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Montessori education and special needs

How Montessori schools can support children with special needs

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Is Montessori a good fit for students with special needs? This will depend on many factors, including the type of special need and the support a school offers.

In this article, we discuss the suitability of Montessori education for students with different types of special needs. We’ll focus on giftedness, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, behavioural problems, and physical disabilities. As we’ll see, the Montessori approach is often a great fit for students with certain kinds of special needs.

Click here to view a list of Montessori schools

 

Giftedness

Gifted children are in the 98th percentile in terms of learning abilities, in one or more core subjects. They’re considered special needs students in Canada, since they have learning needs that can’t be met in a regular class.

While some gifted children are a good fit for Montessori schools, others aren’t. In the end, this will turn on whether a school can meet the special learning needs of the student. That said, there are some general pros and cons of Montessori schools for gifted learners. These are outlined below.

 

Pros

Cons

  • Mixed-age classrooms allow gifted students to work with and learn from older peers. Research shows this is effective.

  • Students are given lots of leeway to determine the focus and pace of their learning. They can often move quickly through their work in this setting. This allows them to stay engaged and stave off boredom.

  • Preschools (toddler and primary schools) can be a good option for many young gifted children. Their focus on concrete learning over imaginative play helps hone reasoning and problem-solving skills. In fact, preschools have a reputation for churning out “little engineers.”

 

  • Gifted students who prefer external standards of evaluation, where they’re graded on tests and assignments, often aren’t a good fit. On the other hand, gifted learners who are motivated from within and enjoy learning for its own sake can be a great fit.

  • Some schools are less willing to move students along quickly. These particular schools may be a poor fit for some gifted students—especially those who are exceptionally gifted (who are higher than the 98th percentile in terms of learning abilities).

  • Most schools restrict pretend play (though they nurture creativity in other ways), in favour of concrete learning. If your child is mostly gifted in the creative arts, they may find these schools less engaging than progressive, arts-focused schools.

 

In some ways, Montessori schools are similar to other schooling options for gifted students. If they can meet a child’s learning needs, through tailored programs, they can be a great fit. If they’re not able to do this, they’re unlikely to be a good fit.

It’s important, then, to look at the policies of any Montessori school, to see whether it’s able to meet the special learning needs of your gifted child.  

Check out our comprehensive guide to gifted education to learn far more about private school options for gifted students.

Learning disabilities

Many students have learning disabilities (LDs). For instance, a lot of students are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or dyslexia (sometimes called a “reading disorder”). Other students are diagnosed with dysgraphiadyscalculia, or dysphasia.

Many Montessori schools are a great fit for students with LDs. Since they’re flexible, they can meet the learning needs of many different students. Also, they allow students to work at their own pace, which can be helpful for those with LDs.

Pat Payne, mother of Jasmine (age 10) at River Valley School in Calgary, Alberta, admires this flexibility. “In Montessori, faster learners can move more quickly through the curriculum, and other children can move more slowly. Children all end up in the same place. They don’t worry where they wind up or how they got there. And, they don’t lose their confidence.”

Also, Montessori doesn’t have a carved-in-stone, one-size-fits all curriculum. This can help students who learn differently than others. In fact, the Montessori method was introduced for students with special needs, such as LDs.

Finally, the multisensory, interactive environment can be stimulating for students with LDs. And, since the pace of learning is mostly set by students, they often stay motivated and feel better about school. Some students with LDs also benefit from less lectures and more personal attention, a hallmark of Montessori schools.

That said, not all students with LDs are a good fit. Students with severe LDs may not do well in schools with large classes and high teacher-to-student ratios. But schools with smaller classes, run by skilled teachers, can be a nice fit for many students with LDs, even some with severe LDs.

To learn more, read our guides to ADD/ADHD and dyslexia.

Developmental disabilities

Developmental disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)Asperger’s syndrome, Down syndrome, and intellectual disability, are diagnosed in many students. Students with ASD can have trouble reading body language and social cues, giving and grasping certain kinds of messages, and being able to cope with some environmental stimuli.

Montessori schools can be a good fit for these students. They provide a calm and structured classroom, with daily routines which offer stability. And, their tailored and hands-on approach to learning can be engaging.

Students with ASD also benefit from watching others around them. This allows them to learn and practice social skills. For instance, it allows them to learn conversational skills and how to make proper eye contact. It also helps them read facial expressions and body language.

Finally, special care is often taken to create an environment that’s friendly to those who are sensitive to some environmental stimuli, such as some students with ASD.

On the other hand, students with ASD and Aspergers often don’t do well in large classes, where it can be hard for them to focus. Schools with large classes (and high teacher-to-student ratios), with teachers unable to make proper adjustments, can thus be a poor fit. Also, some schools don’t offer out-of-class resources, such as special education classes, counselling, and tutoring, which can help students with ASD.

Keep in mind, though, that many Montessori schools don’t have large classes or high teacher-to-student ratios. And some offer special education classes, counselling, tutoring, and other key out-of-class resources. Moreover, as mentioned, even in large classes, students often receive special help and attention from skilled teachers.

To learn more, check out our autism school guide and Asperger’s school guide.

Behavioural problems

Some students have behaviour problems, such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) or troubled teen behaviour. These include a lack of flexibility, trouble controlling emotions, and difficulty sticking to rules. Some of these students also have learning disabilities, such as ADD, or developmental disabilities such as ASD.

Many Montessori schools provide a good learning environment for these students. The structure, order, and quiet of their classrooms can be therapeutic. Teachers can provide these students with the special attention they need, and peers can model and reinforce proper behaviour.

Montessori schools also focus on rules. They teach students to respect the classroom environment, be responsible, and act with integrity. This can sometimes help put “problem children” on the right track.   

That said, some Montessori schools, as we’ve discussed, have large classes and high teacher-to-student ratios. This can be a challenging environment for some students with behaviour problems, especially severe ones.

Yet, a decentralized classroom, one that’s structured and calm, can sometimes make up for this.

Meg Kahnert, director of Bannockburn Montessori, in Toronto, Ontario, puts it this way:

“Children who have behavioural issues, short-attention spans, and impulse-control issues can do well in Montessori schools. Our individualized approach is often a good fit for them. They’re not expected to listen to long lectures or follow a standardized curriculum. This can be a great approach for students who struggle with focus and get distracted easily.”

Should bad behaviour be disciplined?

Some claim that Montessori schools don’t provide enough discipline for students with behaviour problems. They follow a natural consequences policy: allow students to see the effect of their behaviour, and explain it. Punishment is rarely, if ever, doled out, though. This, it’s claimed, isn’t enough to deter or change problem behaviour.

In opposition, Montessorians claim that students can be taught to think about their behaviour and learn from it. They also learn more from social modelling and reinforcement from peers than from punishment from teachers. And, teachers provide these students with special guidance and attention, when needed.

Physical disabilities

Finally, some students have a physical disability, such as dyspraxia, blindness, hearing impairment, Cystic Fibrosis (CF), Multiple Sclerosis (MS), or Cerebral Palsy (CP). There are not many schools in Canada, private or public, well-equipped to deal with these students. The main problem is one of accessibility: few schools, Montessori or otherwise, are fully accessible to students with a wide range of physical disabilities. As a parent, you should look for a school that’s both physically accessible and supports your child’s learning needs.

Click here to view a list of Montessori schools

 

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