Ableism permeates Montessori

Ableism permeates Montessori

I write as the mother of an AuADHD child and as a Montessori trained teacher who has made many many mistakes in my teaching career. I also live with mental illness, I'm not immune from being ableist and it is something I wrestle with daily as I deconstruct my Montessori training and my 'inhaled' Montessori, that is the things that I consumed as a new Montessori teacher. 

I feel ableism and internalised abelism permeates traditional Montessori. 

What is Ableism?

Ashley Eisenmenger of Access Living defines ableism as "...the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as 'less than,' and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities."

Can this really be true of Montessori? 

Montessori is often defined as a pedagogy that "follows the child" an over used maxim that many new acolytes offer as proof that Montessori can be for any child. While this is true it is also untrue. Yes, Montessori can be for any child but the reality is different for many of us and we are excluded or bullied for doing things differently. 

The commonly offered images and rhetoric of Montessori combined with the usual basic 'canon' of preservice Montessori teacher training do not offer practical or realistic strategies and techniques for adapting to the neurodivergent or disabled child. Importantly the under representation of Disabled and Neurodivergent Montessorians means that our practice is missing the voice of a whole group of people.

Some Montessorians who are poorly equipped to work with disabled and neurodivergent children will try to shape them to what was in their preservice teacher practice and/or the prevailing Montessori culture. This is why it is important that our Montessori training critiques Montessori's work and looks outside of traditional Montessori for resources and ideas.

Disabled and neurodivergent children need different resources, adaptions and accomodations from traditional Montessori lessons, "pure pedagogy" and equipment.

How do we break this cycle then? For me it comes back to the teacher. We need to be better prepared and reflective and skilled in our preservice and inservice training. Sadly I think some Montessorians are so attached to the 'fidelity' of traditional Montessori that many disabled and neurodivergent children are excluded or only included using harmful or ableist practices e.g. ABA. 

I think Montessori gives us a clue in her writing into what we can do. 

The essence of the Montessori Teacher

"The vision of the teacher should be at once precise like that of the scientist, and spiritual like that of the saint. The preparation for science and the preparation for sanctity should form a new soul, for the attitude of the teacher should be at once positive, scientific and spiritual.

Positive and scientific, because she has an exact task to perform, and it is necessary that she should put herself into immediate relation with the truth by means of rigorous observation...

Spiritual, because it is to man that his powers of observation are to be applied, and because the characteristics of the creature who is to be his particular subject of observation are spiritual."  

Some questions about Ableism in Montessori

May I ask you to reflect on the following questions as starting points for reflection about Ableism in Montessori:

  • Do you believe that Montessori herself was an inclusive educator and free from bias, racism and ableism in her texts? 
  • When you think of the Montessori term 'Normalisation' what does that look like for neurodivergent and disabled children?
  • When you think of how you explain "Planes of Development" or "Sensitive Periods" what would you say to a family/carers of a child with say intellectual disability or childhood trauma?
  • Who delivers preservice and inservice training for you? What inclusive practices do they offer? Have you given feedback to your training organisation?
  • How do you talk about Neurodivergence and disability to your students? Is it something to be celebrated and respected? Is it something that shouldn't be talked about? 
  • Is it okay to feature non Montessori materials in our advertising  to prospective parents and community members?
  • If your accrediting Montessori training organisation would take away its endorsement of your school based on you having extra active adults in the classroom to assist neurodivergent or disabled children is it really worth belonging to?
  • Do you believe we should adapt our classrooms to the child in front of us or should children reach a certain 'standard' before being accepted into a Montessori class. 

I have had a number of people contact me on my Instagram account saying that their disabled child/ren or neurodivergent child/ren has been declined acceptance at a Montessori school or only welcome once they reach certain criteria. One person recounted to me that her autistic child was declined a space at a Montessori school until the child went to 'behaviour therapy.' Another person told me that a Montessori school said they were not equipped to have a child with physical and intellectual disability.  

A number of parents have privately messaged me to say they do not speak openly about their child's disability or show the adaptions they make to their Montessori program or homeschool because of the judgement from Montessorians. The judgement and negative chatter is definitely unneeded when parenting a child with neurodivergence and disability in an ableist society. 

Towards Inclusive Education

Claes Nilholm states: "...there seems to be a need to analyse in depth why too little advancement has been made when it comes to the development of inclusive practices" while their article is refering to general education the same applies to Montessori too. Niholm recommends looking at case studies of real classrooms and settings to see how inclusion can look. 

This recent paper has a list of successful implementation strategies for classrooms. 

Nonetheless I think it is vital that all Montessori initial teacher training as well as ongoing training has high quality and inclusive practice built into the core of its program. Teachers shouldn't have to 'seek it out' or enrol in an extra course to have this fundamental knowledge that is vital for upholding the rights of the child. 

What is one thing you can do today to be the change in your online or real life community to include disabled and neurodivergent children, teachers and families?

 You may also be interested in: 

Would Maria Montessori have a trampoline in her class?

Brain Breaks for the Montessori Classroom

Adapting the workday for ADHD children

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Gracias por compartir tus reflexiones desde tu propia experiencia. Eres muy valiente!

Mishell García

Thank you so much for this piece of writing! I am a Montessori teacher in the united states (AMI trained 3-6). I am also a neurodivergent (ADHD) and have two neurodivergent children of my own (asd, adhd). I am completing my master’s degree in Education (specializing in Montessori) and am focusing on how Montessori can be used for children with exceptionalities. I agree with so much that you wrote here, it is even true in the united states. I would love to talk to you more about work that needs to be done in the Montessori community regarding teacher education and training for teaching neurodivergent children and children with disabilities.

Victoria Brugger

I was first attracted to Montessori for my (then) 4 year old son, who I thought would do poorly in a traditional classroom. I got training because I loved what I saw. In the 30 years since then, I have realized that both I and my son are neurodivergent and that about 1/4 of the children who come to my program are as well. We need to 1) support children where they are 2) help to get them resources that will support their learning, their self-esteem and their ability to understand themselves 3) educate and support parents and 4) create classrooms that will work for all the children. This means that sometimes I don’t take children whose parents do not (yet, or ever) accept the additional support the child will need, or, equally, expect an abundance of support for their child that we cannot give. If the parents are not “on board”, I cannot serve the child. As a private program, I cannot meet the needs of all children. In the US, public support for children with exceptionalities varies hugely. In my area, there is practically none for children who are “able to learn”, especially in preschool, where the expectations are very low. This is a complex subject, but, I agree, that the emphasis in my training on “the Montessori child” (who was “already normalized”, who was quiet and independent at all times, who had no areas of struggle) was unrealistic and unfair to everyone. However, I have taken my training as a challenge to individualize each lesson and the classroom for the group that I actually have, instead of some ideal imaginary group. For much of the time, it works!


@Amy Gunn, in my experience, saying that autistic kids (and probably other neurodivergent kids, but I don’t have as much experience with that) need structure can often be code for “these kids need to be rigidly controlled and micromanaged or else they’ll act weird”. I still remember a book that claimed that autistic children have trouble in unstructured situations and gave a scenario as example in which an autistic kid decided to stim alone in recess and then got harassed by bullies and reacted angrily.


I am homeschooling my 8 year old with ADHD and who, I suspect, is also autistic. I have long thought that Montessori would be a great fit for her but have been told by many experts in education and psychology that it would not provide the structure that she needs.

What I think is actually true is that there is no setting, outside of expensive private programs designed to meet specific needs, that is fully welcoming and accommodating to our neurodivergent kids. And that fact breaks my heart. All children, regardless of their disability, bring so much to their families and communities, and we fail them when we refuse to adapt and expand our social and educational models to meet these diverse needs. My goal now, in addition to providing my child the education she deserves, is to advocate for the changes we need to make across society as a whole to create a more equitable and accessible world. What benefits one benefits all.

It’s a tall order, but I honestly don’t know of another option.

Thanks so much for sharing this. I look forward to digging into the resources that you shared!

Amy Gunn

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