Montessori and the Child with Special Needs

Recently I have received quite a few questions about children with special needs (autism, ADHD, and others) and how they can fit into the Montessori environment. Since many of the questions were similar, it seemed like a good idea to jot down some thoughts about this topic.

There are several things about the Montessori philosophy and materials that make it a wonderful option for children with special needs, and several things that can cause some difficulty also. Please note that I am speaking in generalities; every school is different so there’s a lot of variation out there.

Pros when considering Montessori for a child with special needs:

1. The materials and the environment: The Montessori classroom is filled with beautiful materials that engage all of the senses. The materials are hands-on, therapeutic, enticing, and include a built-in control of error. In most cases they teach only one skill (or salient point) at a time. They offer a wonderful chance for children with special needs to use their hands to explore and learn.

2. Multi-age classrooms: In Montessori, children are put into multi-age classrooms, so they can learn from older children, and help the younger children in the classroom. If a child needs to repeat a grade, they can do so without being “held back” while watching their friends move to a new classroom.

3. Following the child: Montessori children are encouraged to work at their own pace, without the burden of competition, test scores, and grades. They are also encouraged to follow their own interests when it comes to reading, writing, and research. This kind of freedom allows the special needs child to flourish.

4. Consistency: The multi-age classroom means a child is with a teacher for a 3-year cycle, allowing the teacher to build a strong relationship with the parents and the child. As well, the child doesn’t have the stress of always starting in a new classroom at the beginning of each school year.

5. The philosophy of Montessori: In Montessori, there is an emphasis on peace, cooperation, and respect, making it much less likely that a child with special needs will be teased or ostracized. Instead, the other children usually make an effort to accept, befriend, and encourage a special needs child.

Cons when considering Montessori for a child with special needs:

1. Class size: Class sizes in Montessori tend to be large, so that children can help each other rather than rely on the teacher. This means, however, that a special needs child who needs a lot of one-on-one adult direction may not get as much attention as they need.

2. Independent work: In Montessori, children are encouraged to work independently after brief presentations from the teacher. Again, a child who needs more help may not be able to get that teacher/child interaction. The child with special needs may find it difficult to focus, concentrate, and work on his/her own.

3. Lack of information: Most Montessori training centers do not include information on working with special needs children, so unless the teacher has studied this topic elsewhere, or has previous experience with other special needs children, they may not know very much about working with a special needs child and how to integrate them into the classroom.

4. Lack of special services: Because many Montessori schools are private, they are not able to offer extra services to the special needs child and his/her family. Public schools are required to offer services to any child in their district (whether the child attends public school or not), but it can be harder to coordinate and/or receive those services when the child is attending private school.

5. Starting late: Many times, parents of special needs children try Montessori when other options have failed. This means that special needs children are often starting Montessori at a later age, and they’ve missed out on foundational work that is necessary to succeed in Montessori. It’s hard for any child, regardless of ability, to start Montessori after the age of 3 and gets harder as each year goes by.

6. Not all Montessori schools are created equal: In some cases, a school may call itself “Montessori” but is not equipped with the correct materials, trained teachers, and accompanying philosophy. This can lead to disillusionment with Montessori on the part of the parents, as well as an unpleasant experience for the child. Parents should always observe at a Montessori school before enrolling their child; here’s what to look for.

What is a parent to do? Is Montessori really an option for the special needs child?

Yes, I think it can be. But it takes a lot of work on the part of the parent and the teacher to make it successful.

Here are some ways it can work successfully:

1. Communication is key: The parent and teacher must establish an open relationship with clear guidelines. They may want to meet more frequently than the usual twice-a-year parent/teacher conferences. The parent may want to observe (many Montessori classrooms have one-way observation windows), see what their child is doing, and talk to the teacher about how to help their child succeed.

2. Bring Montessori home: Parents should bring in Montessori materials and related hands-on materials for their child to use at home. Two places in particular, For Small Hands and Michael Olaf Montessori are great places to find Montessori items for the home. The home should be modified to make it more “Montessori” including child-accessible shelves for books, puzzles, and materials; lots of time spent outdoors; little or no TV; and clear logical consequences for misbehavior. Just as in the Montessori classroom, the child should be given tasks he/she can succeed at and the parent should never do something for the child that the child can do themselves.

3. Outside help: The parent should pursue therapy for the child from people qualified in working with special needs children, in addition to Montessori school. This can include but is not limited to physical therapy, speech, behavioral therapy, individual and family counseling, and medical care. The teachers should be aware of any outside therapy the child is receiving and if possible, speak to the child’s primary therapist or doctor.

4. Homeschooling with Montessori: Using the Montessori method and materials at home gives the child the best of both worlds: lots of one-on-one attention from the adult, as well as use of the hands-on materials.

5. Public school Montessori: In this scenario, the child gets the benefit of the Montessori method and materials, as well as public school programs and therapies that are in-house and can take place during the school day.

Is the Montessori method being used successfully with special needs children?

Yes, it is. The most successful programs seem to be those that are geared specifically towards special needs children, where the class sizes are small and the teachers are also credentialed in working with special needs children. One great example was The Lane Montessori School of Autism run by Michelle Lane. You’ll want to read the interview I did with Michelle for a lot of helpful information about Montessori and autism.

Another great resource is the book Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful by Donna Bryant Goertz. I used this book as the basis for my blog post Soothing Work for Troubled Kids that outlines the way the “hands-on” materials of Montessori can literally be therapy for children with behavioral or emotional issues.

Any words of wisdom from a parent or a teacher who has seen a special-needs child thrive in Montessori would be most welcome! Or, if you have seen a case where this has not worked out, any lessons learned would be helpful too. I’ve rounded up some helpful links, but please add any that you think might be helpful.

Blog Posts & Articles:

Montessori Education for Sensory Processing Disorder
Interview with Michelle Lane of the Montessori School for Autism
Bringing Montessori Discipline Into the Home
Montessori Basics: Homeschooling with Montessori
Can the Montessori Method of Teaching Help a Child with ADHD?

Montessori-related Materials for Home:

For Small Hands
Michael Olaf Montessori

Successful programs combining Montessori & special needs:

Montessori Autism Programs and Services
The Lane Montessori School for Autism
Broad Horizons Montessori
Shelton School

Books:

Autism: A Montessori Approach – a book by Michelle Lane outlining presentations of Montessori materials in a way that works with autistic children

Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful – targeted towards elementary but applicable to primary as well

How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way – helpful information for parents on how to bring Montessori principles into the home

Also, I recommend Googling “Montessori ADHD” and “Montessori autism” for a lot of interesting results, including discussion forums where parents share their questions and experiences.

Subscribe to Comment Feed

31 Responses to “Montessori and the Child with Special Needs”

  • Annicles said at October 18th, 2010 at 5:32 am :

    I work in a Montessori school in the UK. We have a few special needs children along side the typically developing children. We observe each child closely to see what s/he needs and often end up with that child having a 1-1 adult for some or all of the time. It means extra teachers in the classroom but that adult is focused on one child so they are not interfering with the typical interactions going on alongside. As with all things, even Montessori – flexibility is needed. The plus side of having these children with additional needs and their 1-1 adult far outweighs it not being the “perfect” Montessori environment.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 18th, 2010 at 7:00 am :

    It sounds ideal, Annicles, but I think many Montessori schools couldn’t afford to have extra adults in the classroom to provide that one-on-one guidance. How does your school do it?

  • Annicles said at October 18th, 2010 at 9:23 am :

    The parents pay extra! When they look around the school we are very upfront about what our fees are and what they will have to pay extra. It is amazing what parents will do to have their child in a mainstream school if they feel that it would be more beneficial than having the child in a special ed. needs school. We have families that have reduced their cars from 2 to 1, or don’t go on holiday any more.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 18th, 2010 at 10:28 am :

    Ah, that makes sense! Unfortunately in my past experiences, parents were already paying so much for private education – and often for additional therapies out-of-pocket – that they would not have been able to pay extra for a one-on-one adult in their child’s classroom. But if they can, it sounds like a great idea.

  • Kate said at October 18th, 2010 at 3:20 pm :

    I have wondered about children will special needs being in a Montessori classroom often. I teach in the 6-9 level of a charter Montessori school, while we are able to offer the services required, this does not meet the needs of most students. They are not able to make choices in the classroom and often spend a majority of their day unsure of what to do. Because we have a classroom with 30 students, one on one is not always an option.

    I also see that children with ADHD that are not on medication can have a hard time building concentration with 29 other works going on in the room. When the teacher must make the choice for the child does this begin to defeat the Montessori education philosophy of being independent? When is it okay to tell a parent your child may not reach their full potential in this environment? Just my personal struggles I have been trying to find some answers to.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 18th, 2010 at 3:34 pm :

    Hi, Kate! These are great questions that many people have. My Montessori trainer, Sister Mary Motz, told us to “meet the child where they are at”. In other words, if they are not yet able to make choices as to what work to do, the teacher should choose for them or help them choose. It’s counterproductive to insist they choose when they can’t.

    We always used workplans in elementary, for every child, but those were monthly and sometimes children felt aimless and had a hard time choosing work anyway. In those cases, we gave them a daily workplan – on an index card – with a few materials that they could choose from each day. It worked quite well.

    I do not feel that this defeats the Montessori goal of independence; on the contrary, what it is is a step towards independence for the child who is not yet independent. Otherwise, you end up with a child who never achieves independence, and not only that, but can be a huge distraction to the other children as well.

    Keep that phrase in mind, “meet the child where they are at” when working with special needs children and you’ll find it will open up a whole new way of thinking. Also, if you have not read “Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful” yet, you must. It is amazingly helpful.

  • Christine said at October 18th, 2010 at 5:14 pm :

    Lori,

    Thank you for a great overview of the pros and cons of Montessori for the special needs child.

    We at The Montessori Children’s House of North Forsyth have a new Montessori program that specializes in meeting the needs of children who have learning differences. It is an elementary program and we accept children with no Montessori background. None of our children are profoundly disabled; they must all be mobile, speaking, and able to attend to their own hygiene needs, but they have all either come from a homeschool or a public school and have an IEP.

    The accommodations we make include: ratio of 7:1, daily work plans, maximum class size of 21 children, many 3-6 materials in the classroom – especially in language, math, science, and geography. The children have responded extremely well to our nurturing, hands-on environment, and the joy of learning is evident in all of the children – for most of them this is a new experience.

    We have found that with so many children on the autism spectrum, Montessori can be the answer for those who are high functioning, but are struggling in a traditional classroom setting.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 18th, 2010 at 7:51 pm :

    Wow, Christine, that sounds great! I am heartened to see that more and more schools are offering programs like these. It’s been a long time in coming, and it’s obvious that many children can benefit.

    I love the idea of having a lot of 3-6 materials in the room, especially since those are almost all hands-on. Since you are accepting some students with no Montessori background, that also gives them the chance to experience the 3-6 materials.

    It’s sad to think that for many children, enjoying learning is a new experience. But at least they have found your environment now and can benefit from it.

  • Gabriele Cabanilla said at October 18th, 2010 at 8:35 pm :

    Hello everyone,

    Montessori works well with children that have special needs. The most important consideration is to make sure that the environment is least restrictive and the right fit for the individual child with special needs. The second most important is that the teacher has resources to help a child with special needs and it is very important that all the right questions are being asked by everyone involved with that child. After all we are supporting ALL children learning and playing together.

    Please when you refer to the special needs child you should use Person First Terminology. Words have impact. Choose words to model acceptance and respect, especially when an individual has a disability or special need. Say: Children with special needs; Instead of: Special needs children.

    I have been a member of the Inclusion Collaborative since 2007 with Santa Clara County Office of Education in California her is the web page for some resources that might help: http://www.inclusioncollaborative.org I hope this will help.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 19th, 2010 at 6:57 am :

    Hi, Gabriele! Thanks for stopping by and for linking to your website – it’s very helpful.

  • Mella said at October 20th, 2010 at 7:29 am :

    Hi,

    My daughter is 5yrs old and has Down Syndrome she is now in her 2nd year of Montessori. We have delayed her going to school until next year. She has certainly benefited a lot from the environment. We are lucky that she has pre school support worker everyday from 9am to 12. If the support is there I would highly recommend this.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 20th, 2010 at 7:55 am :

    Hi, Mella! I am so glad your daughter can be in a Montessori program. Thanks for your input – I think other parents will find it very helpful.

  • Black Hills said at October 22nd, 2010 at 4:02 pm :

    Thanks for posting this topic. It is so important for teachers and parents to understand that Montessori environments can meet the needs of children, whatever they may be.

  • izzy said at October 28th, 2010 at 5:10 am :

    Thanks for having such a comprehensive post. I always wondered too. Its really helpful, thanks!

  • S. said at November 1st, 2010 at 10:10 pm :

    My 7 yr. old son with Down syndrome started in the Montessori toddler class when he had just turned 3. The next year he moved up to primary and needed a 1:1 aide which we sacrificed enormously to provide to enable him to remain in the Montessori environment. He spent 3 years in the primary class and has now moved up to the Lower Elementary classroom. We have been extremely pleased with the school and the fit and think it has been a wonderful experience for him. My perception was that the local public school did not believe in full inclusion the way we envisioned it for our son, while it was natural at his Montessori school. It has also been a good fit for his 10 yr. old sister who is gifted.

  • Lori Bourne said at November 2nd, 2010 at 11:37 am :

    Thanks for all your positive comments, I really appreciate it!

    S., thank you for sharing what has worked for your son. I’m so glad you’ve been able to make it work, and that you are seeing the benefits. And it’s great to hear that Montessori works well for gifted children as well as those with special needs. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Kelley Dever said at November 13th, 2010 at 10:00 am :

    Hi All, I know I’m very late in responding to this, but I wanted to let you all know about an amazing school called the Shelton School ( http://www.shelton.org ) in Dallas Texas. They are one of the world’s largest schools for children with learning differences and they are Montessori up till about fifth grade, but they continue on through highschool. They offer a course called MACAR: Montessori Applied to Children at Risk. I just finished my certification in it this summer. It is a fantastic 2 week course that is so applicable not just for those who have diagnosed learning differences, but also how to assess children in the 3-6 montessori classroom and recognize signs for early intervention. The staff at Shelton are so inspirational. They are often at the AMS conferences.

  • Lori Bourne said at November 13th, 2010 at 10:08 am :

    Hi, Kelley! Thanks for stopping by. I did link to Shelton in my post, but it’s also nice to get a testimonial from someone who has take their course. I hope more people can take advantage of their program!

  • Caryn said at December 19th, 2011 at 9:05 pm :

    Lori, I just Googled and found your site. I’m trying to start to include some Montessori methods at home. My initial experience with this method was a positive one. I attended Montessori for 2 years as I child. However, my family and I had a very bad experience with a Montessori school which was not at all welcoming to us or our child with special needs. I wish we had you or your mentor as our teacher. I’m certain our experience would have been different. We hope to find a good balance with using this wonderful method in our home while continuing with the fully-inclusive environment practiced at our excellent public school.

  • Lori Bourne said at December 19th, 2011 at 10:37 pm :

    Hi, Caryn! So glad you found us. Yes, unfortunately the quality of Montessori programs varies widely. I am so glad to hear you are incorporating Montessori into your home. Be sure to check out the posts in our “Homeschooling” category.

    Thanks!

  • Girish said at March 29th, 2012 at 5:18 am :

    Hi, Thanks for the inputs, i also wanted check what is the learning level in montessori school in india ?
    my son is 3.7 years, he just finished level 1 of montossori and what should be he ready with and then what will he as to learn on 2 year M2
    Please do help us

    Thanks

  • Lori Bourne said at March 29th, 2012 at 7:27 am :

    Hi, Girish! I can’t speak for India specifically, but generally Montessori schools divide children by age in 3 year cycles. First there is 0-3 (toddler), then 3-6 (preschool & kindergarten), 6-9 (lower elementary) and 9-12 (upper elementary).

    As far as what your son will have accomplished by now, that will vary by school and by child. During the 0-6 age, learning is almost entirely child-directed based on the child’s needs and choices. The teacher “follows the child”, observing closely what the child is interested in and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and presenting materials based on those observations.

    To find out exactly what your son has done and what he will be doing next, you’ll need to meet with your child’s teacher. They should be able to provide you with a checklist of 3-6 skills and show which ones he has mastered, which ones he is working on, and which ones he still needs to learn.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • corky said at May 14th, 2012 at 8:59 am :

    Hi, I read the article above and i myself think the pros outweigh the cons on whether to send a child with special needs to a Montessori school. I just want to make reference to the part where it said “Most Montessori training centers do not include information on working with special needs children, so unless the teacher has studied this topic elsewhere, or has previous experience with other special needs children, they may not know very much about working with a special needs child and how to integrate them into the classroom.” I have just completed my Montessori training in Ireland it has taken three years and over those three years we studied special education as one of our modules which included different ways of integrating children and differentiation. I also had to complete a years placement in a special needs setting which i choose to do in an ASD unit. In my opinion in Ireland Montessori teachers are more qualified to work with people with learning difficulties than primary school teachers are as we have more experience.

  • Lori Bourne said at May 14th, 2012 at 9:37 am :

    Hi! Thanks for your comment. I did say “most Montessori training centers” because I do think yours is the exception – but I am so glad that this vital information was included in your training, and I hope that many other training centers cover this topic too!

  • Tamie said at May 17th, 2012 at 11:29 pm :

    Thanks for this post and all the comments. I have two children with autism and will begin homeschooling one of them in the fall. She will be starting kindergarten and has high functioning autism. I am just not sure what to do with her in terms of curriculum….I think Montessori methods would fall in very closely to her ABA therapy. I don’t think I’ll be brave enough to jump in and try it with her as a new homeschooler (I will also be homeschooling her typical 6yo sister) but I do wish there was more information/support available on it as an option. If only we lived near Michelle Lane’s school, what a great place that sounds like!

  • Lori Bourne said at May 18th, 2012 at 6:00 am :

    Hi, Tamie! Good for you for homeschooling your daughter! It’s a lot of work but very rewarding. I think your daughter would definitely benefit from Montessori, especially the practical life materials. Check out For Small Hands – they offer materials for practical life, arts & crafts, nature, etc. in a Montessori style, specifically for parents to use at home with their children.

  • Jennifer said at August 13th, 2012 at 4:57 pm :

    I just read this article and I think you make several great and relevant points but I have to disagree with you when you say that Montessori education must be started at the age of three in order for a child to thrive within a Montessori environment. I have taught Montessori for several years at the middle school (secondary) level and have frequently had students enter my classroom with no previous Montessori background and watched them grow, learn, and do amazingly well.

  • Lori Bourne said at August 13th, 2012 at 5:10 pm :

    Hi, Jennifer! I have occasionally seen some older children enter Montessori and do well – it really varies by child and by family. However I think all Montessorians agree that younger ages are preferable when starting out. The child who starts Montessori in elementary has missed a great deal of wonderful foundation concepts and materials.

  • Karen Allen said at November 29th, 2012 at 7:09 am :

    Until this past year, I worked in a Montessori school which had several children with special needs. After some trial and error, they were ALL successful! I’m also a certified special ed teacher in the state of Texas, so have had a great deal of training and experience with these children. From my experience, the training is a huge asset!

    One affordable way (at least here) of teachers obtaining training for working with children with various special needs is to check out their regional support services for public schools. In Texas, the areas are all divided into regions, and my particular region is Region 16. I can sign up to attend day long trainings (mostly for free as a private school teacher or parent of a child with a disability!) on various special need topics. Though it sometimes has to be adjusted for the Montessori environment, the general information on the disability is usually good, and sometimes the suggestions are as well (as many of them are applying methodologies that seem to come almost directly from Montessori!). Definitely worth checking out!

  • Sandy said at March 21st, 2013 at 10:16 am :

    Karen Allen, I may move to Texas now!

    My 6 year old son is officially diagnosed with ADHD and sees a behavioral therapist and a psychiatrist to manage his medication regimen. We have been very up front with the school and his teachers about his issues (IQ is very high and he is considered gifted, but he struggles with transitions, impulsivity, and fine and gross motor skills). We have tried to work with his teachers and the school – keeping them updated on his medications (obviously), giving them copies of any and all assessments he’s had done, etc. We are meeting a lot of resistance from his teacher in regards to his behavior. She feels if it is manageable in the classroom that there is no need to tell us anything going on. We feel that we need to know in order to share information with his team of specialists. (For instance, there was an incident where she specifically asked him to do a work which he hadn’t done in a while and he stuck the “pricker” into a table and tried to break it off. It’s a nonviolent incident, according to the teacher, so she didn’t even send a note home. To me, that’s a behavior that needs to be addressed and shared with his team.) She says that giving me an update on his behavioral issues goes against the Montessori tradition, and she is backed up by the school. I’m also being told that I HAVE to observe his classroom in order to know what methods they are using with him, as well as observe the 6-9 classroom to see what he will be doing next year.

    We have had several meetings with the teacher and head of school to address his needs. We’ve asked for behavioral updates (because we don’t see the same behaviors at home), information on methods that have been successful with him, and for the opportunity for him to visit the 6-9 classroom once or twice a week (at the advice of his behavioral therapist) to give him older children to model. (For the record, his therapist is very familiar with the Montessori method.) We feel we are getting nowhere. Each meeting includes someone saying, “Understand we are not saying that Montessori is not right for him.” but also includes someone else talking about the challenges of educating him. They say he doesn’t meet the requirements for getting OT in the schools, they won’t subject or grade-advance him (he thoroughly understands the abstract concepts in math and so doesn’t enjoy the manipulables…that is cited as a reason that they can’t advance him at all), and they’ve told us that WE are responsible for initiating all contact with the school regarding his behavior (unless he is suspended).

    Overall, he LOVES Montessori. However, we are quickly growing disenchanted with the school but feel it is a much better option for him than public school. They’ve even suggested a charter school in another district if “we were not opposed to relocating”. We found that to be very insulting.

    I guess my question is: is this indicative of all Montessori schools? I’ve read that many children with special needs can flourish in this environment, but not all. My son does seem to enjoy his time there, but we are worried that the teacher does not want to work with him. Are we asking too much from this teacher? The school year only has a couple months left and we know it isn’t worth the trouble to complain too much at this stage. But we don’t have a lot of money, and this is the only free public Montessori charter school in our area (the others, as you are aware, are very costly). We want what is best for our son…does anyone have an opinion on this?

  • Lori Bourne said at March 21st, 2013 at 10:57 am :

    Hi, Sandy! I address a lot of this in my post. How a child with special needs does in Montessori is very conditional. It depends on the school, the teachers, the parents, the child, the other children in the classroom. You may meet someone who says “Montessori has been awesome for my child with special needs!” and someone else that says “Montessori didn’t work out at all for my child with special needs!” and they would both be right.

    The fact that your son loves it is enough, for me at least, to suggest that you keep trying to make it work, compromise with the school and teachers (perhaps accepting that you won’t get 100% of the information on your son that you wish you would), and yet still make the best of it since your son is benefiting in so many ways.

    There’s no one perfect solution or perfect answer. But since you are a caring, involved parent, my guess is that your son would do well in many different educational settings.