromptu and are based on the observed needs of the children on a daily basis
some children gain a great deal of information just by watching others work and they are given the opportunity to observe
"Are there transition problems from Montessori to the public school system?"
A Montessori education encourages children to be self-motivated, independent problem-solvers. These qualities can carry a child through almost any transition with ease and confidence. The self-confidence which their ever-increasing abilities instil in them allows them to look on new challenges with excitement and anticipation.
Parents of children who have advanced academically beyond the grade level at which they enter the public school system are encouraged to monitor their child's progress in school and to develop a rapport with their child’s teacher in order to ensure that their child continues to be stimulated. Public schools are reluctant to advance children in grades, but most teachers are happy to offer enriched programs for the more advanced students in a class.
At the Montessori School of Wellington children are encouraged to find out about their world for themselves in a very hands-on way. The child's natural curiosity is satisfied by allowing him or her to find out his or her own truth in a sensorial, concrete way and this develops a love of learning in the child. This love of learning helps to carry the child through the transition to another system of education.
"How is discipline handled at the Montessori School of Wellington?"
There are three rules in the Montessori classroom:
These rules are carefully defined to the children right from the start.
A child who breaks any of the above rules is invariably not engaged in work at the time and will therefore be directed to some meaningful work on the first one or two occasions. If the misbehaviour persists then the child will be asked to sit without work until s/he is ready to try again. We don’t specify a ‘time out’ period. We work to help the children take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Persistent and excessive misbehaviour will be discussed with the parents so that we can work together to improve the situation.
Probably the most common reason why a child will misbehave is because s/he is bored or overwhelmed. Our children can choose what they want to do and for how long and will choose activities that they enjoy and find interesting. This results in children who are not under-stimulated or frustrated but who are engaged, productive and well-behaved.
Because their language skills are not yet fully developed, young children have difficulty in articulating their needs. When their needs are not satisfied this leads to frustration and anger. We provide the children with appropriate vocabulary and suggest different ways of dealing with their problems.
We also believe that it is important to teach the children conflict resolution skills and we do this in a variety of ways. For example, we don’t intervene immediately when conflict arises. Children can never learn to deal with conflict if an adult is constantly stepping in to solve their problems for them. We observe to assess how the situation is developing, but will step in if there is the possibility of a child being physically or verbally hurt.
We have our “Peace Table” where children will go to discuss a conflict. They sit across from each other at the table and the child who has the grievance puts his hand on the table to indicate that he ‘has the table’ and it’s his turn to talk. When he is finished stating his case, the other child puts his hand on the table to explain his side of the issue. We don’t expect them to come to an agreement every time but at least they are learning conflict resolution skills. Children love the ‘Peace Table’ and it is a very effective tool for solving problems. Children have a strong need for justice and they aren’t hampered (as we adults are) by having to be tactful, diplomatic and politically correct - they just ‘tell it like it is’. They also relish what, for many of them, is the novel experience of being in control of settling a dispute.
Although the children may be occasionally reminded of the rules of the classroom, there are no lengthy lectures or excessive reprimands from the staff. Our ultimate goal is to teach the children self-regulation, leading to self-control and ultimately to self-discipline. Self-discipline is far more beneficial to a child than imposed discipline from an authority figure. Imposed discipline is only effective for as long as the authority figure is present, whereas self-discipline is effective no matter who is present.
"What is the teacher:student ratio?"
The ratio which we maintain at the Montessori School of Wellington, and which is stipulated by the Ministry of Education, is a maximum of eight children to one adult.
"Why are there no toys in a Montessori classroom?"
The toys which a child is given reflect the culture into which he or she has been born. Most children in our culture have the same type of toys - dolls, cars, stuffed animals, etc., and these are usually designed to take children into the realms of fantasy. Most children are familiar with many of the toys on the market today and therefore they have already formed opinions as to the toys’ function and use. The Montessori materials are not familiar to most children. They therefore have no preconceived ideas about them and are more receptive to exploring and discovering their function and use. There are also specific rules attached to the function and use of the materials. Until a child reaches the later exercises, only one child can work with an exercise at a time. The work belongs to that child until s/he has completed it and returned it to the shelf. The child is allowed to work undisturbed with the exercise. The work must be used in a purposeful way.
Our aim is to first ground the children in reality and the Montessori materials are designed to help them function effectively and independently in the real world. The Montessori materials have been designed to satisfy the child’s basic needs and tendencies. It has been shown that, universally, children from birth to around six years of age are attracted to the same sorts of activities. The three-year-old nomadic African child will sort and count stones, just as a three year old in our classroom will sort and count the objects in the Progressive exercises. After about six years of age the culture and society into which the child has been born will exert its influence and affect the child’s development thereafter.
Each exercise has a specific purpose and represents an isolated difficulty in performing a particular task. The child is taken through each exercise in sequence, culminating in a fusion of his or her mastery of the isolated difficulties in order to perform a particular task. For example, Pouring Exercises, Squeezing a Sponge, Brown Stair which culminates in the child being able to wash a table. The emphasis is always on the process, not the product.
The children are taught from the beginning that everything in the Montessori classroom is there for their use. They have ownership of the exercises while they are working on them, but they understand that other children can use them too.
"Is my child doing as well as he or she should be?"
All children in our school are allowed to progress at their own pace. At this stage of their development, there may be a great disparity in the abilities of children of the same age. This is usually due to the emergence of the child’s sensitive periods. One child may be in a sensitive period for language and progressing in reading and writing, where another child may be in a sensitive period for order and happily engaged in sorting and grading exercises.
Although it is difficult for parents not to make comparisons, at this stage of his development, it is unfair to compare your child’s progress with his peers. A child may show no interest in an area for a long time and then, all of a sudden, develop a passion for it.
Although children are encouraged to work in the areas which they are attracted to, the teachers are continuously trying to spark their interest in other areas by offering them attractive, stimulating exercises.
"How do children socialize at the Montessori School of Wellington?"
The Montessori classroom is often the first environment the child encounters after home. He has to leave family and home; he encounters a large group of other children; the set-up of school is very different from home and he has to transfer his trust to strangers.
Every aspect of the child’s time at our school involves socialization. The classroom layout is specifically designed to allow for easy flow of movement and socialization. There are tables for four children where small groups can work together. We have tables for two children to work together at a time and we also provide individual tables for children who wish to work alone. Socialization is also promoted by the materials themselves. The materials in the classrooms are limited in quantity - there is only one of each exercise. This teaches the children to respect the work of others, to make other choices, to be patient, to wait their turn and to delay gratification.
The age mix in the Montessori classroom encourages children’s natural tendency to want to help each other. The young child more readily accepts help from an older child than from an adult. Communication and understanding develops between the children through an exchange of different degrees of life experience. The age mix also helps to reduce unhealthy competition because the children are all different ages and at different stages of development. They are therefore free from envy and there is respect for one another's efforts. The age mix is a more natural set-up as nowhere else in life are people segregated according to age other than in traditional schools.
We have a daily ‘conference’ where the children come together to sing, listen to stories or music, recite poetry or just discuss their day. As well as classroom socialization and collaboration, children get together for snack, for lunch, outdoor and/or gym play time, music and yoga classes.
This is the age when your child’s self-image is being formed and we show each child that they are worthy of respect by listening to them carefully, acknowledging their feelings and always treating them with the utmost respect and courtesy. Grace and courtesy are an essential part of everything that we do with the children. Children are actively encouraged to treat each other respectfully and to help each other as much as possible. Good manners are modelled and taught and we regularly act out scenarios in order to show children appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.
If you would like more information about Glynis or the Montessori school of Wellington