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What about students with special needs?

Dear Ask a Montessori Guide, I am considering taking Montessori training, but there some things that worry me. Some people have said that the Montessori method is for everyone, including those with special needs, while others say that Montessori is only for children with “normal” development. I am a traditional teacher, and I love working with children with special needs. My concern is, will I have the opportunity to work with children with special needs in my future Montessori classroom? 

This is a very interesting question.  In order to answer it, we should travel back in time and recall the beginnings of Maria Montessori’s work. She was a very influential woman in many different aspects of education, with Special Education being one of them. At the beginning of her career, she dedicated herself to the study of children with mental deficiencies that, at that time, were called “deficient.”  Through the study of Seguin’s and Itard’s work, she concluded that the deficient children were not the result of a medical problem, but rather a pedagogical one. It was from this point of view that she developed the Montessori method, with the intention to teach children academic skills, life skills and social skills using hands on material and practicing real life activities.  By learning at their own pace, children would be independent and encouraged to develop a love for learning. Lopata, Wallace, and Finn (2005) stated that “in this approach, children learn at their own pace through manipulation of objects.  As such, personal independence, self-discipline, and initiative are essential for learning and motivation” (p. 6).  

By now understanding where the philosophy was born, we can understand that the Montessori method is really designed for everyone. The guide, as the teacher calls herself, through observation, will determine the child’s needs; as María Montessori said “Follow the child,” this means recognizing the correct plane of development of each child; “The child has its own laws of development, and if we want to help its growth, it is a matter of following those laws, not imposing ourselves on the child,” The Absorbent Mind (p. 162).

With my background and years of experience in Special Education and Montessori, I can tell you with confidence that today in our schools and environments, diversity and inclusion are common. 

If you were to visit Montessori classrooms around the world, you will find that there is an increase in the number of children with special needs in classrooms.  Neurodiversity is part of today’s classroom, and the beauty of the Montessori method is that it accepts the child’s differences regardless of their stage of development.  “Montessori education has worked around the world, with all kinds of children (rich, poor, gifted, normal, with learning problems, blind, etc.) and all kinds of environment (from refugees and slums, to fine schools and elegant private homes). What determines the success of the Montessori Method is not wealth, but the teacher’s preparation” (The International Montessori Index, 2017).

The Montessori method exhibits a fundamental soundness for the inclusion of special needs students. By leveraging Auto-education, the fundamental core of the Montessori Method, Montessori teachers can offer a multitude of different teaching strategies to better address children with exceptionalities.  Auto-education encompasses proven teaching methods for exceptional students, such as explicit or direct instruction teaching, the materials approach or the mastery learning approach (Vettiveloo, 2008). This inherent flexibility within the Montessori Method enables a teacher, with proper education, to leverage a diverse set of tools and techniques to engage and incorporate all the students in the classroom, including those with exceptionalities.

The Montessori method serves each child in their own unique way, inspiring them to be their own motivators, their own advocates, and their own teachers in the classroom.  The Montessori method does not attempt to categorize children or place them in a “box,” but rather to create an environment to “follow the child.” Through observation and recognizing the needs and requirements of the exceptional child, teachers can quickly develop a customized educational plan adapted to the individual needs of that child, which enables him or her to achieve the same goals as those students in the classroom without exceptionalities. As Andrews (2017) explained, “Montessori education is a powerful tool for supporting children who face challenges and obstacles to their development” (p.  169).

Working with children with learning differences requires that as Montessorians we need to prepare more and sometimes think outside the box. The first thing that we need to do as teachers is to build relationship with our students.  Relationships are going to be the foundations to help our students with varying exceptionalities or those that sometimes challenge us the most.  Building relationships go beyond shaking hands– relationships mean knowing our students personally (such as their interests, likes, dislikes, foods, about their friends and family, etc), and making sure that this relationship continues to develop over time as our students grow and change. The second thing that I can recommend is to shift away from the paradigm of perceiving most challenging children as a “problem,” but rather to ask ourselves how we can help them to better develop and grow.  

Once we know our students well and have shifted our point of view, we can now work on our environment. The environment is going to an important piece of helping our students.  We need to enrich and connect the child to the environment, and through our personal knowledge of who they are, we can open the door to the environment by creating new lessons to connect the child to the materials that perhaps they were trying to avoid.  Sometimes our shelves may be too crowded or there are so many options that they can’t chose for themselves. Let’s make this simpler for them, and then progressively make it more complex. 

After we have optimized the environment, there will still be a small percentage of our class who are going to need something a little different.  This is what I call Interventions or giving our students what they need based on their individual needs. If you have a child who has a short attention span (5 minutes), then let’s use that time productively by breaking the work into small steps so that the child can accomplish tasks and in turn build a sense of achievement.  Second, with patience we can make this process more complex; only after the child builds that sense of accomplishment can we increase our expectations. 

Following the child is based on the unique individual needs of our students.  Let‘s work to create a culture that embraces these differences, so that when you intervene or develop a modification for a students, this process will be considered just part of the “norm” for the environment. 

 

Maria Eva Chaffin is originally from Venezuela. She is married with three boys and two dogs. She is in the process of completing her Doctoral in Organizational Leadership. She holds a Master of Science in Exceptional Student Education, a Master’s Degree in Business Education, a Bachelor’s in Special Education, as well as a Montessori Teacher Certification in early childhood. Maria Eva is the founder of Challenging Children and Montessori, a consultant for the Montessori Foundation, and a Faculty member of Sarasota University, where she is a professor in the Montessori Masters Program. She has over 20 years of teaching experience and has been in the Montessori field for 10 years. It is her great passion to work with children with special needs and loves being a Montessori Teacher! Since completing her Montessori training she has fallen in love with the method and, with her background in special needs, she is convinced that the Montessori method is the best way for children to learn.