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The inside scoop on Montessori schools

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By Leslie Crawford

What to look out for

A school may use the Montessori name without being a true Montessori program. For a Montessori-certified program, make sure that the school is affiliated either with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI or AMI/USA) or the American Montessori Society (AMS). Also, certified Montessori instructors graduate from a special training program. Be sure to check the mission statement and curriculum of your Montessori school. It’s also important to ask about the program and visit the school; within the Montessori category, there’s a fair amount of diversity, so programs don’t all look alike from school to school.

What supporters say

  • Children advance quickly. Parents who love the Montessori approach rave about how quickly even young children advance in terms of self-esteem and academic abilities. They also say that Montessori-educated children tend to be self-motivated, independent learners.
  • Children develop and learn at their own pace. Children aren't compared to one another or forced to compete, be it for rewards, accolades, or attention. Instead, they're encouraged to collaborate and support one another.
  • Teachers respect children and encourage independence. Children are left to themselves; grown-ups rarely interfere with kids’ activities, respecting children's intelligence and ability to master many real-life skills.
  • It's calm and inviting. Parents like that children spend their day in a calm, orderly environment; children aren't stressed out, but inspired and happy at school.

What critics say

  • Teachers are standoffish. Some parents complain that Montessori teachers are too rigid, not the warm-and-fuzzy teachers you might find in traditional preschools and elementary schools. Teachers tend to be hands-off, interacting less and standing at a distance while children "work" (participate in guided play).
  • Parents don’t feel welcome. Parents may not be encouraged to spend as much time volunteering in the classroom as they might at a traditional school, and they may even feel discouraged from hanging around once class starts.
  • The curriculum is inflexible and overly controlled. Although children are permitted to learn on their own, activities are nonetheless carefully chosen, vetted, and guided — and even learning materials have strict rules. Some complain that the our-way-or-the-highway approach limits children's creativity and imagination, discouraging free-form play. For example, manipulatives like blocks are to be used in a certain, specified way. Says one parent, "painting is done one way… no old-fashioned finger painting."
  • It's too calm and quiet. Finally, a Montessori classroom may simply be too orderly and quiet for more exuberant children.

Is a Montessori school right for my child?

Montessori programs are especially good for children who are self-directed, can work independently for extended lengths of time, and work well alone or in small groups. Also, these programs tend to be ideal for children easily overwhelmed by noise, chaos, and disorder. The focus on individual learning allows students to work at their own pace and can also provide a healthy environment for special needs children.

However, a Montessori program could be challenging and frustrating for children who want to do things their own way, who don't easily follow instructions, who like to switch activities frequently, or who prefer more free-form or imagination-based play.

Final word of advice

Visit any school you are considering. Although Montessori schools adhere to a basic philosophy, each will be different. Ask to visit during school hours so you can observe how students spend their time. Do children look happy and engaged or bored? Do teachers respond to children's needs? The most important questions to answer, of course, are: Would your child enjoy this environment, could your child thrive in this setting, and is this the right learning environment for your child?

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.