Montessori and the Development of Independence – Competence

Dr. Montessori observing the Children's House

Dr. Montessori observing the Children’s House

We hear a lot about the development of the “whole child”, but what does this mean, and what does it look like? In order to support children’s social, cognitive, physical, and even moral development, it is essential to balance support and freedom, and to meet the child where they are.  Only through small successes will children begin to feel competent and me motivated to progress.

The Montessori prepared environment is designed to meet the child’s needs by providing appropriate tools for the meaningful work that the child chooses which, in turn, aids in their journey toward independence.  It is the job of the adult guide to connect each child to that meaningful work within the prepared environment. In order to do this effectively, knowing the child, their interests, and where they are developmentally, is key. This is why the role of observer is one of the most important roles of the Montessori guide.

Montessori Triad

The prepared environment contains a great number of activities, but not all of them are developmentally appropriate for each child.  One of the beautiful things about this environment is that within each curriculum area there is a progression of work the child can learn to distinguish themselves and anticipate their own progression through the sequence.

In each area, early works isolate specific skills, allowing the child to gain competence with one particular aspect of a task, and these works build in complexity, allowing the child to grow their skills with each small change in the materials.  For example, in the practical life area, many of the earliest works are variations on the same skill.  There may be a work for transferring beans by hand, and then with a spoon, and later with tongs or other tools that require a greater amount of coordination.  Having the ‘just right’ level of difficulty is key in building new skills because it maintains the child’s interest.  If the task is too difficult or too easy, the child cannot enter a flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975), and practicing this deep level of concentration helps the child with future learning.  It is a goal of the Montessori guide to match a child’s interests and abilities to works within the environment that will help them achieve this state of flow or concentration.

October practical life shelf at Highland Montessori School.
Practical Life

October fundamental practical life shelf at Highland Montessori School.

One feature of the Montessori prepared environment is that it is required that a child be given a lesson before being free to choose a particular work.  On the surface, this structure may seem to increase the child’s dependence on the adult, however this is not the case.  One purpose of this modeling of lessons is to point out key aspects of a work that might appeal to the child, but another purpose is to highlight particular aspects of the work that may serve as a challenge (these are called points of interest).  By slowing down and spending time on a particular aspect of a material or the process, the child is more likely to experience some amount success with that material, thereby helping engage the child to keep working toward a level of mastery, and it is this sustained engagement that helps develop a child’s concentration. The building of concentration is one of the key goals of a Montessori Education, along with coordination, a sense of order, and independence.  These underlying goals support one another.  For example, as the child learns to work with a sponge in the practical life sponging work, they are exercising the muscles needed to develop coordination for a number of other water works.

Table washing combines multiple skills learned in fundamental practical life exercises, and teaches children to organize their space and follow a multiple step procedure.
Table Washing

Table washing combines multiple skills learned in fundamental practical life exercises, and teaches children to organize their space and follow a multiple step procedure.

Once they have achieved a level of mastery with the sponging work, they are able to move on to pouring works, which have a greater number of steps.  This increase in complexity requires a greater deal of concentration and attention to the order of the task, but once the child has mastered several sponging and pouring works, they have developed the sense of order, coordination, and concentration to receive a lesson on a work such as table-washing, or serving drinks, both of which give the child a great sense of independence as they care for their classroom environment and their fellow learners.

Materials in the prepared Montessori environment are designed so as to give feedback to the child about their progress toward mastering the material.  This feedback allows the child to focus on the process rather than whether they are completing a work ‘correctly’.  The Montessori guide’s role echoes that of the materials in that they encourage the child to focus on their progress and growth and view ‘mistakes’ as learning opportunities, and intelligence as something that grows with effort instead of a fixed trait.  This development of a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2006) has been associated with positive outcomes in terms of motivation, goal-directed behavior, and both academic and career success.


In the Montessori environment, there is no system of punishments and rewards in place to maintain appropriate behavior.  These behaviors are instead maintained through clear expectations and boundaries (through Grace and Courtesy lessons), respectful reminders, modeling and role-playing of desired behaviors, and opportunities to practice key skills.  This lack of punishment and reward, along with support in the form of clear expectations and opportunities to practice without judgment or shame, mean the child can more easily internalize these practices and values (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick &Leone, 1994) and can better contribute to their classroom community.  These Grace and Courtesy Lessons, along with the Peace practices within the classroom, give children valuable practice at conflict resolution, building their competence in social skills and making them less reliant on adult intervention to solve problems with peers.

In these ways, the Montessori environment and guide support each of the child’s domains of personal development: physical (gross and fine motor), linguistic, cognitive, social-emotional, moral on their journey toward independence, while also fostering a strong sense of community within the classroom.

tying shoes

I hope to read your thoughts in the comments!