5 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Montessori School

Montessori education has gained significant popularity in recent years, which I love to see!  One downside though is that many schools have popped up that claim to be “Montessori,” but really aren’t authentic Montessori schools when you take a closer look.

Montessori is not a trademarked term and any school can add “Montessori” to its name.  This is a scary thought if you’re choosing a school and don’t know what to look for.

If you’re considering a Montessori school for your children, here are five questions to ask before choosing.  (Many, but not all, of these questions are relevant for other types of schools as well.)

1. What is the daily schedule?

One trademark of the Montessori method is that the children have long, usually three hour, blocks of uninterrupted work time.  Ideally, they would have one 3 hour work period in the morning and another in the afternoon.

Uninterrupted time is necessary for the children to achieve deep concentration.  Some children come in and start with challenging work right away, but others need to ease into it by starting with an easier task.  Long stretches of time give them the chance to do this.

2. Are the teachers AMS / AMI certified?  Is the administrator?

Certified Montessori teachers, also called “guides,” go through a rigorous training program and are observed by experienced Montessori teachers to make sure they’re prepared to lead a Montessori classroom.  Certified teachers also complete an internship with a mentor where they are able to practice their new skills.  Some online training programs have become available as well, but I’m not familiar enough with them to comment.

Many Montessori schools have assistants who have not completed training, but in looking for a school for my child, I would want a classroom where the lead teacher was AMS (American Montessori Society) or AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) certified.

I personally think it’s a plus if the administrator is also certified because he or she is more likely to make decisions for the school based on Montessori principles.

3. How is discipline handled?

I would ask this at any school.  Montessori classes should use positive discipline and natural consequences.  You should not see children being put in time out or shamed in any way.  When asking this question, it might be helpful to be more specific, such as, “how to the teachers handle it if a child hits another child?”  If there is a particular discipline issue your child is struggling with, ask how that specific issue is handled.

4. Are the classes mixed-age?  What is the ratio of each age group?

Montessori education uses mixed-age, mixed-skill level classrooms.  This allows the younger children to learn from the older group, and empowers the older students to act as role models and leaders.  Montessori classes generally include a three year age span, (3-6 year olds, 6-9 year olds, etc.) though infant and toddler classes include smaller age groups due to how quickly they develop.

Most classes won’t have a perfectly balanced percentage of each age group, but it’s useful to ask about the ratio, because classrooms with a fairly even balance of younger and older children generally run more smoothly.

5. May I observe?

Most Montessori schools will allow you to observe a classroom if you are interested in the school.  When observing, try to assess the environment, the teacher, and how the children interact.

In the environment, look for a clean, organized room with all materials accessible to the children.  Furniture should be child-sized and things like supplies, snack, and cleaning materials should be readily accessible to the children without needing to ask an adult for help.  Also look for concrete Montessori materials, rather than worksheets.  There should ideally be nature included in the classroom in the form of plants, animals, and interesting items like fossils or rocks, etc.

In the teacher, watch how she talks to the children.  She should speak to them respectfully with a firm, but kind, voice.  She should also speak fairly quietly so it does not distract the other children.  She should be working with one child at a time, or a small group, rather than giving large group lessons.

In the children, watch to see how they interact with each other, and with the environment.  Do most of them walk carefully around the room, picking things up when they’re knocked over?  Do most of them speak to each other kindly?  How is it handled when they don’t?

Of course there are always children testing the limits, but through observing the children, you can get an idea of the classroom culture and what behavior is generally accepted.

I’m a big believer in going with your gut instinct with things like choosing a school for your children.  At the end of the day, you want a place where they will be safe, respected, challenged, and nurtured.  If you are interested in a Montessori school, I hope these questions help you find a great fit!

Have you gone through the process of choosing a school for your child?  What was the most challenging part?


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Five Parenting Lessons I Learned as a Teacher

Teaching little ones was such an honor and so much fun (most of the time).

I feel so lucky to have had the experience of being in the classroom before having children of my own because I learned so much about children and how to interact with them, but also because I gained valuable lessons about the type of parent I want to be.

I want to be clear, I know it’s about 1000 times harder to be the parent you want to be in the moment than to think about it in the abstract.  I worked mostly with 3-6 year older (a little bit with toddlers too), so I won’t need to use most of these ideas for quite some time.  I may fail at all of them, who knows.  These are just a few things I hope to keep in mind as my little guy grows based on what I saw work (and not work) with parent-child interactions when I taught.

1. Avoid Labeling: “bored” or “shy” or “picky”

I want my little guy to learn as many words as possible in the next couple of years…but there are a few words, like “shy” and “picky” and “bored” that I’m in no hurry for him to learn

Obviously children will learn these words on their own eventually, but why speed up that process?  Why teach a child that when there’s nothing going on, you / they are “bored”?  I promise you will regret it when they tell you 1000 times in an hour that they’re bored.

“Oh, you’re bored?  Bored means there is nothing to do.  I have something you can help me with.”  Proceed to involve them in folding laundry, sweeping the floor, whatever else needs doing….they will quickly learn to stop telling you they’re bored and start figuring out something fun to do.

Along similar lines, why teach a child that he is “shy”?  Feeling shy is totally fine, but labeling someone as shy is different.  That becomes part of their identity.

I think it’s important to help small children understand and name their feelings, but when little Johnny is hiding behind your leg, instead of saying “Sorry, Johnny is shy, he wants to stay with me,” you could say “Johnny, it seems like you’re feeling hesitant to go in today.  I see your friend Bobby over there / I see your favorite book is available to read”.

Same with picky – sure some children are picky eaters, but if they hear you label them as “picky,” it becomes a part of how they see themselves and they are much less likely to try new things.

2. Don’t Interview for Pain

Children are perceptive.  Children want your attention.  They will quickly figure out what gets the most attention from you and do more of that thing.

If you ask your child about their day and then focus in on the one negative thing they’ve mentioned and proceed to question them about it for the next half hour and comfort them (even if they weren’t upset about it to begin with…), they will quickly learn to bring up more negative things.  Whether or not anything bad has happened.  A little disagreement they had with a friend becomes a huge drama where they were the victim – this is not to say your child will lie, but that the way they view what happened will change.

How you see the world impacts how they see the world.  Parents do this because they want to make sure their children are okay and are taken care of.  Of course it’s a parent’s job to be their child’s advocate and protector.  But if you have a big reaction every time your child mentions anything “bad” happening, they will likely begin focusing on / embellishing these interactions, and becoming more upset over them.

3. Don’t Greet with Criticism

Picture this: Little three-year old Sally has spent twenty minutes putting on her own shoes.  She sat there and concentrated and did it herself, even though it’s so hard.

Mom comes in to pick her up from school: “Oh, your shoes are on the wrong feet.  Let’s fix that before we get in the car.” Mom proceeds to do it for little Sally because it’s faster.  Message: You did it wrong and I don’t think you’re capable of doing this on your own.

If you’re worried your child might be uncomfortable, you could say “Do your shoes feel comfortable?”   If they say yes, just leave it alone and maybe make a mental note to show them a trick for remembering which shoe goes on which foot later.  Or not.  They will figure it out eventually.

4. Leave it at the Door

Imagine this scenario: A little girl in pigtails comes bouncing into school, a smile on her face, lunchbox in hand.

Mom: “Poor little Jane had an awful morning.  She slept terribly, cried about putting her shoes on, and fell and scraped her knee on the way to the car.  Good luck with her today.”

The little girl is no longer smiling.  Clearly….

Children generally move on quickly.  While all of the events of a rough morning are likely still swimming around in your head, the child has likely moved on.  Even if she hasn’t, why not give her a fresh start when she gets to school (or to a friend’s house, or wherever you’re going).

This could also be broadened to say avoid talking about your child like she’s not there – she is always listening.

If you need to tell a teacher or another adult about something going on with your child, leave a note!  This way the relevant information is passed along and the child doesn’t hear the reminder that she’s probably in a bad mood and may be a pain to be around today.  Yikes.

5. Avoid Saying “No”

This isn’t what it sounds like – this does NOT mean let your child do whatever they want.  It’s just that children, especially toddlers and very young children, are sensitive to the fact that they are constantly told “no”.

There are ways you can rephrase what you’re saying to avoid directly telling them no and triggering a power struggle.  Examples:

Child: “Can I have a piece of candy?”

Parent: “Yes, this evening, after we eat dinner.”  (Or, “Mmm, I like candy too, I wish we could eat it every day!  Candy is a special treat.  We’ll have some in a few weeks on Halloween.”)

Child at the store: “Can I have this toy?  And this toy?  And that toy?”

Parent: “Ooo, that looks like a fun one!  I’m going to take picture of it so I remember it when you have a birthday.”  (or write a note – children love seeing you write notes, it shows them what they’re saying is important to you.)  This trick is from my friend Natalie and I love it and definitely plan to use it!

Child: “Can I go play outside?”

Parent: “Yes.  As soon as we’re done cleaning your room, you may play outside.”

Even though he’s only 8 months, I try to practice this way of talking with James because I think a big part of it is habit.  When he tries to roll away while I’m changing his diaper, I say “You may roll / crawl as soon as we’re done with your diaper”.  It may not make any difference to him yet, but I think it’s helping me remember to practice this skill.  I try to save “no” or “stop” for things that are unsafe so the words have more impact.

Do you use anything you’ve learned at work in your home?

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