From The Banner


Montessori: A Holistic Education that Builds Character

By Jeff Waxman

I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, my teachers and school role models were not always kind. I was a shy, awkward student, unsure of how to make friends. I really never felt seen or regarded for the person I was by the adults in my school classrooms. In those days, feelings and moral development were not very much on the radar, unless it was teachers doling out rewards and punishment, which were prevalent. What I and other children like me needed, were teachers who were versed in character development.

As Montessori educators, we seek to build the whole child: expanding and facilitating intellectual, social, physical and emotional growth, which includes character education. There are several key components of the philosophy that lend themselves to this work.


First, and most importantly, are the basic classroom rules: Care (Respect) for Self, Care (Respect) for the Environment, and Care (Respect) for Others. This set of basic guidelines create a safe ‘container’ making the classroom a place where it is normal and reinforced daily to use a quiet voice, to walk slowly and purposefully, to clean up a mess you may have made, and to leave your work on the shelf “ready” (and beautiful) for the next person. This work is ongoing; it lasts for three years and develops piece by piece. It’s the child’s awareness muscle, flexing and contracting.


Montessori classrooms are places where every child is noticed, and carefully observed by their teachers. We Montessori teachers see your child in all of their facets; their amazing strengths, as well as their challenges. And we seek to help them to recognize ‘good choices’ (work choices as well as behavioral choices.) that can be made in order to become the best person they can be. Mastery in Montessori comes through repetition. 


There is a certain “positive peer pressure” that exists in the Montessori classroom. The rules are few and they are crystallized and reinforced daily. The child’s natural tendency to want to “fit in” (which develops slowly, increasing with age, especially around the age of 5, but even earlier) greatly assists with helping to reinforce the social norms of the classroom.


The role modeling that happens within the three-year age span cannot be underestimated. There is huge value in younger, inexperienced students learning directly from older classmates. And there is nothing better than a five-year-old child reminding a three-year-old student: “I noticed you running in the classroom. We use walking feet. Can you go back and show me how you walk?” No need for the adult to be authoritarian when the children are kindly restating rules and nonjudgmentally asking each other to make good choices!


Our Montessori teachers lead by example. We can’t ask the children to walk in the classroom or speak in a quiet voice, or to return their work to the spot where they found it if we are not demonstrating those choices. We understand the importance of being the examples. 


Another aspect of the Montessori classroom that serves to help build a child’s sense of self is the Peace Curriculum. Montessori education came in the time of the First World War when factions were positioned on the world stage to destroy each other. Maria Montessori had the vision that if peace was to be achieved, it would ultimately be the children who would make the biggest difference. Embedded in the classroom is a peace curriculum; a set of tools which helps children to find their unique voice when needing to address concerns, resolve conflicts, even have a challenging conversation.

In the 0-3 and Preschool classrooms, this may look like a teacher offering words to a child if they don’t have them. “Tell him: ‘No…!’ you don’t like it when he takes your work…” a teacher may say. Then the child can practice using those words (or their own words) to express such feelings. Primary-aged children may benefit from learning reflective listening techniques in a conflict, modeled by their teacher, sounding something like this:

Child 1: “When you said I couldn’t play with you, I felt sad. I really wanted to play with you today.”

Child 2: “What I hear you saying is that when I didn’t want to play with you, you felt sad.”

Child 1: “Yes, I did.”

Child 2: “I didn’t mean to make you feel sad. Maybe we can play together this afternoon…”

Often this needs to be encouraged and modeled and the goal is for everyone involved to feel some resolution, comfort and satisfaction.

Upper Primary students often participate in a form of student government, learning to identify sources of conflict or issues needing to be addressed, and then work through a process of self-led problem-solving where students brainstorm solutions and think through outcomes to choose the best options. Often the teacher sits back to listen and offers input when asked, and the conversation may unfold with no adult intervention.


In the day and life of a Montessori student, there are so many opportunities to be mindful. They begin as the child enters the classroom and can be seen:

– in the eye contact and kind “good morning” (or handshake) from the lead teacher,

– in the peaceful and calm air of the classroom,

– through the prepared environment which may include fresh flowers, nice clean smells, order and beauty,

– in activities like painting, flower arranging, or using a beautiful Montessori material,

– in walking on the line… Preschool children may arrive at a circle time meeting when one child is quietly tapped on the shoulder and they come to the circle/oval which is on the floor (usually made of tape) slowly walking on the line, balancing toe to heel. The next child arrives, and then the next, until the whole group is walking one behind the other in silence. Then the group sits down and begins their circle time,

– in choosing a place to work that is appealing; indoors, outside, under a tree, in a cozy corner, just by being present and aware about where the child would feel best doing their work and choosing to be there.

All of us as human beings want to do the right thing, and we seek to find meaning and to feel good through our efforts as we journey through the many phases and levels and tests of our moral development.

Your students are on a path of heeding their own call to excel, to make healthy, positive prosocial choices which not only serve themselves, but also their classroom communities. 

It’s exciting to work with young children and to be able to guide them with powerful Montessori tools to develop kindness, compassion, empathy, mindfulness, politeness and honesty. We hope to help them to learn important moral lessons that will ultimately benefit everyone they touch. 

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