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Choosing Preschool: Montessori vs Gifted?

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Dr. Laura,
Deciding if a private gifted school or Montessori is the best choice for my very smart, soon to be 3 year old boy who is currently in daycare and has that odd birthday where he will need to start kindergarten late. Would love your thoughts on Montessori.


The research shows that children do best with play-based, child-led learning, as opposed to academics. This is not only better for their emotional development, it is best for their intellectual development.  A child's work is play, and that is how children learn best.

Consider these research findings:

The gifted schools are often very academically oriented. This is actually not effective in producing a curious child who loves to learn. It ignores the research on how young children learn. And research is very clear that academic programs produce the opposite of the result we want academically.

However, all "gifted" schools are not academically oriented. Some are able to withstand the pressure from parents for children to demonstrate "early" academic skills. Some have extraordinary teachers and a play-centered philosophy and are terrific. Sometimes what their literature says is less important than watching what goes on in the classroom. Are they "teaching" the kids, or helping the kids to explore? Are they pushing the alphabet, or getting kids excited about stories and books and acting out plays? Is this curriculum child-led?

I love some things about the Montessori approach and I confess that I have a personal fondness for the Montessori manipulatives. There is research that suggests that the Montessori approach has a positive effect on the child's ability to self-regulate, as well as the child's interest in and achievement in academic pursuits.

However, the Montessori philosophy is 100 years old, and is fairly rigid. The most traditional Montessori approach does not seem to allow much room for creativity and it definitely does not derive from play, or the child's interests. There is a very specific series of manipulatives that the children work through. It is important to note, though, that Montessori schools vary widely in the way they implement the Montessori ideas, and many have updated their approach so that it is more child-led. Almost any school can call itself a Montessori school, so you will want to check out the school near you. If at all possible, observe in a classroom to see what you think.

Choosing a school is as much about the people as the learning. You are looking for an "emotional" home for your son, where the teachers bond with the children in a warm, loving environment. You also want to be sure that the school promotes social values that encourage emotional health. All schools say they promote respect, for instance, but some do it through discipline while others have programs that are designed to promote empathy. You don't want a school that uses timeouts as their approach when kids "misbehave," you want a school that understands misbehavior as a red flag that the child needs some help from the teacher.

I'd love to hear from others who have an opinion or strong experience on this!

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