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A Year in Toddler Montessori: Worth it?

Eva just ended her first year of preschool. I haven’t talked too much about her school for safety reasons, but we’ve decided to move her to a different program for next year so I don’t mind sharing a few details. I had a hard time finding info about the kind of program we put her in, so hopefully this helps out some naive and hopelessly lost parents as they do that horrible initial preschool search.

But first, a look at the bean because she’s HUGE now.

 

Our decision to put her in school at 18 months came from a lot of different issues we were having. A large one was that Eva wasn’t socialized at all. She cried loudly whenever people came over to the house (including family members) and she wasn’t gentle with other children. There were actually a couple of very embarrassing incidents involving pushing/hitting other toddlers while we were out at the zoo, library, etc. so I got to be the horrified mom of the toddler that was likely a little sociopath in training.

Another big issue was the fact that I didn’t have much time to work unless she was asleep and her naps started to get much shorter. The result was that I was doing hours of work late at night and then waking up cranky, which made me not the best Mama. It’s very hard to explain “working” to a toddler and 18 months is a little old to expect her to just sit on the floor and play with blocks for an hour. Plus, errands were starting to take much longer and Kyle and I were constantly trading off so someone could escape to the grocery store. Having at least a couple of hours every day freed up tons of time for getting things like shopping, meetings, and doctor’s appointments done.

Finally, we had read really good things about getting kids started in preschool early. As long as the programs aren’t too academic, early preschool seems to help language development, social skills, and general independence. It also sets a good foundation for liking school down the road. So, with all of those reasons in our pocket, we started to look for preschools.

After the first week of looking, I had learned three important things about finding a preschool:

/// Not all preschools are the same and it’s usually a get-what-you-pay-for situation

/// It’s as important to look at the kids in the preschool as it is to look at the teachers: wild and crazy kids aren’t a great sign.

/// 18 months is really early to start as most toddler programs are actually just daycares and not preschools

We also might be suffering from a local phenomenon of inconsistent preschools. Preschool isn’t regulated very much here in Utah, so we saw everything from chain preschools to church preschools to preschools run in people’s basements by moms. I will say that the type of preschool was not at all an indicator for how well the preschool was run. The home-based preschools with no supervision were often clean and happy and the big chain ones were often poop-scented and chaotic. After a while, they just blended together into an exhausting mess.

Ultimately, we settled on three options: (1) the preschool based out of the church that we occasionally attend, (2) a preschool based out of a charter school recommended by friends, and (3) a private Montessori school. They all had their benefits and drawbacks. The church-based preschool was by far the cheapest, but the kids seemed a little out of control and it was staffed by women of the congregation and not people with preschool training. The charter school seemed like a very fun environment, but the toddler program was only a couple of hours per week and it was basically just playtime with other kids. We didn’t want an academic program, but we also didn’t want a completely unstructured playdate. So, we decided to go with the Montessori school.

If you aren’t familiar with Montessori, it’s education based on the idea that children go through different natural phases of learning and they learn best when provided with tools and freedom to choose which activities they want to focus on. It’s deeply rooted in early childhood learning so there’s a lot of focus on toddler activities (versus traditional programs that assume toddlers aren’t really ready to start learning yet). There aren’t structured lessons, but the classroom materials are very specific and Montessori teachers are available to help kids on an individual level and occasionally lead groups of kids in songs or stories. There’s also a major emphasis on conflict resolution and social/life skills, which is exactly what we were looking for with Eva.

The big drawback? The Montessori was out of our budget by quite a bit. It’s pretty much what you’d think of with a private school even at the preschool level. I’ve heard that the rates are quite reasonable compared to schools in San Francisco and New York City, but when you compare them to the rates for other preschools in the city, it’s about ten times as much. So, that was a tough thing for our family budget – it quickly turned into a “we can afford it if we don’t…” situation. Enrolling her in the preschool stopped any house hunting, any talk of adding a second car this year, any extra vacations, any big purchases, etc. It also put a lot of pressure on me to make sure that I was earning enough to make it worth it, since we could have just kept her at home for free and saved the tuition money.

The hardest thing of all, though, was justifying the expense for an 18-month-old who wouldn’t remember the school year when it was over. Most people don’t put their kids in preschool until they’re about four-years-old, so this wasn’t a necessary thing to spend money on. We also weren’t sure that she would even get anything out of it, whereas we could see the tangible benefit of taking her on more vacations, enrolling her in lower-cost community programs like Gymboree, buying lots of educational toys, etc.

However, we really didn’t know how to recreate the social benefits for her without the program. A few hour-long classes per week wouldn’t have the same effect because she stuck to us like glue in social situations and we don’t have enough friends with similarly aged kids to make multiple playdates per week a reality (not to mention that they would only add to my suffocated work schedule). The kids at the Montessori were in a calm, peaceful, environment that emphasized good social behavior and  the style of education was going to give her the freedom to develop a little independence. And so we closed our eyes, signed the check, and enrolled her.

After a year of toddler Montessori classes, we learned a lot. Here’s the good:

/// Montessori toddler education is pretty amazing. Within a month, Eva was much better about doing things on her own, including pouring herself a drink, getting a snack, putting her toys away, etc. Many of these developments probably had to do with her getting older, but I appreciated that the school was actively cultivating independent behavior. It’s easy for Kyle and I to get into the habit of doing things for her, so we probably were holding her back a little.

/// The social environment worked as well as we hoped it would. Eva never had an incident in which she was agressive with another student and rarely had any problems with kids being agressive towards her. I think it was key that she had an environment that was free from Kyle and me so she couldn’t fall back on us instead of being social. She learned phrases we don’t say at home like “please stop that”, “this is my work (i.e. I’m playing with this right now)”, and “shhh, too loud please”.

/// The works (activities) designed for toddlers are great and they were exactly what Eva was interested in at any given time. Lots of sorting, stacking, puzzles, etc. and nothing that passively entertained at the push of a button. There was also a lot of play with water, paint, and other messy things so Eva often came home in different clothes. I appreciated that they just let her do her thing, even when she spent two weeks dumping water onto the floor just because it was interesting to wipe it up with a rag. We don’t let her do interesting things like that at home.

/// There was a lot of communication from the school, which we appreciated. We got a daily report that included how Eva ate, how many times she went to the bathroom, what her general mood was, and what she was particularly interested in that day. The reports really helped us get her talking about school, which was fun. We also got a weekly newsletter about the school in general, including special events and reminders about days off.

/// The biggest perk of all was that Eva loved it. She cried the first two days and then never cried again unless she was crying because she didn’t want to go home. She chatted about her teachers and friends all year and loved showing off the works that she brought home. She even got a little sad sometimes on the weekend when she woke up and we told her she wasn’t going to school (which doesn’t bode well for our long summer ahead). It was the perfect way to get her associating school with something positive to look forward to.

And the bad…

/// Was it worth it financially? Ugh, that’s so hard to say. We’re 90% sure that it was but it’s really hard to put a financial figure on early education. She learned a lot, but it’s not like she’s in the other room writing economics essays right now. We also have no way of knowing if she wouldn’t have learned just as much and been just as happy if we had kept her at home. The biggest reason we feel confident that it was worth it is the dramatic change in her social self. She’s much more agreeable now, gentle with other children, and less likely to be screamy about strange people. That may not sound like much, but it makes a world of difference living with her. That being said, with the new baby on the way, that second car is looking a lot more desirable…

/// Paying a lot makes you feel like everything should be perfect, which is an unreasonable expectation for a preschool (albeit pretty hard to shake). Eva had five school-based injuries this year, ranging from being bit by a classmate to chipping her front tooth to being hospitalized after she grabbed another student’s peanut butter pretzel and had an allergic reaction. That last incident, especially, rocked my feelings about her school. Obviously I don’t feel like they ever put her in danger on purpose and they did change to a nut-free classroom after that, but the fact that it happened at all was pretty unforgettable from a mom standpoint.

/// We were really looking forward to being friends with other parents who were invested in this particular form of education, but it didn’t happen as naturally as we thought it would. Although we did meet a few parents that we became friendly with, we ended the school year not really knowing most of the parents. Most parents at the school are quite a bit older than we are and many have high-earning, long-hour jobs that didn’t leave a lot of time for socializing. We also found that many “invested” parents expressed thoughts on parenting a little too freely for our taste – lots of criticisms about how we were potty training Eva, what she was eating, what additional classes she should be enrolled in, etc.

/// Montessori is based on three-year blocks of education, so by enrolling her we were committing to a three-year plan. As I mentioned, we’re pulling her out of the Montessori for this next year so it will be interesting to see if it all slides out of her brain like they said it would.

/// Finally, for every accomplishment that happened because she was in Montessori, there was another milestone she wasn’t reaching. The ideals for Montessori education are pretty high and they reach into the home, so it felt like Eva “should” have been able to dress herself, use the potty, cut her own fruit, rinse her plate, etc. long before she actually could because she had classmates who were doing those things. I wouldn’t say that we felt pushed by the teachers or anything, but with parenthood already being a bit over-competitive I don’t think we needed that extra bit of “why can’t Eva do this?” For a philosophy that’s supposed to be so natural and relaxed, it’s surprisingly high-pressured.

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So, to wrap up a long post, it was great for her first year of school but now that she’s socialized we don’t feel like we need to spend money at the same rate. Also, although we’ve adopted many of the Montessori principals at home, we weren’t as sure about continuing the free-range, non-curricular process as she got older. Even in elementary school, there are no desks or organized lessons for Montessori students. Many studies have said that this is actually a positive thing, but Kyle and I are hoping that she has a more traditional education so it will be easier to move her between programs if we have to. So, she’s going to a new preschool with a little more structure next year. We do feel like if we see a huge difference and feel like it’s not as good for her, we’ll put her back in Montessori, but I think it will be fine. Our take: Montessori is great for toddlers, passable after that.

That is, of course, just our opinion and I know lots of people would passionately argue in favor of a full Montessori education so if you have any thoughts, feel free to share them! I’d also love to hear how other preschool experiences went if you have them, since we do have the option of just keeping her at home with the new baby next year. She’s enrolled, but we’d just lose a small deposit if we pulled her out, so speak up!

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29 Comments

  • Reply Elizabeth A.

    It was so interesting to hear your thoughts. Nick goes to daycare twice a week, but it is a preschool setting. He mostly needs the socialization, but he in no way can do a lot of things that Eva does (he’s 25 months). At this age I think the socialization is what is important, and Nick would cling to me if I took him to a class too. I’ve worked in a Montessori setting a lot, and it can be great, but it certainly isn’t the answer for all kids or families.

    June 4, 2013 at 4:55 pm
    • Reply Carly

      It’s true – some of the skills are fun but they aren’t nearly as important to us as the fact that she stopped hitting and screaming in public. It’s not like we would have done private school just because we desperately needed her to learn how to pour herself a cup of water. That’s the part that makes me wonder if the social stuff would have come just as easily in a different setting.

      June 4, 2013 at 6:27 pm
  • Reply Elizabeth A.

    Oh, and I meant to ad that as a mother who has a child with a life threatening food allergy the fact that they didn’t protect her for a peanut food item really makes me mad. That is unacceptable!

    June 4, 2013 at 5:03 pm
    • Reply Carly

      Yeah, that was pretty hard. On the one hand I appreciate that she’s a special case and they weren’t used to dealing with it, but allowing peanut butter snacks in the classroom and then not watching her was pretty negligent. They’re very lucky she got to the hospital in time.

      June 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm
      • Reply Heather

        I just wanted to add on to this… my daughter will be two in August. She has been going 2 days/week to a preschool that is accredited but part of a local church. It is a very good school and we are so happy she has gone there. In fact, we just moved a bit further away and are sad at the thought that she will not get to continue there.
        At any rate – the entire school is nut free! And while my daughter does not have any allergies to nuts, knowing that there is no risk for that if she did and for the other kids was pretty awesome.
        I really wish we could pick up our daycare and move it to our new part of town. It is great!

        June 26, 2013 at 11:06 am
        • Reply Carly

          That’s awesome! I’m actually surprised that more preschools aren’t completely nut-free. So many kids have allergies now and at 2-4 you might not have had the kids tested yet. Plus, they aren’t as great at telling people when they aren’t feeling well – scary! I hope you find a new preschool that you love just as much. 🙂

          June 26, 2013 at 7:13 pm
  • Reply Hope

    I don’t have any advice, but I do want to applaud Eva on ending her first year of school. I can’t believe it went by so fast. I feel you were barely writing a blog post about which school to enroll her in and bam it’s over and she’s moving on. I went to a free public pre-school and I know studies say that kids that go to pre-school do better and seek higher education later in life versus those that don’t. I hope she enjoys her next school as much as she did this last one. 🙂

    June 4, 2013 at 7:33 pm
    • Reply Carly

      I know, she’s ridiculously big .

      Were you in a free preschool in California? I’m really surprised that we don’t have a free preschool option here in Salt Lake, especially with all the kids and a huge focus on children. There is a program for low-income families, but nothing through the local elementary schools.

      June 5, 2013 at 10:52 am
      • Reply Hope

        Yeah right here in California. It wasn’t through the school district but like an outside enrichment program. Then our local elementary school added a “pre-kinder” eventually. All free. I’m surprised Utah doesn’t have anything like that.

        June 5, 2013 at 5:31 pm
  • Reply Bryttin

    My two cents: Social skills are high on my list for a preschool. There is a lot of time for alphabet and math a little later. Playing is how they learn! Structured and unstructured playtime is so important! Sounds like you guys are figuring out what is going to be best for Eva and that is a good feeling.

    I keep telling Jason, I was not prepared for the whole “school debate” issue when Lyv got to that age. We have a huge homeschool & charter school community where we live, so choosing anything else can cause drama (aka unsolicited parenting input from other people). I’m glad I can see what is working for my kiddos, stick to it and forget the rest. Sounds like that is where you guys are, and it’s a nice place to be!

    June 4, 2013 at 9:54 pm
    • Reply Carly

      I didn’t know that charter schools and homeschooling were dominate up in your area. I’ve been looking more into homeschooling groups because of Eva’s allergies, but Kyle is pretty solid against them because of the “homeschooled kids are weird argument”. If it wasn’t for the social issues, though, I think we might be pretty into it.

      June 5, 2013 at 10:55 am
      • Reply Amber

        Tell Kyle we’ve found that if the kids have a steady social life, it makes all the difference in the world. 🙂
        Also, we thought it just made sense to make the decision about schooling on a child-by-child basis, rather than a blanket statement of “This is what our family does”. All kids are different, and some will thrive on what others hate. Our youngest goes to public school and loves it. Our oldest went to public school thru 7th grade but hated it every day. We switched him to online and independent study for grades 8-12 and it made a world of difference in his grades and his attitude. Our middle child is completely homeschooled. There’s a good chance Calvin and Eva are going to be as different from each other as ours are. 🙂

        September 19, 2013 at 9:09 pm
  • Reply Rosemarie Treece

    When my first child was 4 months of age he stopped sleeping nicely in his basket while I worked at home for a few hours. I hired a local high school girl to come in for several hours a day as mother’s helper. She was great for a 17-year-old; played on the floor, read books, taught “life lessons” like put your toys away, don’t hit, etc. It worked better for me than preschool. A new sibling will totally shake up the dynamic of how she relates to other people. Prepare to enjoy!

    June 4, 2013 at 11:52 pm
    • Reply Carly

      I’ve really thought about it, even just for this summer. I think Eva needs to see someone besides me every day. I’m also hoping that Baby #2 won’t have as much trouble socializing, since I don’t know if we’ll spring for Montessori again the second time around.

      June 5, 2013 at 10:56 am
  • Reply J Darling/Humenay

    Great thoughts! We really struggle on the idea of schools- but it’s still far out there for us (and we may be skipping the whole pre-school aged anyway – we’ll see). The schools here in WA are…well, subpar would be gracious. But you bring up a great point that school IS as much (if not more) about the social aspect as it is about the text book knowledge. (For the record, we’re leaning towards charter…)

    June 5, 2013 at 3:02 pm
    • Reply Carly

      Honestly, I would have thought WA schools would be amazing! Don’t you guys have Bill Gates and all his education money up there in the Northwest? (PS – never too early to start looking! I wish we had done some more research a little earlier on.)

      June 5, 2013 at 4:23 pm
  • Reply Eve

    I’ve been meaning to respond to this, but was out of town and figured it’d be easier to type from a laptop! I personally did a few years of Montessori for preschool only, and then attended a traditional public school kindergarten there after. I think Montessori is great for preschool. “Play is the work of the child,” and Montessori really embraces that. The focus on independence, working at “your” level (versus what you’re ‘supposed’ to be able to do based on age alone) is great, and a lot of what’s learned is practical! However, there are definitely downfalls, and you saw them this year. The one year of Montessori was probably good for her, but I totally agree that another setting would be a good place to try. Since I taught kindergarten, I feel that as long as academics are introduced around 3-4 years old, play-based is great before that. Kindergarten has gotten really academic nation wide (most kids are expected to read by the end of Kinder-and by read, I mean an actual book without a pattern, which used to be the expectation for 1st grade!), so the pre-kindergarten (4-year-old year) really should have an academic foundation. Beyond that, it’s whatever works for you, Kyle, and Eva. You can definitely email me directly if you have any questions or thoughts, as I spend a lot of time talking about preschool choices with parents based on my Early Childhood Education background:-).

    June 9, 2013 at 9:56 am
    • Reply Carly

      Thanks, Eve! It is sort of sad how academic the early grades have gotten, especially when it doesn’t seem to be paying off for the older kids. That being said, I can’t imagine what a shock it would be to do Montessori and then suddenly switch to a public school at 2nd grade or beyond!

      June 9, 2013 at 6:04 pm
  • Reply Samantha

    I was wondering if you knew if the kids have to be potty trained to attend these schools? Our daughter is eighteen months and is in the process. We’ve contemplated the idea of a school or daycare center and have had no idea where to start. I’ve actually never heard of Montessori schools. So this post was so informative! Thank you for sharing!!

    June 13, 2013 at 5:33 am
    • Reply Carly

      I think it depends on the school, but I would say most don’t have that requirement until you get to the upper levels. (I think 3+ is pretty standard for requiring potty training.) The official Montessori stance is that 18 months is the perfect time to start potty training. The teachers at our school were very helpful, offering classes, doing regular potty breaks, and happily cleaning up multiple messes no longer how long it took the kids to get the hang of it.

      We didn’t try until Eva was 24 months, so we were 6 months behind the rest of her class. We also did everything wrong so it was a disaster and she’s still not trained. Luckily, the new preschool doesn’t require potty training until you get to the larger classes, so we can sneak by for a while.

      June 13, 2013 at 11:05 am
  • Reply Ms. Myers

    Hi there! I am a credentialed Montessori teacher and I have to say, I absolutely LOVE this post! I currents teach pre-K and K at a school in southern CA, and always like to hear insight from other people when it comes to the Montessori Philosophy. I understand this post is over a year old, and I am not trying to sway your opinion or anyone elses, BUT I do want to let you know that a “traditional” Montessori school with well-trained teachers prides itself on being academic-based. The low-key, choose-on-your-own approach is very important as well, and is used hand in hand with a very concrete-abstract based learning system. I currently have 20 3-5 year olds in my class, and I already have half of them doing addition and a quarter of them reading. (It is not even November yet!!) I should let you know that not ALL Montessori schools have been accredited by the state board, and although I understand there are often location restrictions I advise you or anyone else who may be interested in Montessori to ask the question “Do any of these teachers have a Montessori Credential?” because if not, it is not a school with the correct knowledge or education to properly teach children (no matter how young they are). Hope you and your beautiful family are doing well and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask 🙂

    October 28, 2014 at 9:22 pm
  • Reply Jill Adams

    Thank you so much for your post. This topic is something our family is grapping with right now. We have twins who are nearly 3 years old and have spent their mornings in a Montessori program. Our doctor suggested this as opposed to having them with a part-time nanny in our home (which they had for 2 years).

    Your reflections about the good/bad of the experience mirror or own. I need time to work, but we can’t afford the Montessori all-day option for both. (Half day tuition for twins is already draining us.)

    My kindergartner went to a daycare chain and did well. When the twins were born, I kept her home for a semester and then had her with the nanny. She attended a church-led preschool that met for 2 1/2 hours a day at this time.

    My daughter is doing well in kindergarten, but I actually think it’s the fact that her mom is an English professor and her dad is a math teacher. Academics have always been a part of her life. What she gained from her early childhood schooling experiences were mainly social–in both personal and academic relationships.

    And now I feel like I’m a crossroads with the twins–should I continue on with the high cost of Montessori when it’s impacting our family’s ability for any kind of extras (meals out, sports, dance, vacation, etc.)? Or, will the twins’ experience in Montessori help establish a strong foundation in learning and education that they will hold onto for the rest of their lives?

    January 24, 2015 at 1:41 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      Exactly! I hope you guys are able to find the balance that feels right for your family. I understand why your doctor would recommend the Montessori program but the cost (two times over!) seems to be so impossible for most families. Plus, like you mentioned, many of the articles stressing the importance of a good preschool program talk about how the biggest impact is seen in kids who aren’t getting as much attention or vocabulary expansion at home. Just from our experience, having moved Eva to a standard preschool for the last year and a half, we haven’t seen any difference in benefit even though we’re paying one-sixth what we were before!

      February 1, 2015 at 8:56 am
      • Reply Jill Adams

        Thank you so much for your reply back. It feels wonderful to connect with people on important topics like this–thank you!!

        February 1, 2015 at 1:44 pm
  • Reply Cathy

    They should have been watching your daughter knowing she had a peanut allergy. We had to leave the MCS school in an emergency as well because we found out our son was not safe. He was leaving the classroom and going through the school unsupervised. We then found out that his safety was compromised – possibly by one of the other children. So we withdrew immediately. I had a talk with Robyn about this. She seems to think that what children do on their own is the children’s fault or parent’s fault and not her responsibility. It is the children’s “choice” not to stay in the classroom. He had just turned 3. My last words to Robyn were to please keep an eye on the over-crowded classrooms and the safety of the children… I believe I had this conversation with her in March, 2012. So shortly before your daughter’s safety was compromised.

    June 16, 2015 at 5:17 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      I’m sorry that you also had a bad experience. During orientation I did see some small children in the hallway, but I was told that it wasn’t a problem. I always wondered – seemed like a problem to me!

      June 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm
  • Reply Priya

    Hello, A very nice post, I enjoyed reading it and related to it well. We also struggle with the decision of whether to pinch ourselves and send her to a Montessori school or whether to keep her at home and just continue with her play-based 3 day a week co-op preschool. I was curious, how did your daughter do after you pulled her out of the Montessori ? Were you and your daughter as happy with the more traditional preschool ? Thank you,

    June 17, 2015 at 2:31 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      We were actually happier with the more traditional preschool because the class size was smaller and we were really able to get to know the other kids/families.

      June 20, 2015 at 2:46 pm
  • Reply DL

    Hi Carly, what an informative post! Albeit a year later, how has your child improved in the traditional school setting? Which (school grade) level is she in now? We are also struggling with whether to keep her in Montessori due to the high expense, and less time for me to work and take care of the baby, as opposed to a 3-day full day preK at a lovely smaller-ration church preK. She comes beaming home though and prides herself in bread-cutting, painting and playing with her two best friends in class 🙂 Is it really worth it??

    October 1, 2016 at 1:21 am
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