5 Tips for Blending Your Montessori Practice and Supporting Children with Disabilities

5 Tips for Blending Your Montessori Practice and Supporting Children with Disabilities

A major hurdle for any teacher—a seasoned veteran or one just out of training—is the realization that all the tricks up your sleeve to captivate, cajole, and connect a child to work simply aren’t working. Montessori teachers are experts in the field of adapting lessons to meet the needs of individual children, but what happens if the needs of some children in the classroom are out of the scope of our teaching experience?

Sometimes the trick is to think outside the Montessori "box." While it is true Maria Montessori designed her didactic materials for children with disabilities, classrooms nowadays—children’s needs, family’s demands, and childcare regulations—are vastly different from the classrooms she observed in the early 1900s. According to the Office of Special Education Programs’ 2018 – 2019 data, 24.6% of children with disabilities between the ages of three and five attended a school day program but received the majority of services in another location.

Blended practice combines multiple, evidence-based methods for teaching children with and without disabilities into a comprehensive approach that ensures that all children in inclusive settings meet high standards (Grisham-Brown and Hemmeter 2017). Hannah Harris, co-director at Red Oaks Forest School in Lexington, KY described what blended practice looks like at her school:

“The mother of a child with cerebral palsy contacted the teacher to tell her some of the things they were doing were a little too challenging for her son. So the teacher, the director, and I met and worked on some workarounds: ways to tweak things, ways we could accommodate the child, and we came up with a proposal to share with the mom to see if she thought it would work. These were not changes that structurally changed the school; they were changes that could be made if you just had the will to do it. You know, move this activity to after we take this break instead of before it; or we will have you meet us here instead of here—pretty minor things but that makes a major difference to whether the child can participate or not. It’s an ongoing dialogue we have with families and teachers.”

A Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a theory that is built into many federal special education and inclusion guidelines and policies (McKenzie and Zascavage, 2021). In a nutshell, UDL creates a framework for teachers to use to implement best practices when designing an inclusive curriculum for individual children by emphasizing opportunities for children to experience their environment. In their book, The Inclusive Classroom: Creating A Cherished Experience Through Montessori (2021) they provide useful, creative ideas that incorporate UDL principles into the Montessori classroom such as:

  • Working alongside the child through the entire sequence of longer Practical Life activities such as shoe polishing or watering a plant.
  • Instead of 10 trips to the math shelf to retrieve the Red and Blue Number Rods, take turns or walk with the child to get the rods.
  • Rethinking the control of error in certain materials to accommodate a child with special cognitive needs.
  • Allow the child to work with a peer during the work cycle to sustain interest and stamina.

Behavior Is Communication

While it is always helpful to be quick on your feet with variations for all the different Montessori materials, there are times when the child’s behavioral needs interfere with his ability to learn. All behavior is a form of communication, and it is the teacher’s job (hopefully in conjunction with administrators, parents, guardians, and specialists!) to identify what that child is trying to say.

This flow chart outlines some familiar challenges children with special needs can face during the school day and ways the classroom teacher and peers can be supportive.*

If the behavior looks like: The child could be experiencing: You can support the child by:
Aggression towards others on the playground or when around groups of children Uncertainty about how to communicate in social situations Implementing a peer-to-peer coaching system
Fidgeting or inattentiveness during the work cycle Restlessness or fatigue Providing an intentional, structured sensory diet (in addition to the child’s freedom to move about the classroom)
Disruptive or challenging behavior during transitions Anxiety about a change in routine Creating a transition tailored to that child’s needs (could include visual aids or positive reinforcement)
Reluctance to engage with peers or destructive to other’s work Uncertainty about how to initiate or engage in play Providing a dramatic play, blocks, or loose parts area of the classroom
Trouble choosing work or using the work constructively Lack of interest or understanding of the available work choices Establishing a close relationship with the child’s family to understand what activities the child enjoys outside of school

*These tips are not meant to replace the expertise of pediatricians, professional occupational, physical, or ABA therapists.

AMS members receive unlimited access to our on demand library of professional development. Learn more about this subject by accessing our video on Strategies for Handling Challenging Behaviors in the Classroom.

About the Author

Emily Webb

Emily Webb is a research assistant in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, where she is pursuing her Masters of Science in Interdisciplinary Early Childhood Education. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Kentucky credentialed teacher educator, and co-director of Lexington Friends Preschool in Lexington, KY. She is AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood). Contact her at webbemily8865@gmail.com.

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