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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I’m so happy to see this…I have an autistic 8 year old, who is also intellectually ‘gifted’. I partially homeschool him, primarily because although Montessori has been amazing for him, I’ve been turned away by two “Montessori” schools. It’s their loss. They missed an opportunity to adapt to meet his needs, and watch him bloom.


I have a son who is 4 with autism, and I am also in a Montessori training program for age 3-6.
This article is very timely and much needed. I think “following the child” means just that, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for needing to adjust certain materials and presentations to acclimate to the ways our kids learn. I found myself getting really discouraged when I felt like it just wasn’t “working” for my son- but I had to realize that “I” had to observe him and follow his lead, wherever that took us!
It has not been easy (it’s actually been quite difficult) to find resources to research and study on how to integrate Montessori with autism/neurodivergent children.
Thanks for writing this!

Summer Michel

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