Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Working with Executive Function Challenges in the Montessori Environment

To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control, is to betray the idea of freedom.
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind, p. 205.

Previously, we discussed how to add variety to the Montessori three-period lesson to help children learn to generalize, or transfer information. Behavior interventions will also play a role in developing good judgment and impulse control.

Helping Children with Executive Function Challenges in the Montessori Environment


The Montessori environment is set up to allow freedom of choice. Yet, as the opening quote warns us, giving the child freedom when he is not ready for it will backfire. A child who has not developed self-control will not be able to make good choices in work or behavior.

Cognitive behavioral interventions are used to help children think about their behavior and how it affects them and those around them. When I started teaching, I would tell my high-school students to “make me proud” when we went on trips. When I became a Montessori teacher, I realized that I had it backwards! The students’ goal should not be to make me proud of them; it should be to take pride in themselves. Their behavior was not a reflection on me, but it was a reflection on them. That realization taught me to change my approach by telling the students to “make good choices.”


However, telling a child with low functioning executive function to “make good choices” is like telling a verbally limited toddler, “Use your words.” If they knew how, they would certainly do it! A better way to help a child with low functioning executive function is to consistently model the behavior you want them to exhibit. If you would like the child to speak softly, you should speak softly and not shout across the room. If you would like him to pick up after himself, you must be tidy too.

When we notice a child who struggles with impulse control making good choices, we should acknowledge and encourage his efforts. Encouragement, rather than praise, helps foster intrinsic feelings of self-satisfaction. When we say things like, “I noticed you were upset that Jessica took the Smelling Bottles off the shelf when you wanted to use them. It must have been difficult to walk away and choose another work,” you are acknowledging the situation and giving it a name. You are also letting the child know that you noticed his efforts. Praise is different and has a different result. When we use praise, such as “I was so proud of you for choosing another work,” it is our standards the child then tries to live up to. He will constantly look for others to approve or disapprove of his behavior rather than learning to independently decide for himself.

Reward systems may seem like a good idea to regulate or teach behavior, but what happens when you remove the stimulus? Often, the desired behavior disappears as well.


We do not want to train children to only make good choices when there are stickers to be earned. We want them to make good choices because it is the right thing to do.

The liberty of the child ought to have as its limits the collective interest of the community in which he moves; its form is expressed in what we call manners and good behaviour. It is our duty then to protect the child from doing anything which may offend or hurt others, and to check the behaviour which is unbecoming or impolite. But as regards all else, every action that has a useful purpose, whatever it may be and in whatever forms it shows itself, ought not only to be permitted, but it ought to be kept under observation, that is the essential point.
—Maria Montessori
The Discovery of the Child, p. 68

Dr. Montessori tells us that “If freedom is understood as letting children do as they like, using or more likely misusing, the things available, it is clear that their ‘deviations’ are free to develop; their abnormalities will increase.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 205) We must be kind, firm, and respectful while setting clear, reasonable boundaries. Using if/then statements also helps with behavioral metacognition: “If I do not clean up the snack area when I am finished, then others cannot have a snack.” “If I cannot choose a work for myself, then Miss Michelle will have to help me choose one.”

The human brain is always growing, and the prefrontal cortex that controls executive function is slow in developing.

Knowing this, we can assist children in our Montessori environment by modeling, encouraging, and exercising our own patience as we guide our students towards independence.


Works Cited
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.
Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of the Child. New York, NY: Fides Publishing, 1967.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate

As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Wednesday, September 24, 2014.

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