Intervening with Tough Behavior

I have been amazed again and again at how effective these gentle, indirect approaches can be for the young child. We don't even admit that anything untoward happened in the moment. We just redirect the attention and move on. Then, later (see below), we come back and teach the preferred behaviors that may have prevented the conflict. By so doing, we avoid the common trap of making some children "bad" kids. If we call out their name or emphasize the problem, we draw the attention of the entire room to the negative event. But if we discretely redirect the attention, we do not inadvertently contribute to a culture of negativity in the room. 

When you must address the conflict head-on, do so directly and briefly—no lectures, no big conversations or explanations. Speak directly to the issue just as Mr. Brown said in the video. You might say, “No, we do not hit each other at school.” It’s important to add this last prepositional phrase because it may be the case that the children witness people being hit regularly in other environments. We don’t want to create further confusion if the child is seeing different behaviors in different settings. Remember that children will naturally adapt to the behaviors they see around them…the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, they see their ‘people’ as normal no matter if they act like Barak Obama, Queen Elizabeth, or a bully.


March 08, 2017 by Julia Volkman

Which font: Print, Italic, or Cursive?

When we begin our own primary (ages 3 to 6+) classrooms, we need to make a decision about our sandpaper letters and movable alphabet--which font do we choose? But, many of us inherit a classroom and must use the font we have. Or, we must follow the culture of our school so there is consistency from room to room. In any event, this is a topic Montessori guides consider deeply.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any specific, convincing studies that directly answer the question of which font is preferred. This is why Maitri Learning offers our movable alphabets in all three of the fonts commonly used for the sandpaper letters.

The question of font, however, has been indirectly answered.

January 02, 2017 by Julia Volkman

Fade and Observe

“Old Montessorians never die, they just fade and observe.”

- Author unknown

Hand washingI was observing in a primary classroom the other day when I saw an utterly enthralled 4-year-old boy doing the hand washing work. His hands were in the beautiful blue and white basin and he was smiling as he turned the water over and under each hand.

Soon he let out a sigh which apparently meant he was ready for the next step. He lifted his hands out of the basin, dried them on the towel, grasped the sides of the basin, and went to empty it. But into what? The perfectly coordinated pail was sitting ready for him on the shelf beneath the basin but it went completely unnoticed. Instead, the boy put the basin back on the table and placed the matching blue and white pitcher on the ground in front of the table. He then proceeded to meticulously pour the basin water into the wide-mouth of the pitcher! No easy task, let me assure you, yet very little water was spilled.

September 21, 2016 by Julia Volkman

Setting up the Environment (Primary)

I've been working with Libertas Public Montessori School in Memphis. One of our many projects is to open a new Primary class. So, I've been investing a great deal of time in looking at material suppliers, thinking about plants, and measuring heights for tables and chairs. Since I know I'm not the only one doing this work, I decided to post my thoughts and discoveries here so we can all benefit...and maybe get a few of you to post some replies!


Sometimes our space has many low windows that bring a gorgeous natural landscape right into our classrooms. Sometimes, we have cinder block walls up to a drop ceiling. We have to work with what we have but in all cases, we must prioritize the natural world. Not just because I say so, but because research shows that views of nature have significant effects on attention and learning. 

If you have windows with views of nature, showcase them. Put your easel right in front of them. Set many tables so that they look out on the vista. Banish your curtains and shades unless the sunlight is blinding.

If your windows look out on a parking lot or a busy walkway, hang half or quarter curtains. You want these at about 4-5' high and extending just to the window sill. The objective is to protect the child's attention by blocking unsightly or busy views while still letting in as much natural light and sky views as possible. Make sense? 

If you don't have windows, bring nature in. Get plants that will grow in the lighting you have,... lots of them. Give serious thought to a large fish tank or other pet terrarium. Minimize your use of fluorescent overhead lights and invest in lamps with those great bulbs that mimic natural light. (Be mindful of the cords, though. Keep those safely tucked away.) Build a canopy out of sticks. Get creative and find ways to make your classroom alive with the natural world. (Click on the photo for links to more ideas from childroots.)

May 27, 2016 by Julia Volkman

Parent-Teacher Conferences

I remember the first parent-teacher conference I had. My daughter was not quite 3 years old and I had no idea what to expect. Her teacher, Maggie Radzik (an amazing Montessorian who deeply inspired me), sat down with me and said, "She's doing fine. I have no concerns. Do you have any questions?"

That was unexpected. She let me lead the dialogue and I had TONS of questions (like what are those "metal insects" my daughter wants to get her hands on so badly and how come she puts on her shoes all by herself here but not at home). That was the beginning of our teacher-parent friendship. It was also my introduction to this Montessori way of non-judgmentally and optimistically accepting each child for who they are.

Later, when I was a trained Montessorian myself and had to hold my own parent-teacher conferences, I always kept Maggie's example in mind. I don't think I did as well as her at first. I was nervous. I spoke too much. Sometimes I got caught up in deviations rather than focusing on normalization. But in every meeting, it turned out that the parents were actually the teachers and I was the student.

May 20, 2016 by Julia Volkman

The Avocado & The Stick

The other day, I had the great pleasure of observing at a brand new Public Montessori School in Memphis, TN. Libertas Montessori school has been opened for not quite 9 months. 95% of their children live in poverty. In case you aren't familiar with this, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face incredible challenges. One challenge that's been studied a lot is their diminished exposure to vocabulary. 

At lunch time, I sat at a table with a few children and opened the healthy lunch one of the teachers (Carly Riley, also known as Dobby the house elf) made me. Among the dishes Carly prepared for me was half an avocado with the pit still in. This was like a bowl full of diamonds before the children. One after another, they approached me and asked, "Are you going to eat that?" And they'd touch the pit still sitting in the avocado. 

So here was an opportunity to share my knowledge...yippee!! We spoke about the skin and pit (like an orange with seeds) and the flesh (mashed up for guacamole) and our relationship began. In that moment, they knew that they could look to me for knowledge. I had to file away the need to give them a grace & courtesy lesson about not sticking their fingers into someone's lunch and join them in their curiosity.

This tiny little interaction revealed the glorious and fragile nature of the absorbent mind. Young children are curious, open-hearted, and courageous. They are driven to answer the question, "What is this world?" As they went to sort their leftovers into the compost bins, they had to stop by and engage with that foreign object I brought into their world. They had no fear (or inhibitory control). Their interest in learning about the world trumped all else. It is easy to loose sight of that truth when a child with a runny nose and snot on their hand touches your lunch! 

May 13, 2016 by Julia Volkman

What you'll see in a great Montessori school

So, you’re considering a Montessori school. Maybe you’ve read about the growing evidence that supports the long-term benefits of Montessori education. Maybe someone you know enrolled their child in a program and is always pestering you to put your child there. Maybe it’s just an accident (as happened with me) that when you feel your child is ready for school, the closest one to you happens to be a Montessori school. Whatever the reason, when you show up, you want to know that that particular school is a good school.

The Physical Space

Now we can’t all live in the Taj Mahal so the school may not be housed in the most modern building (we all have to start somewhere), but what you should see is that the space has something lovely about it. You’ll have a feeling that someone cared about the entryway, the hallways, the offices, the rooms, and, oh yes, the bathrooms. The walls will not be cluttered or overwhelming. Overall, it will feel calm, inviting, and maybe even elegant. 

Cultural photo vbIt may also make you feel like a bit of a giant because the whole school should be adapted to fit the smaller physical bodies of the students it serves. So, you should see benches, chairs, and/or tables that are quite small. Sinks will likely be lowered or the ground raised with solid stools. At all points, there will be a sense of order, care, and intelligence in the physical design.   

April 24, 2016 by Julia Volkman

Montessori Sound Games: Teaching phonemic awareness

Before children can learn to read, they first need to:

  1. Have practice hearing and speaking the language
  2. Understand the meaning of words (vocabulary enrichment)
  3. Hear the individual sounds in words
  4. Match the sounds of words with the symbols of our language (letters)
  5. Link those letters to create words

So if you're observing in a classroom where the children seem to be struggling or a bit sluggish along the road to literacy, you may need to go in reverse through this list to see where the obstacles have arisen. 

For example, if the children seem to be avoiding movable alphabet work (step 5), back up and consider what's happening with their sandpaper letter lessons (step 4). (For more info on sandpaper letter lessons, check out our blog post on "Phonograms Made Easy".) If sandpaper letter lessons seem to be going okay, back up and look at sound games (step 3).

I have seen a lot of classrooms where the children are great at hearing the initial sounds in words, okay at hearing ending sounds, but aren't having much luck with middle sounds. Sound familiar?

Montessori sound games
This photo features Maureen Ryan at Zanetti Public Montessori school and her preschool students. Used with permission from Harvard Science Media Group.

So, here's the approach I learned from two of my mentors (AMI trainers Gretchen Hall and Shannon Helfrich). For all of these lessons you can either have (1) a box or basket of objects that are familiar to the child which you prepare specifically for sound games or, (2) an empty basket/tray that you use to walk about the room and collect objects that you will use for the sound game. I love this second approach as it inspires children to engage with the environment and shows them that it really is theirs to use in a multitude of ways.

January 09, 2016 by Julia Volkman

Natural Conversations

As Montessori guides, we understand how important it is to give children opportunities to speak and express themselves. At the same time, we have a very long list of lessons/presentations we would like to offer the children! Sometimes it is a true art form to manage our time as we offer presentations while still allowing the children to express themselves.

Here is a lovely example of how Maureen Ryan, an AMI trained Montessori guide teaching at the public Zanetti Montessori School, follows the children's lead and nurtures their curiosity. The children have gathered several items together to play an I Spy sound game. Before they start playing, they comment on what they have in front of them. Maureen does a wonderful job of guiding their dialogue while making space for each child to express themselves. And all this happens as a brief prelude to (rather than a side track from) the sound game lesson they are about to receive.

This was recorded for the Neuroscience & the Classroom course created by the Annenberg Foundation together with the Harvard Science Media Group (recorded in May of 2012). Only part of this clip made it into the course but the producer allowed me to publish it here with the hope that it might educate others. I hope you find it useful!

January 08, 2016 by Julia Volkman

Phonograms Made Easy

So, you've done tons of sound games and you're starting into the sandpaper letters with one of your 3-year-olds. It's your first lesson so you choose two pink letters and one blue letter all with letters that are really visually and phonetically distinct (like s, m, and i). You get to thMontessori cursive sandpaper letters phonogramse second period and the child is interested. You end the lesson while he feels successful and excited and free him to repeat the work. Well done!

Now, it's a day or two later. You're ready to give him another lesson. But this time, and forever after, you choose one pink letter (preferably one that you already showed him), one blue letter, and ONE GREEN sandpaper letter.

Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen! You can and should introduce phonograms right away when you teach any letter sound! Why? Because to the child, a phonogram is just another symbol associated with a sound. The developing brain does not see it as two things put together; a phonogram is just one new thing. It's us grown-ups that get all caught up in the "see how you take two sounds and put them together to make a new sound" thing. That is such an adult-mind thing to do! Don't fall into that let's-make-everything-wicked-complicated adult-brain trap. The child's mind is different from ours, that's why they can learn this effortlessly (assuming they can hear the sounds in our language, hence the prerequisite for sound game experience). 

October 28, 2015 by Julia Volkman