Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education

Despite the relative prevalence of Montessori education in the United States, surprisingly little research has examined its efficacy. In the more than 4,000 U.S. schools (including private, public, and charter) having implemented Montessori curricula since 1907, the studies that do exist have demonstrated inconsistent findings.

A new study by Angeline Lillard from the University of Virginia published last year in the Journal of School Psychology finally provides some definitive feedback. These results are also pretty provocative. As one parenting advice journalist reads them, maybe preschool doesn’t really matter so much—or, to be more precise, what preschool a parent chooses doesn’t matter so much. In a regular feature called The Kids on, Melinda Moyer wrote, “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.” In other words, worrying about where to preschool your kids pretty well implies that you are providing a caring, hands-on, and stimulating environment for them to grow up in. The rest takes care of itself at ages younger than 5 or 6 years in such an environment. (Click here for Moyer’s entertaining article in full.)

The Real Deal

That was actually a fairly incidental point of Dr. Lillard’s study, however. The real thrust of her investigation was whether Montessori preschool in particular produced any difference in cognitive outcome compared to conventional preschool. So, for current and prospective families of The New Century School, the tagline might be more like, “If you are reading this article, good job in choosing a Montessori program for your kid!” Because, in fact, Dr. Lillard’s research shows that after a Montessori schoolyear, study participants (numbering 172 and ranging in age from 33–76 months), measured higher in executive function (also defined as “self-regulation”), theory of mind, reading, math, vocabulary, and social competence than their counterparts in any other type of conventional school program.

Researchers measured these areas with a set of tasks each focusing on a particular skill and then compared end-of-year scores to beginning-of-year scores to see point gains. The results are:

Executive function: the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders task—kids are required to perform the opposite of a response to four different oral commands (for example, being asked to touch their toes if told to touch their head, and vice versa). Montessori, +13.72; conventional, +7.34

Theory of mind: the False Belief test (and others)—kids are shown a box (e.g., a crayon box) and asked to guess what is inside. Once they are shown that the box contains something unexpected (i.e., not crayons), they are then asked to predict what someone else’s guess will be about the contents. Click here for a video demonstration. Montessori, +0.39; conventional, +0.12

Reading: the Letter-Word Identification task—kids are required to correctly identify letters in words of increasing difficulty.  Montessori, +11.28; conventional, +5.9

Math: the Applied Problems subtest—kids are required to demonstrate simple counting, addition, and subtraction, skills as well as reading clock faces and identifying coin values. Montessori, +4.58; conventional, +3.53

Vocabulary: the Picture Vocabulary task—kids are required to correctly identify the picture that illustrates a given word. Montessori, +2.92; conventional, +1.08

Social competence: the Social Problem-solving task—kids are given a fictional problematic scenario and asked to present solutions (for example, how to share a book between two children). Montessori, +0.33; conventional, –0.07

Classic Montessori’s Lasting Benefits

Thus, the Montessori students made considerably higher gains in each area. Also note where the biggest gains (and differences) were seen—that is, in executive function and social competence. These skills are not only important predictors of school readiness, but also of later academic performance and much later life satisfaction. Dr. Lillard attributes the significant differences in outcomes to the consistent use of in-class Montessori materials and techniques. (See the gallery below for TNCS’s primary students happily engaged with the Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Math materials.)

Another interesting note is that Montessori preschool is also often credited for producing “sleeper effects” in secondary school, in which novel social and cognitive benefits emerge well after the student has left the Montessori curriculum.

A final note is that Dr. Lillard’s study also compared “classic Montessori” programs with what she designated “supplemented Montessori.” For the purposes of this post, TNCS fits the “classic” category, which is defined by 3-hour work periods, 3-year age groupings, one Montessori-trained teacher, and use of traditional Montessori materials. In Dr. Lillard’s study, supplemented Montessori in general fared no better or worse than conventional preschool curricula.

Interested in reading more of Dr. Lillard’s work? Her website,, provides access to a host of related articles.

Have an anecdote, question, or comment to share? Your participation in this important discussion is welcome!


8 thoughts on “Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education

  1. Thanks to Robin Munro, TNCS Enrollment Coordinator, for suggesting this great topic!

  2. I just had to try the Head-Shoulders-Knees-Toes task at home. It really brought a new level to “Simon Says”–related games. Kids at age 4 seem to have a hard enough time controlling their impulse to move even if “Simon doesn’t say,” but when they have to actually perform an opposite command, it’s really fascinating to watch them process that information! My kids handled it very differently. Dhani, my go-with-the-flow kid, caught on immediately and now begs to play every day. Dez, on the other hand, took a number of tries to get it right. I could practically see his internal struggle. He prefers order and logic; in fact, he wouldn’t even wear mismatched clothing today on Mismatch Day! So, he had to forcibly rewire his system of logic to play this game.

    Anyway, really fun and interesting to watch! I’m going for the False Belief task next . . .

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