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Our thoughts on Montessori and education

Help! A student’s challenging behavior seems unnoticed by her parents.  What should I do?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, I have a student who is showing some difficulty in the classroom.  She seems to have trouble choosing work, I observe her often bothering other students, and doesn’t fall into concentration easily.  Her parents often say that she loves school and concentrates well at home, and seem unwilling to discuss the behaviors I’m observing.  What should be my next steps?

Anne L.

Dear Anne, no parent wants to hear that their child’s teacher has concerns about their behavior in school. We all want the ‘perfect’ child, right? It’s understandable that a parent would be at first hesitant to hear and discuss a problem.

Think of this in two parts.  First, complete an intentional observation to find out everything you can about the challenging behavior. When does it happen? Where does it happen? How often is it happening? Does it include a particular peer or adult, or is it more generalized? Is there a special situation, like a transition? What triggers do you see? What reaction is it getting from you or other children? Most importantly, what is this behavior communicating? What function is it serving? Could the behaviors be for attention, getting something, or avoidance of something else? Reflect on your reactions as well. How are you feeling? It’s not uncommon that a challenge brings up feelings of frustration, insecurity, and confusion in the adults.

Collect your data over several days and weeks. Review what you have found out as objectively as possible and prepare your notes about frequency (the when and the how) and your interpretations of what might be going on with this student.

Now to part two. Evaluate what kind of relationship you currently have with the parents. Is there already trust and collaboration between you? Have you had positive interactions before bringing up your concerns? Have they ever observed in your classroom?  

One productive approach with parents is to ask their help in understanding their child. A humble attitude that acknowledges that they know their child in ways you don’t can be a good way to cultivate a collaborative partner relationship. You each share a common goal–you both want what is best for their daughter. Share the ways you enjoy her, share your caring and enjoyment having her in class. Then ask for their help with something like “when I see her ______ in the classroom, it is really confusing me. Do you ever see this at home? What do you think might be going on? Does she ever talk with you about being unhappy at school?” Remind them again how much you want what is best for her and that you need their help. The solution begins with forming a partnership with the parents, and building their trust and confidence while letting them know you aren’t rejecting their child and that together, you each want what is best for her.

It so often takes multiple conversations, so start early.  Ask them to observe. Ask them to continue the conversation through email, or a weekly phone call. If they make suggestions, let them know you’ll try theirs and some of your own. Get them to meet again after a few weeks to share what you have both learned.

Advocating for each of our students is all about a partnership, trust and mutual respect. Give some of these suggestions a try and let us know how it works!


Christine Lowry, M.Ed.

Christine has a Master’s Degree in Special Education, has founded Montessori schools and has been featured in Montessori Leadership magazine, The Montessori Leadership Institute webcast, and has provided training and consultation to schools across the United States.  Learn more about Christine.

A first year Early Childhood student wants to learn to read. What do you suggest?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, I have a first year Early Childhood student who says he wants to learn to read.  He’s attracted to the works his older friends are doing in the Language area, but I want to introduce him to the Practical Life and Sensorial materials first.  What would you suggest?”

Melissa K.

Dear MelissaI wonder many things about this new first year student. How old is he? Is his interest genuine? Does it come from his hearing his parents say that he will learn to read at school? Does he just want to hang around the big kids? Does he have older siblings who read and he wants to be like them? Or is he truly interested in the reading process as a few children as young as three year old truly are.

I think the answer to this dilemma is trial and error, observation and balance. We do want to ground our first year children in the basics of Practical Life and Sensorial, helping them to develop those all critical skills of coordination, concentration, order and independence but we also want them to do the things that are calling to them.  So I think with a child like this the key is to really observe and do both! Offer the most beautiful, well timed Practical Life and Sensorial lessons you can and watch how the child responds. See if he goes back to them in subsequent days and repeats them. Do the same with the Sensorial lessons.

And at the same time, offer Language activities to this child as well. From there he will probably begin to recognize the name of a few classmates as well. When you show this child the basic pre-reading activities such basic object-to-object matching or picture-to-picture matching, offer to write labels for those items as a way to satisfy his interest for words. If, after he matches, and you offer to write the labels, he declines, then you might see through his comments that his desire to learn to read is not as intrinsic as the words imply. Highlight with delight everything that includes words and watch for his level of interest. When he finds his own name in the snack basket, or the folder basket, comment, “You just read your name!” In this way, he will begin to see that he is indeed reading even if it is just his name. Again, observation is your friend.

Sandpaper letters are also appropriate for a child who is telling you he is interested in reading. Offer a lesson and see how it goes. Some three year olds love these lessons and learn their sounds effortlessly. Others find this first lesson tiresome, so for them, this work is better left for some time in the future. If you offer a lesson and it goes well and the child comes to you and asks for another lesson, you know this interest is genuine and you should proceed.

Observe as he watches the older children do their Language Arts work and see how long his observations last. Does he watch with true interest or does he want to distract them to interact with him? If the latter is the case, then you can find things they can do together that are mutually beneficial such as having snack or laying out a set of nomenclature cards.

I wish I could meet this little guy and see what he is all about. But time and reflection will let him unfold himself to you and let you see whether he is truly interested in learning the mechanics of reading at such a young age or if he is just mimicking the words he has heard others say. Have fun figuring him out!

Learn more about Cathie Perolman, and use the code ‘CGMS’ at her website for a 15% discount.

New website helps children become entrepreneurs

Montessori teaches entrepreneurship, RisingInnovator.com offers help outside classroom

In 2011 the Harvard Business Review published an article, Montessori Builds Innovators, which sought to explain why so many innovators – business leaders, scientists, famous artists and thinkers – come out of Montessori classrooms. Some of the most wealthy wealthiest and most famous entrepreneurs attended Montessori schools and even attribute their success to this education. The founders of Threadless and Kickstarter have specifically called Montessori “Entrepreneurship Education.”

Indeed, most Montessori secondary programs include a class business. Dr. Montessori taught that adolescence is a critical time to understand the practical life lessons of economics – understanding the interplay of finance, production, service, and exchange. As children perform this real work, they discover what they enjoy and don’t and begin to explore their own roles in the pageant of human civilization.

A new website, Rising Innovator, intends to to step beyond the classroom by helping children 8 to 18 turn their ideas into successful businesses. Working in partnership with The Center for Guided Montessori Studies, Rising Innovator has developed a variety of tools, tips, information, inspiration, and advice designed to help young people become successful entrepreneurs.

The website offers business ideas, help with creating a business plan, advice on taxes and contracts, inspirational videos from other young entrepreneurs, and more. It has advice for parents on how to help their kids create successful businesses, and forums to connect with other young entrepreneurs and mentors.

Starting a business venture is a way for a young person to earn some extra cash, and it looks stellar on a college application. But the website has a larger purpose that is best described by its slogan: Improving the world one entrepreneur at a time. “An innovator changes the world, and we see all innovation as a form of entrepreneurship,” says Marc Seldin, Entrepreneur in Chief at Rising Innovator. “Both independence and interdependence are skills for the 21st century, whether you are an artist or a business leader. Entrepreneurs must be creative, self-motivated, and able to understand both the details of a project and its broader strategic goals.”

The website aims to become the primary portal for young entrepreneurs and their families, helping them get what they need on their own, at their own pace – for free. According to editorial director Dan Holly, “Our motivations are not only financial. We are equally motivated by our strong belief in the necessity of developing entrepreneurial skills among youth. We believe that we are instilling in the next generation a mindset for success that will help them in whatever career they end up pursuing. It will also help our nation as a whole by producing a sharper, more knowledgeable, more innovative workforce.”

Visit Rising Innovator on the web at www.risinginnovator.com.


My child is a picky eater and struggling in school. Could the two be related?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, my child is a picky eater and struggling in school.  Could the two be related? I’m afraid that my child is a ”carb junkie.” Breakfast has to be a certain cereal or pancakes. She even sneaks crackers, chips, and cookies into her room.  Her teacher tells me she is a very picky eater at school and only eats the snacks I send. Her teacher has said that she is struggling in the classroom, unable to complete activities, hyper-talkative, and distracts other kids.  I wonder if her picky diet is playing a role in this?

–Aaron T.

Aaron, first of all, you are not alone. Many children eat way too many simple carbohydrates! They taste good and provide a short-lived energy boost.  However, they take the place of vital macronutrients needed for sustained mental and physical energy that your daughter needs. It is quite possible that your daughter’s diet is a bit out of balance.  The quick drop in energy and blood sugar levels throughout the day can have a negative impact on focus, learning, and behavior.

We need carbohydrates because they fuel the energy centers of the cell which drives every function of the human body and brain. Simple carbohydrates which include cookies, crackers and pasta are not bad as an addition to, but not a replacement for, a balanced diet.

It is important to build the nutritional control of error into the child’s school day and that includes “complexing” up the carbs. A complex carbohydrate with the germ and bran intact needs to be broken down in the small intestines to absorb the nutrients. This provides sustained released fuel for the “think tank.”

A few examples:

1)   Add quinoa to white rice

2)   Nut and seed butters on sprouted grain breads (Little Big Bread – children’s favorite)

3)   Steel cut oatmeal

4)  Low sugar granola (< 5 gms per ½ cup) in trail mixes

Start a food journal for or with your daughter.  When you’re able, record observations of her energy level, focus and behavior as well.  As you adjust her diet over time, you will be able to see new patterns emerge. Communicate with her teacher so that he or she can let you know what improvements your daughter is making in the classroom.  Nutritional education for both parents and educators is integral to this process. Many times snacks served at school can throw off a child’s delicate metabolism if they have not eaten a balanced breakfast or have been chronically deficient in important ‘brain essentials.’ By following best practices, educators, parents and school communities can integrate meal and snack ideas to increase nutrient specific foods conducive to learning, behavior, and emotional well-being.

Next, work with your daughter’s pediatrician toward balancing the three macronutrients that our bodies need most: fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates. When you hit your daughter’s daily macronutrient trifecta, her seemingly insatiable cravings for simple carbohydrates are likely to diminish.

For added inspiration, refer to The Montessori Method.  You may know that Dr. Maria Montessori included recipes in Chapter 8, ‘Reflection, The Child’s Diet.’  In this chapter, Dr. Montessori emphasized that sugar should be treated like a condiment. Sugars are listed after the macronutrients in her meatballs, croquettes, and egg dishes. How times have changed!  Reducing sugar and simple carbohydrates may seem difficult at first, but with the right information, you will see that your daughter can enjoy a variety of nutritious foods without cravings for nutrient-deplete foods.

Also, as you evaluate the types of fats that your daughter is eating, consider the butter versus margarine debate.  Dr. Montessori was a pioneer in nutrients in brain development and function. She wrote, “Instead of removing grease from the broth, it is better to add butter to it, or in the case of the poor, a spoonful of olive oil, but substitutes for butter such as margarine should never be used.”   Margarine, a man-made fat, is deleterious to development. We know today that many margarine spreads (and a myriad of foods) contain hydrogenated oils or trans fats, which are a powerful deterrent to visual and neurological development and function. Most importantly, they lack high vitamin cholesterol (found in free-range animals and by-products), an essential nutrient to build myelin, the fatty sheath that activates the action potential between two neurons.

Current nutritional research is robust with data that confirms Dr. Montessori’s recommendations and concurrently expanded to include new fields of investigation, as our food is less nourishing, chemically enhanced, and wreaking metabolic havoc in the brains and bodies of many children.  As mentioned, incorporating the latest cutting-edge research in tandem with Dr. Montessori’s sage nutritional advice is important for both parents and educators.  I have created a new CGMS course for participants to learn about nutrients in brain development and ongoing physical and mental health. This course emphasizes and expands Maria Montessori’s directive that we develop in ourselves ‘the habit of specializing in children’s food.’  

–Jan Katzen, AMI, CFP, CN

Jan Katzen AMI, CFP, CN is a former pre-primary Montessori educator. She is now a nutritional therapist working with developmental pediatricians in Phoenix, Arizona. Jan is a certified nutritional educator and instructs Nutrition for Learning, Health and Well-Being, a 4 week professional development course offered by CGMS. She is also the nutritional education video presenter in the CGMS Infant/toddler certification course.

To learn more about Jan, please visit her website  www.nutritionforlearning.com   

Help! How do I protect the 3-hour work cycle?

Ask a Montessorian, how do I protect the 3-hour work cycle? My school begins at 8:30,  but many students don’t arrive until 8:45 or 9 am, which gives them only until 11 am to work. Should I change my expectations of a work cycle, or communicate differently with the parents?

–Nanci L.

Hi Nanci, protecting the integrity of the work period is a common conversation among even the most seasoned Montessori guides. If you choose, you can communicate the importance of arriving by 8:30 am to parents who might be receptive to your requests. Let them know that you need their help in order to begin on time each day. In many situations, this can be a challenge for families as parents navigate morning routines at home, or for parents who have multiple children with various school drop-off times.

If you feel this is not an option for you, you might consider the rhythm of your work period and adjust/build work into arrival and closing rituals. Typically, children aren’t governed by the clock, however we as adults recognize that the day is governed by schedules. Try to focus on the phases of the work period instead of the time. This will help you to feel confident about the joyful learning taking place from the moment the children arrive until they leave for the day. Here are some examples:

Arrival:  As children arrive, ponder the exercises of grace and courtesy such as greetings/salutations, self-care/readiness, and preparations. Work begins as children say goodbye to parents, greet others with a handshake, put away belongings, and wash hands. Right after transition, children can work through care of the indoor environment (folding laundry, setting the snack table, preparing the easel, feeding class pets, rolling rugs, watering plants, arranging flowers, dusting, washing windows) and care of the outdoor environment (filling bird feeders, sweeping a patio, watering outdoor plants, tending a garden).

Engagement: Now the the child is ready to engage. This is the phase of the work period marked by exploration, concentration, coordination, order, independence, and repetition. Adults are engaged through observations and can interact with children through lessons while noting the flow of energy. It is normal for an ebb and flow to occur during engagement and most guides notice period of time where everyone is ‘working,’ followed by periods of socialization. Children will often re-engage with little to no redirection if given the opportunity.  Although socialization might seem boisterous, try to allow the children to re-engage independently.

Transition: Prepare for transition as the engagement phase comes to an end through tidying shelves, sweeping, rolling rugs, washing snack dishes, setting tables for lunch, making beds for nap.  Remember, work is not limited to materials on the shelves. The rhythm of working is what aids in normalization.

Monica Johnson,

CGMS Early Childhood Instructor