Communicating with Young Children
the Montessori Way
In every center, caregivers care for the children and
carry out activities according to the goals of the particular
program. In the Montessori program, where everything represents
a possible opportunity for the child's learning, how the
caregivers care for the children and carry out activities
depends on how the caregivers communicate with the children.
Ideally, communicating with children the Montessori way
shows genuine appreciation and respect for the children
and follows Montessori principles.
Communicating the Montessori way involves more than
words and tone. It also involves attitude, body language
and actions responsive to the children and their needs.
For under-threes, responsive communicating helps each
child develop trust in the caregivers, feel free to
move and explore, and develop his/her own skills. How
does a caregiver communicate with children in the Montessori
The following list is not exhaustive, but gives ten
important ways of communicating in a Montessori childcare
(1) Prepare the Environment Carefully
- Prepare the environment carefully.
- Use proactive guidance strategies.
- Intervene gently, quietly, and only when
- Give a directed choice.
- Use touch often.
- Slow down.
- Speak and listen with respect.
- Use non-verbal signals for quiet and stopping.
- Make socializing an everyday experience.
- Support competence and independence.
The carefully prepared Montessori environment communicates
to the child that she/he can move and explore easily and
safely. It also communicates that it contains attractive
things that interest and challenge the child, motivating
the child to move and explore and rewarding the child's
natural curiosity. Since preparing the environment has
been covered in more detail earlier, here are just a few
examples of how you can prepare the environment to communicate
important messages to the children:
(2) Use Proactive Guidance Strategies
- Build in control of error that challenges
the children to learn to control their movements.
For example, make sure that chairs and tables
move easily if jostled.
- Make the children feel welcome and competent
to make choices for their own comfort. For example,
choose furniture that is child-size and in a
variety of shapes and sizes.
- Accept that a certain amount of untidiness
is normal when children are learning. Locate
practical life, sensory and art activities near
child-size sinks so that the children can easily
access the materials they need for cleaning.
- Ground the children in what is real before
introducing them to fantasy. Offer real or realistic
looking objects for them to work with.
- Keep use of plastic materials to a minimum.
Remember that young children learn by using
all their senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch
and smell. Plastic, being odorless and generally
hard and smooth in texture, does not offer the
range of sensory stimulation provided by natural
objects. Instead, as often as possible, present
a wide variety of real objects appealing to
all five senses. Examples: unusual vegetables
and fruits, aromatic herbs, fabrics, child-size
musical instruments, objects from nature.
Instead of deciding how the child will develop, caregivers
in a Montessori preschool act as guides for the children.
Using proactive guidance strategies rather than praise
or punishment, the caregivers communicate to the children
when they are not acting suitably, compliment them when
they are, and show the children that there are many alternatives
to unsuitable behavior. Here are a few examples of ways
you can communicate what is suitable behavior to young
- Let the children know that you notice and appreciate
their suitable behavior. When the child behaves suitably,
use quiet positive reinforcement - not loud cheering
and clapping, and not reward and punishment. The reinforcement
can be as simple as a smile or a quiet observation,
such as "I see you put that mat away, Janey"
or "Amid, you are turning those pages very carefully"
or "Ben, I hear how quietly you closed that door."
- Communicate to the children that cooperative behavior,
not competition, is the norm. Do not encourage the
children to run races or to be the first in line.
- Make every effort not to reward unsuitable behavior
with direct attention. For example, try not to react
immediately when a child screams in anger or throws
him/herself on the floor in a rage. Instead, acknowledge
the behavior and help the child identify the feelings
behind it: "I hear that you are feeling angry"
or "I see that you are crying. Are you feeling
sad?" Then calmly look for opportunities to direct
the child to more suitable behavior.
- Show the children that playing cooperatively can
be fun. Develop a repertoire of constructive cooperative
games and play them regularly with the children.
(3) Intervene Gently, Quietly, and
Only When Necessary
Another important way Montessori caregivers communicate
is by intervening gently, quietly, and only when necessary.
- Unless a child is in danger, wait before intervening
in the children's social interactions. Give the children
time to solve their own problems and settle their
- If possible, prevent unsuitable behaviors by gently
and quietly distracting or redirecting. Sometimes
just holding an interesting object or placing yourself
calmly on the floor between two infants or toddlers
and engaging with them defuses a situation. Another
strategy, sometimes referred to as "gluing,"
is to keep a child close by until you judge that he/she
is ready to make other choices. This strategy is particularly
effective for toddlers and twos who are new to the
childcare center or have been disturbing others. However,
the Montessori caregiver's goal is to guide the child
as soon as possible to something that engages the
child and allows him/her to move and work independently
of the caregiver.
- When the children are absorbed in activities, communicate
that their work is important to you as well as to
them. Intervene as little as possible. Observe the
situation before you decide when, whether and how
to intervene. For example, eighteen-month-old Marta
is trying to place the last wooden block into a box.
The box keeps sliding so that Marta can't get the
last block in. Marta's caregiver observes from a distance,
and sees both that Marta is trying to solve the problem
and that Marta is becoming frustrated. The caregiver
quietly approaches Marta and holds the box steady
so that Marta can fit in the last block. As soon as
the last block is in, Marta dumps all the blocks out
and starts fitting them in again.
- The caregiver quietly removes herself from the scene.
(4) Give a Directed Choice
As much as possible, give a child a directed choice
that offers her/him the opportunity to make a decision
without negative consequences. This way of communicating
shows the child that you have confidence in her/his
ability to make choices and gives the child experience
in expressing preferences. For example, do not ask the
child "What do you want?" (Possible answer:
"My pail from home.") or "Do you want
the red pail?" (Possible answer: "No, no,
no.") Instead, offer two choices with similarly
positive outcomes. For example, say: "Sami, do
you want the red pail or the blue pail?" or "Tina,
would you like to stay here and keep working on this
puzzle or go outside and paint rocks?"
(5) Use Touch Often
Research conducted throughout the last half of the twentieth
century has confirmed one of Dr. Montessori's ideas
about what helps children's brains develop - that for
young children, infants especially, touch is an important
form of communication. Touch in the form of cuddling
and stroking has long been used to communicate caring
and comfort to young children. Such touching has a calming
effect on most young children, allowing them to experience
the people, things and sensations around them. With
every experience, more neural pathways are established
in the child's brain.
Montessori caregivers can find many opportunities for
touching under-threes. For infants, diapering presents
an ideal opportunity to stroke the infant's body. The
caregiver could also make a special time each day -
after feeding, for example - to massage the infant's
body. Touching the infant can also provide an opportunity
for a language activity, where the caregiver names each
body part or quietly sings a body song to the infant.
For older infants, toddlers and twos, who are very physical
in their relationship with the world, touch can also
be a communication of caring and comfort. A toddler
may climb up into a caregiver's lap to look at a book
and a two-year-old may lean against a caregiver's leg
However, caregivers need to remember that not all young
children welcome and respond to touch in the same way.
To use touch as an effective way of communicating, the
caregiver approaches gently and quietly, observes the
child's reactions to gentle touch, and learns each child's
preferences. For example, an infant may dislike being
undressed and may prefer being wrapped in a blanket
while being massaged, and a two-year-old may like having
his back rubbed while he goes to sleep.
(6) Slow Down
Caregivers working with under-threes have already developed
fine and gross motor skills, language, cognition, and
many other skills. Caregivers can move and think quickly
and efficiently. Under-threes are just starting to develop
all of these skills. To communicate to the children
that the center is truly focused on them and their needs,
it is important for Montessori caregivers to adjust
their rhythm to the children's rhythm. Moving slowly
and carefully both slows the caregiver to the pace of
the children, who tend to look at and examine everything,
and models careful and safe movement for everyone in
the childcare environment. Another way caregivers can
communicate careful and safe movement is by showing
the children how to carry items carefully - one at a
time, in both hands - and by always carrying items that
(7) Speak and Listen with Respect
Speaking and listening with respect is an important
part of communicating with children the Montessori way.
Just as with intervening, the respectful caregiver observes
and listens before deciding what to say, how to say
it - or whether to say anything at all. Dr. Montessori
felt that children most often forget what they hear
and that having to listen to someone can disrupt a child's
concentration. Montessori caregivers learn to stay back
quietly and let the child have his/her own experience
as much as possible. Here are some ways caregivers can
show respect when they are speaking or listening to
- Always speak slowly, quietly and clearly. One of
the unique characteristics of the Montessori center
is that adult voices are well in the background, not
in the foreground.
- Bend or crouch down to look into the child's eyes
while you are talking or listening to the child.
- Invite rather than command. Speak to the children
as courteously as you would speak to a valued adult,
using such words and phrases as "Please,"
"Thank you," and "May I?"
- Use correct words for things, not slang words or
"baby talk." Remember that most toddlers
and twos acquiring language skills love using "big
words" and are interested in learning them.
- Feed an infant with very little speaking, so that
the infant can simply focus on the pleasure of being
held and receiving nourishment.
- Speak quietly and lovingly to the child especially
when the child is showing unsuitable behavior or has
made a mistake. Your quiet, loving attitude will influence
the child to behave in the same way and not react
with anger, fear or frustration.
- Listen without interruption when the child is talking.
- Let the child speak for her/himself. Try not to
fill the child's world with your words.
- Approach a child from the front, not from behind.
If you need to wipe a nose or change a diaper, tell
the child quietly what you're going to do.
- Invite a child to participate in an activity, but
do not force or cajole.
- Unless the situation is dangerous, ask the child
for permission to take or move something the child
is handling. Saying "May I?" shows respect
for the child, the child's work and the child's personal
- With the exception of language activities, present
activities with as few words as possible so that the
child can focus on the materials and the task.
- Similarly, if a child is concentrating on an activity,
stay back quietly until the child is clearly finished
or seeks out your attention.
(8) Use Non-verbal Signals for Quiet
In case of emergency or sudden need, it is sometimes
necessary to communicate quickly with the children in
a center. Most Montessori caregivers work out non-verbal
signals for quiet and for stopping. These signals should
not be the same as the transition cues used to signal
changes in the daily schedule, should not be easily
confused with normal body movements, and should be used
only when needed. The signal often used for quiet in
a Montessori center is to stand still, without speaking,
and hold out your arms or hands with the palms up.
The signal used for stopping is usually more dramatic
because it needs to get the attention of the children
quickly. For example, on a park outing, two-year-old
Kern picks up a sharp stick and starts to run with it.
His caregiver claps her hands loudly twice. Because
the caregiver has presented lessons showing that two
loud claps always mean "Stop now" and has
given the children opportunities to practice stopping
quickly in body movement activities, Kern stops.
(9) Make Socializing an Everyday
One of the major goals of the Montessori program is
that each child learn and practice social skills. Montessori
caregivers make socializing - interacting with others
and practicing social skills - an everyday experience.
Here are some ways caregivers can help children learn
to socialize, from the time they first arrive in the
- Greet each child when he/she arrives and welcome
them into the center. A child who feels welcomed as
a valuable and loved member of a community is more
likely to seek out others and interact with them.
- Address each child by name.
- Spend time every day talking with each child in
- With infants, introduce socialization into the active
times when they are not eating or sleeping. For example,
hold the infant on your lap while you read a story
to a toddler.
" With toddlers and twos, introduce social and
language skills by initiating simple conversations.
One way of starting a conversation is by commenting
neutrally on something the child is wearing. For example,
thirty-month-old Jamal's caregiver comments: "I
see you are wearing red shorts, Jamal." Jamal
might respond: "Yes, these are my favorite shorts.
My grandpa gave them to me."
- Give older toddlers and twos real-life opportunities
to practice the manners and social skills they have
learned. For example, at open house or parents' day,
invite the older twos to greet people at the door,
show where coats go, and say goodbye to people leaving.
- At every age level, present activities that give
the children practice in recognizing and naming emotions.
- For older twos, use group time as an opportunity
for developing and practicing social skills. For example,
introduce an activity the children can do together,
such as taking turns shaking a jar of whipping cream
to make butter.
(10) Support Competence and Independence
Communicating the Montessori way also means acknowledging
and encouraging competence and independence in the children.
In the process, the children will feel that they are
important and needed members of the childcare center
community. The Montessori caregiver gives the children
as many opportunities as possible every day to develop
competence and independence. Here are some examples:
- Do not separate the practical life routines of the
center from the children, but involve the children
in caring for their physical environment. For example,
walking toddlers and older infants can set the table
for lunch, scrape their own plates, and sort plates,
glasses and cutlery into bins for washing.
- Acknowledge each child's developing abilities and
skills. As much as possible, do not carry or transport
children who can walk by themselves. This means planning
walks and outings that are not long and complex, but
suit young children's pace and allow ample time for
- Present each activity as a whole that involves the
child in setting up and putting away. Take an infant
with you as you return materials to their shelves.
Give the toddler something to carry as you set up
an activity. Invite the two-year-old to wash the paintbrushes
after an art activity. When the children experience
setting up and putting away as part of every activity,
they will gradually begin setting up and putting away
as part of every activity they do.
- Practice competent handling of fragile or breakable
objects. For children new to the program, or for children
just becoming coordinated enough to hold objects,
use group time to practice handling and passing around
first ordinary objects such as utensils, bowls and
baskets, then more fragile objects such as a tiny
drinking glass, a fresh flower, or a small box made
- As soon as the infant can walk or stand for long
periods, diaper with the child standing up. To help
the child become conscious of personal needs, invite
him/her to bring you a diaper when the need arises.
- When diapering a child standing up, gradually encourage
the child to take over much of the routine. For example,
start by pulling gently downward on the child's pants.
If the child starts to pull down the pants, gently
remove your hand and comment on the child's action.
For example, say: "I see that you are pulling
down your own pants, Colin. You got them down to your
ankles today." Encourage the child to help put
on the fresh diaper.
An important part of supporting competence and independence
is knowing when a child is ready to move on. Sometimes
caregivers become attached to children who have become
competent and independent and are well tuned to the
rhythms of the childcare environment. These children
are often leaders or helpers in the center. The younger
children look up to them, watch them and learn from
them. The presence of these children makes things easier
for the caregivers and the other children.
Montessori caregivers need to develop criteria for
judging when a child is ready to move on to another
level in the childcare program, and watch for them.
With regular observations, the caregivers stay aware
of each child's needs, develop an awareness of when
the child is ready - or close to ready - to move on,
and help the child move ahead confidently and happily.
How do caregivers know when a child is ready to move
on? Let's say that in your center, although there is
much overlap and interaction between sections, the space
is divided into two sections - one for infants and one
for toddlers and twos. Usually, infants are moved to
the toddlers and twos section when they reach one year
An infant who has developed some coordination and a
degree of independence may be ready to move on to the
toddlers and twos area even if he/she is not yet a year
old. What can you watch for? Usually such an infant
can sit unsupported, crawl or move wherever she/he wants
to go, drink out of a cup and feed herself/himself with
a spoon. The infant has also become competent at most
of the activities presented to infants in your center.
Sometimes infants causing disruptions in the infants
area are showing that they are ready for more challenging
The same applies to judging when a two-year-old is ready
to move on to a Montessori preschool for three- to six-year-olds.
Most preschool teachers agree that whether or not you
feel the child is emotionally or physically ready, it
is best to move the child into preschool when he/she
However, many twos who have been participating in a
Montessori program for infants, toddlers and twos are
ready to move into a preschool before their third birthdays.
What can you watch for? Usually these children have
developed competence and independence in many ways.
For example, they can set and clean a table, sweep a
floor, dress themselves, put things away without being
asked, know where everything is kept, work for periods
of time on their own and have worked through many of
the presented activities for their age group. Many teachers
find that some two-year-olds who are ready to move on
become disrupting forces in the center. It may be increasingly
difficult to engage them in activities. They may be
acting out frustration. For these children, being moved
into a new setting with new challenges and older children
to emulate often solves such problems.