What is the Montessori Method?
The Montessori Method was developed in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori. According to the American Montessori Society, the Montessori approach is recognizable by several hallmarks.
The first hallmark involves multi-age groupings. The idea behind multi-age groupings is that younger children will benefit by having the opportunity to learn from watching older children. Older children will also benefit because the skills they learned previously will be reinforced by observing the younger children developing those skills they had already acquired. It is also thought to be a more accurate reflection of the real world where people of different ages interact consistently across settings.
Next, the Montessori method offers uninterrupted blocks of “work” time. Dr. Montessori considered “work” to be what most adults consider play, as she felt that was how children learned; and described play as work out of respect to children. Children attending a Montessori program can decide what they want to play with from a selection of materials provided by their teachers.
Typically, Montessori classrooms have larger sizes and are less predictable and structured than classic classroom settings. Montessori classrooms involve specially selected materials, freedom within the limits of the classroom, and the opportunity for children to develop themselves within the constraints of the classroom with help from their teacher and peers.
The Montessori program provides a limited number of materials per day, and allows children the flexibility to engage with what most interests them. The idea behind this, that children learn best when they are motivated and interested in the subject matter, is crucial to the Montessori Method.
What do ASD children typically need in order to learn?
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that symptoms can present very differently across children, and functioning can vary wildly. Therefore, children on the autism spectrum can have drastically different educational needs. Their level of functioning, personal preferences, and inherent proclivities can require a variety of teaching strategies to optimize potential. This means that if you are considering a Montessori Program for your child, you need to look beyond their diagnosis and assess their individual skills and areas for growth.
That being said, most children on the spectrum benefit from highly structured and predictable classroom settings. These classrooms offer visual aids to help children stay on task and understand what their day will look like. They have visual schedules so children diagnosed with ASD, who usually struggle with transitions, will be better able to prepare for them. Given that a highly stimulating visual classroom can be distracting and potentially overwhelming in the intensity of input for sensitive ASD learners, they may not have as much decorations on the walls as a typical classroom. Classroom sizes are smaller. Depending on the age of the children, play areas will likely have a variety of toys, but be visually unobtrusive to encourage attention to whatever task is at hand, and have areas marked with photographic and textual labels to assist children in cleaning up for finding what they need. Ample adult support is prevalent in well-organized ASD classrooms, as well as individualized plans to address each child’s unique needs.
When is the Montessori approach likely not right for a child on the spectrum?
Parents, you know your children best. When looking at the areas you want to see them grow and develop, ask yourselves, will the Montessori method lend itself to challenging or supporting my child in this area? Many people assume that the Montessori method lends itself to children with ASD since children with this diagnosis can have areas of hyper-focused interest and can find learning in other areas aversive. The Montessori method allows for this to some extent by letting children choose from an array of activities (though it is possible none of the activities offered by the teacher will appeal to a child with ASD with restricted interests). There are certainly some children falling on the autism spectrum who will likely benefit from this method and be successful with a Montessori Program. However, there are several components to this method that could be harmful to a child falling on the autism spectrum.
One challenge for many learners with autism is that they cannot learn from their natural environment. Being exposed to children of different ages and having the opportunity to choose from a variety of activities will not help a child who cannot learn from their environment—that type of child requires a structured learning program that is tailored to their individual needs and motivations. They will also likely require one to one support and a predictable daily schedule.
Another sign that your child may not benefit from a Montessori program is if they are rigid. The Montessori program allows for rigidities. In fact, it’s so open to children with rigidities, it fails to offer them enough opportunities to work past them. Children on the spectrum with rigidities will generally not learn flexibility without practice and conscious planning from their caregivers. There will be times in a child’s life where these rigidities are not acceptable, and if they don’t have the opportunity to practice dealing with their preferences being unavailable, they will not learn how to cope with it. Those diagnosed with ASD generally need more learning opportunities, not less, to master skills and mature. If a child with ASD is not challenged to work outside of their rigidities, they will not be able to.
Montessori likely is not the right place if you have a child who is easily overstimulated. A large unstructured classroom environment, like the Montessori method offers, will make learning and behavioral/emotional regulation even more difficult for those sensitive children. Children who become overstimulated by large rooms, crowds, or extra-busy environments will usually learn better in a smaller classroom with less children. This type of settings allows them to focus on the skills at hand. They can be exposed gradually to larger more stimulating social settings as they learn to regulate.
When is the Montessori approach a good fit for a child on the spectrum?
Parenting style and priorities come into play when assessing the suitability of a Montessori program for one’s child with an ASD diagnosis. It is possible that some parents will not want to challenge their ASD learners to explore things that they haven’t chosen themselves and just want them to be in an open and welcoming environment. If this is a parent’s preferences about their child’s school, then Montessori may a great option.
The Montessori method may also be a wise choice for a high functioning child whose main area for growth is in the social-emotional range. If a child is learning from their natural environment, does not get overstimulated by larger classroom settings, displays no rigidities but just seems “off” socially, then being around children of a variety of ages with multiple play options would provide valuable social learning opportunities.
Written by Dorrie Barbanel, LMSW, BCBA, LBA