Freedom and Choice: Key Tenets of Montessori


A Montessori classroom gives students freedom and choice throughout the day. During work periods, students choose activities that support their studies.

By Wanda Whitehead

Freedom is the opportunity to have choice. Children’s emotional, social, and academic development improve when they are empowered through choice. At the same time, children need to have appropriate boundaries and limits to feel safe and secure.

Montessori’s “freedom with discipline” (where the word discipline means to teach) for the primary ages of 3-6 years and “freedom with responsibility” for children ages 6 and up align with these basic developmental needs. As a parent or teacher, we can craft a safe environment that has opportunities for choices that are developmentally appropriate for the different stages of childhood. What is left for the adult to do is find the right balance between allowing self-determination (freedom) and limits (providing boundaries) for a child to thrive in. Montessori’s keen observation of child development really helps guide this decision-making.

In the Montessori classrooms, movement (which is indisputably linked to cognition) is encouraged. Students are given large, unregulated blocks of time in which the flow of learning and choice in activity can be self-determined. Students are free from the extrinsic control of the grading system. Montessori classrooms are a stark contrast to the regulated, conventional classrooms where students are confined to desks, with rigidly scheduled days, receiving all sorts of external controls on what they learn which is often based on the simple brain function of memorization.

In the Primary Montessori classroom, the environment is set up by the teachers who are keenly aware of the developmental stage of their students. The choices in the environment are all great tailor-made options. Students enjoy the freedom of choice within the limits of their own sense of order and mastery over their environment. The self-discipline of taking an activity off the shelf, using it in the manner they have been taught, and cleaning up by placing it back on the shelf as they found it is learned through the teachers or guides. Students are given lessons in grace and courtesy of working and playing in a community of peers and then guided through the steps. Again, this is a learning of self-discipline and provides the limits for their freedoms. Self-care skills and skills for care of the environment also support the child’s development of self-discipline. This careful combination of choice and limits are core in the Primary Montessori classrooms.

The Elementary Montessori classroom, just like the primary classroom, is created by teachers who understand the developmental readiness of their age group. The level of responsibility for learning increases slowly as the child’s self awareness, self-discipline, and comprehension of the vast knowledge to be attained grows. With choice comes the development of unique interests and the joy in the pursuit of learning. Students can dive deeper into areas that excite them utilizing the skills they have learned from previous experience.  Ultimately, it is expected that the children will use their time in a productive way, balancing their subjects and being responsible for their learning. They learn to self-regulate their choices in the social areas, too. What we see daily in our classrooms is this process of growth in each child as they navigate their choices and their responsibilities for self, others in their community and their environment.

At the Middle School level, choice and responsibility take on new characteristics.  The focus is on the freedom to express whether through public speaking, debate, theater or simply in discussions of subject material.  At the same time students take on more responsibility for their elective courses, their culmination projects for each study unit, their micro-economy projects, and community service activities.  This process of learning and practicing freedom with responsibility,  enables students to find their place in the community and the world.

A key caution, especially in today’s world, freedom of choice before a level of self-discipline or responsibility is reached can result in a child’s sense of entitlement, a kind of “I want what I want” approach to life. Young children usually make a choice that is ego-centric which is very appropriate. They are also just l beginning to understand the difference between needs and wants.   The child must develop a sense of care and concern for others before making decisions that might impact others. The domain of influence of a choice needs to be considered carefully.

For example, a child age 3-6 can make a choice between a couple of shirts to wear to school or a choice between two different appropriate breakfast foods. The child would not be ready to make a choice that affects a parent’s ability to get to work on time or whether the family should go to the park when it is a work/school day. If a child is often given a choice that is outside their area of maturity of thinking, the child can come to expect to have “power-over” others. The domain of choices available to a child needs to reflect an appropriate potential in that child for self-discipline and responsibility for outcomes.

Another important aspect of learning responsibility for the freedom of choice is the actual experience of the consequence of choice. What great feedback the natural consequences of a choice can be for learning! As adults we need to allow those experiences for the children around us when they are not life-threatening. The child’s own observation of consequences as well as the supportive reflections of the adult can provide a foundation for the next choice-making opportunity.

Adults can model their own process of choice-making by verbalizing their thinking for children to hear. The weighing of pros and cons and the consideration of what the consequences might be is helpful for the child to witness. Feedback, both positive and negative, is essential for the honing of the thinking process and skills of choice-making. We can reason then, that through freedom to choose and the experience of consequences come critical experiences for the development of self-discipline and responsibility.

Montessori education provides such tremendous opportunities for a child to grow and thrive because of the inherent balance of freedom to choose and the limits of self-discipline and responsibility for each developmental stage of the child.


About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).

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Developing Children’s Leadership Skills at School–A Montessori Perspective

By Wanda Whitehead

For over 25 years, Casa di Mir Montessori School has nurtured the characteristic of leadership in the more than 400 students educated here. They have gone on to be leaders in our community and across the globe. The Montessori approach to education is known for cultivating leadership skills. Enrolling your child at Casa di Mir means you can expect to see an emphasis on character development, independence and responsibility, and communications skills in addition to the acquisition of academic skills.


At Casa di Mir Montessori School, students develop leadership skills in many ways. Here a 6th year student teaches a 4th year student a lesson on longitude and latitude.

An article by Glenn Rifkin written for the magazine Briefings on Talent & Leadership grabbed me. He writes, “What do P. Diddy, Sergey Brin, and Peter Drucker have in common?” The answer: “When it comes to producing creative business leaders, a Montessori education has proven to be a potent predictor of future success.” What Rifkin writes in such a grand way affirms what I get to see in our students at Casa and reflected back to us from schools our graduates attend after Casa. Our students easily slip into respected leadership roles as they move forward in their education and their lives.

What are leadership characteristics? Some leaders are out there loud and clear and some quietly exude leadership. In either style, leadership is a blend of knowledge, self-confidence, integrity, strong communication and interpersonal skills, a sense of social responsibility, and the ability to inspire the best in others. There are many positive attributes that we recognize in leaders. What they all have at their core is strong, positive character.

So what is it in a Montessori education that provides the experiences needed for our children to grow a strong character and to develop as leaders? Rifkin gives a great answer in his article:

“The unique and widely lauded education method, created more than a century ago by an Italian physician and education visionary, is built around the concept of self-directed learning, mixed age classrooms, collaboration, creativity and social responsibility. Eliminating the rigid structures of conventional classrooms, a Montessori school encourages students to embrace their curiosity, think imaginatively, and see the world as an array of possibilities.”

Montessori: Build Character, Build Leaders. Montessori provides an environment in which the child can develop intrinsic motivation (passion) and be proactive in his/her own learning and in problem solving. Because children are given the freedom to take initiative, they grow into “can do,” self-confident people. Early experiences of themselves as respected members in their family and classroom communities provide the foundation from which to approach the world at any age. Montessori students become highly principled people because they embrace life and all its differences, accept their own uniqueness and that of others, and become culturally competent and globally aware in the process. These principles of respect, contribution to society, compassion, acceptance, perseverance, and self-discipline drove Montessori in her vision of an alternative education method and motivate the Casa staff in carrying out the vision!

Developing a sense of passion for learning comes through experiencing the space and time to pursue interests. It could start with an interest in bugs, move to dinosaurs and end up in innovative thinking in creating technology designed for the sustainability of our planet.

Other practices in our classrooms that nurture principled leadership are:

  • Respect for unique qualities in each person allows distinctive gifts to flourish that might not develop in a conventional classroom. Respect for the child’s thoughts and unique talent is core in the Montessori classroom.
  • Children develop self-confidence through leadership roles in the classroom. Care of the environment, planning special activities and trips in a group, presenting research to peers, and public speaking opportunities all nurture a sense of confidence and positive self-regard.
  • Teacher as guide allows the child’s ownership of learning.
  • Opportunity to exercise choice in a developmentally appropriate situation is built into every classroom environment from toddler through Upper Elementary.
  • Development of study skills for academic success in a manner that invites self-initiative and independence is built into each classroom.
  • The three-year cycles allow older children to take on the role of mentor and role model to younger children.
  • “Whole view” curriculum of evolution of the planet, history of life, development of humans, and current issues provides a big picture perspective and content. When the interrelationship and interdependence of life on the planet is understood, ideas based on sustainability of life and the planet can motivate leaders to be agents of change for the common good.
  • The development of organizational skills are essential to the classrooms- order of materials in the primary, collection of learning in the lower el (order of knowledge), management of time in the upper el along with application of organizational skills are sequenced beautifully for success.
  • Nurturing of imagination allows the creative thinking necessary to be innovative.
  • Communications skills in collaboration, in presentation, and in conflict resolution are developed through daily experiences in these situations.
  • Understanding of and maturation in dealing with feelings/needs of their own and others leads to development of empathy.

Skills of leadership are skills for success. Whether individuals express their leadership in grand ways like leading corporations, serving in government or simply by living an informed, compassionate life of contribution, these skills and qualities will serve our children throughout their lives. Montessori education creates leaders for the 21st century!

About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).

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7 Essential Life Skills for Children: The Keys to Successful Transitions

By Wanda Whitehead

I am often struck by how often questions from parents focus on two key things: testing and homework. Both of these have become known to be the least important indicators of joyful learning and success in life. I know that at the heart of all the questions lie the parents’ concerns, “Will my child be successful as they take a next step in life?” “Can they handle the changes and challenges that will come their way?”   girl-with-tangrams

It is so easy for us as adults to focus on and worry about the external challenges of any new growth steps. So what are the essential skills needed for a child’s success in life? What do they need to not only be successful academically but in all aspects of adult life?

These ponderings brought me to Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs   by Ellen Galinsky. I highly suggest this book to teachers and parents. The acquisition of these skills is a much more likely indicator of future success than the conventional measures like testing and homework. And, it is important to note, the seven life skills that Galinsky identifies are all carefully nurtured in our Montessori environment.

In a nutshell, Galinsky defines the essential life skills as:

1. Focus and Self-Control: “Focus and self-control involve many executive functions of the brain, such as paying attention, remembering the rules, and inhibiting one’s initial response to achieve a larger goal.”[1] (Montessori was very clear on this need and included many activities and materials in the Primary environment to support the child’s development of focus, concentration, and self-discipline.)

2. Perspective Taking: Perspective taking calls on many of the Executive functions of the brain and requires inhibitory control (inhibiting one’s own thoughts to consider others), cognitive flexibility (so you can see situations from different views), and reflection to be able to consider someone else’s thinking alongside your own. Perspective taking affects how we deal with conflict. Simply teaching problem-solving techniques or conflict resolution is not enough. “A curriculum aimed at teaching children to understand other people’s intentions and behaviors by using books, discussions, and role-play has had very promising results.”[2]

3. Communication: Galinsky writes, “Communicating is much more than understanding language, speaking, reading, and writing—it is the skill of determining what one wants to communicate and realizing how our communications will be understood by others. It is the skill that teachers and employers feel is most lacking today.” Core lessons in successful communication begin in the parent-child relationships and continue through teacher-child interactions. Engaging attention and communicating emotions build strong communication skills. Since this skill is based in language, promoting literacy, and using and encouraging a rich vocabulary is key. For example, when you read to young children, ask them why they think a character acted a certain way, or what they think will happen next.

4. Making Connections: “Aha moments” are most often moments that involve seeing new connections. Sorting and categorizing are first exercises in this skill. Making unusual connections is the basis of creativity. Montessori activities and materials allow for so many experiences of the “Aha moment.” The self-correcting materials guide a child to look back at their own thinking and make new connections. The presentation of the subjects in an integrated manner allows for children to make connections between things they study in Science with ideas of History or Geography. “In a Google generation where there are facts at your fingertips,” notes Galinsky, “the person who will later be called boss will be the person who can put those facts together in new and innovative and creative ways.” [3]

5. Critical Thinking: Critical thinking skills also draw on the Executive functions of the brain and involve developing, testing, and refining theories about “what causes what.” It is not unlike the scientific method.

6. Taking on Challenges: We want to help children take on challenges. Children who avoid this generally have a fixed mindset, seeing their intelligence as fixed and are reluctant to stretch. Children who take on challenges usually have a growth mindset seeing that they can develop their abilities.[4] Remember to acknowledge EFFORT to help reinforce the excitement of taking on challenges. “Your focus on this task is amazing.” “The care and time you put into this project has really paid off.”

7. Self-Directed/Enabled Learning: Ellen Galinsky recognizes that social-emotional and intellectual learning are linked. We need to see our community of learners… adults, too. She states so clearly, “motivation begets motivation;”[5] adults foster children’s motivation by being motivated learners themselves. The Montessori Way through its daily implementation gives room for the child to pursue their learning through their own interests as well as through a vast curriculum. buddy-day

In many of the skills above, executive functions of the brain are referenced. These functions take place in the prefrontal cortex, “the neuronal work space,” a term coined by Stanislas Dehaene of the College of France in Paris. This is where we assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge which then guides our behavior by any combination of information from the past or present experience. This area of the brain begins to develop in preschool years and may not be mature until adulthood.

The very fabric of Montessori education nurtures and encourages practice in all of these skills as children work with materials, negotiate their learning with their teachers, and pursue their own interests. Montessori children take these skills with them and add to them as they move through higher levels of education.

Most of our academic tests involve memorization of facts, some may actually ask for you to synthesize, but that is much rarer in a test. In her lecture on brain development at the AMS conference, JoAnn Deak pointed out that the process of memorization as an act of “learning” actually diminishes neural pathways and higher order thinking. Most tests check for and measure this limited kind of “learning.”

While it is necessary to memorize your multiplication tables and other such tools, what we want most to see develop in our children are the seven essential skills defined here. There is no simple “test” to measure their development of the essential life skills. Tools can be learned through practice and application of tools can be observed.

As our children transition in any phase of their life, we might remind them of these skills that will take them to where ever they want to go.

Mind in the Making is a rich read with all sorts of suggestions for parents to support their child’s development of these seven skills. Montessori classrooms are a rich environment for such learning! For parents who have chosen this method of education, know that it will support your child in a lifetime of learning.


About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).


Related Articles:

7 Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs and How Parents Can Encourage Them by Ellen Galinsky

How Do We Teach Children The Most Important Life Lessons? By Ellen Galinsky


[1] Galinsky, Ellen. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. (HarperCollins Books, New      York, 2010) 5.

[2] Ibid, 6-7

[3] Kathy Hirsh-Pasek Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, interview with Amy McCampbell,February 22, 2005.

[4] Galinsky 10.

[5] Heckman, James(Nobel Peace Prize winner). Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged              Children. (Science 312, no.5782, 2006)

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Bringing Out the Best in Your Child


A bulletin board at Casa di Mir helps children identify growth versus fixed mindset thoughts.

By Wanda Whitehead

Growth Versus Fixed Mindset: How to Help Children Become Strong, Resilient Thinkers

In Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, author Ellen Galinsky, identifies the ability to take on challenges as one of the seven essential life skills children need for success. In discussing this particular skill, she refers to Carol Dweck’s work at Stanford University on how children cope with challenges and setbacks, resilience, and success. It is there that she has researched and formulated the theory of mindset:

“Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that children who avoid challenges have a fixed mindset, meaning that they see their intelligence as a fixed trait and, therefore, are reluctant to undertake challenges that ‘stretch’ them. Children who are willing to take on challenges have a growth mindset, seeing their abilities as something they can develop. She has shown that children with a growth mindset do better in school.”[1]

And not just better in school. The world is full of daily life challenges, intellectual, physical, and emotional. People with a growth mindset do better in life! They are more willing to try the next new thing that might look more difficult than what they have been successful doing in the past. They explore different strategies and are certain they can become more capable through hard work. They are willing to see their experiences as opportunities to grow.


Fixed vs. Growth Mindset Research

Dweck did many studies to explore further how mindset affected outcomes. In one study, she created a questionnaire to assess children’s theories about their own intelligence:

“We asked them questions like this: Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change—agree or disagree?

“We call that a fixed view of intelligence. Another question (that) measures the growth mindset is: No matter who you are, you can always become a great deal smarter—agree or disagree?”

Then to test whether the children’s mindset or view of their capacities affected their response to setbacks, Dweck and her colleagues gave them increasingly difficult problems to solve, such as puzzles from a nonverbal IQ test.

We give them a few trials where they do pretty well; then we give them more difficult problems. We see what happens to their strategies, what happens to their enjoyment of the task, what happens to their persistence. 

We found that (when) the students who endorsed the fixed view of their intelligence hit difficulty, (they) started blaming their ability for failure; they started not liking the task anymore, and their performance plummeted. The students who thought their intelligence was something they could increase or develop saw the challenge as exciting. They thought, “I just (need) more effort or different strategies”; they maintained their enjoyment; they maintained their performance.” [2]

Finding such clear results, “Dweck turned her attention to the question: How do children develop a fixed versus growth mindset, and can their mindsets be changed? Dweck turned to the way people talked with children.”[3]


Celebrate Effort Not Intellect

Basically, the result of her studies in this area is that when we praise or label a child as highly intelligent or smart, we set them up for a fixed mindset and the likelihood that they will wilt in the face of challenge. When we acknowledge effort, support strategizing, and demonstrate that mistakes are opportunities to learn, students will take away a growth mindset.

The findings don’t apply just to academics, but to every aspect of life including those in the social/emotional domains. Children with a growth mindset, see themselves as individuals who can grow and change. This practice is at the heart of Montessori education. Knowing that the child is always in the process of becoming the adult he/she can be is a reflection of a growth mindset. We adults need to bring this perspective to the child when working out challenges in both academic and social areas.

When faced with learning challenges, we don’t label a child, but identify needs so that we can design strategies with the child so they can overcome their challenges and experience the success.

When faced with a social challenge, we don’t label the child, but we identify the needs and strengths so that strategies can be designed to overcome the challenges and experience the successes.

Labeling a child whether with “gifted”, “learning disabled”, “annoying”, “bully” or “victim” we place a fixed mindset on the child and diminish their ability to develop that essential skill named, “Taking on Challenges.” This is especially true for children who may have their own unique challenges in academic or social learning.  No matter how frustrating the challenge is or how slow growth happens, “we can and will grow”, needs to be the mantra. A fixed mindset is a disservice to our children. A growth mindset empowers our children to overcome obstacles and become who they want to be.


What can we do as parents to nurture growth mindset?
  • Adults can model growth mindset to our children in just the way we handle our own challenges.
  • Sharing with your child your inner joy of hard work and the exhilarating feeling of taking on a challenge is powerful.
  • Approaching mistakes from the perspective of opportunity rather than failure is essential to this communication of mindset. Let your child hear your own thinking process.
  • Recognizing when a child takes on a “challenge” as defined by their own sense and acknowledging the effort is also helpful. Resilience is born in the experience of success just beyond the comfortable.
  • We can empathize with our children, and at the same time let them know that we know they can handle the feelings they are having.
  • We can encourage them in problem solving, again conveying that we know they have what they need to come up with several solutions or actions they can take.
  • We can avoid labeling or putting people “in a box,” especially the child’s peers. Continually reflecting the potential for growth and change is key, even if it happens in baby steps.
  • Focus on the areas where growth is clearly taking place, usually in the areas of strength and support perseverance, effort, and patience in the areas where growth is tougher.


As educators and as parents, understanding and acknowledging the importance of growth mindset will offer our children the freedom and encouragement to boldly deal with the challenges that they will inevitably face.


About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).


[1] Galinsky, Ellen. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.  Harper Studio, NY, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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Run, Jump, Play, Grow that Brain!

By Wanda Whitehead

Physical movement has been a brain changer from the time of early humans to our children today. Throwing a ball, jumping, playing with clay, or dancing to a favorite tune are all brain developers for kids. Movement boosts memory, supports language development, and maintains essential elasticity that the brain needs for maximum learning.

Over 100 years ago, Maria Montessori recognized the important role of movement in child development. She made sure her classrooms supported movement, with an emphasis on hands-on activities and sensorial activities. Everywhere in the classroom are invitations to move and interact with the environment. This is certainly true of the preschool thru 8th grade classrooms at Casa di Mir Montessori School.

And while the impact of movement is greatest on our 0-6 year olds, it continues to impact development through young adulthood. In fact, the human brain is not fully developed until about 24 years old.

Yet even though the value of movement is widely recognized for overall health, an increasingly sedentary life style persists. Prolonged inactivity affects self-esteem, social well-being, and emotional balance, in addition to health issues such as obesity.

One study even pointed out that children who lack positive sensory development and physical activity often grow to have smaller brains than their peers who benefited from healthy and constant interaction with the environment. “When they analyzed the MRI data,” the report said, “the researchers found that the physically fit children tended to have bigger hippocampal volume—about 12 percent bigger relative to total brain size—than their out-of-shape peers.”[1]carrusel_independence

As parents, we can counteract the tendencies toward sedentary behavior and support the best brain development for our children. For example:

  • Make sure your child plays outside every day and a lot on the weekends.
  • Choose home and school environments that foster physical activity and interaction with the environment.
  • Playdough, mud, jello, fingerpaint experiences are terrific ways to put young hands to work.
  • Use all senses: smell, taste, hear, see, and touch (remember, skin is the largest organ in the body!).
  • Offer activities in which the child builds, designs, and creates.
  • Eliminate or limit screen time as published by the American Pediatric and Canadian Pediatric Societies:

tech use grid

Today, when so much entertainment can be had sitting still, we need to keep in mind the importance of movement and the use of hands on the developing brain. And by “use of hands,” I don’t mean tapping a computer screen for points.

Now, dust off that bike helmet and take your children on a neighborhood ride.


About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).


[1] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Children’s Brain Development is Linked to Physical Fitness.” Science Daily. September 16, 2010.   Laura Chaddock, A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume and memory performance in pre-adolescent children. Brain Research, 2010.

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Welcome to the Casa Di Mir Montessori School Blog

Hello, and welcome to the Casa di Mir Montessori School blog, where you will find articles and information on the Montessori method, peace education, childhood development, things we find inspiring, and the many wonderful happenings at the school.

Casa di Mir is the only Montessori school for preschool thru 8th grade in Silicon Valley’s South Bay. Our posts may be of greatest interest to parents, grandparents, guardians and caretakers who have critical roles in nurturing children through these years. However, many may find the information of value since Montessori teachings can apply to all.

And, with over 25 years of educating children, we have been privileged to be a part of the lives of many local studeprimary montagents and families, and will draw on what we’ve learned from them, as well.

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Please like or share posts that appeal to you, not only to spread the word, but to let us know which you enjoy most.

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