Montessori and the Development of Independence

Originally Posted March 4, 2016

Recently for my Montessori Primary training program we were required to write a philosophy paper on one of many key topics to the Montessori Philosophy and Method. Since I sometimes struggle in having the patience and clarity to support Oscar’s development of independence, I figured I should give this topic some deep thought.  As a result, I decided to use a framework, the Educational Psychology concept of Self-Determination, to guide my observations and actions.

I was very happy with how this framework helped me to organize my observations and actions around supporting independence, and so I thought I’d share it with you, dear reader, in hopes that you find it helpful as well. Without further ado, here is part 1 of 4, and please do let me know if you find this line of thinking helpful by leaving a comment!

One important goal of Montessori Education is to support children in their development into individuals committed to peace and respect who will strive to go out into our world and make a difference.  For this goal to be realized, children must be provided, from the earliest age, with opportunities to exercise their minds and bodies in ways that promote independence.  

In the context of the broader goals of Montessori education, more is meant by independence than simply children being able to do things by themselves (although that IS important). The independent child in the Montessori environment is self-determined,  or motivated to carry out tasks that are consistent with their developing sense of themselves in their world. The self-determined child believes in their competence and is goal-oriented, while at the same time being aware of the needs and perspectives of others and how their own actions impact their families, friends, and eventually their greater community.

Dr. Montessori said that, “the child has an internal power to bring about co-ordinations, which he thus creates himself, and once these have begun to exist he goes on perfecting them by practice. He himself is clearly one of the principal creative factors in their production.”  (The Montessori Method,1995, Holt print version, pp. 143-144).  This is to say that children strive toward independence from early life.  At first, the child’s sense of sight starts to develop, as they are able to focus on objects farther and farther away, and then the child begins to reach for objects they have tracked with their eyes.  

After some exploration, they discover that they, indeed, are the ones who are controlling these hands, and begin experimenting.  Children gain further independence as they learn to sit up, crawl, walk, eat solid food, feed and dress themselves, and learn how to contribute to their family and community environments. Ideally, even as adults we never stop striving for this self-determination.

According to Dr. Montessori, it is only through meaningful work that this independence can be achieved,

“The one thing life can never do is stand still.  Independence is not a static condition; it is a continuous conquest, and in order to reach not only freedom, but also strength, and the perfecting of one’s powers, it is necessary to follow this path of unremitting toil.”

It is the job of parents and educators to provide the child with the environment and opportunities to keep moving and working toward that physical and psychological independence, and it is through this work that the child will be able to meet higher needs such as esteem and belongingness and become self-actualized (a la Abraham Maslow).

To aid in the exploration of how this sort of independence is supported in the Montessori environment, I draw on the framework of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which has been proposed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.  Self-Determination Theory, like Dr. Montessori’s Philosophy, is based on the assumption that people are naturally active and are driven toward growth and mastery, and that the work they undertake is to build themselves.  Both SDT and Dr. Montessori’s work describe the need for an appropriate, nurturing environment for this self-creative work to happen .  

I chose to use Self-Determination Theory to look at the ways the Montessori Philosophy and Methods support the development of children’s independence because given their similar underpinnings, I felt that I could really think critically about each aspect of Dr. Montessori’s philosophy, while maintaining the integrity of her observations about humans’ natural tendencies toward growth and self-development and the importance of appropriate supportive environments in that work.

Self-Determination Theory proposes that an appropriate developmental environment meet the child’s basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness .  Since each of those terms has a lay meaning, it may be helpful for me to clarify what each means within the context of SDT.  In this context, autonomy means that the child feels they are able to make choices consistent with their goals and values, or their sense of self.  Relatedness refers to a child’s relationship with others and their sense of community and belonging, and competence refers to the child’s perceptions regarding their abilities.  

Below is a fun video outlining more about each of these three basic needs. 

Click image to watch a short video on basic needs.

According to SDT, all three of these needs must be met within the child’s environment for the child to become self-determined. Why do we want kids to be self determined? Self-determination, in research literature is associated with positive outcomes in terms of learning and academic achievement, as well as career satisfaction and even positive health outcomes .

Throughout this series, I will highlight the many ways that the Montessori Philosophy and Methods support the development of independence in children by thinking about how each of these basic psychological needs is met within the Montessori environment.

Tune in soon for lots of specific examples of how supporting children’s autonomy in a Montessori environment helps them gain independence!

Until then, dear reader,

Be well,


(with a special thank you to Jessi Belle)