soft skills

Montessori Basics: The Benefits of Multi-Age Grouping

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One hallmark of a Montessori education is the use of multi-age classrooms.  Infants and toddlers may be together or separate, with a toddler classroom serving children 18 months to three years.  Primary classrooms are for children ages 3-6, with preschool and kindergarten-aged children together.  The elementary years serve children ages 6-12; some schools separate into lower (6-9) and upper (9-12) elementary, while many split elementary into two groups.  Even Montessori middle- and high-school students learn in multi-age classrooms.

While Montessori is not the only type of education that utilizes this approach, it’s not what most people are used to.  What are the benefits of structuring a classroom this way?  Read on to learn more...

Learning at an Individual Pace

Children in multi-age classrooms tend to have a little more flexibility when it comes to mastering skills within a specific timeframe.  We know that learning is not linear, and that learners have periods of significant growth, plateaus, and even the occasional regression.  In multi-age classrooms, children are typically able to work at their own pace without the added pressure of keeping up with the whole group, or even being held back by the whole group.  

When children in a classroom range in ages, everyone has someone they can work with, regardless of their skill level.  Children don’t feel left behind if they struggle with a concept, and they also don’t feel bored by repetition of something they have already mastered.  Teachers who teach in multi-age classrooms typically have deep knowledge for a range of developmental abilities, leaving them well-equipped to differentiate instruction for each individual child.

Building Stronger Relationships

Traditionally children move from one class to the next each year.  This means not only a new set of academic expectations, different routines, and different classroom structures, but a different teacher.  

In multi-age classrooms teachers have a longer period of time to get to know a student and their family, and vice versa.  When teachers really get to know a student, they are able to tailor instruction in regards to both content and delivery.  They know how to hook a specific child onto a topic or into a lesson.  They know what kind of environment a child needs to feel successful.

Parents have an opportunity to get to know teachers better this way, too.  If your child has the same teacher for two or three years, the lines of communication are strengthened.  Parents get to know the teacher’s style and expectations.  The home to school connection becomes more seamless, and the biggest beneficiary is the child.

Mentors and Leaders

When a child spends multiple years in the same class they are afforded two very special opportunities.  

Children who are new to the class are fortunate enough to be surrounded by helpful peer mentors.  Children often learn best from one another, and they seek to do so naturally.  First and second year students watch as the older children enjoy advanced, challenging work, and this inspires them.  They look to the older children for guidance, and the older children are happy to provide it.  

After a year or two in the same room, students have a chance to practice leadership skills.  In Montessori classrooms, the older children are often seen giving lessons, helping to clean up spills, or reaching out a comforting hand to their younger friends.

The best part is kids make the transition from observer to leader in their own time.  It doesn’t happen for all children at the same time, but when it does it’s pretty magical to observe.  

Mirroring Real-Life

There is no other area in life in which people are split into groups with others who are exactly their chronological age.  Whether in the family, the workforce or elsewhere, people ultimately need to coexist with people older and younger than themselves.  Doing so makes for a more enriching environment, replete with a variety of ideas and skills.  

Why not start the experience with young children in school?

Moving On

While staying in the same class for multiple school years has many benefits, a child will eventually transition into a new class.  While this can feel bittersweet (for everyone involved!) children are typically ready when it is time.

The Montessori approach is always considering what is most supportive of children depending on their development.  When formulating how to divide children into groupings, Maria Montessori relied on her ideas about the Planes of Development.  There are very distinctive growth milestones children tend to reach at about age 3, another set around age 6, and yet another at age 12.  The groupings in our schools are intentional, and they give kids a chance to feel comfortable in their community, while also preparing them to soar forward when the time is right.

Montessori and Peace Education

Our world is often a tumultuous and scary place.  How can we help our children feel safe and cared for, while preparing them to lead the way as adults?  How can we cultivate empathy, kindness, gratitude, and the sense of community that helps people work together?

Montessori education has been addressing these issues for over a hundred years.  Sometimes the lessons are direct; at other times they are more subtle.  The mission is always clear: we want children to have a wide view of the world.  We want them to appreciate the diversity of others.  We want them to have the tools to navigate this world peacefully.

How do we approach this critical task?

Montessori schools teach peace both directly and indirectly.  Sure, we talk about peace and its importance openly and frequently.  We talk about what it means and what it looks like and what children can do to become peacekeepers.  But, perhaps more importantly, we model.  Through our words, the tone of our voices, and with our actions, we show children what it means to be peaceful.  They watch our everyday actions and learn so much from them, so why not create constant learning opportunities?

Teaching a Global Perspective

Even from a very young age, Montessori children are taught geography through the lense of the whole world.  They learn about the continents when they are as young as three years old.  These studies often include learning about biomes, instead of an emphasis on political boundaries.  Teaching about the world in this way gives children a sense of the natural world and people as a whole as primary to different countries.

Elementary aged Montessori children enjoy many lessons with timelines.  They learn about the origins of humanity, and studying ancient cultures is fascinating for them. 

Embracing a Variety of Cultures

One important series of lessons in the elementary years teaches the fundamental needs of humans.  Children explore how groups of people around the world and across the ages meet and have met their needs.  Physical needs, such as food, shelter, defense, and transportation are considered, as well as spiritual needs like art and religion.

Giving Them Tools

Montessori teachers are equipped to give children skills to resolve conflicts.  We give children tools such as micro-mediation, and give them the words and actions to express their needs and feelings while listening to those of others.

In Montessori classrooms, children often learn a variety of self-calming strategies.  This might include mindfulness meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or the use of small hand-held tools such as a finger labyrinth or polished stone. 

Taking the Time

In Montessori classrooms the day is not structured with rigid timed intervals.  For example, there is no predetermined time for math, reading, etc.  This flexible schedule lends itself to shifting courses and having discussions in the moment.

For example, if a group of children are experiencing difficulty resolving a problem together, the teacher is able to stop and sit with them.  Without feeling rushed, they can take the time to figure out what went wrong and how to make it right.  Instead of an adult doling out consequences, we have the time to sit and work through conflict authentically.  

Giving to the Community

As Montessori children get older, they are encouraged to give back to their community.  These acts of charity will often be inspired by the children’s ideas.  Children may collect food and supplies for a local animal shelter, read stories and sing songs to residents of a nursing home, or make and sell baked goods to benefit a cause they believe in.  

By supporting children with logistics, we can encourage them to learn how to be active and supportive members of their communities at a young age.  They learn the importance of volunteering and contribution to others.

Giving back is just one way a child begins their active role as a peaceful member.

What Your Child Will Really Get Out of Montessori

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Is it really worth it?

I mean, why should you spend the time, effort and money to find an authentic Montessori program for your child? Wouldn’t it be easier to just find a good, basic preschool?

For me, the answer is easy - enrolling my children in a Montessori program was one of the best decisions I made as a parent. But, then again, I am a bit biased!

For most parents, however, the question remains: “What will my child really get out of attending a Montessori school?”

Why Your Background Matters

I’m going to go out on a limb - my guess is that you did not attend a Montessori school when you were a child.

This isn’t a problem, of course. You turned out just fine. But, as you consider early education options for your child, your own educational experiences can make the decision a bit difficult.

At first glance, Montessori classrooms don’t look familiar to most people. There are no rows of desks, no blackboards and no teaching to the entire class. Parents are often intrigued by the peaceful, calm environment and the hum of activity, with young children choosing their own activities and concentrating deeply for long periods of time.

Montessori is so different, however, from traditional programs that it’s natural to leave a bit perplexed. I mean, what is really going on here?

How Other Preschools have it So Easy

I’ll admit it: When I was the Admissions Director I was a bit jealous that most preschools didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining what they do to parents. The goal of the program is clear - to prepare children for a conventional kindergarten program. 

In a conventional school, your child will need basic academic skills, so they focus on “pre-reading and pre-math” with workbooks, flash cards and rote memorization. Think ABC and 1-2-3.

In a conventional school, your child will need to adjust to the schedule of a traditional school, so they have activities where everyone does this same thing at the same time. Think group art projects where your child will learn to color within the lines.

In a conventional school, your child will need to learn how to pay attention to one teacher speaking to the group. Think long circle times with one teacher talking to all the children together.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. In a Montessori classroom, however, we believe your child deserves an education that focuses on all aspects of him as a human being.

How Montessori is Different: A Three Word Answer

Education for life.

Rather than just preparing your child for the next step in school, we seek to support his academic, social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development.  We want him to be successful at life in the future, not just in kindergarten.

Take a second to imagine your child twenty years from now. What skills will he need to be successful in college, his chosen profession and in life in general?

Here is a primer. He will need to:

  • Know how to regulate his behavior
  • Control his impulses 
  • Learn to plan and strategize
  • Hone the ability to problem solve
  • Learn to be flexible and course-correct when necessary
  • Learn to take initiative 
  • Develop responsibility
  • Engage in depth-based thinking requiring long periods of concentration
  • Work collaboratively with peers on projects  

Researchers who study the traits of successful adults coined the term for these skills: “executive functions”.

These executive function skills, that are so important to life’s success, must be continually developed, day in and day out, or else they will not materialize. They result from the way an activity is done and the time spent doing it – pushing oneself to do better and better.

The Link Between Montessori and Executive Functions

Research comparing children attending inner-city Montessori schools with those attending traditional schools was conducted by University of Virginia professor, Dr. Angeline Lillard, and was published in the prestigious journal, Science, in September 2006.  

The result?

Montessori students rated higher on “executive function skills”- skills like selective attention, self-control, problem solving, reasoning and not getting into trouble.

On behavioral and social tests, 5 year old Montessori children scored higher than their peers from conventional schools, showing that they had a greater sense of fairness and justice; out on the playground, they were more likely to engage more in emotionally positive play with their peers and less in rough housing.

And, yes, your child will still be ready academically for elementary school, whether in Montessori or any other program. The same study found that among the 5 year olds who were studied, Montessori children were better prepared to enter first grade with stronger reading and math skills than children in traditional schools.

The Choice is Yours

Is Montessori worth it? You decide. You, as the parent, are charged with raising your child in the best way you see fit. What do you value? What kind of adult do you want your child to become? There are a multitude of options available to you. Think carefully and choose well.


Camille Campbell is one of the founders and the former Admissions Director at Hollis Montessori School. Her two daughters are Hollis Montessori graduates and are now thriving in high school and college.

Embracing Diversity from a Young Age

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We all want our children to be be peaceful and accepting of others.  It is never too early to start teaching them to embrace diversity.  Too often, we falsely imagine that young children do not notice what makes them different from each other.  They do notice, and instead of waiting for them to ask questions or gather information on their own, we can be proactive about diversity education.  We can teach them that while there are so many ways humans can be different from each other, those differences (and our similarities) should be celebrated.

Setting an Example

Our children constantly look to us as models for their own behavior.  We can take the lead by embracing the values we hope to see in our children.  This starts by educating ourselves.  We can learn about different cultures and groups of people.  We can confront our biases and consider how they might be coloring our view of the world.  We can read about current issues in social justice and decide what responsibilities we have to make the world a more equitable place for all people.   

Read Together

There are many quality books written for children about this very topic.  Here are just a few... (click on the book images to go to the book's page on Amazon)

Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña & illustrated by Christian Robinson

This book was the 2016 Newbury Medal Winner, and also received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor and a Caldecott Honor.  A little boy rides the bus with his grandmother after church each Sunday.  His grandmother’s laugh guides him through the journey as they meet a wide variety of people.

The Ugly Vegetables, by Grace Lin

Award-winning author Grace Lin wrote this charming book for young children.  A daughter helps her mother in their garden, but becomes dismayed when she sees it is fully of “ugly vegetables” while the neighbors are all growing flowers.  The soup her mother makes and the gathering of neighbors teaches the value of differences.

The Sandwich Swap, by Queen Rania al Abdullah & Kelly DiPucchio, illlustrated by Tricia Tusa

Salma and Lily are best friends.  One day, a conflict arises over their sandwiches at lunchtime (pita with hummus, and peanut butter with jelly).  The food that threatens to end their friendship ultimately binds them together again.

The Family Book, by Todd Parr

Parr’s books are simple, but his bright illustrations and straightforward story are perfect for young children.  The Family Book highlights many different types of families, and ends by saying, “There are lots of different ways to be a family.  Your family is special no matter what kind it is.”

You Hold Me Up, by Monique Gray Smith & illustrated by Danielle Daniel

Smith’s website states that she “wrote You Hold Me Up to prompt a dialogue among young people, their care providers and educators about reconciliation and the importance of the connections children make with their friends, classmates and families.” (link: http://moniquegraysmith.com/writing/ )

Experience Together

There are so many ways a family can have fun together while encouraging curiosity, understanding, and empathy with different groups of people.  Think about the activities your family already enjoys, and find ways to make those activities learning experiences.

Do you and your family enjoy cooking?  Try whipping up new recipes from different cultures around the world.  Preparing and sharing a meal is one way we all bond, so why not explore other cuisines?  

Many cities and towns hold festivals celebrating the cultures of the various people who live there.  Music, food, traditional crafts, and performances can be a fun way to learn about another culture.

Does your family love music?  Visit your library to borrow CDs or find some audio clips online.  Music from around the world can inspire your child to sing and dance.  Grab any instruments you may have on hand (or make your own!) to join in on the fun.

Share Your Own Experience

Each family has its own unique history, heritage, and traditions.  Teach your child about their ancestors, where your family originated, and what makes your family special.  Offer to share these traditions at your child’s school.  Teachers love to have parents come in for special presentations.  Whether you teach the children to prepare a snack, sing a song, or read them a traditional story, every new bit of cultural learning gives them a broader view of their world.  

Let’s open up the world for them, so that they may share it peacefully with each other.

Making the World a Better Place - One Child at a Time

Last Thursday was Gandhi’s birthday, and also the International Day of Nonviolence, a day to honor peacemakers around the world. To observe the day in the Lower Elementary, we read a short story about Gandhi’s life and talked about ways each of us might practice peace. The children thought of many different ideas like writing letters to new neighbors, helping someone, thinking about Gandhi, working with a Zen garden, saying kind words, and appreciating nature.