Many wonder if Montessori education is appropriate for every child with varying needs and abilities.
Renae – a Montessori homeschooling mother of four special needs children with developmental, emotional, and cognitive disabilities. She is here to say YES! All a child needs is a Montessori teacher who observes, understands, and then follows the child. The key is interpreting specific behaviors related to classroom activities correctly and appropriately. The teacher can then formulate a plan that will meet the specific needs of a particular child who may be struggling.
1. Developmentally Appropriate Activities
Maria Montessori believed that schooling should correspond to a child’s development. Montessori preschools are designed for children ages 3-6. Early elementary classrooms are for children ages 6-9. Children ages 9-12 are considered late elementary students. Children who develop appropriately will thrive in classrooms specific to the recommended ages. However, not all children’s developmental milestones match their chronological age. Children with a variety of disabilities have developmental, emotional and cognitive delays, making it impossible for them to keep up with peers, even when given a choice of activities. It is up to the Montessori teacher to observe the child, to understand where the child is developmentally, and then provide appropriate activities according to their developmental age. This may mean providing some preschool materials and activities in an early elementary Montessori classroom. Often those with delays and disabilities have a low frustration tolerance, which can result in outbursts, meltdowns, physical aggression, destructive tendencies etc. Much of this can be avoided by providing the proper materials that correspond to the child’s developmental age.
My autistic son, Bulldozer, turns 7 in one month. When he was 4 years of age, I introduced him to the Montessori bead material using the bead stair, teens board, and tens board. All activities failed. The Montessori beads were not developmentally appropriate for him. Instead of using them properly, he would throw, scatter, and attempt to destroy the bead bars. This occurred even after many attempts to teach grace and courtesy when handling the materials. Feeling very discouraged, I put the beads away. Fast forward to this spring (2 ½ years later). The bead bars were presented again. Not only is Bulldozer using the materials properly, but if not visible, he requests them on a daily basis when working out math problems etc. Bulldozer is successful now when using the Montessori bead material because he is developmentally ready for it. Though he is chronologically almost 7 years of age, he is developmentally between the ages of 3 and 4.
2. Sensory Stimuli
One major concern when working with children with varying disabilities is sensory stimulation. The activity level in a Montessori classroom is high, although usually in an organized, purposeful way. The frequent movement of children at various times and in varying combinations can prove to be quite distracting for some students with sensory sensitivities or other special needs. A Montessori classroom is designed to stir curiosity, and inspire new learning. The materials are meant to be attractive and engaging to children, often appealing to two or more senses. Again, for most children, enhanced sensory experience draws their interest to the learning materials and leads to improved comprehension and mastery of core concepts. However, children with developmental and some emotional disabilities respond differently to sensory stimuli around them, compared to their typical peers. For more information about specific sensory needs in the classroom and how to meet them, please visit:
Unlike a traditional school setting, it is very easy to accommodate sensory needs in a Montessori classroom. Children are not required to sit in a chair and at a desk for long periods of time. In fact, they are encouraged to move about the room, working at a table or using a mat on the floor. Consider choosing a specific mat for your sensory needs child that is calming and comfortable. A Montessori classroom has a built-in space for children to calm themselves when upset. Design a peace corner specific to a child’s sensory needs, when breaks are needed. Include a tray of calming sensory items or fidget toys for the child to use. In a Montessori classroom, children select their own work. Try to incorporate specific calming sensory materials in activities you know the child will enjoy. A key principle of a Montessori learning environment is organization. A clean, orderly and elegant learning environment is one in which everything has a place. This is very pleasing and calming to the senses, which then results in success in the classroom.
3. Stimming Behaviors
Many children with developmental disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder frequently engage in self-stimulating activities and behaviors, otherwise known as stimming. These activities and behaviors occur as the child is attempting to self regulate their senses and emotions. Stimming can be problematic in the Montessori classroom, especially if specific materials and/or activities on the shelves correlate with a child’s preferred ways of stimming. However, introducing an activity that appeals to a child’s need for sensory input can sometimes result in unexpected discoveries and new learning, even when the activity may seem to be developmentally inappropriate.
Bulldozer is a visual stimmer. He is particularly attracted to shapes and colors. Two years ago, his older brother was introduced to the Montessori Grammar Symbols. Bulldozer became obsessively interested in them and asked to work with them. Due to his intense interest and stimming, Bulldozer learned the corresponding name to each grammar symbol and could complete all grammar activities when using pictures and controls. All this occurred before he could read. The unique features of Montessori materials in education (hands-on objects, built-in controls), allow children to explore and master concepts that would be unattainable using other educational methods, especially those that may require reading and writing skills. Montessori education is all about following the child, which allows the flexibility to change activities and materials when needed.
4. Incentives & Reinforcers
Many children with varying disabilities often need added incentives and reinforcers as motivation to complete tasks, especially those they may dislike or appear too challenging. Maria Montessori thought that acquiring new learning should be its own reward. She believed that children had intrinsic motivation to learn and master new things, so she created methods and materials that appeal to that need. Montessori teachers use these motivating materials in their classroom. They also create their own activities to ensure a child’s education is complete. Incentives and reinforcers for children with varying disabilities are easy to include in activities that do not include traditional Montessori materials. A teacher can create activities that relate to a specific theme, and/or use materials in a specific activity that will draw the child to the work.
My oldest son Dinomite avoids math activities at all costs. He does not enjoy working with numbers and feels the activities are too difficult. Last winter, Dinomite became extremely interested in hockey. His obsession was the inspiration for our hockey unit. One of the math activities was a hockey-themed multiplication activity. Hockey pucks (magnetic black circles) were used as counters. Dinomite was attracted to the presentation of the activity enough to motivate him to select it from the shelves. He LOVED using the “hockey pucks,” so much that he selected this activity from the shelves every day it was made available. Not only was the activity an incentive, providing the proper amount of motivation for Dinomite, but it led to him mastering the concept of multiplication, something he had avoided for some time.
5. Structure & Order
Children with varying disabilities may have more need for structure and order in comparison to their typical peers. They may create rituals and routines for themselves within the classroom to meet these needs. Be attentive to these rituals and routines as they may impact the child’s education in different ways. Bulldozer does the same few activities every day. He does not vary from this ritual no matter how long activities remain on the shelves. We change the activities on our shelves often, to ensure he’s working with a variety of materials in multiple subject areas.
Many children with disabilities do not do well with changes in routine and environment. Dinomite was melting down on a regular basis when activities on our shelves changed. We made an agreement that activities would only change on Mondays. This not only helps him adjust to new activities, but also prepares him for when to expect change.
Some children with varying disabilities seek to control every situation around them as a way of lessening anxiety. Montessori provides a wonderful setting for these children, as they choose their own work in the classroom. Controls are provided in all activities for children to check and correct their own work. The teacher is an observer and a passive presence. For children who need to feel in control and independent, the Montessori classroom is the ultimate educational setting.
If you’ve ever wondered whether a Montessori education might work for your child with disabilities, I invite you to visit a Montessori school in your area. Discuss your child’s behaviors with the head teacher, sharing your fears and concerns. Ask about the method itself and how it works. Look at the beautiful materials created specifically to meet the needs of your child. Consider a homeschool approach to Montessori if a teacher or classroom setting doesn’t appear to meet the specific needs of your child. You will never look back! I promise. My four children are successful in their academic pursuits because of Montessori and how it meets all of the varying needs of my children.
Renae blogs at Every Star Is Different. She graduated with a degree in music with an emphasis in voice and loves to share her passion with others in various capacities when time permits. Life is extremely busy as a full time stay-at-home mom to four special needs children ages 3 to 8. Renae and her husband have two biological children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and anxieties. One of her biological children also suffers from over 30 food allergies, some life threatening. The two youngest children were adopted through foster care. Both of them suffer from Reactive Attachment Disorder and PTSD. The youngest also has Autism Spectrum Disorder and 14 food allergies.
Renae homeschools her four children using a Montessori-inspired thematic unit approach. She also strives to introduce and encourage Montessori principles in the home and in everyday situations. All of her unit activities and FREE printables can be found on her blog Every Star Is Different. The blog also focuses on support, encouragement, and ideas for families with special needs, whether they are developmental, emotional, or dietary.About Anastasia. Anastasia is the founder of Montessori Nature, a blog about Montessori - inspired and Nature-based explorations. She taught in a Montessori setting for 10 years and has been practicing the Montessori way of learning and living for the last 19 years. She loves designing engaging educational printables for children. Learn more here.