Transitioning from Montessori to a Traditional School

When I was teaching, I was asked about the transition from Montessori to traditional school many, many times. Because few regions of the world offer a complete Pre-K-12 Montessori program, transitioning is something the majority of Montessori kids will have to accomplish at some point in their school careers. The good news is, studies suggest that this change can be approached and managed very successfully.

A most interesting recent research project tracked 400 students in Milwaukee. Half the students received only public school education from kindergarten to graduation. The other half attended Montessori schools through 5th grade before transitioning into the public school system. The two groups were carefully matched in terms of gender, ethnicity and family financial status. At the end of the study, which was conducted between 1997-2007, test scores and GPAs were compared.

Perhaps it won’t come as a surprise to Montessori advocates that the children who had received Preschool – Grade 5 Montessori education not only outperformed the other student group in math and science test scores, but also graduated with higher GPAs. The conclusion of the study was that early Montessori education had a long-term impact on later public school performance. At the very least, students transitioned excellently on an academic level.

Help! We’ve Just Left Montessori For Public School

This was the title of an educational forum discussion that I believe accurately sums up how many parents feel about the challenges of transitioning. In this case, a mother in Chicago was extremely committed to making her son’s move from one school to the next as smooth as possible. She was very worried about the fact that her son’s handwriting and spelling was poor and feared that the different way in which math would be presented in his new classroom would prove a difficult challenge.

Three months later, the mom returned to forum to report that while her son’s first report card had contained mostly As and Bs, she was unhappy to see him getting C in language arts. She wondered why, when her son was a good reader, his language skills were so ‘weak’. Another parent came along to remind her that a C grade doesn’t mean ‘weak’; it simply means ‘average’. The mother seemed reassured by this. I think it’s helpful to remember that grades usually do not show a true picture of the child’s abilities, and hopefully Montessori parents will keep this in mind when their child moves to a grade-based system of evaluation.

As the discussion continued and time passed, this parent discovered ways to help her son with new things like homework, got further advice for improving in challenging areas and found that being in good communication with her child’s teacher is very important. I thought this discussion was noteworthy because it shows that both the parent and the child go through a transition, and this mother was doing the right thing by getting involved and doing all she could to be of help to her child.

The Academic Transition

The academic challenge is 1/2 of the formula in the transition. Montessori students may either be behind or ahead of their new peers in certain subjects because of the self-guided study they did in their previous school. Concepts will be taught differently, and the student will need to adapt to more traditional teaching methods.

In my experience, even if a Montessori child finds him or herself behind the other students in a certain curricular area, they are able to catch up very easily. Remember, this is a child who has learned how to learn – where to find information on their own if they need it. They are accustomed to research and to tackling new subjects. These skills stand them in very good stead when they move to traditional school.

Homework may be a bit of a shock, if a child hasn’t received very much until now. Students must be prepared to put in additional hours of work after the last bell rings for the day. Parents may need to participate in homework time until their children become accustomed to taking responsibility for the task on their own.

A healthy snack at homework time may be helpful in providing the extra bit of energy new traditional school students need to fulfill homework requirements. If children show an inability to complete all the work that is expected of them, setting up a parent-teacher conference to discuss a gradual transition to homework might be a good idea. It isn’t in the best interest of any child to give them more duties than they can handle and a good teacher will be willing to listen to special concerns.

The Emotional Transition

No matter the kind of education a child receives, leaving a familiar classroom or school behind can cause some feelings of sadness for students of any age. Montessori children are apt to miss their former instructors and schoolmates as well as the buildings and playgrounds they knew so well. Entering a social system where a pecking order has already been established presents another challenge as the new kid tries to figure out where he fits in. When you add to this the tremendous difference in educational philosophy Montessori students encounter when they walk into their traditional school classrooms, some feelings of stress are predictable.

Teachers and parents can help children by having frequent conversations with them about what they are feeling and experiencing. Parents can encourage kids to feel free to invite a potential new friend home for a play date. This will help them to meet some of their new classmates and their parents. The truth is, of course, that during school hours, children will be fending for themselves in a new environment. It may take awhile for them to be accepted by their fellow students and to make friends.

Here’s Some Good News

Psychologists and stellar child advocates like John Taylor Gatto agree that the most important period for mental and emotional development is accomplished by the time a child is nine. Gatto suggests that grades K-3 are optimal for homeschooling children and the same concept applies to Montessori. Children who are allowed to explore and discover themselves amidst the general freedom of a Montessori environment have got powerful tools tucked under their jackets that will assist them when they enter the more rigid structure of traditional school.

Overall, the prognosis looks good for a healthy transition from Montessori to traditional schools, and I have seen many, many children handle the change successfully. That being said, parents need to do their part by carefully investigating schooling options. Many districts offer interesting charter school choices, and some parents will pick a private school. Homeschooling will be the route other families determine to take. Each family will have to make the decision that’s best for their child, and be ready to give them some extra support as they make the change.

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9 Responses to “Transitioning from Montessori to a Traditional School”

  • AR_Teacher said at April 10th, 2008 at 12:09 pm :

    This is very comforting to read. I am a regular classroom teacher and my son (3 yrs old) goes to a Montessori school. If there is any way possible, I will keep him out of my district as it is NOT somewhere that my child will attend until some major changes are effected. Barring my ability to do that, I am hoping that he will be able to enter public education as easily as possible.

    It’s nice to hear that Montessori education at an early age helps to boost GPA and graduation placement in high school.

  • montessori_lori said at April 11th, 2008 at 8:40 am :

    Yes, I think it’s good to be reminded of how crucial the early years are. If the child has a solid foundation, it’s much easier for them to make transitions.

  • Lisa Toller said at July 9th, 2010 at 2:56 pm :

    I would love to have the link to the actual research on transitioning Montessori children that is referred to in this article. It is a question that we are frequently asked by our parents, too. Thank you.

  • Lori Bourne said at July 9th, 2010 at 3:38 pm :

    Sure, I just googled “Montessori study Milwaukee” and it popped up as the first result. Here you go: Do Montessori Schools Have an Edge?.

  • Melissa Bosman said at April 12th, 2011 at 6:04 am :

    What about transitioning from publc school to Montessori? I have 2 boys one entering third grade the other 4th grade what should I expect?

  • Lori Bourne said at April 12th, 2011 at 7:13 am :

    Hi, Melissa! This post should be very helpful: Will My Child Do Well in Montessori?.

  • Tara said at April 24th, 2012 at 12:05 am :

    I was in Montessori from age 4 through 6th grade. While the transition to middle school was tough (I didn’t know anyone since only one other person from my school went to the same middle school, and it was so large we never ran into each other), I don’t think that the transition from public middle school to public high school was any easier.

    Change is difficult no matter what, and the most difficult adjustment was getting used to the sheer size of the school and number of students, which I feel would have been an issue had I attended public elementary school. I actually felt quite comfortable in the actual classrooms and didn’t have any difficulties with a different classroom/lecture situation. Part of that was because I was ahead academically, so things felt easy and comfortable from the beginning.

    One big adjustment was getting used to the lack of respect from other students. I had been used to everyone looking out for each other/caring about one another and his/her feelings, and that simply wasn’t the case anymore. Montessori was much more accepting of differences and individuality than students in general were in my public school. However, having acceptance and gaining self-confidence early on helped me deal with the self-esteem issues that hit everyone in middle school, and I believe I fared at least slightly better overall than most of my peers.

    My school did do some things to prep us for the change– e.g. they gave us report cards with ABCD grades our sixth grade year, and we had some discussions ahead of time about how things might be different. It helped ease the transition, but in short, I’m sending my own two-year old into Montessori next year, and the transition to public school isn’t even on the list of things I worry about for him.

  • Lori Bourne said at April 24th, 2012 at 5:28 am :

    Thanks so much for your comment, Tara! I think it will be very helpful to other parents. And I’m so glad your son is going to do Montessori like you did!

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