Working Montessori Math into Homeschooling

The other day I received this question from a customer and I thought it was an interesting dilemma. Here’s what she said:

“I have a question for you, and I wonder if you can help me out when you have some time. As you know, I am homeschooling my daughter. We use Montessori materials for language and science, but for math I have purchased a homeschooling math curriculum to use. My daughter is in first grade, and understands the concepts well (addition, subtraction, patterns, etc.), however, she is reluctant to do math work. She finds it “boring and too long” (her words).

The curriculum includes practice sheet and assessments that she needs to complete, as well as a lot of repetition of the math problems. I have also tried some games with her to teach her the concepts, but none of these have worked. Math has become a bad experience for the two of us. She complains, whines, and refuses to cooperate. I feel frustrated and helpless. What can I do?”

My answer:

“I’d be happy to try and help. First, let’s step back and look at all the dynamics that are going on. When you say things like “practice sheet and assessments”, little bells go off for me. Both in Montessori and my own experience, a first grader shouldn’t need to be completing those kinds of things. This does lead to the kind of behavior you speak of – complaining and whining – but that is the only way a child this age is able to tell you: “Mom, I don’t want or need to do this!”

Children resist textbooks, workbooks, and worksheets because they sense an inherent irrelevance in the materials. A page of math problems with no real-life application is just busy work, and they know it. In a classroom situation, a child might not verbalize these feelings; they see their classmates doing the worksheets, which makes them feel like “everyone is doing it”, or they might not feel comfortable enough with the teacher to state their true feelings.

With mom, however, it’s a different story! As you’ve seen, they feel no social pressure to comply just because you’re telling them to. As I’ve browsed homeschooling websites, I found a quote by one homeschooling mom (her kids are now grown) who said: “The more I tried to make it similar to real school, the worse it was. It wasn’t until I switched gears completely and let them do the leading that things fell into place”.

Maria Montessori felt that children needed a strong foundation in concrete operations before moving to abstract. By concrete operations, I mean using objects, beads, or tiles to solve math problems rather than just doing them on paper. In this way, children begin to understand the why and how of the math they are doing. Most children (with a few exceptions) respond really well to hands-on math materials, especially if they are given the freedom to choose when, how, and where to work with them.

I’m not familiar with the curriculum you’re using, but if you take 10 different math curriculums, I’m sure that there’d be 10 different ways to teach addition, 10 different timelines for when each skill should be learned, and on and on. In other words, the “requirements” of many curriculums are mostly arbitrary. In Montessori, the math curriculum starts with a hands-on approach to the decimal system and slowly builds off of that.

I would recommend that you lighten up on math with your daughter – put out some hands-on math activities and let her be the one to choose to do them. Trust her to know what she needs to work on. If you can get a copy of Maria Montessori’s book “The Secret of Childhood”, I think you would be fascinated. She never imposes her own ideas on the child; she only observes and sees what they teach her about themselves. It’s awesome.

It sounds like this could be a pivotal moment for you as you decide what to do in the next few months. At a certain point, all Montessori teachers and homeschoolers have to relinquish some control back to the child in order for there to be unrestricted learning. It’s something that I’ve struggled with too.

The “proof is in the pudding”, as they say, and rather than worrying if your daughter gets certain test scores, or completes a certain number of worksheets, focus more on helping your daughter become creative, intelligent, thoughtful, and curious. After all, if she completes a worksheet, it begins and ends there. If she is allowed to learn freely, she can teach herself for the rest of his life.

I don’t want to be preachy, and I know there’s a lot to take in. At the very least, hopefully this will give you more options to pursue as you continue on your homeschooling journey.”

Any thoughts, readers? I’d like to know what you think about this.