A few days ago, a young couple was in my office. They have a 14 month-old toddler, and are considering Montessori. For the sake of their confidentiality, we’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. S. I had arranged for them to spend 20 minutes observing in one of our toddler environments, and an equal amount of time in a Primary classroom of 3 to 6-year-olds.
Before inviting questions, I always ask prospective parents to share their impressions of the two classrooms based upon their observation. As is typical, they were amazed. “I was expecting children to be running around, possibly shouting or crying, but instead found both classrooms to be surprisingly calm. The toddlers especially surprised me – choosing their own activities, or feeding themselves snack and cleaning up after themselves. In the Primary class there were many more children and activities, but they were also calmly and pleasantly engaged. Though we were very impressed, we began to wonder, would our child fit in here among these calm and self-possessed little beings?”
“First, I want to assure you that we have no intake process to identify only the best, brightest, calmest and easiest children for admission,” I responded. “Although we do help parents make an informed choice before applying, we don’t even meet the children until after they are accepted into the program. However, we have some advantages that you don’t have at home.”
“In the first place, both environments have mixed-age groupings. Though two of the children in the toddler class in which you observed only started two weeks ago, the other 10 have been in that classroom with that teacher for at least 6 months already. In the Primary class, the age range is even broader. A full third are in their third year in that class with that same teacher, another third in their second, and only a third were new to the class at some point during the past school year.”
“This has two implications for a new child. First, any new child has many, many role models in addition to the teacher. Secondly, since the teacher can count on the vast majority of students functioning comfortably and independently based upon their long experience, she is free to focus more of her attention on the youngest and newest children in their first days and weeks.”
Mrs. S: “Yes, but if our son were in the classroom, I would imagine he would be attracted to the activities with water, and at home he invariably makes a huge mess. I’m even worried that he might be attracted to the fish bowl. What’s to stop him from sticking his hands in it and splashing the water out?”
Me: “Starting on his first day, the teacher would give him careful presentations of the use of each material before he is invited to use it. This is done one-on-one as the teacher demonstrates in front of him an essential use of each activity in a way that communicates its purpose and component sequence of actions. It is only after this presentation that he is free to choose this activity on his own. Some of these activities will include water, but she will emphasize the control of movement necessary to be successful. When it’s his turn, if he does make a mess, she will simply show him how to clean it up. But, more importantly, she will observe which of the component steps or skills he still lacks, and, on another day, repeat the presentation with a greater emphasis on those missing pieces, thus fulfilling Dr. Montessori’s admonition to ‘Teach by teaching, not by correcting.’
As for the fish bowl, that is simply another opportunity for learning. On his first day, as part of his orientation to the classroom, she will show him how to watch the fish, emphasizing with her motions the importance of keeping her hands by her sides. She will watch how he does when he is attracted to the fishbowl on subsequent days and, if necessary, give him another lesson or simply a reminder, ‘Do you remember how to watch the fish? That’s right, your hands can be right by your side.’
So, be assured, it’s not that Montessori only works with exceptional children. Rather, from our point of view, every child is blessed with exceptional potential, your child included.”
Peter Davidson was the founding Head at the Montessori School of Beaverton, an AMI school in Portland and currently serves as consultant for Montessori in Redlands, an AMI school in Southern California.