Montessori Terminology

Every field has nomenclature that is particular to the descriptions of that field. The same is true, of course, for the Montessori world.  Let’s take some time to examine words and phrases that Dr. Maria Montessori coined.

Normalization: This strange word (my spell checker doesn’t like it) essentially means to be in complete harmony with your environment. Dr. Montessori felt that this was perhaps her most important discovery – that children returned to a ‘normal’ state through work*.


Mrs. Zegers visits Casa dei Bambini – Dr. Montessori’s first school.

As part of her experiment at the first Casa Dei Bambini (see photograph on left), she placed certain materials in the classroom and made notations as to the children’s behaviors. She found that children loved to work!

*Note: In addition to activities such as sweeping the floor, Montessorians use the word ‘work’ for any learning type of activity, such as a puzzle.

How different our little ones are compared to us! We work and we get tired. They work and are refreshed!  We appreciate help. They want to do it by themselves!  We would rather play. They would rather work! We work and receive an extrinsic reward. They work and receive an intrinsic reward!  They seek out work and our whole classroom environment is based on this simple fact!!

Back to ‘normalization’; When and how does normalization occur? It can appear gradually or occur all of a sudden. In any given child, it follows invariably upon a spell of deep concentration on some activity or work. It is reinforced each time that the child has opportunity to work uninterrupted. Again, our environment is set up based on the value of deep concentration as well as the child’s need to master certain skills. Our ‘works’ are very interesting to the different levels of development of the young child. They WANT to work and they WANT to master skills. There is such inner satisfaction in these masteries and it is through these opportunities for ‘work’ that a child becomes normalized.

No matter how wonderful we Montessorians think we are – LOL – normalization is not something that the teacher does, but it is a natural process that develops spontaneously in the human being! In order to develop his mind a child must have objects in his environment which he can hear and see. He must develop himself through his movements, through the work of his hands. He has need of objects with which he can work that provide motivation for his activity. It’s never us that normalize a child. It’s the work!

3-11How do you know if your child is normalized? He has the ability to concentrate well, a sense of personal dignity, can be independent, is self-motivated, has a love of order, enjoys repetition, has the ability to work alone, is self-disciplined, has a desire for freedom of choice, takes pleasure and fulfillment in work for its own sake, is obedient, preference for work over play and has a real love of learning. That’s quite a list and if your child is not all the way there yet – don’t worry! That’s what we do! We work with you, as a team to get there!

In Dr. Montessori’s old Italian and it’s translations – some of her quotes come out a bit funny and not quite politically correct for today. I particularly like this one: ‘Work’ could straighten out defective children!

Control of Error: Maria Montessori observed that given the opportunity, children would rather correct themselves than depend on an adult to do it for them. She believed that making mistakes was a natural part of learning and that developing self-correction skills helped develop confidence and decision-making skills. How many of you have noticed this same thing? While this may not be news to you, 100 years ago – this was unheard of! The teachers did the teaching – and by teaching I mean – somehow getting their information into your brain!

6-3-2It is important to emphasize here that a mistake really is just a piece of information, correct? ‘Oh, this piece doesn’t fit here because it is not big enough. I can feel that it is too wiggly.’ Mistakes help us learn! And it is only in correcting our defects (mistakes) that we can improve ourselves (MM). It’s a bit sad that our society often considers mistakes a ‘bad thing’. It seems negative to ‘correct mistakes’ that we or our children make. Therein, is the wonder of an activity or toy that lets the children correct and perfect using all of the bits of information that he acquires. No adult needs to say, ‘Oops, that piece doesn’t really go there’. No matter how friendly we are (and our school has some of the best!), it still can be perceived as a negative correction.

In a Montessori classroom you will find that most of the materials incorporate a control of error. Visible and tangible checks are built right into the materials. Sometimes it’s a matter of fit, sometimes purely visual, sometimes we code the material with a color dot system, sometimes it’s one-to-one correspondence, sometimes it’s auditory, sometimes it’s a logical consequence, sometimes it’s peer motivated, sometimes it’s for safety, etc. This allows the child use his reasoning abilities and promotes independence. It allows quick feedback (remember, a mistake is just information) for the child by allowing him to self-correct. The responsibility for learning rests with the learner. ‘If I can correct for myself, I won’t have to seek the help of someone else.’

What can you take away from this? Look at your child’s toys. Watch for ones that allow for self-correction and then – step back and let the material do the teaching!

Freedom & Structure:  Freedom and structure are considered to be the two fundamental poles of Montessori education. Which came first? That is a good question! There is a definite interplay between the two. Montessori – when done well – is a delicate balance of freedom and structure or freedom within limits. Structure and organization provide the parameters of freedom.

You could also say that the freedom and liberty of the child in a Montessori classroom come about through appreciating the sense of order that is inherent in our classrooms (see below). Here’s how we are ‘structured’:

1) The order (schedule) that things happen. (shoes off, circle time, work time, story time, shoes on)

2) Where the work can be found (language, math, sensorial, etc) (and thus, where the work should be put away)

3) Behavioral expectations – you can’t hurt the people and you can’t hurt the work. Or more positively stated: Take care  of the living things and take care of the materials and the environment.

“The liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest of the group.” MM

Here are the reasons we are structured:

1) A well prepared Montessori environment (including child sized furniture) is designed for the child’s independence and leads to the child’s success, which leads to freedom.

2) Orderly well prepared environments give the child a sense of security. When they feel secure they take ownership and become more active participants.

3) The more orderly the environment the clearer the child will understand his limits and the easier it is for him to freely explore.

Dr. Montessori says (various quotes compiled here to make a point):

1) “The child is allowed to coordinate his movements and to collect impressions through his senses.”

2) “They are ‘free’ in their work and in all actions which are not of a disturbing kind.”

3) “We, then, call a child ‘disciplined’ when he is master of himself and has constructed his personality in such a way that he can regulate his own conduct.”

AND (a slightly different point)

4) “He who is served (not free, but doted on) is limited.”

It could be noted here that with freedom comes responsibility. For example, along with the ‘freedom to move around the classroom at will’ comes the responsibility of keeping oneself and others safe. Along with the ‘freedom to choose materials at will’, the child needs to put it back clean and beautiful in its rightful place.

I have long believed that the reason we have SO few discipline problems in a Montessori classroom is because each child innately comes to realize that if he works within the structure (which is simple) – he and his friends can be free and content. They feel secure and successful! What a life lesson this is! It really is the beginning of experiencing and understanding respect and its resulting peace!

Intrinsic Motivation/Rewards: Montessori education specifically excludes practices of reward and punishment because Dr. Montessori observed that children prefer to work for the intrinsic motivation and reward. She writes that “Like others, I had believed that it was necessary to encourage a child by means of some exterior reward that would flatter his baser sentiments. I was astonished when I learned that a child who is permitted to educate himself really gives up these lower instincts.” She saw early on that these rewards, even verbal praise, were unnecessary and even could interfere with the children’s concentration.

One example of an event that led her to reject rewards and punishments in her methodology, occurred in her first school, Casa dei Bambini. Dr. Montessori wanted to encourage children that were beginning to form words with the sandpaper letters to try and read even more words. She made some cards with words on them and figured that she would need to encourage this ‘difficult’ task with toys as a reward. (Remember that she was doing a scientific experiment and was at this point completely amazed that these poor, disadvantaged children were learning to read!)  To her great surprise the children showed no interest in the toys, but instead asked and begged for more and more words to read!

Intrinsic motivation is an internal, long lasting phenomena. How does it come about? As I wrote above, children love to ‘work’. It could even be said that their ‘work’ is to learn! It is through their work that they become satisfied with themselves. Uninterrupted concentration is vital to this process. Whenever you see your child concentrating – try very hard not to interrupt him – not even to say ‘good job’!

3-6I love this picture of Eleanor. The photographer captured the very moment at which she was completely satisfied with the work that she had just finished. Look closely and you can see her smile! She never once looked up for adult approval. AND we didn’t give it to her!  It was NOT necessary. She had such an inner satisfaction for her accomplishment.

When a child works and/or behaves appropriately for the inner reward, he can experience being good because it feels good to be good! When a child learns to work for adult approval, he doesn’t get the chance to find his own soul. Let’s apply this further. Think here for a moment about your responses for an art piece that your child brings home from school; Should you say, “I like your picture!” or “You used a lot of red paint. Did you use a big or a small brush?”

Another way to think about this, and perhaps coach yourself, is to try to use factual statements when talking to your child, rather than value statements. Try not to place your adult values, such as ‘I like’ or ‘great job’ or ‘that’s really beautiful’ but use comments and questions to turn the ‘reward’ back on the child.

“Did it feel good to finish?”

“You have a big smile on your face about this work.”

“You wrote down a list of words. Do you want to read them to me?”

“How did you make this drawing? With markers or pencils?”

“Your numbers are written down perfectly. You now know how to make 6’s that go the right way.”

It’s hard – I’ll admit – I still find myself, after teaching for 20 some years, saying ‘good job’ and it certainly is ok to SOMEtimes let your appreciation show. However, it’s still a good idea to put some effort into this!

I have long believed that our society has gone a bit overboard on the whole ‘positive reinforcements’ thing. You may agree. While it is probably better to say “Please walk” instead of “Don’t run”, we do NOT need to give stickers and toys and ‘good job, honey’s’ for every good thing that our children do. I remember a somewhat older child telling me that if he ate dirt, his mom would say “I like the way you ate that dirt, honey”! Sheeeesh! Think about this and as always, please email with questions or comments! (Don’t write and tell me ‘good job on the article’ – LOL!)

A closing thought for you on this subject: Dr. Montessori believed that the children’s rejection of rewards was in part an expression of inner dignity. These ‘interferences’ led her to establishing classrooms in which rewards and evaluations reside in the activity, not in the teacher.

Sense of Order:  Dr. Montessori came to the education world as a physician that was doing scientific experiments concerning the development of children. Contrary to the thinking of the day (and even today, really) she discovered that children liked: repetition of exercises, good manners, free choice of their activities and order in their environments. What they rejected were: rewards and punishments, a teacher’s desk, examinations, lessons in common, toys and sweets, messy rooms! Let’s focus for a few minutes on that ‘sense of order’!

Dr Montessori says, “…nature endows a child with a sensitiveness to order. It is an inner sense that distinguishes the relationships between various objects rather than the objects themselves. Order is one of the needs of life which, when it is satisfied, produces a real happiness”

The young child possesses a love of order that is central to their learning successes. This sensitive period for order starts from birth and peaks at 18 months to 2.5 years and prolongs to age five. It is characterized by a desire for consistency and repetition. There exists a passionate love for established routines and you may certainly notice when a child seems disturbed by disorder. (The “terrible twos” are often exaggerated reactions to small disruptions in order that may or may not be perceived by adults.) The Montessori environment builds on this ‘sense of order’ by carefully setting a place for everything. The child will recognize the place for each object in relation to its environment and will remember where each thing should be. This awareness will allow the child to feel secure within his environment and will enable him to be more independent.

Making connections of similar qualities among objects and why they go together (ex: the water works go in the Practical Life area) is an important skill for adult thinking. Some examples from home life could be; ‘These are all the items we need to bake a cake’, ‘these are all the materials we need to build a block house’, ‘this is how to hold a violin’, ‘this is how we blow our nose’. (btw – Adults who lack critical thinking skills also do not have an ability to classify objects effectively.) It is the child’s innate sense for finding and creating order that helps build later logical thinking. As adults, we sometimes disrupt a child’s sense of order by being unaware of this order, by changing the child’s environment (which includes people, nature and ideas, as well as objects) and by not giving the child enough time to explore and orient to the surrounding world. For the child with a strong sense of order, changing a seemingly insignificant object in the child’s environment may create great anxiety. Rearranging the dining room furniture might provoke crying in a two-year-old. Dad shaving off his beard may be enough to put a three-year-old out of sorts. Being taken from event to event or being distracted from exploration through television or computer usage are a few of the many ways we disrupt our children’s sense of order. When we are aware of the child’s sense of order we can be on the lookout for behavioral changes and try to connect them to changes in the child’s surroundings. Help your child’s natural development by being aware of the importance of a child’s innate love of order.

This is not to say that routines or classroom set-up or ways of doing things can’t change. (I offer GREAT respect for our military families in this regard.) However, it does mean that change should be carefully considered. Is this change for the good of the children? If so, it should be done carefully (preparing the child in advance) and its after-effects should be observed to ensure that it is of benefit to the children.

One more thing to consider briefly – think of the ‘sense of order’ as not only having to do with ‘things’ but also with ‘time’. Routine, such as a bedtime routine, is just as important for the young ones. Our class time schedule is always the same. Simple! Try to set up daily routines at home, too!

While this all may seem quite structured – you’re right, it is! BUT, it is within this structure that children can be free!

Diana C Zegers

Montessori Materials