“One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”
-- Maria Montessori
My husband and I are blessed with two daughters and feel lucky to live in Bergen County, where we are surrounded by excellent schools. However, despite having great schools all around us, we discovered that the path to the educational “perfect fit” is not always a straight and easy one.
When our eldest daughter was 18 months old, she was diagnosed with autism. I cried every day for two weeks mourning the dreams I had for her. My sweet girl lived in her own world with the inability to communicate and achieve the most basic developmental milestones like drinking from a sippy cup or waving good-bye. We discovered that she was musically and artistically gifted and drawn to technology. Our mission became finding her the right educational program that developed her basic skills along with nurturing her many talents.
Our younger daughter, however, met all of her usual developmental milestones. She learned basic life skills with ease and talked at an early age. After putting so much of our time, money, and soul into her older sister’s education, when her time came, we selected a local nursery school for her and were relieved to know that the elementary school three blocks away was highly-regarded and praised by parents.
The spring before she was set to enroll, I attended kindergarten orientation. The classrooms were brightly painted with large posters of the alphabet and signs reminding the children of classroom etiquette. It was very bright and buzzing with excitement. The children were led off to meet the teachers while the parents were given an overview of the curriculum and expectations. I believed it was going to be a wonderful adventure.
However, as we were leaving, my daughter was trembling and appeared overwhelmed. She told me that she was “scared to go to school.” How could she not want to go school? Perhaps it was just normal jitters, I assured myself. But, a few days passed, and she, again, told me that she was scared. My daughter was very shy and withdrew whenever she was overwhelmed. I wondered, did she need a different environment to address her shyness and gain confidence? I felt a little guilty. I had spent endless hours, and all of my heart, finding the perfect school for my older child. Maybe I needed to put a little more effort into finding the best fit for my younger daughter? As we learned from my eldest, finding the best education is an exhausting, but a very necessary struggle.
As I was exploring different programs, a parent in my town advised me to look into The Village School, a nearby private school that had a smaller student-teacher ratio and used a Montessori approach. I was vaguely familiar with the Montessori method, thinking it was just free-range teaching with unstructured classrooms and had a strict, unimaginative learning environment. Yet, I was curious, so I attended The Village School’s kindergarten open house.
I immediately noticed how clean and peaceful the classroom environment was, a stark contrast to the vivid public school classroom décor. Everything was organized, prepared and minimal. It gave off a calm vibe like an IKEA catalog or perfectly curated hygge Instagram post. I noticed the class pet, a lizard, at the back of the classroom. Desks were not in single file but in groups with long tables creating a communal work space. Ok, my interest was piqued, and I was intrigued.
The teachers presented their philosophy and approach based on the methodology developed by Dr. Maria Montessori. There was an emphasis on teaching grace and courtesy, encouraging leadership, community service, public speaking, independent work, time management and multi-age classrooms where older children helped younger children with lessons. Recess was twice a day, giving time for fresh air, discovery, and exercise. There were no toys or colorful instructional posters with large infographics, but hands-on materials designed to evoke curiosity, creativity and understanding of concepts.
I was most impressed to learn that Montessori education addresses the physical, intellectual, and social development of the child -- the whole child. That is exactly what my youngest needed! I knew she was intelligent, but her timid personality and lack of confidence held her back from learning. Children from pre-k to middle school learn geography, biology, Spanish, as well as world culture. The Village School has an enriching art and music program, which I was sure would motivate my daughter. I went home and signed her up.
After my younger daughter started kindergarten at The Village School, we saw her blossom from a shy, apprehensive child who was too afraid to ask questions to a confident, social kid who was eager to take on responsibility and explore her potential. She especially loved helping the younger ones with their lessons. After learning her favorite lesson of the Pink Tower, she would enthusiastically show a younger child how to carefully carry each of the pink blocks to build a tall tower. She learned to organize her belongings and prepare for the day. She sang in the kindergarten musical and invited her grandmother to attend “Special Person’s Day.” Seeing your child embrace her potential and eager to learn is truly joyous.
Perhaps the most significant success was that she started connecting with her older sister. She knew her sister had difficulty communicating and comprehending, but she started teaching her sister simple tasks like tooth brushing and counting money – just as she had helped the younger children in her classroom.
And, this sibling connection was also at the heart of our desire and need to find the right educational fit for my youngest child. The reality is, my husband and I will not live forever. We will eventually have to pass the torch to our younger daughter. She will have to learn to speak and advocate for her older sister, who cannot communi