Montessori for Children with Learning Differences

Montessori Life, Spring 2017

By Joyce Pickering

In 1950, Dr. Maria Montessori gave a lecture at the University for Foreigners, in Perugia, Italy, in which she drew a diagram of the four planes of development (Grazzini, 1988). The triangles represent Montessori’s fundamental psychological theory, with each plane representing one of the sensitive periods of development.

“Montessori education is geared to peaks and valleys of human formation.” Dr. Montessori suggested we “divide education  into  planes  and  each  of  these  should correspond to the phase the developing individual goes through”.

This diagram represents the progression of typical development from birth to age 24. Montessori, who had worked with children with varying exceptionalities, at the Orthophrenic School, in Rome, recognized that children challenged in learning had what she referred to as an unequal development. As we look at the four planes for the typical child, we might envision all of the lines from birth to age 24 as wavy lines, indicating this unequal development.

In a 1988 lecture, Dr. Sylvia Richardson suggested that to identify children at risk for learning differences with the goal of early intervention, the teacher should observe the development of coordination, language, attention, and perception. All of these areas can be clearly observed in the Montessori classroom. In particular, the Sensorial curriculum helps the teacher to observe the child’s perceptual development and is diagnostic of uneven development.

In The Absorbent Mind, Montessori (1967) also described the early development of children between birth and 3 years of age as proceeding along different tracks.

For example, coordination might be developing typically, while language and speech may show delays of disorder and attention and perception may be below average for typical development. There could be any combination of these unequally developing areas. It is important that these areas, which will contribute to cognitive ability and adaptive ability, develop evenly, because in the period between 3 and 6 years, Montessori indicates these important skills will be integrated, and if there is uneven development, it hinders the integration of these skills to assist the child in learning. This creates a domino effect, in which unequal early development and integration of these skills affect all of the planes that follow the first, hence contributing to learning differences.

Working from this premise, Montessori (along with French physicians Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin) explored ways that education could help minimize the differences between the typically developing child and the child who experiences learning and attention differences. This early work in sensory education led to the comprehensive multisensory curriculum of the Montessori Method. While the Method helps all children, it is critical to the progress of children who learn differently—including children with dyslexia, ADHD, communication disorders, intellectual deficiencies, and autism. I will briefly describe these learning differences and then discuss how the Montessori curriculum can be used with children with these differences.

The research of Dr. Gordon Sherman, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, has shown that the child with the specific reading disorder of dyslexia has a brain that is significantly different from the typical reader—not damaged or abnormal, just different (Sherman & Cowen, 2003). Using MRI studies of individuals with dyslexia reading, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, of the Yale University School of Medicine (2003), has found that the dyslexic brain is processing letters and sounds into words as the beginning reader does rather than as the typical reader, who, becoming fluent, primarily uses the word form area of the brain. Even in adulthood, the individual with dyslexia does not process visual and auditory information as the typical reader does.

Studies of ADHD indicate that this difference is a chronic neurobiological condition in which the person has difficulty with sustained attention and impulse control. Persons with ADHD have a physical, neurological challenge caused by a lack of release of neurotransmitters in the brain that assist with arousal and ability to concentrate and control impulses. Difficulty with executive function is noted in children with ADHD—they have trouble organizing and prioritizing.

For children with communication disorders, including speech and language development difficulties, we see differences in articulation, fluency of speech, language comprehension, and expression. The brain is not processing auditory information accurately or performing the task of bringing meaning to the words that are heard.

Students on the autism spectrum have challenges with oral language development and social skill development. Children with intellectual deficiency have low average mental ability to severe deficiency in intellectual development.

Each of the difficulties listed above can be found individually or in combination, preventing a student from learning as a typically developing student does.

To help the child who learns differently, when the usual presentation is not helping a student, Montessori educators can use several techniques:

  • reduce the difficulty of an activity
  • use more tactile-kinesthetic input
  • create control charts
  • focus on the development of oral language
  • increase the structure for the child with impulse control difficulties, assuming the necessity to help the ADHD child to sustain attention, teaching how to make work choices and how to develop a cycle of work
  • combine Multisensory Structured Language techniques with Montessori Language presentations.

Examples of these techniques are given below.

Practical Life:

  • Use fewer dry materials in initial pouring activities (for example, 5 large beans versus many grains of rice) and less liquid.
  • Note: If the child is not holding the pitcher correctly, the lesson may have to become how to hold a pitcher and work up to pouring.
  • Dressing Frames: lesson reduced to a first presentation of untying, unbuttoning, unbuckling, etc., with each step presented in separate lessons working toward the final step of mastering the direct purpose of the lesson
  • Cutting bananas and bread before cutting more solid foods, like carrots
  • Attaching language to the name of the presentation and all of the materials used in the lesson that is at the level of the child’s oral language development


  • Pink Tower: Reduce the number of cubes to use every other cube, beginning with the largest, thereby increasing the discrimination to a 2 cm difference. Use more tactile kinesthetic exploration of each cube, if necessary, to show the child how to make the choice; arrange the cubes in random order on the mat and say “find the big one.” Repeat this for the first 3 cubes. After the third cube, most children perceive how the choice is being made to build the cubes in gradation. This activity varies in 3 dimensions— height, width, and depth.
  • Brown Prisms (Brown Stairs): Use the same procedures as described for the Pink Tower. This activity varies in 2 dimensions—height and width.
  • Red Rods: Use the same procedures as described for the Pink Tower. It may be necessary to create a control chart for the child to practice building the rods from long to short, until he perceives the difference, which in this activity varies only by one dimension—length.
  • Knobless Cylinders: Use the same procedures as described for the Pink Tower.
  • Geometric Solids and Geometric Cabinet: Demonstrate to the child as you present the use of the senses of feel (tactile and kinesthetic), which will assist visual perception.
  • Color Box III: Reduce the number of shades to be discriminated between, beginning with 3 dark, 3 lighter, and 3 lightest. Increase the range of discrimination until the child can perceive the differences in all 7 shades. A control chart can also be used.
  • Memory Bag: Begin the year with objects in the bag that are made of different materials and are distinctly different in shape. During the year, increase the difficulty by making all of the objects of the same material, such as wood, and increase the similarity of the shapes of the objects. With all Sensorial activities, add as much language to the presentation as possible (after the initial silent presentation). Naming each object (e.g., big, little; large, small; larger, smaller; largest, smallest) expands the child’s vocabulary. As the child is able, add describing words to each activity (e.g., heavy, light, rough, smooth, and the names of colors).


  • As with the Sensorial materials, add the sense of feel, both tactile and kinesthetic, to the presentation of each Math material. This assists the child whose visual perception is faulty.
  • Number Rods: As language is attached after the initial presentation, each rod should be touched and counted. For example, perceptually the 2 rod is not actually two things, but one rod painted in two different colors to represent the quantity 2. If, during the presentation, the teacher says, “This is 2,” and touches and counts, “1, 2,” the child’s perception may be more accurate. This is true for all rods from 2 to 10.
  • Spindle Box: When presenting, tap the rod into the palm of the other hand. This increases the sense of feel and assists the child when he imitates this movement in one-to-one correspondence in counting. If the child or other children in the room are sensitive to the sound of the rods dropping into the box, line the number slots with felt.
  • Cards and Counters: If the child shows confusion with all 10 numerals and counters, reduce the number to 5 and build up to 10 as the child indicates he can accomplish the work. Use this activity in the Elementary program, and expand it to the realization that all numbers that end in 2 are even, including 12, 22, 102, 1002, etc.
  • For math functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division), children with learning differences usually need more repetition. It is very important to attach language to each math function: Adding is putting amounts together, subtraction is taking an amount from a larger amount, multiplication is a fast way of adding, and division is a way to allot equal amounts to each person. All of these words are abstract and the Montessori Math materials provide ways to help make them more concrete and hence more understandable.
  • Typically developing students seem to pick up math facts by using the Golden Beads for the math functions, along with the addition and subtraction strip boards. Those with visual and auditory processing difficulty have more challenges in learning these facts. In addition to manipulatives, practice writing number facts on a textured surface, thus using four VAKT channels (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile) to help the student store information in memory. Various VAKT strategies include writing on the textured side of an 8" x 11" piece of Masonite board, writing in a sand tray, writing on a flat surface covered with shaving cream, and skywriting. Skywriting entails using the nondominant hand placed on the shoulder of the dominant hand while the student traces the letter or word in the air with a large arm movement.
  • Making transitions from the Golden Beads to a more abstract work, like the Small Bead Frame, in which color represents quantity, usually takes more time and practice.


  • Since oral language skills may be a weakness for many students with learning differences, it is usually necessary to add a program of oral language development assessment and instruction to enhance vocabulary and verbal expression. The MACAR Oral Language Development Manual is one such program (Pickering, 1976).
  • Written language, which includes reading, spelling, composition, and handwriting, requires the combination of Montessori language materials and the therapeutic techniques of a multisensory structured language (MSL) approach (e.g., Orton-Gillingham, Sequential English Education (SEE), Slingerland, Spalding, or Wilson Language).
  • Use additional phonological awareness shelf activities (pat out each sound in a word; place a small floral stone or disk on a picture card for each sound in a word).
  • Present the Sandpaper Letters in the sequence taught in the therapeutic program.
  • Use the decoding pattern of blending the beginning sound to the word family of short and long vowel word family words. In this manner of decoding, the student is blending two units of sound rather than three or more, which is more difficult.
  • Reduce the difficulty of word building by reducing the number of letters used and not presenting the full tray, which can be overwhelming to students with processing difficulties. For example, use a set of 5 pictures (cat, hat, sat, mat, bat) and just the letters needed to build the words (5 As, 5 Ts, and one each of C, H, S, M, and B). Students with processing challenges have difficulty seeing the patterns in words. These sets are put together by word family, such as at, ap, ab, an, ag, etc. The same types of sets are made for the other short vowel word families. After mastery of the short vowel patterns, long vowel word families may be used in a similar fashion.
  • Montessori’s excellent sequence of language materials are multisensory and sequential. The MSL program adds more detail to the strategies that work for students who learn typically in order to adapt them for those who learn differently. As the student proceeds to more irregularities of language, Montessori color-coded works provide for these higher-level language skills to increase accurate reading and spelling. Comprehension is embedded in the early word building by attaching meaning through the use of pictures for each word that is built.
  • Use linguistic readers to practice the patterns the student is learning. Decoding and comprehension are included in these readers and subsequent readers as they master more patterns of the language.
  • Handwriting is carefully taught by beginning with prewriting activities, including the Metal Insets. The formation of each letter is taught, preferably in cursive, beginning with the Sandpaper Letters. Students with learning differences experience spatial and directionality confusions. Cursive with letters connected into words and spaces between the words is an assist to these students. There are fewer reversals noted in cursive and the writing is more legible. There is no difference in the motoric requirements for one handwriting system over another. Students learning to write in cursive do not have a problem reading print.
  • Montessori grammar is very helpful for all children, including those with learning differences. The grammar symbols help make a very abstract concept— parts of speech—more concrete. Grammar boxes and sentence analysis are organized in a way for the student to understand the structure of the language.

 For students of all ages—Early Childhood through college—the strategies described here can be applied to the level of the concepts being taught. Developmental stage, rather than chronological age, is the critical factor in helping a child learn. The art of teaching is to match the level of the lesson to the student’s individual developmental stage using the Montessori Method and therapeutic strategies, as necessary, to enhance the educational progress of the student.