Choosing a Montessori School: Uninterrupted work period

Imagine you arrive at work at 8am, energized and ready to work on a fun but challenging project that will require several hours of your time.  You know that to really get the project on solid footing and make sense of its complexity, you need several hours of uninterrupted focus.  You sit down at your desk, fire up your computer, and start organizing your thoughts.  Suddenly, a reminder pops up on your computer screen:

Mandatory staff meeting @ 8:45am.

Now, answer this question truthfully: Knowing that you have to leave your project aside in 45 minutes, would you use your time to focus on challenging tasks that require your undivided attention, or would you take it easy for 45 minutes, checking your e-mail, refilling your coffee cup, and sneaking a peek at Facebook?

Yeah, I’d choose the latter, too.

What does this have to do with Montessori?  All Montessori educators are familiar with what we call the “three-hour work period”.  As the name suggests, this is a three-hour chunk of time in the morning in which the children receive presentations, choose materials, have snack, and work at their own pace on activities that interest them. (Note: All AMI-recognized schools also have a two-hour uninterrupted work period in the afternoon for children ages 4 and older).  A quality Montessori school will not have a single interruption during the work period: no Spanish teacher coming into the classroom; no music instructor pulling kids out; no physical education taking place on the basketball courts.

Dr. Montessori discovered that a child as young as three, who has spent a few months in the Montessori classroom, is able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence.  She noted that for this to happen, a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted classroom time are essential.  Of her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, she noted: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.”

True cognitive and personal development – the type that takes place in a Montessori classroom – cannot happen in 45-minute spurts.

In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard points out that, “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.”  Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become nuisances to their peers.  Even more tragic are children who don’t know an interruption is coming; they choose demanding work, become engrossed, and are understandably upset when the disruption takes place.

While interruptions are part and parcel of traditional education methods, they just aren’t necessary in Montessori.  The beauty of the Montessori “curriculum” (for lack of a better word) is that it encompasses EVERYTHING that children should be exposed to in school.  The usual “pull-out” subjects like art, music, physical education, drama, and yoga are all found within a well-prepared Montessori classroom.  It might not look like what you experienced in school, but then again, doesn’t everything in Montessori look different than traditional education?  It’s a good kind of different; it’s a different that makes sense – a different that works!

You might be thinking, “How can one teacher know and teach everything?”.  She doesn’t.  But she also doesn’t have to.  The materials are carefully designed to capture the child’s interest and guide him in the learning process.  The child’s drive for knowledge and the material’s self-correcting qualities are the true teachers – the adult just brings the child and the material together as a kind of middleman of the learning process.

Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working?  Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?”  Dr. Montessori addresses this concern in The Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. I: “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.”  Stoll Lillard adds, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”

Dr. Montessori concludes: “The one means by which exhaustion can be eliminated is to make work pleasant and interesting, to give joy in work rather than pain.”

If you are looking for a Montessori school for your child, make sure to ask if they respect the three-hour morning work period WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS (and don’t forget the afternoon work period for your older child!!).  And if you’re a teacher, make sure you protect the three-hour work period with your life!

Would this child have chosen to learn about Europe if he only had 45 minutes?
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20 thoughts on “Choosing a Montessori School: Uninterrupted work period

  1. I was observing a classroom of Upper El students during my training and the deep frustration that the two girls I was sitting closest to almost brought me to tears. The guide did a whole group presentation on the puzzle maps and these girls ended up with Africa. They were into not just doing the puzzle for the puzzle’s sake (they aren’t in Casa after all ). They were looking up names and capitals. (I helped them with pronunciation of a few.) They had one more piece to put into the puzzle when the guide called time and wouldn’t let them complete the work. Apparently no work is left out to return to. One piece – two minutes. It was awful.

    Really, age appropriate lessons and time to work to completion are critical for the love of learning.

    1. I can imagine how frustrated you (and they) felt! I observed at several schools in Europe and there were constant interruptions, so nothing got done, the children were rowdy, and the teachers were frustrated. So many issues could be avoided by simply respecting a child’s concentration!

  2. Lovely post! I’ve always found it difficult to explain to parents *why* the work cycle is so important. You’ve done it clearly and succinctly, so thank you! I’ll be using your analogy 🙂

  3. This is very interesting and makes a lot if sense. I’ve followed Montessori and used it in my homeschool for tears but never knew this, I’ll definitely research this more, thanks a lot

  4. Thanks so much for this great post! I’m in the process of setting up a little Montessori space so that I can homeschool my daughter using the Montessori method. I’ve been trying to figure out a good schedule to use. One Montessori teacher I consulted said that she breaks up the day a lot (lunch time, outside time, circle time) and only expects the children to work uninterrupted for up to 45 minutes at a time (in the daily schedule). When I heard that I thought, but how does that match up with the three-hour work cycle I keep reading about? I am curious though, in a real Montessori classroom, how does the circle time fit in to the 3 hour cycle and daily schedule? Should I start off my homeschool day (my daughter is just 3) with circle time, then have a 2.5 to 3 hour work cycle, and then have circle time again? Or does circle time take up the last 10 to 15 minutes of the 3 hour cycle? Any guidance or advice you can share would be greatly appreciated! Thank you so much! ~Elizabeth

  5. I find the idea of homeschooling using Montessori a bit in conflict with the whole methodology. While there can be no question that the materials are wonderful and the philosophy applies to all aspects of the child’s life, you cannot diminish the role of the mixed aged classroom. The synergy created really makes Montessori education come to fruition. I am a certified Montessori teacher and have had a small daycare of 5 children in my home and have taught in classrooms. While both can work, there is a big difference. Best to all!

  6. Thank you for explaining and highlighting the importance of the work cycle with such depth and clarity. I was browsing through the comments and I agree with Sally that interactions from being in a mixed age group matters. However, I have chosen to homeschool partially due to financial constraints. Authentic montessori schools are hard to come by and when they do, it comes with a hefty price tag. So what suggestions do you have for a family who would like to homeschool the montessori way? Have a three hour work cycle in the mornings, then playdates, music classes etc in the afternoons? My child is 4.

    1. Yes, totally!! But work up to it, your child might not be used to so much independence. A new classroom NEVER starts off with a 3-hr work period, and neither should a new homeschool environment. Follow your child, mix up independent work with reading a story together or doing work in the kitchen, until little by little he’s working independently for the entire 3 hours. This could take weeks, months, or even a year. Be patient!

  7. Hi, I have been enjoying your blog posts. I started off looking for ideas on low beds and that led me on to other idea and thoughts you have shared. I edit several Montessori publications for parents and teachers in New Zealand. I have re-posted some of your blogs on our Facebook Group, but wonder if I could re-publish some posts in our teacher e-zine. I can send you a copy if you like ? … Cheers from NZ – Ana Pickering

    1. Hi Ana, I’m sorry I didn’t reply, I’ve been busy with our new baby! PLEASE feel free to post or publish anything you find helpful on this blog, all I ask is that you credit me and if possible link back to this blog. Thanks!

    1. Our school has been in existence since January 2015. We have three environments from ages 3 -12.
      As we are in our infant stages of development and on our way to becoming truly authentic. Our biggest challenges are
      #1 the recruits are, more often than not, mainstream thinkers between 6-12.
      #2 the parent’s and department of education’s expectations to prepare them for the mainstream school that they might be going to afterwards. I.e. Assesment-based teaching.
      #3 as a result, during the uninterrupted work cycle some of the kids who are not normalised prefer to be told what to do as they have not developed the muscles for working independently of the guide, yet.
      This disrupts the cycle continuously.
      Open to suggestions.
      Thanks for the open forum.

      1. Changing parents’ and government’s expectations is very time-consuming and resource-intensive. While you should fight the good fight, I think your focus needs to be on the children. Meet them where they are: offer limited choice, but offer choice. Don’t rush to make them choose, let them take their time but make choice an expectation. Promote the view that no choice is a bad choice if it’s chosen within a carefully prepared environment. Value every activity equally, be it dance, cooking, origami, or calculating the square root. Some children in elementary (not all!) benefit from partially planning out their morning in advance. This is the child’s work, not the teacher’s, but the adult can help guide the process and wean them off it when they no longer need it. Say yes to any project (in elementary) no matter how hair-brained it may seem; remember that to reach normalization you have to focus on the process, not necessarily the end result. I hope some of these ideas help… Feel free to email me if you have other questions! thefullmontessori at gmail [.] com

  8. I teach in a 6-9yrs Montessori class and really struggle with the three hour work cycle. As children of this age tend to herd a lot more than the younger ones if they have the freedom to break whenever they choose it ends up a whole class break! Morning tea times are now set in rostered groups and as a result the children seem to just wait for their turn as soon as the first group go, watching the clock, and so they are not focussed on their work at all. If I set just 4 seats and children can go when they feel ready it is like a race… Children eagerly watching the tables and jumping when there is a free space! The three hour work cycle is broken with language or math presentations that children must come to. If they have the choice not to attend then lessons back up and I run out of time to present them. 15 min Fitness must also take place in the morning work cycle and needs to be done as a whole class activity to ensure adequate supervision and duty of care. Again if children were able to head out for fitness at their own discretion the whole class would herd and break the cycle! The children are expected to independently complete a math revision task and a daily mental math page each morning also. We are currently looking at implementing a language program that is a 45 min lesson every morning, this would be on top of the language or math presentation already given. This totals over an hour and a half of the morning work cycle effectively teacher directed. This doesn’t include the completion of daily math revision, guided reading or catch up lessons.
    The three hour morning work cycle has been my biggest struggle to date. I would love any suggestions.

    1. There’s really no way for the 3-hr cycle to work if the administrators keep inserting “external” programs/specialists into the morning. For it to work, EVERYTHING should be integrated into the work cycle, including fitness, language, math, science, music, drama, etc. Why not start the morning with group fitness, get it over with and move on to the morning work cycle? And get rid of tea time. Children at that age don’t need food between breakfast and lunch. If they can’t handle the privilege of tea time, get rid of it. It sounds to me like the children are “herding” because they are feeling too controlled and not being given enough freedom. Children will herd if they feel that whatever the other people are doing is more interesting than what they are doing. But if they are being offered interesting work, they won’t care what anyone else is doing. So re-evaluate your lessons, your follow-ups, your stories to see if they are catching the children’s interest. Hope that helps!

  9. Could you maybe speak to “work plans” in primary? My daughter’s school has implemented work plans for the kindergarten aged kids to “prepare them for lower elementary”. This seems contradictory to the independent works idea.

    Thanks!

    1. Oh, that’s horrible!! Primary is NOT a preparation for Elementary. It is Primary. The third-year children are still in the first plane of development, no matter how advanced they might seem to be. They NEED to be given the freedom to follow their interests, ESPECIALLY as their curiosity and ability to understand abstract concepts and ideas is just beginning to gather steam. And at any rate, “work plans” are NOT a true Elementary tool (while they are necessary for a select few children, they should NOT be used across the board and the children who do need them should be weaned off them ASAP). A true Montessori elementary program works on a balance of freedom and responsibility, guided by the child’s curiosity and the adult’s ability to hold the child accountable while respecting his/her learning process. If you want more information about how a real Elementary should work, here’s a good website to scour: http://www.montessoriguide.org (go to the Elementary tab). A good book to read to understand the Lower Elementary (and to see why work plans are not necessary and are actually damaging) is “Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful” by Donna Bryant Goetz. Good luck fighting the good fight! 🙂

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