Guiding children: Reform ourselves to reform education

“The educator must be as one inspired by a deep worship of life, and must through this reverence respect … the development of the child’s life .…”[1]

On January 6, 2017, we celebrated the 110th anniversary of the opening of the first Montessori school. What’s remarkable is that few educational movements persist this long, and even fewer contribute as effectively to today’s urgent need to reform education and school practice. Successful living in our digitized world requires a different approach to how and what children learn. Education based on memorization can no longer adequately ready children for today’s ever-changing, unknown future. Memorization teaches compliance and how to forget. In an ever-changing future, digitized information is immediately available and voice accessible. What’s imperative now is learning to think, inquire, understand, adapt, innovate, and more.

This describes partially what children learn in Montessori schools. But children develop more because Montessori pedagogy builds upon essential truths regarding the purpose of childhood and the necessary role of adults to guide children to fulfill that purpose. Dr. Maria Montessori understood the child’s purpose when she wrote, “[Childhood] constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that an adult is made …. Whatever affects a child affects humanity, for it is in the delicate and secret recesses of the soul that an adult’s education is accomplished.”[2]

Soul is seldom discussed in education reform today. Reformers focus instead on achievement. According to them, we should live in a world of high stakes testing. Political leaders agree, and they believe children’s test scores should assess teacher performance: the better the teacher, the better the test scores. These leaders also believe that children’s test scores represent more than learning. They believe test scores predict a nation’s economic future. And, they believe that parents believe and want this too.

Despite such rhetoric, children are designed for a different education. The purpose of their childhood is not to improve test scores; the purpose of their childhood is not to improved their performance. The purpose of childhood is to become the adult you are meant to be. This means know yourself. This means develop habits of persistence and speak fluently the language of compassion and empathy. This means identify and pursue a purpose that, larger than yourself, contributes mightily to life quality.

A teacher’s work in the testing regime is difficult. The work of a Montessori teacher is even more so. In addition to mathematics, science, history, languages, the arts, physical and health education, Montessori guides assist children with becoming adults. This is a whole person education. Montessori defined serving each child’s soul as the work of the Montessori guide.

Without doubt we are making a profound change in the type of teacher. She becomes a person who, besides acting, observes the person. Her virtue consists in never interrupting the work of the child, but, at the same time, giving help where she sees that help is necessary …. One might say that she is serving while she is directing this class of children.[3]

This understanding of childhood and education changes the work of a teacher, and parent too. Knowledge of child psychology and subject information is needed, but these are not enough. In an education in which soul matters, adults do not teach. In support of each child’s inherent purpose to grow and become, the essential role of the adult is to love, observe, understand, accept, guide, and not control. The essential role is to understand and know how to serve life. Montessori defined the purpose of serving: “We must help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself; this is the art of those who aspire to serve the spirit.”[4]

To Guide

Montessori guides attend to the whole child: their physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual development. Montessori understood that “the concept of education centered upon the care of the living being alters all previous ideas. Resting no longer on a curriculum, or a timetable, education must conform to the facts of human life.”[5] These facts are astonishing: No two children (or adults) learn in the same way or in the same amount of time.

Montessori guides do not dispense information. We share a conviction that adult success in life is directly tied to the degree to which adults experienced themselves as capable, independent children. When we guide, we assist children to discover and develop their unique capabilities. A goal is to help each child become independent and self-reliant. Our mantra is, never, ever(!) do anything for a child if, instead, you can show them how to do it for themselves.

It is not we who teach [the child]. This child can run, walk, talk, and notice tiny little things. He has done it all by himself. It is not we adults who have done if for him …. We cannot be teachers but we can help children, and our work must be to render this tremendous work of exploration which he carries out, easier. We must try to prepare for him a suitable and favourable environment. We must be persuaded that we are humble people who cannot do anything but witness this enormous capacity for self-development in the child.[6]

We understand that the real work of becoming belongs to the individual child. The art of guiding requires focusing on the needs of the child and discerning how each child learns. Each child is respected and treated as a unique individual learner who learns optimally at her own pace and style. Rather than merely require right answers from children, we guide children to ask questions, think for themselves, explore, investigate, discover, develop their natural love of learning, and come to their own conclusions.

We routinely seek to understand each child’s strengths, interests, and challenges. The art of guiding requires discovering how to personalize each lesson so that a child becomes engaged in discovery and investigation and is challenged to reach for more. Placing the child first, Montessori wrote, is transformative and requires “a fundamental change of outlook.” 

The basis of this preparation consists in going through a fundamental change of outlook. The teacher needs to acquire a deeper sense of dignity of the child as a human being; a new appreciation of the significance of his spontaneous activities; a wider and more thorough understanding of his needs; and a quicker reverence for him as the creator of the adult-to-be.[7]

Personal Work: Spiritual Preparation

To make a “fundamental change of outlook,” we commit to continuous personal work. We prepare through rigorous self-study. We prepare for the child rather than prepare the child for us. This work is spiritually transformative and purposeful. Our purpose is to “assist the psychic life of children.[8] Again, we learn how to show children, how to guide them to fulfill themselves. We learn to see and accept each child without judgment and evaluation. To accept each child, we must first learn to accept ourselves.

[The] object of the schoolmaster is man himself; the psychical manifestations of children evoke something more in him than interest in the phenomenon; he obtains from them the revelation of himself, and his emotions vibrate at the contact of other souls like his own.[9]

Montessori challenges us to reach within and remove personal obstacles which could prevent our being fully present to each child. These personal lessons, Montessori wrote, transform us. Our personalities and character include patience and a mastery of our own will. We become more respectful and kind. “Kindness,” Montessori noted, “consists in interpreting the wishes of others, in conforming one’s self to them, and sacrificing, if need be, one’s own desire.[10] Children, and not test scores, come first.

Our process of personal transformation begins often with humility: We accept the essential influence of children. They educate us; we learn from children. “Our social mentality,” Montessori wrote, “has not grasped the idea that we can receive help from the child, that the child can give us a light and a lesson, a new vision and a solution for inextricable problems.[11] In addition to humility, Montessori asks us to overcome pride, diminish avarice, check anger, conquer prejudice, control loose conduct, and eliminate envy. Montessori understood well that this is difficult and demanding work. But failure to do so. Montessori observed, limits our ability to understand ourselves and guide the child.

To truly see children, we must, Montessori wrote, “remove the accretions of years that prevent us from really understanding children and acquiring an intuitive knowledge of their souls.”[12] This involves identifying erroneous beliefs and conclusions about children removing our biases and prejudices that are based on those incorrect beliefs. We must understand that the mind of a child is not empty; children are not waiting for us to fill them through our teaching. Such beliefs, Montessori wrote, negatively impact and interfere with children’s development.

[Adults] look upon everything pertaining to a child’s soul from their own point of view and, consequently, their misapprehensions are constantly on the increase. Because of this egocentric point of view, adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction …. An adult who act in this way … unconsciously suppresses the development of the child’s own personality.[13]

Adults too often believe their role is to do everything for children. But children do not need adults to correct or even guide all the time. “Never,” Montessori declared, “has anyone been so completely and utterly dependent on another as the child is on the adult."[14] Adults, charged with insuring a child’s safety, decide what young children will eat, when they will eat, what they will wear, when they will change, what they will do, where they will go, how long they will stay, and still more. Adults may “mean well,” but these traditional beliefs and decisions thwart and block the child’s normal process of becoming. An incomplete psychic – cognitive, emotional, and spiritual - development occurs.

Montessori asked adults to consider that their unexamined beliefs truly impede the child’s development.

This is a question we must face. Have we helped the child to develop, or have we impeded the child’s development, or even diminished it? Which have we done? It is certain that even if we hinder the child, such a power of self-development exists in the child that he still develops pretty well. Yet, still, we must ask ourselves: have we helped or hindered the child’s self-development? This is the question and the problem.[15]

To guide we must be willing to be guided. We must understand children and ourselves spiritually. Instead of control, the profound relationship of unconditional love. Instead of treating children as one and the same, respecting each individual child and knowing how to guide her and him to self-fulfillment.


Montessori, M. (1967/2000). Basic ideas of Montessori’s educational theory. Lawrence Salmon, Trans. Oxford, England: Clio Press. 

Montessori, M. (1939/1994). Creative development in the child. Volume One. Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications.

Montessori, M. (1914/1965). Dr. Montessori’s own handbook. New York: Schocken Books.  

Montessori, M. (1949/1999). Education and peace. Oxford, England: Clio Press.  

Montessori, M. (1989). Education for a new world. Oxford, England: Clio Press.

Montessori, M. (1949/1994) The absorbent mind. Oxford, England: Clio Press. 

Montessori, M. (1918/2004). The advanced Montessori method-1. Oxford, England: Clio Press.

Montessori, M. (2008). The California lectures of Maria Montessori, 1915. Collected speeches and writings. R. G. Buckenmeyer, Ed. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.

Montessori, M. (1955/2003). The formation of man. Oxford, England: Clio Press.

Montessori, M. (1912/1964). The Montessori method. New York: Schocken Books.  

Montessori, M. (1972). The secret of childhood. New York: Ballantine Books.  

Standing, E. M. (1957/1962). Maria Montessori. Her life and her work. New York: Mentor-Omega Books.


[1] Maria Montessori. The Montessori method, pp. 104-105.

[2] Maria Montessori. The secret of childhood, p. 4.

[3] Maria Montessori. The California lectures of Maria Montessori, 1915, p. 61.

[4] Maria Montessori. Education for a new world, p. 69.

[5] Maria Montessori. The absorbent mind, p. 12.

[6] Montessori. Creative development in the child, p. 38.

[7] E. M. Standing. Maria Montessori. Her life and work, p. 298.

[8] Maria Montessori. The secret of childhood, p. 12.

[9] Maria Montessori. The advanced Montessori method – 1, p. 106.

[10] Maria Montessori. Dr. Montessori’s own handbook, p. 133.

[11] Maria Montessori. The formation of man, p. 31.

[12] Maria Montessori. The secret of childhood, p. 5.

[13] Maria Montessori. The secret of childhood, p. 16.

[14] Maria Montessori. Basic ideas of Montessori’s educational theories, p. 2.

[15] Maria Montessori. The California lectures of Maria Montessori, 1915, p. 34.