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Each year, during the start of school, teachers and administrators try to explain to new parents the essence of the term Montessori. In this article, we’ll try to explain what Montessori is and is not, dispelling, we hope, a few misperceptions about Montessori education in the process.

Its simplest form, Montessori is the philosophy of child and human development as presented by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who lived from 1870 to 1952. In the early 1900s, Dr. Montessori built her work with mentally challenged children on the research and studies of Jean Itard (1774-1838), best known for his work with the “Wild Boy of Aveyron” and Edward Seguin (1821- 1882), who expanded Itard’s work with deaf children. In 1907, Dr. Montessori began using her teaching materials with normal children in a Rome tenement and discovered what she called “the Secret of Childhood.” The secret? Children love to be involved in self-directed purposeful activities. When given a prepared environment of meaningful projects, along with the time to do those tasks at their own pace, children will choose to engage in activities that will create learning in personal and powerful ways. Over the past one hundred years, Montessori classrooms all over the world have proven that, when correctly implemented, Dr Montessori’s philosophy works for children of all socio-economic circumstances and all levels of ability. In a properly prepared Montessori classroom, research shows that children learn faster and more easily than in traditional schools. However, the implementation of Montessori philosophy is a school’s biggest challenge.

There are many factors to consider when putting theory into practice, for example: the individual children in the classroom, their ages and emotional well-being; parent support and understanding of Montessori philosophy; and the training and experience of teachers, assistants, and administrators. These are only a few of the elements that create a Montessori school. Because of this, Montessori schools come in all shapes and sizes, including the small in-home class for a few children to schools with hundreds of students, from newborns through high school.

While schools come in many shapes and sizes, all successful Montessori classrooms require three key elements: 1. well-trained adults; 2. specially prepared environments; and 3. children’s free choice of activity within a three-hour work cycle. Finding the right school for your family—whether it’s Montessori, public, parochial, alternative, traditional or home school— requires a bit of investigative work and an understanding of the needs and concerns you have for your family. Being clear about what Montessori education is and what it is not can help you make an informed decision.

Let me use my twenty-five years of Montessori experience to help dispel a few misconceptions about Montessori schools, some of which I’ve held myself.

MYTH #1: Montessori Is Just for Rich Kids

Many Montessori schools in the United States are private schools, begun in the early to mid- 1960s, a time when most public education didn’t offer kindergarten, and only 5 percent of children went to preschool, compared with the 67 percent reported in the 2000 census. When many Montessori schools were established, private preschools might have been an option only for those in urban well-to-do areas, thus giving the impression that only wealthy families could afford Montessori schools. The first schools that Montessori established were in the slums of Rome, for children left at home while parents were out working, and certainly not for rich kids . Today, in the United States, there are over 300 public Montessori schools and 100 charter schools that offer taxpayerfinanced schooling, along with thousands of private, not-for-profit Montessori programs that use charitable donations to offer low-cost tuition. Montessori education, through these low-cost options, is available to families interested in quality education. Many private, highdollar schools offer scholarships, and some states offer childcare credits and assistance to low-income families.

MYTH #2: Montessori Is Just for Gifted Kids

Montessori is for all children. Since Montessori preschools begin working with threeyear-olds in a prepared learning environment, Montessori students learn to read, write, and understand the world around them in ways that they can easily express. To the casual observer, Montessori students may appear advanced for their age, leading to the assumption that the schools cater to gifted children. In reality, a Montessori school offers children of differing abilities ways to express their unique personalities, through activities using hands on materials, language, numbers, art, music, movement and more. Montessori schooling helps each child develop individuality in a way that accentuates his or her innate intelligence. Montessori schools can help make most kids ‘gifted’ kids.

MYTH #3: Montessori Is for Learning Disabled Children

It is true that Dr. Montessori began her work with children who were institutionalized, due to physical or mental impairments. When using her methods and materials with normal children, Montessori discovered that children learned more quickly using her teaching methods. There are some Montessori schools and programs that cater specifically to children who have learning challenges. In many Montessori schools, however, children with special needs are included, when those requirements can be met with existing school resources.

MYTH #4: Montessori Is Affiliated with the Catholic Church

Like many preschools, some Montessori programs may be sponsored by a church or synagogue, but most Montessori schools are established as independent entities. Conversely, a school might be housed in a church building and not have any religious affiliation. Since Montessori refers to a philosophy, not an organization, schools are free to have relationships with other organizations, including churches.

Some of the first Montessori programs were sponsored by Catholic or other religious organizations. Dr. Montessori was Catholic and worked on developing religious, educational, hands-on learning experiences for young children. The Montessori movement, however, has no religious affiliations. Montessori schools all over the world reflect the specific values and beliefs of the staff members and families that form each school community. Around the world, there are Montessori schools that are part of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other religious communities.

MYTH #5: In Montessori Classrooms, Children Run Around and Do Whatever They Want

When looking at a Montessori classroom you may see 25 or more children involved in individual or small-group activities. It is possible that each child will be doing something different. At first glance, a classroom may look like a hive of bumblebees.

If you take the time to follow the activities of two children, over the course of a three-hour work period, you should observe a series of self-directed activities. The children aren’t running wild. They are each involved in selfselected work, designed to build concentration and support independent learning.

Choosing what you do is not the same as doing whatever you want. A well-known anecdote about Montessori students doing what they like, comes from E.M. Standing’s book, Maria Montessori—Her Life and Work: “A rather captious and skeptical visitor to a Montessori class once buttonholed one of the children—a little girl of seven—and asked: ‘Is it true that in this school you are allowed to do anything you like?’ ‘I don’t know about that,’ replied the little maiden cautiously, ‘but I do know that we like what we do’.”

MYTH #6: Montessorians Are a Selective Clique

One definition of a clique is: an exclusive circle of people with a common purpose. Many Montessori teachers could be accused of this because of their intense desire to be of service in the life of a child, coupled with the teacher’s knowledge of child development. While many schools have tight-knit communities, they are not exclusive.

You should look for a school where you and your family feel welcomed. For many years, Montessori training programs were only available in a few larger cities. Often certified required prospective teachers relocate for a year of study. Now Montessori teacher’s training is mainstream and more accessible, with colleges and universities offering graduate programs in Montessori education, in conjunction with Montessori training centers. Loyola College in Maryland, New York University, and Xavier University are only a few of the many institutions of higher learning that include Montessori teacher’s training.

Dr. Montessori’s books, full of Italian scientific and psychological terminology, translated into the British English of the early 1990s, can be difficult for the modern reader to follow. To parents, the use of Montessori-specific terms and quotes may at times take on esoteric tones of an elusive inner circle. The enthusiasm and dedication evident in the work of many Montessorians might be misinterpreted as excluding to uninitiated newcomers.

My experience with Montessori teachers and administrators has been that they are eager to share their knowledge with others. •

Look for Part 2 of Montessori Myths in the next edition of Tomorrow’s Child.

Maren Stark Schmidt founded a Montessori school and has AMI elementary teaching credentials. She currently writes the award-winning syndicated newspaper column, Kids Talk, and is author of Understanding Montessori: A Guide for Parent sand Building Cathedrals Not Walls.