3 - 6, 6 - 12, Theory and Practice

Montessori Red Flags

Some parents choose a private school based on location, ratio, or test results.  But if your child is in a Montessori school specifically because you want them to reap the benefits of a Montessori education, I have some disconcerting news: The burden is on YOU to ensure the school is following authentic Montessori practices.

The name “Montessori” is not trademarked, so anyone can use it and steal the educational philosophy’s reputation (and your hard-earned money).  And many so-called “Montessori schools” pick and choose to which principles, if any, they adhere.

You may be wondering, isn’t a little Montessori better than nothing?  Not really.  Imagine the Montessori approach as a finely tuned instrument, whose parts work together to bring out the musician’s full potential.  If the strings are too loose, the sound is warped and uninspiring; tighten them too much and they’ll snap.  Similarly, out-of-tune Montessori programs are either:

  • Too loose: They let students do whatever they want, resulting in children who don’t develop self-discipline, accountability, and social responsibility; or
  • Too tight: They drastically restrict students’ freedom, producing anxious children who lose their curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.

Lucky for you, here’s a list of six red flags that will let you know whether or not a school follows authentic Montessori practices.


Short work period with pull-outs or other interruptions: Authentic Montessori schools give children (ages 3+) three solid hours of uninterrupted work time in the morning and two in the afternoon.  Uninterrupted means NO pull-outs for art and music; NO break for whole-group snack; and NO mandatory circle time.

Age groups that don’t span at least three years: Authentic Montessori schools group children by developmental stage (Primary is ages 3-6; Elementary is 6-9 and 9-12 or 6-12; Adolescents are 12-15).  Schools with a “transition classroom” for kindergartners; those that group kindergartners and first-graders together; or those that only have a two-year age range from Primary onwards are denying children the powerful benefits of the mixed-age group.

Co-teachers that split subjects: Authentic Montessori classrooms are directed by ONE adult who’s trained and certified to work with that particular age range. One or two assistants serve as support staff for safety and to satisfy state ratio laws.  Co-teachers that divvy up subjects (where one only teaches math and sciences, while the other focuses on humanities) are not following an authentic Montessori model.

Elementary expectations in the third year of Primary: Authentic Montessori schools protect the right of five- and six-year-old Primary students to put into practice the skills they developed in the prior two years (independence, self-regulation, collaboration, leadership, etc).  Schools that claim to be preparing third-year Primary children for Elementary by mandating daily math and writing, requiring they only work on paper, giving them checklists and work plans, or limiting positive social interactions are impairing the very abilities the children worked so hard to develop.

Traditional education techniques: In authentic Primary and Elementary Montessori classrooms, children learn through the hands-on exploration of Montessori materials.  If you visit a classroom and see the materials gathering dust on the shelves or being used to solve worksheets, you can be sure you’re not in an authentic Montessori environment.  Other red flags include mandatory spelling tests (or tests of any kind) and grade-level lesson groups, which segregate children by age and effectively eliminate most mixed-age interactions in a mixed-age classroom.

Rewards and punishments: Authentic Montessori schools see challenging behaviors as opportunities to practice and teach empathy; they celebrate growth by acknowledging effort and progress.  Classrooms with a “thinking chair” or a time-out corner, where a child is sent when their behavior is deemed inappropriate, are not following Montessori principles.  Neither are those where the children are rewarded with stickers or phrases like “good job” or “you’re so smart.”

So, what can you do if you’ve just discovered that your child’s school needs some fine-tuning?  Take action!  Choose one red flag, educate other parents, and talk with school leaders.  Then choose the next one, and the next.  Schools often stray from Montessori because they think parents want a more traditional educational approach.  Prove them wrong! Your return on investment from a Montessori school should be an education that respects and supports your child’s development.


11 thoughts on “Montessori Red Flags”

  1. I’m curious where Dr. Montessori states the afternoon needs to have a 2 hour uninterrupted work cycle. I agree about the mornings but was unaware about the afternoons. Thanks in advance for enlightening me.

    1. It’s an excellent question and I’m happy to dig into the publications in the next couple of days to find specific examples. Her original schools were actually an all-day model (started partly so mothers could work outside the home and support their families). So her young students spent the afternoon resting, gardening, and she observed that they went back to the materials they’d worked with in the morning. Anecdotally, and based on others’ experiences, the afternoons are also the ideal time for the older children (who are no longer napping) to receive more extensive presentations (like collective exercises) and spend more one-on-one time with the guide (which they often can’t in the morning because of the demands of the younger children). This is often lost when afternoons are dedicated to art/music/PE etc, setting in motion a negative cycle of older children who don’t have enough advanced lessons to keep them challenged, which leads to disruptive behavior, which affects the entire class. IMO, two hours in the afternoon is not enough in the elementary, as many children feel more settled and ready to work after lunch and playtime! I’ll research this some more and get back to you. 🙂

      1. I’ve read the article. I enjoyed it very much. I’m happy to think that there are authentic Montessori schools such as these in the world. Unfortunately in my experience, especially at elementary level, they seem to be in the minority. I hope the tide will change.

  2. This list is a good tool for new, inexperienced teachers as well. Pressures are high and come from parents, admin, even other teachers.

  3. When asked, this is precisely the criteria I advise young parents to look for in a potential Montessori school for their youngsters. BTW, it was lovely to see an old friend in the form of a NAMTA Journal article!! I’ve saved all my old copies for my girls’ research or to share with parents. They are gems!

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