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UVA Study Shows Montessori Helps Kids from Poor Families Succeed at School

University Montessori

Educators worry about the fact that low income children as a group don’t do as well in school as those who come from wealthier families. Special pre-school programs can help, but they’re expensive. Now, a psychologist from the University of Virginia has evidence that another approach could address this problem at no additional cost.

It’s Wednesday morning at University Montessori in Charlottesville, and the kids are playing a familiar game, putting their hands into and outside of a circle, then turning around.  It's fun, but there’s a method to this hokey pokey madness.  They’re learning the concept of opposites.

“Alright.  Who else can give me another opposite?" asks their teacher.  "We’ve done in and out.  How about up and down?” 

Studies have shown that moving around promotes learning, so kids in Montessori Schools are rarely required to stay in their seats, and UVA psychology Professor Angeline Lilliard says they learn to write before they start reading.

“Reading is very passive," she explains. "You’re taking in a stimulus, whereas writing you’re actually moving, and there are studies showing that reading is very facilitated by learning to write first.”

This method of teaching, developed by Maria Montessori in the early 20th century is based on natural patterns of child development.

“Montessori does not involve rewards and grades," says Lilliard. "Children do things because they’re interested in learning, which is what children naturally are.  You don’t have to give a child a reward to learn to crawl or to learn to eat, so Montessori is set up  to capitalize on these natural interests that we have in learning and exploring and figuring out our environment.”

There’s also an emphasis on social development, beginning with basic tasks.

“When children start in a Montesorri program, one of the first things that they get introduced to are exercises of practical life, where they are taught to prepare meals and polish shoes, and arrange flowers and do things that for a young child have real meaning, and so it can give them a sense of self-confidence a sense of agency, a sense that they can actually do things in the world.”


And Lilliard,  who wrote a book called Montessori: the Science Behind the Genius, says this approach is designed to improve a child’s ability to concentrate.

“When they’re very, very young it’s considered extremely important to let them focus on their work and not step in and interrupt them, so children in a Montessori classroom will spend a long, long time engaged in the same activity, whereas in conventional schools  the bell rings, and it’s 50 minutes, and it’s time to move on, and Montessori students can stay involved in a project for a long time and develop attention.”

That, she says, will have lifelong implications.

“Children’s self-regulation, their ability to regulate their attention and regulate their behavior at age four is the strongest predictors of health, wealth and criminality outcomes at age 32.” 

What’s more, Lilliard’s research suggests Montessori can help low income children to achieve on par with kids from wealthier families.

“If they’re at Montessori schools they start low but they get higher at each time point, such that by the time they’re five years old – our last time point --  there’s no longer a statistical difference between low income  children in Montesorri and high income  children in these conventional settings or in Montessori.”

The study also showed Montessori students liked school-related activities more than their counterparts in a regular public school program.  Details appear in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.