The Montessori Method is highly regarded for how well it works for children with special needs or who are unsuccessful in traditional school environments. That's not surprising really, especially in light of her student body.
Maria Montessori’s original school - the Casa de Bambini - served children living in a challenging socio-economic situation. Her class included 3-7 year olds who, before enrolling in her school, spent their days alone and unsupervised. As you can probably guess, this group of kids was considered disruptive and difficult. It is likely that they experienced learning differences, special needs, home instability, and a host of other issues that made it difficult to learn.
Partly because of these characteristics, Dr. Montessori's child-led learning methodology works well for special needs kids even today. A large part of the reason for this is that Montessori students learn at their own pace, without the rigid external expectations and time-specific goals imposed on them in more traditional public and private schools.
Because Montessori is so different from what most people expect from education, it is often met with skepticism or misunderstanding. One such myth is that a Montessori education - whether in a Montessori school or in a homeschool setting - is only for children with special needs. Although children with special needs thrive in a Montessori setting, the idea that it’s only for these students couldn't be further from the truth.
In fact, it's just the opposite. All children can thrive in a Montessori setting! Cross-cultural, longitudinal studies have repeatedly shown that Montessori is one of the best methods for instructing children of all abilities, backgrounds and intelligence levels. Whether your child needs a different approach to learning, extra help, more time to grasp concepts, or is excelling far beyond their age, the Montessori Method is a pedagogy in which they will can be both happy and successful.
Why Montessori is great for children with special needs
Some children who don’t excel in school simply have an undiagnosed learning difference. For example, one visual disorder that affects how children see and process letters is dyslexia. Another condition that makes writing difficult is dysgraphia. In a traditional school setting, these learning differences can dramatically slow a student’s progress and even worse, cause low self-esteem and shame.
One way in which Montessori differs, however, is that the concept of age-specific learning milestones don't exist. Montessori classrooms are mixed-age, and each child works without the concern of meeting goals identical to those of their same-aged peers. Simply not having the stress of this rather unrealistic expectation empowers children to love learning and to excel within their gifts and talents, at their own pace.
Montessori also recognizes that “excelling” in education looks different for every child, and it leans into this fact by allowing them to direct their learning. Some children learn best when subjects are taught in concert with one another, whereas traditional schools teach lessons in isolation (science, math, reading).
Montessori blends subjects and lessons together to help create a framework on how every lesson and concept is interconnected. This interconnectedness is also a more powerful learning tool than learning individual subjects in a vacuum. Students of all ages, levels and abilities do best with this type of framework.
Freedom of movement
Free movement is foundational in the Montessori classroom, and for children with special needs such as autism or ADHD, this can help with the impulse to fidget or expend energy.
Maria Montessori noted how important kinesthetic learning is to ALL children - “what the hand does, the mind remembers” - and this is hugely beneficial to children who would be labeled “antsy” or "disruptive" in a traditional setting. It’s tough for ALL small children to sit and listen to lectures for hours a day. Imagine a student for whom movement is essential to learning being asked to do this. This one element of the Montessori philosophy alone optimizes the environment for each and every child.
Along with the self-paced learning style and encouragement to move about freely, Montessori homeschooling means the parent curates the learning materials for their child. In this way, you can provide your child with what interests them and what works for them. Rather than creating a lesson based off of pre-planned learning outcomes, you can curate materials that make learning enjoyable for your child, which in turn will make education easier and more effective.
Montessori curriculums are designed with age ranges in mind, but there are no hard-and-fast goals, deadlines, or tests. They exist to help you teach concepts and to give you the tools at each stage of your child’s learning journey, but ultimately you are the one who presents the lessons to your child. This allows you to do it at a pace that is comfortable for them and you.
Focused blocks of time
Children with certain special needs like ADHD or autism can greatly benefit from being given long periods of time to work within a subject. Rather than trying to move from math to reading to science, Montessori blends them together in certain ways, and allows children to linger for 1.5+ hour blocks of time on concepts. This helps kids dig into ideas and subjects that interest them, and get immersed in a way that makes the learning stick.
For children who would have “attention problems” in traditional school, being able to focus on something that interests them for long periods of time is life-changing. They’re not being forced to learn in short intervals and then abruptly changing what they’re learning in the next moment. This method is highly beneficial to special needs kids, but to all learners as well.
Self-led learning is engaging
Allowing children the time to devote themselves to a concept that they love is amazing to watch. Seeing your child explore subjects because they want to rather than because they’re forced to is a revelation that can dramatically change a family’s outlook on education. If you’re transitioning from Traditional homeschooling/School-At-Home to Montessori, you will notice your child has a newfound interest in learning in ways you probably never expected.
Child-led learning also helps you identify what your children are truly interested in, and where their strengths are to help you better curate their experience. You can also explore a curriculum at a pace that suits your needs as well; if you need more time to work for yourself, for instance, you can give them the space to lead their education for longer periods of time.
Multi-age classrooms help children thrive
If you have multiple children in your home, you’ll find that the multi-age aspect of a Montessori homeschool is truly a blessing. The social skills children learn by engaging with children of different ages is amazing; older children learn patience and leadership, and younger children learn to ask for help and to receive guidance from older peers. While this concept is amazing for all kids, it’s especially wonderful for families in which neurodiverse children are blended with neurotypical students.
In Traditional schools, children who have special needs are often taught separately. This can create a sense of “otherness”, but in a Montessori homeschool, your children are learning together, which benefits all of them. Since there are no expectations like that of a Traditional school, there should be no comparison or otherness; simply kids learning together and helping each other while loving the experience of interest-based, self-led education.
Montessori helps all kids excel
The various aspects of Montessori education are truly beneficial for all kids, from those with special needs to grade-level learners and even those who are learning far beyond their expected abilities. Giving children the space to lead their own education is a massive step in developing self-reliance and confidence, and will lead to a love of learning in general. Montessori does this by not confining their education to seated lecture or by saddling them with expectations of learning outcomes developed as a one-size-fits-all metric for children. Instead, a child who drives their own learning decides for themselves how to progress, and how to spend their time. As the parent/guide, you curate their materials and their experience in a way that suits their abilities and interests.
Multi-age classrooms help children with special needs feel included and in general foster social development for all children. Rather than separating special needs children, their inclusion benefits everyone and helps foster a system of mutual help, patience and respect. Older children and children who happen to be farther along can help children who have special needs with their lessons, and impart their own discoveries, which makes everyone feel loved and included.
Long blocks of focus help all children explore concepts that interest them fully, and it gives special needs children the space and time to get accustomed to the materials they are working with. In general, however, long blocks of time on a single concept helps all children develop the ability to focus and develop grit, which is immensely beneficial throughout their entire lives.
Montessori education gives children with special needs the ability to direct their education in a way that suits their abilities, but it’s also designed in a way that helps all children by addressing aspects of Traditional education that don’t work well for many students. By giving children the freedom to choose how they direct their learning, to move around, and to explore concepts more fully in long blocks of time, all children can thrive in a Montessori homeschool. Whether your child needs some extra help, they’re right on track or they’re far beyond what you’d expect for their age, the Methods of Maria Montessori are perfect for all children of all abilities.