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!


Language Curriculum Specialist Joins TNCS

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

Piggybacking on a post (Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function) from earlier this year, this discussion profiles Lisa Warren, on-staff language curriculum specialist at The New Century School. Ms. Warren came on board in October 2012 to organize and standardize the existing language education at the school. With a Master’s Degree in linguistics from Georgetown University that combined research into how kids acquire second language with curriculum design as well as previous experience teaching Spanish, French, and English, she is well qualified for this new role.

Her role, she says, is primarily to integrate language education throughout TNCS’s progressive, Montessori-inspired curriculum. The primary components of language education are already firmly in place—the teachers, the native speakers, the classes, and (in some cases) the immersion—but Ms. Warren has erected a framework on which these pieces can connect, be reproduced in successive classes annually as well as across the same level (i.e., all primary classes are focusing on the same lessons), and meet national standards. As she puts it, “There was a lot happening in language education around the school.”

She came to TNCS as the result of Head of School Alicia Cooper-Danyali’s active search for such a specialist. Mrs. Cooper-Danyali herself brings a wealth of language-immersion experience to her position and saw the need for the dedicated staff member who could connect all the language dots at TNCS in addition to crafting “plans that document the school’s long-term goals, which include a language curriculum both reproducible and adjustable.”

The Curriculum Map

Key to this exciting new TNCS initiative is a rubric called the curriculum map*. This level-specific document serves two purposes: 1) it provides a comprehensive overview of what is being taught in a given language (i.e., Spanish or Mandarin) and 2) it allows Ms. Warren to identify gaps and fill those in. Aspects of language education like culture and how well a particular class matches up with current themes guide her assessments. She is passionate about her work.

“Being able to talk about something in a lot of different ways is very important for cognitive development,” she says, drawing on her impressive research background. Indeed, the benefits of learning another language have been touched on in earlier blog posts, but Ms. Warren adds to the growing list. Wider cultural understanding, the ability to communicate with multiple populations, and keener analytic skills are among her special foci in what advantages speaking more than one language affords. Multilinguals have an “expanded view,” she says, “which makes them more creative and better problem-solvers.” She cites a study in which a cohort of bilingual kids and another of monolingual kids were asked to list alternative uses for a plastic water bottle. The monolinguals averaged only a couple; the bilinguals’ list stretched to 10 or more. This ingenuity translated to better Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in a related study. It’s a known, but unfortunate fact that kids from lower socioeconomic groups tend to fare worse on standardized tests. Speaking more than one language abolishes this demographic disadvantage—bilinguals, no matter what their socioeconomic stratum, score higher in both math and verbal sections as well as overall. Click here for a comprehensive, annotated bibliography on this critical research.

Perhaps the best part of the curriculum map is that it allows teachers to target their teaching to students in the same class according to their individual levels. This means that students can enter TNCS at any age and have their learning needs met. This “differentiated instruction” is also rounded out by groupwork, such that, for example, elementary students are currently working on sustainable environment projects (sponsored by Clean Currents) for the Science Fair, part of which they are required to do in Spanish. Because they are working as a group, all levels support and help each other with the result that they learn the scientific method in two languages!

In the Classroom

Ms. Warren’s work is not all behind the scenes. She likes to spend time in the classroom, getting to know the kids and working with the teachers to have a very clear sense of the application of her work. She provides a library of resources for teachers to draw from, for example, that includes books, puppets, costumes, flashcards, music, and more. She also offers professional development. For the latter, she might model certain behaviors to show a teacher how to maintain a focus on language while redirecting a disruptive student. Or, she might serve as her own “lab rat” in language class: if she is able to follow an activity in Mandarin, which she doesn’t currently speak, she knows it’s an appropriate activity for the students. If she gets lost, she helps the teacher reshape the activity to the students’ level.

Part of this is ensuring that activities/lessons meet The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL)’s  “5 Cs”: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities, each of which is subdivided into series of standards. (Click here to read the standards.) It’s reassuring to know that TNCS students are organically acquiring other languages via their interactions with native speakers around the school, but that there is also a sound pedagogic infrastructure supporting that process. Again, though, this kind of balance is what TNCS is all about.

Spanish gym class

Senora Casado plays a game with primary students during gym class. “Encouraging the children to speak and communicate in Spanish is the goal in our weekly gym lessons,” she says.

To play, students must understand and respond to commands given solely in Spanish. They learn lots of action verbs this way!

Students play Rolling the Ball (“Rueda la bola”), in which they roll the ball to a friend while reciting a Spanish chant. To play, students must also understand and respond to commands given solely in Spanish. They learn lots of action verbs this way!

At Home

A final piece that Ms. Warren is locking into place is with parents. Regardless of whether parents are themselves multilingual or not, TNCS is exploring ways to encourage and support language acquisition at home. You can learn along with your kid(s), or you can print and post the Word of the Week around the house. Ms. Warren can usually be found in attendance at TNCS Info Nights, and she is even considering holding an Info Night dedicated to language strategies parents can use at home.

Welcome to TNCS, Lisa Warren!

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

*Note: Mrs. Cooper-Danyali plans to implement curriculum maps for all other disciplines as well.

Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function

Mandarin class

Combining games with Mandarin instruction. Hmmm—what does that carpet say?

There’s a lot of buzz currently circulating about bi- and multilingualism—people who speak more than one language are smarter, they tend to earn higher wages, and they have clear communication advantages amid increasing globalization, according to a recent NY Times article. Learning second and third (and beyond) languages is becoming an educational priority; in fact, the language instruction at The New Century School is a big factor in why some parents choose TNCS for their kids.

Those parents are even more on target with that choice than they might have initially known, as multiplying evidence shows. Turns out, how you acquire new languages is also important, according to preliminary research sponsored by the American Councils for International Education. Initial findings suggest that the more language kids get, the bigger their improvements in all sorts of metrics, from literacy to math to creativity to executive function . . .  and the list goes on.

Why Learning Another Language Matters: The Benefits

But before we get deeper into the how, let’s look more closely at the whys and wherefores of multilingualism. Learning a foreign language is not easy for most adults, if the proliferation of Rosetta Stone–type products is any indication. For kids (the younger the better), it’s a heck of a lot easier, which begs the question, why do public school systems generally wait until high school to offer foreign language instruction? Experts at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages agree that starting a second language early in childhood has many benefits, including increased competence in that language. More importantly, “Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not.” Furthermore, they argue that language acquisition is fundamentally a cognitive, rather than a linguistic exercise. In other words, learning a new language requires and hones problem-solving skills, which children are actively developing. Their flexible brains are ideal for the mental calisthenics language acquisition demands.

There are other ways in which “the earlier the better” comes into play—increased fluency in both the foreign and the native languages, for instance, as well as more accurate pronunciation and intonation are more easily achieved by young learners. By no means does this suggest that older learners, including adults, should give up trying to learn a new language; it just means that gains will likely be more modest. The point is, the optimal window for language acquisition is during early childhood.

Not only are kids’ brains better suited to the mental workout, but the workout itself—just as physical exercise does to the body—actually reshapes their brains to function even better. Bilingual kids’ brains always have both languages active internally even when they are only speaking one at a time. This forces their brains to be constantly monitoring their surroundings for what utterance is appropriate in the given context, sort of like being continuously presented with a minor problem to solve (or, to continue the exercise metaphor, posing low-level chronic resistance to muscles). Far from confusing kids, as once thought, the internal conflict makes their brains more nimble; they think more clearly, not less. To test this, in one experiment, scientists presented a group of kids ages 4 and 5 years with the Dimensional Change Card Sort Task, which required them to sort the cards first by color, then by shape, even when the color didn’t match (this video shows how difficult this task is for preschoolers). To perform the task, the child needs to be able to manage conflicting stimuli, a marker of executive function (for which we’ll borrow this definition: “a set of processes that are responsible for the conscious control of thought and action”). The bilingual children consistently outperformed the monolinguals.

Merging Practical Life skills with immersion in Spanish in a Primary classroom.

The student carries out instructions given in Spanish, successfully coordinating a progression of cognitive functions in order to assist the teacher with cleaning the chalkboard.

With evidence that bilingualism leads to “cognitive flexibility” accumulating in several studies in the early 2000s, researchers next investigated at what age the advantages begin to manifest and found through meta-analysis of existing studies that at age 2 years and even earlier, bilinguals exhibit better cognitive function than their single- language counterparts.

And, although it’s easier to learn other languages at younger ages, the benefits are lifelong. Bilingual patients stave off dementia in older adulthood better and longer, for example. (See below for links to the original research papers with loads more information and data.)

TNCS’s Approach

Now back to the “how,” for the latest development in this ongoing inquiry, it seems that immersion in another language facilitates its acquisition. So, with language, it’s not just the earlier the better, but also the deeper the better. Language immersion is just what it sounds like, except with an additional nuance in the scholastic environment: the student learns the language and is also learning other subjects in that second language. Thus, math, phys ed, or art instructions are presented in, for example, Spanish to native English speakers. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is currently funding research on the efficacy of the immersion approach, with all indices pointing to favorable results. As stated above, the preliminary findings show better academic performance.

So, to wrap up, what does all this have to do with TNCS? Well, in several important ways, TNCS is getting it right.

  • First, TNCS provides both Spanish and Mandarin language instruction, arguably the two most relevant non-English languages in the changing U.S. demography.
  • Second, language instruction begins as early as possible—as soon as the student matriculates. For pre-primary–enrolled students, this is age 2 years.
  • Third, immersion is central to TNCS philosophy. Pre-primary students are fully immersed in either a Spanish or Mandarin classroom. Primary and elementary students get both formal instruction in Mandarin and Spanish and partial immersion in Spanish (e.g., phys ed at The Lingo Leap might be taught in Spanish, etc.).
  • Fourth, TNCS encourages parent participation in this important process. Print and post the Word of the Week in Spanish and Mandarin featured on TNCS’s website. Parents can learn right along with their kids!
  • Fifth, Montessori education inherently cultivates executive function; therefore, the pairing of Montessori-inspired and language curricula is synergistic—each component enhances the other.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Hello Kitty signifies a job well done!

Elementary students even learn Mandarin characters, recording them in practice books!

For more information:

  • Read the seminal 2004 article from Developmental Science here.
  • Read the 2009 article from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America here.
  • Read the 2010 article from Journal of Experimental Child Psychology here.

Ciao! ¡Adiós! Auf Wiedersehen! Au revoir! Zàijiàn! Ilalliqa! Shalom! Sayonara!

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.

Getting the Education Nitty Gritty

 The New Century School believes fervently in instilling core values in children as a key part of their education. Life skills are equally, if not more important, than cognitive skills in developing the whole person. Such skills include self-discipline and self-esteem, among others, which enable us to surmount challenges. “[TNCS students] welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again,” affirm school founders Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner.

author Paul Tough promotes second book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Education writer and speaker Paul Tough
Photo credit: Mary McIlvaine Photography

Education author and speaker Paul Tough might well approve of this approach. Tough’s second book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, explores the seeming paradox that helping kids learn how to fail can ultimately teach them how to succeed—and not just on standardized tests.

So, as Superstorm Sandy raged outside on the evening of October 29, 2012, an intrepid group braved the elements to gather at the Patterson Park Public Charter School‘s cafeteria on East Baltimore Street to hear Tough speak. Building on accumulating evidence that children exposed to “toxic stress” experience lifelong debilitating emotional and neurologic effects (see Harvard University’s “Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development” for more information), Tough also writes about what happens when stress is a positive influence. He explains that adversity in small doses and the subsequent soothing that comes from nurturing environments is a critical part of development in infancy. A crying baby who is soothed by a caregiver is not only learning an important dynamic but is also establishing appropriate neurochemical pathways. Such seemingly mundane interactions set off a veritable fireworks display of synapsing neurons in the infant brain.

What does this have to do with education? A whole lot. For one thing, that critical infant development period is followed in the schoolage years by a similar development period in which kids begin to exhibit metacognition, or the ability to “think about thinking.” Curiosity, self-reflection, executive function . . . that’s metacognition, and it’s something we’d do well to allow kids plenty of room for. Yet, conventional wisdom has dictated “teaching to the test.” In the United States, school systems can seem set up to basically get kids into college. But what happens after? As Tough reports, educators began noticing that the crops of great test-takers schools had been producing were unequal to so-called “real-world” challenges. Meanwhile, Dr. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and her research team discovered that intelligence isn’t all that kids need to make it: They need grit. As she defines it, grit is “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.”

Paul Tough's second book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Paul Tough’s latest book outlines an approach to child development and education that dovetails perfectly with TNCS’s Montessori-inspired methods

Stated simply, kids that try harder, do better. At TNCS, kids read; write; appreciate literature, art, and music; and speak multiple languages, all in a progressive, Montessori-inspired learning environment. Just as importantly, they learn leadership skills and the ability to think critically because they are free to work at their own pace, which encourages the self-discipline and self-control that will serve them so well throughout their lives. Maximizing children’s natural desire to learn, TNCS teachers guide and coach students through academic and “practical life” tasks they are actively and passionately engaged with, rather than just “filling them with facts.”

Students learn, in other words, just that “stick-to-it-iveness,” that grit, that Tough calls one of the most important noncognitive skills, or “character strengths,” along with curiosity, optimism, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, and self-control. These seven key character strengths have been a part of TNCS’s mission all along. By learning to manage their failures (to “tough it out,” so to speak), TNCS students are, conversely, honing the tools they need for a life fulfilling, meaningful, and happy.

TNCS elementary classroom exempifies project-based learning and guided discovery at an individualized pace that promotes curiosity, self-discipline, and persistence

A TNCS elementary classroom exempifies project-based learning and guided discovery at an individualized pace that promotes curiosity, self-discipline, and persistence

Wondering about your own level of grittiness? Take the Grit Test here!

Read Paul Tough’s in-depth account of character education in the New York Times Magazine here and more on toxic stress in The New Yorker here. Listen to Tough’s Back to School interview with Ira Glass on This American Life here.