Skip to main content

The ADHD Child and the Montessori Classroom

Tracy has been working in the field of education for many years specializing in both Waldorf and Montessori methodologies.

A Montessori Classroom offers a stimulating, hands-on learning experience

A Montessori Classroom offers a stimulating, hands-on learning experience

Imagine being a student in a classroom full of flashing lights distracting you from focusing on a task or a learning environment, where every spoken voice is amplified in your head and you can’t hear yourself think. These descriptions are designed to help you imagine what living with ADHD is like. Because of the challenges of educating a child with ADHD, parents may at some point consider Montessori education. Montessori education uses an individualized approach where students work at their own pace, with hands on materials, in an atmosphere of acceptance and respect for others, which at first may seem to meet the needs of a child with ADHD. But while on the surface a Montessori Education may seem like a perfect fit for a child with ADHD, taking a deeper look, it becomes apparent that this in fact may not be the case.

It is believed that children with ADHD experience the world in a more intense way. What may appear as ceiling lights to most people might appear as colorful flashing lights to a child with ADHD. For a child with ADHD, sounds can seem amplified such that they can’t hear themselves think. Therefore, a less stimulating and more structured environment will offer less distraction and a better opportunity to focus for a child with ADHD.

Now let us consider the Montessori learning environment. Montessori education was founded on the belief that children are naturally curious and innately driven to learn. This type of learning, which begins with curiosity, is an ideal method of education for many children. Curiosity is the ingredient in learning that brings out passion and lifts intelligence to its greatest heights. Some of the greatest inventions in human history began with simple curiosity; this is part of what Montessori education seeks to tap into. This method of learning exists in near opposition to a typical classroom where the teacher dictates what is being taught at any given time. This traditional method does not tap into curiosity but rather group structure, as well as a child’s natural inclination to please the parent and teacher; this is why grades become the primary focus in traditional education.

Self direction and individualized learning are two hallmarks of Montessori Education

Self direction and individualized learning are two hallmarks of Montessori Education

It might seem logical that a child with ADHD would thrive in a Montessori classroom since they can move from task to task and work at a rapid pace which corresponds to their natural rhythm. They would be learning with the passion of a curious mind and possibly excel. Many parents are attracted to this method and have great hopes that their child will not only soar but will also be accepted for their differences. The Montessori philosophy not only taps into the child’s curiosity for learning but it also teaches tolerance and appreciation for differences between cultures and individuals. Acceptance and respect are modeled and practiced on a daily basis. In theory the ADHD child would be accepted and allowed to thrive given their learning style and philosophy of acceptance.

But this is not how it plays out, what actually happens is that these children tend to move around aimlessly, becoming distracted as a result of having so many schoolwork options to choose from. They might start one activity and then fail to complete it before moving on to the next. Also, because other students are independently moving around the classroom they serve as visual and sound distractions. What results, is a student who needs an inordinate amount of correction and redirection by the teacher. Not only does this place undue stress on the teacher, it forces the child to stand out as "different" even in this otherwise accepting environment. Some accommodations can be made, such as having the child work alone in less active and quieter section of the classroom or even in extreme cases, an aide can be assigned to stay beside the child for portions of the day. In reality though, the Montessori classroom is typically not a good fit for any but the mildest cases of ADHD.

The Montessori Education Method relies heavily on a child's ability to work independently

The Montessori Education Method relies heavily on a child's ability to work independently

For children to maintain motivation and succeed, individualized planning must take a multifaceted view of ADHD. –Mark Bertin Author of ‘The Family ADHD Solution'

A secondary issue plaguing children with ADHD is that, according to Dr. William Barbaresi of Harvard, studies suggest that nearly 40% of children with ADHD have deficits in reading, math and writing. Montessori schools are most often not equipped to provide an ADHD student with the volume of specialized assistance they need in these subject areas. The Montessori education method relies on students being primarily independent learners while students with ADHD need more guidance than the Montessori classroom can realistically offer. While some Montessori schools offer specialized tutoring, it is most often insufficient in relation to what the child truly needs.

The Montessori Educational Method, while successful for many students might not be ideal for a student with ADHD

The Montessori Educational Method, while successful for many students might not be ideal for a student with ADHD

A better option is to look to a public school that can offer not only an evaluation and diagnosis of a child’s educational needs, but create an Individualized Education Plan or IEP, for the child with ADHD. With a plan laid out, the child will work with specialized teachers either one on one, in small groups or within the classroom itself. Because children with ADHD benefit from working in smaller groups, this method can reap good results as well as offering the structure that keeps the student on task.

While Montessori Education on the surface appears to be a good fit, a deeper look reveals that public school is in fact better equipped at meeting the needs of a child with ADHD.

A Peek Inside a Montessori Classroom

© 2013 Tracy Lynn Conway


Hunter Lynn Blanton on November 13, 2019:

So glad there are so many Montessorians that think your perspective is hogwash. For any parent that made it this far, please do not believe what's in this article. Those that say Montessori is not for differently developing kids are people that think those with differences and disabilities are less than.

Heather Rindlisbacher on September 20, 2019:

I am a long term early childhood educator and a newly practicing mental health counselor in training. As an educator, for the past several years nearly half my students have had significant behavioral or developmental concerns including ADHD. I am not pure Montessorian by any measure but in my experience my students thrive during our “mat work” period far more than during excessively structured lessons. There may initially be wandering and distraction, but with consistent redirection the expectations become clear, interests become apparent and “normalization” unquestionably occurs even if it takes longer than it does for “neurotypical” classmates. The underlying issue with ADHD is typically impairment in executive functioning skills. Unlike a worksheet with abstract instructions and a demand for standards based performance, the specifically designed didactic materials have that defined beginning and end and break tasks down so they are less overstimulating. Despite the presence of many options ultimately the classroom is less stimulating than some brightly colored, highly decorated early childhood classrooms. And the effective guide/mentor will provide the minimal need of support needed to nurture learning, it’s far easier to shadow and provide additional support subtly to a child who needs more support when the other students are engaged with their own work than to have to stop a lecture multiple times to scold a child who isn’t focused on the teacher’s directions. In my experience as a mental health provider, and I am sure with minimal effort I could find empirical studies supporting my anecdotal experiences, children with severe ADHD who are in the traditional public school classroom spend more time being penalized for behavioral concerns than their peers, have more difficulty getting support for their sensory needs, and often quickly loose their desire to learn resulting in an increase of depression and anxiety symptoms. A local neuropsychiatrist I have worked with bemoans the “academic child abuse” that neurodiverse children too often experience in a traditional classroom. Because Montessori is not trademarked and teacher qualifications vary widely not every Montessori program is going to be a good fit for children who have diverse needs, but that reflects on the nature of the guide rather than the basis of the approach. Montessori certainly isn’t the only approach effective for these children, that’s why I continue working eclectically instead of claiming strict adherence to a single approach, but if I had to make the choice between a decent typical classroom and a decent Montessori classroom for my own child I would absolutely try the Montessori environment first.

Gale from Texas on April 02, 2019:

This is enlightening. When my son was first struggling (didn't know it was ADD then), we considered Montessorri. Now I'm glad we went with homeschooling instead (another good alternative if you're able).

Reading this though I do think that Montessorri homeschooling might have seems like most of the problems that Montessori presents for ADHD kids dissapear when you are in a 1:1 teaching model that homeschool can provide.

Cris on February 16, 2018:

We unfortunately learned this the hard way. My son was just diagnosed with ADHD last week, but he was in a certified Montessori classroom at 3. The teachers were frequently meeting with us to try to find some golden answer on how to help my son. He was so interested in all of the other kids' work, that he was frequently interrupting and disrupting them or, even worse, actually ruining it. He was labeled as the "bad" kid and completely ostracized by his the age of 3. We're still trying to find a good school solution for him. The private school he's in now that is very structured is a better fit, but we still have issues. We're looking into public with an IEP for next year.

Familyof4 on November 24, 2017:

Hello Tracey,

First of thank you for your article. It is always great seeing alternative thoughts and ideas. I believe it really depends on your child and the pearent. I have a son with Severe ADHD. My son has done public schooling and Montessori. Where I live Montessori is very expensive. When he was young I tried every kindergarten possible. In the end we went with Montessori because it was the only place he could cope with. Because of expense we eventually went through public schooling. I found that the tools he developed at a Montessori institute greatly helped him as a person. Despite the freedom of work, it was more structured than general schooling. If we could afford it, we would have continued his Montessori education as it greatly benefited him with who he is and how he deals with people and situations. I think your article raises some great points that can not work for an ADHD child. However misses out on what it can help your child with....fostering good relationships, being able to focus more on tasks, learning personal limits and abilities. I could go on. As I said in the beginning that it depends on the pearents and child. That everything is worth a try until you find out what works for you and them.

Heidi on November 19, 2016:

I have a 7 year old and a 4 year old at Montessori.

The 4 year old is a typical Montessori child the 7 year old isn't. He has recently been diagnosed with ADHD. He has a very hard time focussing and needs lots of redirection from the teacher. He will also disrupt other children when they are deep in work.

It's making him a bit of an outsider and he is aware of that.

He is a beautiful, funny and empathetic child and I thought that he would really benefit from the Montessori way. But he is falling further behind (even though he has more teacher attention than any other child).

I really really loathe to take hime out of this school but I feel we have no choice.

The article just emphasised what I already knew :(

Heather on October 23, 2016:

My daughter has a severe case of ADHD. We suspected it since she was very young because she learned differently than others and her behavior sometimes seemed uncontrolled and wild, still I was shocked that her ADHD was considered so significant. We enrolled her in a true Montessori school at the age of 4. The first year was a breath of fresh air. The second year was full of challenges as her classmates developed differently from her. She is very bright and this third year is also a challenge.

I just wanted to comment on three items. First, my daughter does need extra attention from her teachers, and she gets much more attention from very nurturing teachers throughout her day as they have the time and calming nature to give her this attention. Although our public schools are wonderful by every standard, she would not receive this in our public system. She does not get labeled as anything in her classroom as well, her very full and bright personality is maintained and not shamed.

Second, I don't think that it is correct to say that Montessori emphasizes independent learning, but instead self-directed learning. The different is small but could be important for a parent of an ADHD child. The is a great deal of collaborative work in this learning environment and older teaches younger and children observe, practice and teach works. There is an atmosphere of learning that is not broken up into "playtime" or "recess" and class time. Instead, even the significant amount of time that the class spends in nature is a learning experience, which has been positive for my child.

Lastly, my child is not distracted by the number of options in the classroom because the teachers are very skilled in talking to the children and guiding them not only based on interest but also on ability. A child cannot just choose any work. They need to have had a lesson in that area and have accomplished all of the other works leading up to it. This is a big advantage in Montessori for an ADHD child, because if the desire to move on to a more challenging area can be very motivating, but they will also be allowed try something again until they have really learned it. And they are not allowed to jump from activity to activity, as often assumed, but they need to finish one work before moving on to another.

Although I know that others don't agree, Montessori has been wonderful for our family and we are enrolling all of our children in this school and plan to keep them there through high school.

Liv on September 21, 2016:

Add Your Comment.. Tracy, you mentioned that for some students with ADHD this environment was still not suitable even after multiple modifications. Would you mind sharing what modifications were used by the teachers/aides? I'm a Special Education teacher (Master's Degree in Adaptive Special Education), and I find that modifications and accommodations vary significantly in terms of effectiveness depending on the individual. So I'm curious what was done... I found this article to be a good perspective to consider. What is your background education for the ADHD child? Do you have any academic sources to cite to defend the claims made in the article? Please share. I would love to look more in to this.

Tracy Lynn Conway (author) from Virginia, USA on September 19, 2016:

Courtney, I thank you for your comment. I am not clear as to what "rash generalizations" you are referring to regarding this article. I also don't see where the article states or implies that ADHD children cannot excel or "be really smart" as you state. In fact, children with ADHD often excel not only academically but in many other areas of life as well.

This article simply refers to the classroom that might best suit a child with ADHD. It is important to keep in mind that ADHD falls on a spectrum. If the child has very mild ADHD and works well within the Montessori classroom environment then this article would prove irrelevant. If the child needs "some prompting" as you say, then this article may be of only limited use. However, many teachers, psychologists and parents involved with students who have been diagnosed with middle to severe ADHD find that the Montessori classroom does not work after trying it with multiple modifications. This article addresses this situation.

It may even be possible that some of the children that you are referring to, who only require “some prompting” don’t even qualify as having ADHD; this is because ADHD is very often over diagnosed. Here is a quote from a recent NPR podcast on the topic of ADHD “About 15 percent of children in the U.S. receive a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. That is about three times the rate most experts agree is appropriate.” The podcast goes on to mention that as ADHD was…” originally conceived, it was supposed to be for severe hyperactivity, for severe impulsivity and severe inattention.”

If you are interested in the podcast from NPR, the title is "The Story Behind The Rise Of ADHD In The United States."

courtney on September 13, 2016:

The author made some great points about the Montessori method, but rash generalizations about children with ADHD. Kids with ADHD can excel academically and be really smart, they just need some movement in their lives. They need to work at their pace. It might take some prompting on the part of the teacher, but they can accomplish their work.

Marine on August 11, 2016:

Central to the Montessori method of teaching is the understanding that, for children, learning requires physical movement. A child's mind is not yet fully rational and abstracted from her body, and she learns through action and moving in the world. As Maria Montessori writes about physical activity, "Everybody admits that a child must be constantly on the move. This need for movement, which is irresistible in childhood, apparently diminishes with the development of inhibiting forces at the time when these, by entering into a harmony with the motor impulses, create the means for subjecting them to the will." This emphasis on allowing movement and offering sensory-based tasks as methods for learning is ideally suited to the child diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Also implicit in the Montessori method is that individualized instruction that involves lots of movement may prevent the symptoms of ADHD from plaguing a child throughout her life. Maria Montessori seems to imply in this quotation and in other writings that if a child is allowed to learn through individualized attention and movement, she will internalize and develop the "inhibiting forces" that are the basis of discipline and concentration. Many authors have characterized ADHD as a failure to inhibit oneself. This line of reasoning leads to the radical and troubling possibility that the high rates of ADHD symptoms could be caused in part by educational methods that do not allow the full expression of the need for physical activity. If children are prohibited from meeting their need for movement, they may not enter into "harmony with the motor impulses"-- which Montessori argues is the very means for "subjecting them to the will" and learning how to inhibit themselves.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on July 18, 2016:

This is very good way for a reader to understand the Montessori system. I think it originated as a teaching method that was created to teach the child in the book, The Wild Boy of Aveyron?

Jessica on April 01, 2016:

A cookie cutter plan for any child especially a neurotic diverse child... Is not a good idea. My 2nd grader HATES school. We have an IEP and a full vote of trained people and we are still failing miserably. If I can get my sons love of school back... I'll go to the moon If I have too.

Elizabeth on May 04, 2015:

This might be true if the classroom doesn't have an AMI trained Montessori guide, and therefore isn't really Montessori. In a true Montessori classroom, a child learns focus. In my opinion, that's a much better alternative than amphetamines.

Zoya on March 26, 2015:

extremely awesome article, while i am struggling with some of my ADHD childs, i completely agreed with the bottom line. that being honest and tell the parents that montessori in not even fit for an ADHD chil.