Sunday, December 18, 2011

How Montessori Failed Our Autistic Son

It's almost the time of year when parents start looking at alternative school options for their kids.  I know we started this research around this time, last year, ourselves.  There's so much to check out that it can become a daunting task, and one in which you may desperately desire to get an unbiased opinion about the school, teachers and IF it's going to be a good fit for your child.

Our son is high functioning on the autism spectrum.  Not Aspergers, mind you, but high functioning with a normal IQ.  He has behaviors that go hand in hand with autism, like ADHD, some sensory issues, and anxiety.  If you're the parent of a child who's on the spectrum, you'll already understand that there's no one-size fits all for our kiddos.  Just like each of them have specific needs, each of them require specific environments to help enrich their over-all education/socialization needs.

I have been homeschooling my son since Kindergarten.  Our public school options back in California meant that he would be "resourced" for most of his academics.  Meaning he would be pulled out of his mainstream classroom to a resource/special education room with other kids who had learning disabilities.  It sounds doable on one level, but with all the education budget cuts that had taken place, we were left with one special education teacher, a big resource room, and several kids who performed on a variety of levels academically.  After hearing the odds that appeared to be stacked against him in public education, we chose to home school. 

Upon moving to Tennessee, I spent countless hours researching schools, both public and private. I liked that we lived in a county that promoted inclusive education; meaning they would keep kids with special needs in the mainstream class with the help of an aide, as long as they were able to stay up with the class and not disrupt the learning environment with behaviors.  Tricky, since I knew he was going to be anxious going from a one-on-one learning mode to having 30 other kids in class.  And, like many homeschoolers already know, we're pretty laid back about needing to use the restroom, asking questions, talking, and even getting up and roaming the house if need be.  Staying on task with a kid on the spectrum many times means going out of the box with options to bring them back into a focused state.  Traditional classrooms can't function like this, obviously. 

It was at this point we started researching alternative education options.  We were told by our new therapist that if he got more socialization opportunities, it would help in his over-all social development.  Not really understanding how we would facilitate this growth from the outside looking in, we delved into looking at feasible options.  And by feasible I also mean affordable.  Let's face it, private schools, especially the ones that would have staff who knew special ed, are expensive.  I kept telling myself. "we can't put a price tag on anything that would help (our son)."  But really, there are some wonderful schools out there that would take me going back to a full time nursing job just to pay the tuition.  While that wasn't off the table, entirely, we found what we thought might be a good and affordable alternative: Montessori!

There's some good information written about the Montessori method of learning, and how it helps kids who learn differently. There are good write ups on how Montessori allows kids to learn at their own speed, never pushing them to a level of anxiety, but also taking into consideration the whole child.  It sounded lovely!  It sounded too good to be true. And for us, it was.

I'm not here to bash Montessori schools.  Just like in any other alternative education environment, there are good fits and bad fits.  I'm just writing to tell you that not all assumed good fits will actually pan out. 

First, you must know that if your child is NOT self motivated, this may not be a good learning environment for him.  There are some kids who love the idea of learning and who can't get enough knowledge.  Our son, if given the choice of playing or reading will always-without hesitation-choose playing!  Plus he's smart enough to see when teachers try to combine the two, and will (and did) balk at the whole idea!  This particular learning environment increased his anxiety, caused him to wander the halls (because that's evidently ok with this particular school) and take many 20 minute bathroom breaks.  His teacher, who supposedly came with a degree in teaching special education, handed my son off to a teacher's aide, who had NO experience with autism and who was left frazzled at the end of the day from not having the necessary skills to effectively communicate with him. 

I think what I became the most irate about, was that Montessori gives the kids about a 6 week time frame to "adjust" to their new surroundings.  That makes sense.  But what does not make sense is that they NEVER ONCE communicated with either myself or my husband about our son's personal transition, his behaviors, or their concerns.  Hey, if it "takes a village", maybe bringing in mom and dad as part of the equation might be a good idea???  Just a thought...

In the end, my son didn't like going to school and they didn't feel like they could meet his needs.  Mostly because the teacher's aide decided that she no longer wanted to work full time.  It was a disaster! Our only experience was one of resentment, anger and frustration.  Our son, who gained absolutely NO SOCIALIZATION skills from this awful experience was brought back home, and I'm once again home schooling him.  He's now a happy, well behaved child...who has many friends and playmates.

Socialization is something that is better serviced when parents can get involved anyway.  People, even mutli-degreed professionals, who tell you differently do not always have your child's best interest in mind. 

Parents, you KNOW your own child.  His gifts, his limitations, his needs and his potential.  Think very stongly before entrusting your precious child to an educator or learning institution that sells you on the fact they are a perfect fit for your child.  Maybe they are!  But pray for discernment and then trust that inner voice!


  1. Lack of communication is the thing that I struggle with from our school as well (my son has similar dx). It frustrates me to no end. My expertise in the situation should be sought out and embraced. I'm probably going to have to demand they add some kind of communication to his IEP for next semester.

  2. Children most usually need to start a Montessori program from toddler-preschool onward. The whole point of Montessori is to unlock the inner abilities, independence, sense of order, coordination, concentration, love of learning etc. Montessori believed many of the skills our children acquire (language for example) are spontaneous acquisitions based on the makeup of humans as well as being exposed to a conducive environment. In fact Dr. Montessori was very interested in the work of Itard, which proved that once a child surpassed their sensitive periods (as she called them) they may be unable to learn certain skills or it becomes very difficult. And we all know that trying to learn another language as an adult is beyond challenging where as a toddler can pick up several languages almost seamlessly. This is because they are in their sensitive period for language. She identified these sensitive periods and this is a hallmark of Montessori education. It sounds like your son was a bit older when he started this program and was not able to experience the success because he had aged through many of his sensitive periods. And trust me I know first hand because my daughter (and that is the reason I even learned about Montessori) started at the tail end of what would be considered her 3rd year of the primary level. I started as a new teacher that year and it was so evident that the other children of her age had been exposed to an environment designed to initiate love of learning, independence and most importantly concentration. I wanted to kick myself, but I didn't know any different at the time. I'll never know if (diagnosed with ADHD although I suspected and realized she was disorganized and lacked focus early on) starting her at the toddler or early primary level would have helped her channel and refine these skills. I suspect it would have. In any event she did struggle for some point, but I don't think it was that Montessori initially wasn't geared for her, I just think her peers where at a different place than she was and her personality is such that these issues of concentration, self direction, self regulation and organization would have needed that head start. And you posting this gives me that perspective (so thank you) to keep in mind when children start later into the program that depending on their inclinations Montessori will not be completely effective. Although in your defense, it should not have mattered that your son was not very self-directed toward the academic curriculum and was more interested in play (my daughter is the same way). Each Montessori teacher needs to carefully observe their students and experiment with methods until she finds learning styles that work. I would say Montessori works 90-95% of the time traditionally, but in the event we have even a 1st year toddler or primary student it is our obligation to follow the child and get to know what will work for them personally. Montessori is not just about auto-education but it is about treating the child as an individual. So each child is typically working at different subjects and skill levels based on their interests first, but directed by a teacher if needs require. I on all levels feel so badly that your son's experience was not positive or at best even effective. And honestly (as you might suspect) that has more to do with the teachers and if need be the expectation is there for them to direct this towards administration immediately if she feel she isn't meeting his needs or can't.

  3. As far as socialization I think that is just another piece of the pie. And my perspective is, that when your sons peers and even possibly those younger have attained a work cycle or routine that works for them those who haven't oftentimes are challenged by social dynamics. Once again my daughter struggled here as well. Honestly at times she was all over the place even disturbing others (of course it didn't help that my school put her in my classroom, mind you my first year of teaching) and her teachers (pushing buttons.) And there are usually a few who might struggle socially and once again that is so TOTALLY the teachers responsibility to facilitate social interaction as well as role modeling how to invite oneself, how to kindly decline invitations, peaceful conflict resolution and community building. Now typically the social graces are starting in the toddler-primary room. But if a Montessori School administration is going to accept a new student especially one that may be older or is starting mid year, it is ESSENTIAL to talk to the parents about their social/academic etc. expectations and for administration to give feedback advising the parents of the issues involving an older student and the possibilities of difficulty attaining certain goals of child developmental milestones. In reality this is inherent in any educational program. But unique to Montessori and I believe one of the few teacher training programs that really isolate these sensitive periods, we focus much of our program and philosophy on exposing compatible didactic materials to maximize the child's chances for developing that love of learning. And of course I could go on about how when they learn younger it's easier to master and move on as supposed to learning writing when you are six. etc. But all in all I truly believe Montessori would have worked had all these wheels been set in motion.
    PS: My daughter is in public school now. She still struggles with her issues, but because of the generally more chaotic nature of public schools, she doesn't stand out as much. And when you get an incompatible (Montessori or Public) teacher usually nothing is going to work. I felt her 1st & 2nd grade teacher (my colleague) was not only unsuited to guide my child, I think she is not a people person in general! So just my perspective, but I think the school let you down and not Montessori. And in my school like I suspect in that one, it's the cash that makes the decisions and not the readiness of the student for the environment. At least give the parents a clue that there may be some issues to work through and keep an eye on. In my opinion students who start later or are older and start mid year are the ones that potentially have adjustments or issues to deal with. My school will start anyone, anytime for any reason. I have a suspected autistic boy that could probably have his needs better met if 1) I had more specific directives to help him (he does have an IEP) 2) They got me specific training in working with autistic/spectrum disorder diagnosis 3) Listened earlier and took aggressive action to confirm/disprove diagnosis 4) Had a specialist at the school or have an aid with him or 5) Refer him to a school that might be able to isolate his specific needs and follow through with care!