Supporting Additional Needs in a Montessori Setting

A five minute trawl through Montessori Facebook group posts highlights the many concerns Montessori educators have when confronted with what are perceived as ‘deviations from the norm’ as they guide the children in their care. As we lovingly prepare our beautiful and orderly environments, providing attractive Montessori activities in the different curriculum areas, we expect what Montessori promised us: “suddenly the child will fix his attention upon an object, will use it for the purpose for which it was constructed, and will continue to repeat the same exercise indefinitely” (Montessori, 2016:119). So why are there children running around not concentrating, not engaging with the materials properly?

And what of the child who shows no interest in the language material and/or struggles to speak? Montessori promises us that “by merely ‘living’ and without any conscious effort the individual absorbs from the environment even a complex cultural achievement like language” (Montessori, 2020:64). What about the child who shows no interest in potty-training? Or the child who doesn’t want to put on his own shoes, ever? Where is the child who “reveal(s) to us the most vital need of their development, saying: ‘Help me to do it alone!’” (Montessori, 2019:65).

What is wrong with these children?

I am reminded of our reflection on Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk last Tuesday in our ‘Challenging our Practice” webinar. In his talk, he shares the story of Gillian Lynne, a world-famous choreographer who worked on productions like CATS and Phantom of the Opera. In the 1930’s her school wrote to her parents, telling them that they believed she had a learning disorder. She couldn’t sit still, she was always fidgeting. Her mother took her to see a specialist who, having spoken to Gillian, asked to speak to her mother in private outside. As they left the room, he turned on the radio. As soon as they left the room, Gillian was up on her feet, dancing, and the specialist turned to her mother and said: “Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” Gillian remembers that going to dance school was the best thing that could have happened: “We walked in this room, and it was full of people like me — people who couldn’t sit still, people who had to move to think.” In the right environment, Gillian found her flow. Others, as Sir Ken points out, might have put her on medication to calm her down – and fit in.

This anecdote is echoed in a blog post shared by Teacher Tom, ‘The Freedom to Think is the Most Fundamental Freedom’ (Teacher Tom, 2020). In his post, he describes teaching a little girl called ‘Laura’ who would pop to her feet and pace around at circle time, whenever she wanted to verbally share something with the group. As she moved on to primary school, and was made to sit at a desk, the school indicated they felt something was wrong with Laura as she seemed to have gone mute. Teacher Tom writes: “Laura is not the first child to discover that school traditionally sets classroom management above thinking. Compliance comes first” (Teacher Tom, 2020). Catching up with Laura’s mother at a later stage in her school education, Laura had learnt to sit still and talk, but hated every minute of school.

At the start of her career, Montessori, having trained as a doctor, worked in asylums with children with special needs. Inspired by the work of Itard and Seguin, she developed learning materials to support children with learning difficulties and this has led many to expect that the Montessori materials are a secret tool ensuring children with additional needs will learn. It causes surprise, frustration and even a sense that ‘there is something wrong with the child’, when this is not the case.

But the essence of the Montessori philosophy is really that, whilst children “follow predetermined patterns of development” (Isaacs, undated), their journeys are individual and move at different paces. No child develops in isolation and Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (1979) explains how a microsystem of institutions and groups directly impact a child’s growth and development, including family, school, religious institutions, neighbourhood, and peers. Each child that comes to us is unique and a one-size-fits-all approach to education simply does not work.

It is not for the child to fit into our pre-prepared environment. Montessori believed that it was paramount that the child is seen for who s/he is, not who the adult believes s/he should be (Montessori, 2007). She advocated for a method that allowed the individuality of the child to shine, guided by an adult who truly understood the natural development of the child, and wouldn’t get in the way of this by forcing the child to engage with activities without consideration for the needs of the child (Montessori, 2007). The Montessori method holds no secret tools except that we see each child in our setting as special, and focus on and support every unique child’s individual learning. I look forward to exploring this further with Barbara on Wednesday 7 October at 7 pm (BST) in our next ‘Challenging our Practice’ webinar.

Wendelien Bellinger, October 2020

References

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Isaacs, B. (undated) ‘Special Education’ in Teach Early Years, available online (date accessed: 2 October 2020)

Montessori, M. (2007) The Absorbent Mind, Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Montessori, M. (2016) The Advanced Montessori Method, Volume 1, Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Montessori, M. (2019) From Childhood to Adolescence, e-book, Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing

Montessori, M. (2020) The Formation of Man, e-book, Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing

Robinson, K. (2006) Do Schools Kill Creativity? TED Talk, available online (date accessed: 2 October 2020)

Teacher Tom (August, 2020) The Freedom to Think is the Most Fundamental Freedom, available online: (date accessed: 2 October 2020)

One thought on “Supporting Additional Needs in a Montessori Setting

  1. thank you for this reflection Wendelien… the chance to observe the child in more than one situation and to be able to observe without bias, listen and reflect is central to us coming to know the child and so to prepare the environment and activities enabling the child to move along their path. i live with 3 young adults who didnt truly fit the education systems they found themselves in. they are all bright, intelligent and differently articulated and i thank my Montessori training for helping me understand how together we could find their paths. I am reminded again about the importance of time and space and true activity and for how we need to adjust our expectations and thinking…

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