Montessori Materials, On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

From Montessori to Unschooling and Back

Preface: I struggled to write this because my goal is NOT to cast Zachary’s old school in a negative light.  I believe that this school has done an amazing job of providing a quality Montessori experience for hundreds of families.  However, each school, teacher and family has their own set of values and goals, and it’s the parents’ responsibility to find the most successful match.  I wrote this post mainly as a case study, to share an experience that we all – parents, guides, and administrators – can learn from in our journey to support each child’s unique developmental path.  

It’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll start at the beginning, when my son was very young.  I was planning on keeping Zachary at home until he was 3 years old and ready to enter the Children’s House, but an amazing career opportunity came up, which included guaranteed acceptance for Zach in a wonderful Toddler Community.  So, at the tender age of 19 months, he began his Montessori schooling experience.  He had a great year in the program, with a talented group of teachers who brought out the very best in him.

By the time he was 2 1/2, he was fully toilet independent (meaning I didn’t even have to take extra clothes or a potty along when we went out) and he had basically mastered all the Toddler materials.  His teacher and the Pedagogical Coordinator said that he was ready to transition to the Primary program in the Fall.

Now, being a Montessori guide myself, I know that when a child transitions this young to Primary, a certain set of challenges present themselves (my very first classroom had a whopping 12 children under the age of 3).  More often than not, the guide will have to keep the child in a holding pattern of sorts until they’re almost 3 years old, because they don’t yet have the maturity or interest to work with most of the materials in the Primary environment or participate in some of the more social activities.

You end up doing A LOT of Practical Life, dealing with never-ending spills, and spending a lot of time taking them to the bathroom.  It takes a lighthearted sense of humor (which took me a while to develop) to work with these little people who are slowly, S-L-O-W-L-Y transitioning from what Dr. Montessori called the unconscious creator to the conscious worker.

The first red flag that the transition wasn’t going well came when my fully toilet-indepenent son began having one miss after another in the classroom.  And it wasn’t just a little urine that leaked out; it was full-on wetting and soiling, as if he’d NEVER used a toilet before.  The school tried to tell me he had regressed at home over the summer, but I knew what my child was capable of (he’d been out of diapers during the day since he was 12 months old, and diaper-free at night since he turned two, at his own request).  I also knew that sudden selective incontinence was a sign of emotional distress due to a lack of perceived control.

I asked the teacher what kind of toileting support she offered transitioning toddlers, and she said that she showed them where the bathroom was and told them they could use it when they needed to.  I pointed out that toddlers are used to a regimented toileting routine at school and at home, and that they need help transitioning away from it.  I explained that she would need to set up a routine for him that entailed using the bathroom each morning upon arrival, before any work took place, and then again after snack, before going back to work.  The staff was supportive and did their best to ensure he was comfortable using the bathroom, but his misses had become a habit by then, and it took the better part of a year to get him back on track.

Then, Zachary began complaining that he didn’t have any friends to play with.  He was by far the youngest child in his class, since all his friends stayed behind in the Toddler Community because they weren’t toilet independent yet.  His 2 1/2-year old brain wasn’t developed enough to understand and participate in the sophisticated make-believe games of the older children, whom he so desperately wanted to be friends with.  It took about six months for him to reach a level of maturity that allowed him to play alongside the older three- and four-year olds.

Another challenge was the choice of materials and the teacher’s expectations.  I’m not sure why, but she tried to move him along very quickly through the Montessori curriculum.  Instead of engaging him in the extensions (such as matching activities and distance games) that encourage repetition, help solidify skills, and support age-appropriate development, she began presenting materials that were intended for older children.

On one occasion, I observed as she presented him (at 2yrs 10mo of age) with the Smelling Bottles, a material ideally suited for 4-year olds.  Zach promptly took out the cotton balls holding the different scented items (because he was curious about what was inside) and started stacking the fragile glass bottles (because two-year olds love to stack), so the teacher had to take the material away.  If you constantly give children activities that are too challenging for them, and then get upset when they misuse them, they begin to think they’re incapable of success.  And that’s exactly the attitude my once self-confident son began to exhibit.

I tried to share my insight and knowledge of my son with the teacher, but nothing changed.  When she couldn’t handle his youthful energy, she’d send him and the other little boys to garden outside with the assistant teacher.  Needless to say, my son developed quite a green thumb!

Throughout the year, we had to pep-talk him daily to go to school, telling him about the fun he’d have with his friends.  He didn’t seem thrilled about his experience, but he was developing self-discipline, enjoying his new friendships, and wasn’t getting into trouble.  I thought things would improve the following school year since he’d be more mature.

When school started again this past September, his behavior deteriorated quickly.  The assistant he had grown so attached to (during countless hours of gardening) left the school, and he hadn’t developed a close bond with the head teacher.  He didn’t have a connection with the materials and had a hard time choosing purposeful work since he never had the experience of doing extensions.  To him, the materials were just something you repeated once after the teacher gave a presentation, and then put away.  And since he was now older, more social, and his friends from the Toddler Community had finally transitioned, he was having a blast giggling and goofing around.

I began camping out in front of his classroom’s one-way windows to observe for an hour or more almost daily, tiny newborn in tow.  What I saw was a vicious cycle: He’d be bored of working with a material, so he’d start to play with other friends who were also bored.  The teacher would approach with a stern look, and they’d all fly off in different directions.  At the teacher’s urging, he’d take out another material he wasn’t interested in, do it for a short while to get her off his back, and the cycle would repeat itself.

This was of course a recipe for disaster.  The adults, who were under a lot of pressure to have a calm and perfectly-functioning model classroom, became more and more authoritarian.  And my strong-willed and acutely sensitive son, who hasn’t been raised to fear adults and isn’t manipulated by bribes, rewards, fear, lectures, or punishments, reacted strongly.

This child, who won’t even hit the piñata at a birthday party because it’s too violent, started lashing out physically at unsuspecting classmates.  He also began screaming in class, screams his teacher said “sounded like his soul was hurting”.  And it really was.

I kept ruthlessly analyzing our home life for indications that he was being affected by something we were doing there, but came up empty.  He was gentle and loving with his baby sister, expressive about his emotions and needs, as cooperative as a three-year old can be with chores and routines, and well-behaved with other moms and children during playdates.

Mornings at home were great until he found out it was a school day, and then he would refuse to get dressed (he even went to school in his pajamas a couple of times, which prompted the teacher to ask if something was wrong at home).  In the car, he’d quietly suck his fingers and tug at his blankie (when he’s normally a chatterbug).  When I picked him up at noon he’d report his day had been “bad” (but wouldn’t give any details).  And to make matters worse, one day he announced, “I’m good at making people angry.”

The school director was supportive of my concerns and seemed to understand the problem clearly.  She offered a few solutions, like adding non-Montessori materials to the classroom to engage my son.  However, I felt at that point that the child and teacher just weren’t a good match.

During his fifth week of school, I picked him up and asked how his day went.  He said in a sad, sad voice: “My teacher got angry at me because I didn’t know where to put away the geography material.”  As a guide, I could imagine that he probably didn’t know where to put away the material and began to goof off with a friend.  But the fact that his teacher had reacted to a three-year old with anger, and that he was so sensitive to her reaction, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  My mothering instinct kicked into high gear and I made the decision to pull him out of school that very day.

With no time to prepare materials, and with a four-month old baby at home, I decided that a period of unschooling was in order.  I put aside all expectations and we played Legos, read books, discovered audiobooks, built structures, did simple crafts, visited museums and libraries, cooked, went to gymnastics and yoga classes, and practiced Grace & Courtesy.  I followed Montessori principles (like respecting his concentration, encouraging repetition, and adopting a friendly attitude towards mistakes) but did almost no Montessori work.

I learned a lot about him: how he’d shut down the moment he realized I had an agenda to teach him something; how he loved being the teacher; how he was very insecure about letters and numbers; how he could come up with creative solutions to tough problems; how he enjoyed making his own science experiments; how his greatest joy in life is making people happy.

Some days were beautiful and I cried tears of joy as I watched him explore and discover.  Some days were brutal and involved an episode or two of Mister Rogers to get us through the afternoon.  The idealistic part of me wanted to unschool him for the rest of his childhood, but the realistic part of me knew that I wouldn’t be able to provide the materials and social experience of a quality Montessori program.  And as a Montessorian, I really want this for my child.

I think we would’ve found our unschooling groove if it were our only option.  But fortunately for us, LePort Montessori schools just opened a campus about 15 minutes from our house and three of my talented AMI-trained friends work there.  I approached the school and was able to secure a spot for Zachary in the classroom of a friend and talented guide.

He started on Tuesday, and before he left the house I asked him to please listen to his teacher, since she would show him lots of interesting materials.  That afternoon, he defiantly told me: “I didn’t do anything the teacher told me to do.”  I let the comment go and asked what kind of work he did.  He said, “I did punching, but I did it wrong.  Everything I did, I did it wrong.”  It was as if he was carrying with him a label, an expectation he had to meet at all costs.

I spoke to his teacher, who assured me he had had a good day.  The next morning he left the house without a fight, and when I picked him up he said: “Whew!  I’m tired, I did a lot of work!”  His smile and look of satisfaction warmed my heart.

Our journey has come full circle, and I’ve learned an infinite amount, both as a parent and as a guide.  I hope that by reading our story, you’ve learned something, too.



13 thoughts on “From Montessori to Unschooling and Back”

  1. Wow, thanks so much for sharing. I am fascinated by Montessori methods but sadly don’t have access to alternative education choices here in this rural part of Ireland. I have followed an unschooling path with my five year old, but my middle child, at 3yrs4 months has just asked to be enrolled in “nursery school” and it’s with a great deal of sadness that I am letting her start on Monday. I so wish we had access to such a great environment.

  2. Pilar, thank you. This post will help us become better guides. I am glad to know Zach is happy at Le Port. May I share this post?

  3. I only know you through your posts,Pilar, but I so admire your keen observational skills and willingness to take a parallel, but necessary, side path with your son. Maria would have been proud. You “followed the child”. So glad you were ultimately able to find a good Montessori fit for your son. With your permission, I will be sharing with my primary directress daughter.

    1. Dear Jo Ann, thank you for such lovely and supportive words. It was a difficult decision, as I really loved the school and the staff and wanted to make it work. Thank you for sharing this with your daughter, that was the goal in writing this – for everyone to learn and grow from our experience.

  4. I understand the issues of your son’s transitions as I have provided a primary program since 1983 and included a toddler class from 1986 to 2006. And many elements of your story have arisen in my practice. I recall various experiences in transition including how boys who became eldest in Toddler approaching age 3 could become out of place in that class. I had the option of inviting them to an activity like art work in the primary class as a transitional phase until a move was possible. For that I would let the parents know what we could do and then proceed.

    In the last few years I have also participated in our State QRIS and in advocacy for Montessori quality. I have found elements of the QRIS which are a benefit to Montessori educators. This year I am preparing for our rerating in 2016 with greater awareness including family engagement.

    I have known from my own early growth and that of other teachers that talking with parents and including parental requests is a difficult part to develop in our work. Even now I always have some challenges but include the teachers in developing options that define our capacity.

    Continuing professional development is needed for all Montessori teachers to enhance our practice and improve our schools. I wish you well and appreciate your candor. I would reflect that your son has learned a lot about himself and his family that prepare him to become more effective in his school community. Dee Hirsch Seattle


    1. Thank you, Dee! There’s never a perfect solution, is there? I love the idea of a slow and gradual transition, and I agree that the Toddler environment was not necessarily the best place for him given his level of development. It was a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone, and I do wish that more training was offered to teachers to support this type of transition.

  5. Thank you for posting this, Pilar! It is hard, even discouraging, to read about what happens when we fail to follow the child. Your diligence in observing, and applying what you know is admirable! Having followed so many of your adventures, I can truly empathize with your difficult decision – and I am so happy that it turned out well so Zach can have a wonderful Montessori experience. Kudos to you for your loving perseverance!

  6. Thank-you so much for sharing your story, it certainly gave me time to think and ponder the continuing responsibility we have to all children who are entrusted to us. I am so pleased that you have found the ‘perfect’ fit for your young Zackery.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this! My daughter, who is now 3 and sounds remarkably like your son in temperament (“strong-willed and very sensitive” are the descriptors that fit her best!), was in a similar sounding montessori program this spring. the teacher there was new – just opening her own school at home after completing her certification and internship – AND she was 7-9 months pregnant (which I didn’t know when I signed my daughter up for the program). While I couldn’t observe the class, I did witness countless incidents like you described – becoming authoritarian, stern looks, strong words, the desire to have a perfect classroom, the intolerance of toddler/transition mistakes like toileting issues, spills etc. My daughter reacted just as you described – screaming, withdrawing, saying that she didn’t like her friends and didn’t want to go to school, crying at drop off, refusing to do work, crying at pick up…the works. I am ashamed to admit that my reaction was not great. I was in my first trimester of my next pregnancy and exhausted and even though my gut told me to pull her from the school, I didn’t listen. Well, summer came around and the program ended and I was left with an emotional wreck of a daughter who is still recovering. She’s in a wonderful school now, with a lot more support and experienced teachers and we are working through the issues as they come up. But it’s been hard! I’m not an educator, and our only other experience with Montessori (at an infant program in her first year) was nothing short of miraculous so I didn’t realize how much it could impact her! I’m filled with regrets both for keeping her in the school and for not recognizing what was going on earlier so I could react better myself. It’s been a hard year and your post gives me hope that the damage to her self-confidence is not permanent.

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