What Makes the Montessori Schools' Method Different?
Montessori schools encourage mindfulness.
Young children aren’t usually known for intense concentration. To the contrary, kids are expected to bounce from one activity to another, with the attention span of a gnat. That’s why many parents are surprised by what they see when they tour a Montessori school: children as young as age 3 engaged in independent, focused work for long stretches.
Parents are just as surprised by what they don’t see — teachers lecturing and prodding kids to complete assigned work. Erica Stroud of Wilmington, DE, has twin daughters who attend Wilmington Montessori School. “My kids have very different social and instructional needs in the classroom,” she says, “and Montessori education benefits them both in varying ways; it uses their strengths to empower and encourage their learning.”
“Ellie is extremely motivated by the order the Montessori classroom provides,” Erica says of her daughter. “When she first began at WMS, she was provided with the freedom to access and explore the Montessori materials at her own pace based on her own interests.”
Her other daughter, Taylor, “learns best in a community in which she feels the strong connection with her peers and teachers. She has gained a true sense of concentration and loves the independence the class structure provides.” Both children have individualized work plans.
“When students are self-directed, they are instantly a step closer to a state of mindfulness,” says Laurie Orsic, assistant head of school at Wilmington Montessori. “As students select work from the learning materials set out by their teachers or follow their own academic interests, they are more likely to delve deeply in academic activities.”
This ability to focus at a young age is a hallmark of Montessori education, but it’s revolutionary to parents who haven’t seen a Montessori classroom in action. Montessori learning is hardly novel — Dr. Maria Montessori’s first school opened its doors in 1907. But a trend toward mindfulness in education is sparking new interest in this century-old style of education and new science is showing how this type of learning benefits today’s young minds.
How kids master mindfulness
Just what is mindfulness, exactly, and why does it matter? Steven J. Hughes, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in attention, concentration, planning and organizing — a set of skills known as executive functions — defines mindfulness as “sustained positive engagement.” Other scientists refer to a “flow” state of prolonged, energized work that produces both calm satisfaction and profound joy in learning.
“Children are inherently curious, and the natural way for them to learn is to touch, hold, manipulate,” says Diane Force, school director at Bala House Montessori in Bala Cynwyd, PA. “You just have to watch a toddler discover something new.” This sense of wonder is part of the essence of Montessori education.
“More than 110 years ago, Dr. Montessori knew that social/emotional (SE) skills in the young child were more important than academics,” Force explains. “Thanks to current research, we now know that strong SE skills in childhood are directly related to being successful as an adult. So she designed her curriculum to include SE learning.”
A Montessori classroom curriculum also includes grace and courtesy lessons, as well as an emphasis on conflict resolution, self-regulation, emotional control and how to be part of a community.
Lindsey Schontz, mother of Graham, age 5, who attends Bala House Montessori, reports, “At home, he’s progressed from barely staying focused for five minutes to being able to work to complete a task diligently for an hour. I cannot say enough good things about the impact of the Montessori way on Graham’s behavior, conflict resolution, communication and general happiness.”
Strive to create a love of learning
Dr. Montessori didn’t coin the term “mindfulness,” but she was an early advocate for sustained focus and internal motivation. Her methods deliberately encourage intense concentration as the best context for early learning.
“The focus is on the process, not the product, and on the social/emotional skills, not the academic,” Force says. She adds that classrooms are designed to feel “homey” and kids are encouraged to explore and discover based on their own timetable.
Amanda and Brad Cooper of Spring City, PA, have two sons enrolled at Valley Forge Kinder House Montessori School in Limerick. “The ability for our children to explore and learn at their own pace has given our boys comfort, self-discipline and most importantly a love of learning,” they report. “Dr. Montessori’s research led her to find that children through age 6 have a greater ability to absorb quickly and effortlessly. Having our boys in Montessori from an early age has given us comfort that they are absorbing all they can.”
Use environment to promote focus
A carefully prepared environment, a key component of Montessori learning, promotes focus. In Montessori classrooms, educational materials — from child-size brooms to lacing cards to counting beads — are designed to be aesthetically appealing and accessible for young children.
Students choose their own work from a palette of developmentally appropriate options that grow progressively complex and challenging.
Montessori schools incorporate concrete learning goals into a child’s educational plan, but children are free to choose when and how to complete their work within a specified timeframe.
“It’s vital that students have a sense of agency about their own learning, as well as the ability to participate fully in lessons with their teachers and classmates,” Orsic stresses. “Students learn to concentrate, explore, observe, examine and study. They become students who are present in the moment and ready to learn.”
During a 90-minute work period, children can take a task through its beginning, middle and end. This natural sequence promotes competence and mastery; kids can repeat the activity as many times as they want without being told to hurry up and move on to something else.
Though the terms focus and concentration might conjure up images of a child working alone, mindfulness isn’t always a solo pursuit. Montessori-style learning helps kids learn the fine art of shared concentration by encouraging them to engage in tasks with a classmate or two — a critical skill in the age of teamwork.
The benefits of being mindful
How does this Montessori-style mindfulness benefit children? Montessori aims to teach the skills necessary to be a good learner and to follow individual passions. It also strives to teach executive functions that are needed for higher learning. Children learn how to quiet their bodies to focus and concentrate, notes Force. “Their work develops fine-motor control, visual discrimination and left-right progression, which are all prerequisites for academic learning.”
But mindfulness isn’t something teachers can achieve for students. Like every other outcome in Montessori learning, students have to work toward it themselves. “Children are able to practice self-help skills, problem solving and collaboration as part of what they do every day as a member of a community,” says Cathy Lopez-Cooling, head of school at Children’s House Montessori School in Wilmington, DE.
Narberth, PA mom Catherine, whose son Gabe is a student at Bala House Montessori, says she appreciates the focus on mindfulness in everyday tasks, both socially and academically. “It encourages him to be a good citizen and to be interested in the world around him.”