Is Montessori Really for Everyone?

It might sound funny that I’m calling into question the very name of my company here. But this has been on my mind for awhile and I thought it would be interesting to discuss. Let me say that when I founded my company, I intended my business name to convey that Montessori theory and Montessori materials should be readily available to anyone, anywhere. That’s one reason I’ve added articles, links, free materials, and more to my store. And I have plans for more things as time allows.

No, what I’m addressing in this post is whether or not every child will do well in Montessori. I worked at one school where our director was fond of saying, “Montessori is for every child, but not every parent.” I believe she meant that some parents are unable to grasp the reasons behind Montessori philosophy, and it becomes a struggle for them to accept what their child does in a Montessori school. You may explain to them why it’s okay for their 4-year-old to come to school and scrub a chair every day for a month, but they just don’t get it and end up pulling their child out of school.

But is Montessori really for every child? I think that when a child starts Montessori at a young age (say, 3 years or under), they are going to always feel pretty comfortable in a Montessori environment. My personal experience is that if a child begins Montessori past a certain age (say, 5 years and up), it can sometimes be difficult for the child to adapt. This may be because of the child’s own temperament, or because of certain things that are happening (or not happening) in the home.

I vividly remember a very bright little girl who started in a 3-6 classroom at the age of 5. Everything was a battle to her – why should she have to put out a rug? Why did she have to complete a work before putting it away? Why did she have to be the one to put it away? Why couldn’t she touch other children’s work? We watched her wrestle with these issues every day.

It wasn’t that we didn’t explain to her the “why” of all these things – we did, many times. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing when a child is curious and wants to know the underlying reasons for something. I think that’s a really great thing. But in this girl’s case, she never reached a point where she accepted our explanations and was willing to follow the ground rules of the classroom.

Other times – I think this is more common – a child enters Montessori at an older age and sighs a sigh of relief. Just by looking around at the materials and the other children working, they feel like they are home. They enjoy the freedom of the prepared environment without constantly testings its limits. Basically, they thrive.

At my training center, one of our trainers made it a point every year to tell the students that she had two sons (now grown), where one boy attended a Montessori school and loved it, while the other son was extremely unhappy in Montessori and ended up thriving at a more traditional school. This person was a die-hard Montessorian, and her husband was also Montessori certified, but they had been able to accept that for one child, Montessori simply wasn’t the answer.

I guess I’m willing to say that sometimes, there are children for whom Montessori doesn’t just “click”. I think it’s okay for parents to honor that and place the child in an environment that works better for their needs. I don’t think it’s right to force a child to stay in Montessori just because it’s better, or different, or more hands-on, or more respected, or whatever the initial reason was for choosing Montessori.

I’ve had several people email me questions or leave comments pertaining to this issue. Some frequent questions were these: can an older child (8 and up) benefit from Montessori if they are new to it? And will they be able to adapt to Montessori?

This largely depends on the child. A child who has already been in an environment – school or home – that encourages independent learning, research, reading, and pursuing a child’s interests – is going to merge right into the Montessori method without many problems.

A child who has been in a traditional educational method – whether home or school – that is based on grades, tests, rewards, and following a strict curriculum – is probably going to have a difficult time entering the Montessori method.

The ability of a child to rely on their own internal compass as a measure of progress is something that needs to be developed early on. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure it can ever come about. This child will most likely always be looking for adult approval and concrete measurements like grades to determine whether they have done a good job or not. (I’m using words like “probably” and “most likely” because there are always exceptions to the rule).

These reasons are probably why most Montessori schools won’t take children who are completely new to Montessori above 3rd grade (sometimes lower). A homeschooling family might have more success with an older child because they could introduce Montessori methods and materials gradually into the homeschooling framework, but then you might not be able to call it Montessori anymore.

How much of your teaching method needs to be Montessori for you to be able to call it “Montessori”? Many people would say 100%, but that’s definitely a different discussion for another day. Meanwhile, if any of you had children who started Montessori later in childhood, please share your experiences!