Why Montessori Schools Can Be Awesome for Kids With ADHD
“Ten out of 10 children with your son’s diagnosis do poorly in Montessori schools.” When my oldest son was entering kindergarten, I heard this line from a lot of different professionals encouraging me to rethink our choice of a Montessori magnet for our zesty son with ADHD.
Their comment wasn’t unexpected. Lots of professionals feel that the Montessori model spells disaster for kids with ADHD: that they spend their days moving around aimlessly, distracted by overwhelming choice and stimulation as the other students move independently through their own work. Kids with ADHD tend to need a lot of redirection in a Montessori classroom, which many folks feel sort of cancels out the benefit of the methodology.
Montessori kids aren’t expected to sit at desks all day, and built-in movement in the Montessori classroom can be a great benefit for children with ADHD.
When my son got his diagnosis, we’d already spent two years falling in love with this program via preK and dreamed of having all our sons attend the same school. I’d come to love so much about the Montessori method. Surely there was more to think about than my son’s struggle with self-direction?
See also: What Is a Montessori School?
We kept him there and he’s doing great. But is he just an outlier, or can Montessori still be a great choice for kids with his diagnosis?
A few experts recently validated my observations that Montessori education can indeed work well for kids with ADHD. I asked Judy Stern, an educational consultant and longtime Montessori educator, whether kids with this diagnosis can succeed in a Montessori school, and she says, “When people come to me with questions like this, I say anyone who is generalizing is not figuring out what the student needs, and they’re not understanding children very well.”
Stern isn’t surprised to learn schools have this attitude toward children with an ADHD diagnosis because in many cases, teachers get very little training in how to identify or accommodate special learning needs. “I find that teachers’ exposure to this varies based on which conferences or trainings they choose to attend.”
But taking a firm stance that kids with ADHD can’t fit into a Montessori classroom isn’t just discriminatory. It can have huge repercussions on enrollment, especially as private Montessori schools work to fill their rosters. According to the CDC, 11% of all children in the United States have this diagnosis. That’s a lot of kids to be turning away when, as Stern explains, Montessori classrooms can be helpful to kids with these diagnoses, and can often be easily modified to accommodate a child with an attention disorder.
Individualized Plans for All Students
In a Montessori classroom, each child has their own work plan. This, combined with the multi-age setup, means teachers can group kids by ability without stigma, and all children are working at their own pace on their own selected itinerary. Stern says the individualized nature can be a benefit for children with ADHD. Learning specialists can push in or pull children out, guide them through the process of creating their work plan, and offer suggestions for what activities to do first.
For instance, maybe a child with ADHD will be encouraged to finish all his math work in the morning and do practical life activities in the afternoon when he has a greater need to move his body. Stern has seen success using visual or auditory timers with such students, who gradually build their concentration time up starting from five minutes.
Movement is Key
Stern says some kids with ADHD are circling their classroom because they have a strong need to move, not just “wander aimlessly.”
“They may be learning as they move,” she says. “There’s no question that being inattentive and/or hyperactive may mean you can’t sit for a long time and focus in any kind of classroom!” Stern’s workshops encourage teachers to offer students more frequent breaks to leave the room for a drink, visit the restroom, receive “intermediate feedback,” or maybe walk to another teacher’s room to complete a task.
Montessori kids aren’t expected to sit at desks all day, and built-in movement in the Montessori classroom can be a great benefit for children with ADHD, as they can lie on the rug for some activities or stand at tables for others, and walk back and forth gathering and returning their materials.
Barbara Luborsky, a pediatric occupational therapist who writes for the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association’s, reminds us that this is intentional for all children because Maria Montessori felt “concepts must first be experienced concretely in the body. [Montessori] incorporated manipulation of materials into her work for this reason. Current neuroscience research supports the movement-learning link.” Luborsky also writes that “Recent research found that individuals with ADHD need to move to maintain alertness. The more they move, the better they perform.”
Stern says, “Sometimes there is a lot going on. It’s interesting and fun, but if you’re distractible and social, that can be a problem.” She likes to help teachers figure out the most effective place in the room for a child with ADHD to work at different parts of the day, while Luborsky points out specific works – as Montessori activities are referred to — that can be centering for kids with ADHD.
These children thrive in environments where they can sink their fingers into sand to trace letters or scrub dishes in a basin of soapy water.
Classic Montessori works like Walk the Line (where students build concentration, coordination of movements, and body awareness) can be fantastic tools for these students, as the work can be modified to include carrying something heavy. Luborsky also recommends wall pushups or mini trampolines, both activities children can use in a Montessori classroom without really distracting other students or standing out from the typical work cycle. Even classic Montessori works like the Pink Tower are great because students are walking back and forth gathering the cubes one by one, carrying something heavy as they stack the blocks in size order.
Tactile Treasure Trove
Montessori classrooms are also very tactile spaces. Stern says, “Children learn by touching and doing, and Montessori has a great emphasis on fine and gross motor development.” What a perfect environment for a child with ADHD to use their body and select which works feel good. These children thrive in environments where they can sink their fingers into sand to trace letters or scrub dishes in a basin of soapy water. Luborsky recommends including a yoga mat and pose cards so all children can practice gross motor skills, though children with ADHD will find this work particularly useful.
Stern’s greatest tip for families looking to enroll in a Montessori school is to make sure the school has a learning specialist on staff. “You don’t know what you don’t know when you first enroll your child in preschool,” she says. “You want to be in a place where they have someone who understands learning differences. It means the school acknowledges that any student population is going to have kids with learning and attention differences.” Both Stern and Luborsky emphasize the importance of parents and specialists working as a team with classroom teachers to help meet the challenges of an attention deficit disorder.
An ADHD diagnosis does not have to rule out a Montessori experience, in fact, quite the opposite. As Luborsky reminds us, “the Montessori curriculum supports development of executive function and promotes good attention for children.” Children with ADHD, too.
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