Montessori 101: Observation

In the Montessori classroom, a newcomer may be surprised to so a teacher occasionally sitting in one spot, taking notes or quietly watching the classroom.  Is the teacher taking a break? Why isn’t the teacher “doing” anything?  Shouldn’t the teacher be engaged with the children?  Shouldn’t the teacher be, well, “teaching”?

She is actually engaging in the cornerstone skill of the Montessori classroom: observation.

The Cornerstone Skill

For those of us who are not engineers or contractors, a cornerstone is traditionally the first stone laid for a structure and is essential to ensure the proper alignment of the remainder of the building.  In the same way, observation, to a Montessori teacher, is foundational for ensuring a child’s healthy development in the classroom.

We believe that observation is the foundation of the relationship between caregiver (teachers or parents) and child, for it is how we “hear” a child express what they cannot yet communicate with their words.  We learn things about the child as we watch them interact with their environment and with others.  Observation is how we converse with a child instead of talking at a child.

Why is this so important?

Do you remember a time when you broke into your child’s play without regard to what they were doing?  A child, interrupted without warning, and pulled away from an activity which had captured his or her interest, would naturally respond by expressing disappointment and frustration.  This scenario could have been avoided by the caregiver pausing, observing, and then determining the best course of action.

Similarly, have you ever intervened in a conflict between your children, quickly administering a scolding, only to find out later that you had entirely misjudged the situation?  Again, this scenario could have been avoided by pausing, observing, and then determining the best course of action. 

Observation aids us in becoming objective, unprejudiced, impartial, and unpresuming.  These things are essential in building trust with the child.   Today, we want to encourage you to tap into this powerful resource that is just as essential to parenting as it is to teaching.

preschool students playing game on floor
“Let us leave the life free to develop within the limits of the good, and let us observe this inner life developing.” – Dr. Maria Montessori


The Montessori teacher always begins with self-observation.  Before we can objectively observe others, we must first examine ourselves, to ensure we are in a healthy state of mind to become objective observers. 

First, asking such simple questions about our self-care, such as, “Am I well-rested?” and “Am I healthy?” or “Am I physically nourished?” makes us consider, that we cannot be at our best as caregivers, if we our own basic physical needs are not met. Self-care is the first step in caring for others.

Then, we can reflect on our mental state.  “Am I fully prepared for my day?” “Am I organized?” “Do I have a plan?”  If we are feeling anxious, stressed, unprepared, and disorganized, our mental capacity to observe is limited. 

Next, we should examine our motivation.  “What is motivating my interest in observing?” “Have I already determined what I want to accomplish through this observation or am I open to what the child reveals to me?” “Why am I here?”  “What do I want out of this situation?” 

Last, in the busy moments of the day, when our emotions are engaged (tone of voice raised, agitated mannerisms), it is time to pause and observe oneself.  Ask, “Why am I correcting this child constantly?” “Am I trying to control a person or a situation?” “What can I learn from what just happened?” “Why am I reacting with this particular emotion?” “Why do I react this way when a child doesn’t respond to my request?”

Self-observation makes us consider how we might be contributing to a negative situation, instead of placing the blame on others or circumstances.  While we cannot control circumstances or other people, we do have control over our own response.

Observation of the Child

preschool teacher playing boardgame with child
“As we observe children, we see the vitality of their spirit, the maximum effort put forth in all they do, the intuition, attention and focus they bring to all life’s events, and the sheer joy they experience in living.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

Take a minute or five minutes to observe your child without interrupting them, or making them aware of your silent study.  Write down your observations on your child in the following areas:

1. Physical Development (What physical skills did your child use?  Did you observe gross motor skills, and if so what were they? Did you observe fine motor skills, and if so, what were they? What are additional activities that will encourage your child’s physical development?)

2. Language Development (What did you observe in terms of your child’s listening, speaking, read or writing skills? What language skills did you see the child use?  What did he demonstrate mastery of?  What did he show growth in? What additional activities might encourage your child’s growth and development?”

3. Cognitive Development (What did you observe in terms of memory, math concepts, classification, colors, shapes, sizes and problem solving? What thinking skills did you see your child use? What activities might encourage your child’s thinking skills?)

4. Social Development (How did your child interact with other children? Did he engage in solitary play, parallel play or cooperative play? How did your child interact with adults?  What emotions did you observe in your child?  What are some activities that might encourage their social and emotional development?)

You will be amazed at what learn about your child, and may find a new appreciation for their stage of development and their personality!  You may also find a better understanding of why they do what they do!

How to Observe

Without the right guidelines, observation can be useless, as bias, judgment, assumptions and selfish motivations can interfere with our understanding.

Instead, follow these guidelines.  Observe objectively.  This requires that you are not emotionally involved!  If you find you are emotional, pause your observation until you can move forward objectively.  You should also judge rightly.  Hasty, biased judgment usually leads to embarrassment of or emotional/psychological hurt to a child.  Ask yourself what your tone of voice, words, and body language are communicating to the child; ask what the child might be feeling and why he might be acting in that way; ask how you can guide the child to his or her benefit.  Do not make assumptions.  When we presume to know the facts or motivation behind the situation, we are making a grievous error of projecting onto the child motives that we are most familiar with, either in ourselves or in our experiences with others.  Do not have expectations of a child or a situation: learn to be flexible so that you can accept changes instead of becoming anxious over them. As we mentioned earlier, check your motivation.  Are you genuinely interested in discovering the child? Are you willing to exert the mental and emotional energy required for the process of discovery?  Do you honor and respect the child as a unique being, with unique likes and dislikes, personality, motivations, thought processes and more? 


The Cornerstone Skill


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