Montessori: A Good School Choice for Smart Kids?

Supporting the development of children’s giftedness, creativity, and talent.

Posted Jan 16, 2017

David Veksler/Flickr/Creative Commons
Source: David Veksler/Flickr/Creative Commons

A Montessori school can be a great choice for supporting the development of your child’s giftedness, creativity, and talent, but a Montessori education can also work to suppress your child’s abilities and enthusiasms. It depends on your child—their age, temperament, interests, abilities, and more—as well as on the specific school.

What Is a Montessori School?

The name “Montessori” is not copyright protected, and Montessori schools vary as much as any other educational approach.

Maria Montessori was a pioneer in designing educational techniques that helped children with a variety of learning challenges. In the early 20th century in Italy, she developed the first school in what would become a global phenomenon, with thousands of schools today that use the Montessori name. Some of these adhere rigidly to Dr. Montessori’s original practices, and others follow the spirit of her philosophy much more loosely.  

Foundations of the Montessori Approach 

1. Child-centered. The heart of the Montessori approach is a focus on children’s strengths rather than their limitations. It affirms the possibilities each child has to learn and grow, and recognizes that children develop in unique ways, according to their own unique abilities, backgrounds, interests, and schedules. When this child-centered focus is applied flexibly, each child’s studies are based on their interests and abilities, such that the child has a continuous experience of productive challenge in their learning.

2. Practical and concrete. Maria Montessori recognized how much children gained from practical achievements and concrete life skills. While this was particularly valuable for the cognitively impaired children she was working with, most children feel good about mastering practical skills—sweeping the floor, pouring liquids, etc.—and this is an approach that can help all children develop competence and confidence. At its most rigid, however—and as occurs in some traditional Montessori schools—the focus on practical life skills leads to a prohibition against play-based learning and imagination, and can also mean little or no time allocated to physical and outdoor play.

3. Decentralized. Teachers rarely teach to the entire class, and children do a lot of self-directed work. The student-teacher ratio tends to be high, so children are usually working on their own or with other children. While some children thrive with this approach, others do better with more teacher direction.

4. Independent. One of the aims of the Montessori approach is an independent child, one who learns by following their own curiosities. This can be ideal, and is in fact the objective of most educators today. The Montessori pathway to getting there, however, can be heavily prescribed, such that a child is not allowed to proceed to the next level up without authorization from the teacher.

Some Decision-Making Resources

Glen Hoffman and his colleagues at Our Kids have compiled a comprehensive and thoughtful resource for parents who are considering Montessori (and other) school options. Although they emphasize the positive aspects of Montessori schools, they also include reasons for caution and concern, criteria that parents should consider in making a decision for their child. The authors include suggestions for Montessori homeschooling and public school options, as well as information on private schools that offer Montessori-based instruction.  

Carolyn K, at Hoagies Gifted Education Page, discusses the Montessori option in “How Can I Choose a School for My Gifted Child.”  She emphasizes the variability across schools using the Montessori name, and writes that “A gifted-friendly Montessori classroom would allow above-grade-level work in any subject, bringing in materials from the next level.” 

Laura Markham, at AHA Parenting, provides a thoughtful discussion of many of the important criteria for parents to consider in her article, “Choosing Preschool: Montessori vs. Gifted?”

Joanne Foster and I wrote a chapter on the complex and dynamic issues involved in school choice in Being Smart about Gifted Education.

Do Montessori Schools Support the Development of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent?

Some do, and some don’t. School decision-making is all about individual differences, both across schools, and across children and families. But in general, I recommend that parents interested in supporting the development of giftedness, creativity, and talent in their children take a look at the Montessori options available to them, especially in the early years.

In Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, Joanne Foster and I wrote,

Montessori schools are designed to ensure that children’s individual learning needs are well met so that each child experiences continuous challenge in his areas of interest. When the programming follows a true Montessori philosophy, or is adapted in a way that is consistent with this approach, it nurtures children’s developing independence, autonomy, competence, and self-confidence. Because of their responsiveness to individual learning needs and interests, Montessori schools can be particularly good for highly capable young children. (pp 163-4)

In summary

  1. Do consider the Montessori option if that makes sense in your neighbourhood or community. Theoretically at least, Montessori can be a great approach to supporting your child’s giftedness, creativity, and talent.
  2. Spend some time in the classroom. Some traditional Montessori environments are very quiet and orderly, even at the preschool stage. Others are lively and dynamic. Do you think this classroom will make a happy fit for your child’s temperament and energy?
  3. Don’t pay much attention to the advertising materials. Instead, talk to some parents and to the school personnel. Do what you can to find out how flexible the school is to each child’s interests and abilities:
  • If you have an active, energetic child, ask about opportunities for physical and outdoor play.
  • If you want to encourage the development of your child’s creativity and imagination, ask about opportunities for play-based learning and imaginary play.
  • If you have a curious child who loves to learn rapidly, will the environment allow them to move up through the materials at their own speed? Or is that heavily regulated by the teacher?

Further Resources:

“Montessori Education in Canada,” by Glen Hoffman 

“How Can I Choose a School for My Gifted Child,” by Carolyn K 

“Choosing Preschool: Montessori vs. Gifted?” by Laura Markham

“Montessori and Gifted Children,” by The Montessori Observer

Maria Montessori