Checklist: What to look for in a Montessori School

Not all Montessori schools are created equal—let's discuss the signs of authentic, high-quality Montessori programming in early childhood.

Searching for the perfect Montessori school for your little one? Don't be fooled — not all Montessori schools are created equal.

That’s because Maria Montessori was never able to copyright or trademark her method. As a result, even at two different “Montessori” schools, your child can have vastly different experiences. That’s why it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with a few key principles so you can determine which Montessori school is going to offer the best early childhood education.

To make that task easier, we’ve created a checklist for you to quickly determine whether or not your school is genuine, high-quality Montessori

Here’s what you should look out for:

Montessori program checklist (ages 0-6)

✅ Does the school feel calm?

A Montessori environment should be calm, free of unnecessary distractions, and a place where your child will be able to focus deeply on learning. The overall classroom should look structured and orderly, with shelves that are neatly and meticulously arranged with materials placed towards the front of the shelf. The school should also incorporate elements of nature, with opportunities like caring for plants and gardens.

✅ Is the classroom arranged with the child in mind?

Go a step beyond child-sized furniture and accessible shelving and pay attention to the details: is artwork on the walls at the child’s height (peek at the owl portrait below), or is it better positioned for adults?

Is the artwork depicting something a child would find interesting to look at (a focus on reality or beauty), or is it inspirational quotes that a child can’t even read yet?

An authentic, high-quality Montessori environment should be designed—down to the last detail—to make the work, beauty, and order of human life accessible even to the youngest child.

✅ Are the materials real?

Pay close attention to the quality of the materials used for the furniture and learning materials. Are the tables and shelves solid wood? Are there real plants and animals in the room for the children to care for? Are dishes real ceramic? Are materials displayed on beautiful trays?

Real materials (yes, even breakable ones) teach children to respect materials and engage their interest through beauty. Children know whether they are engaged in real, purposeful life activities, or whether they are just playing pretend. And it makes all the difference to their budding self-esteem to know they can do real things for themselves.

✅ Are babies free to move?

Babies should, as far as legally allowed, not be kept in cribs, highchairs, walkers, bouncy swings or other “baby jail devices”, and should instead be given the opportunity to freely move their bodies throughout the space. You can see if a classroom has emphasized movement by looking for low shelves, movement areas, and low furniture. As a result, the space should be child proofed and set up for the child's independence.

Older children, too, should not be confined to desks or be spending all day confined to whole-group or circle time activities, but should be free to select work, find a comfortable workspace on the floor or at a table, and spend as long as they want learning and working.

✅ Are toddlers and preschoolers doing real work, or just fine-motor busy work?

A genuine Montessori classroom engages children (aged ~12 months and up) in real, meaningful work — like zipping their own jacket, washing a table, cutting an apple, arranging flowers, or sweeping the floor.

In less authentic environments, this work gets displaced by busy work in the name of building fine-motor skills: using tongs to transfer puffballs from one ice cube tray to another, for example.

Real work develops executive functioning and builds self-esteem. When your child washes a table, for example, they need to learn a complex, multi-step process — and they must maintain their concentration to follow each step, in order, until they’ve completed the task (getting a cloth out of the cabinet, getting it wet at the sink, cleaning the table, and then cleaning the cloth before hanging it to dry).

When kids are doing real work, they develop their concentration and their ability to follow a process, as well as the earned confidence of doing something meaningful for themselves.

✅ Are children using the materials as they are intended?

Each Montessori learning material is intended to be used in a specific way — for example, the pink tower is intended to be arranged with the largest block on the bottom and the smallest block on top. Because every block is the same shade of pink, the same texture, and of the same construction, the difference in size is isolated for the child to focus on. Using the blocks in this way builds the foundation for more complex mathematical concepts later on.

But if a child is using the blocks aimlessly — playing pretend, throwing them, or combining them with other materials and building other structures — a Montessori guide should intervene.

An authentic Montessori program doesn’t just let students use materials any which way just because “that’s what the child wants to do” in the moment. An authentic program recognizes that the only way to serve a child's development and help them get the full benefits the materials provide is by inspiring them to notice the right details that will encourage them to use the materials as intended.

✅ How does the school handle it if a child doesn’t show interest in a particular area of the curriculum or material?

A child is never forced to use a specific material in a Montessori classroom — but every material is an important part of the overall curriculum.

That’s why authentic, high-quality Montessori school won’t take an, “Oh well, that’s the child’s choice!” attitude. Instead, they’ll be thinking very seriously about how to entice the child to a particular area and planning intentionally to re-introduce it at a scheduled time later on. Children should be supported in their academic, social, and emotional development on the basis of nurturing intrinsic motivation, but lack of initial interest is never an excuse for a teacher to give up thinking of new ways.

✅ Is the child’s concentration respected?

A Montessori education allows children to experience the state of “flow” and develop the skill of concentration through uninterrupted blocks of self-directed work time. This is why adults should not be interrupting a child who is engaged in beneficial work—even if that’s to offer praise, explanations, or ask questions.

Guides should also be preventing other children from distracting those who are working, as well as creating classroom policies that help to preserve concentration — for example, having a rule that children must put hands behind their back when approaching another child who is working, so as not to touch their materials or disturb them.

✅ Do children have time for uninterrupted work?

While this is one of the hallmarks of the Montessori method, too many Montessori schools break up the morning work period with scheduled activities. Ensure that your child’s program isn’t too scheduled, like if children are made to follow an hourly schedule.

A toddler classroom should have a two-hour work period, and a classroom for ages 3 to 6 should have a full three-hour work period in the morning.

Young children struggle with transitions. Longer periods of uninterrupted work allow for the child to explore in an unhurried manner, sink deeply into an activity, and develop their capacity to concentrate, which will allow them to take on more and more challenging work.

✅ For older children, is there an additional work period in the afternoon?

Especially as children get closer to elementary age, they can begin to have an additional afternoon work period for more advanced math and language work while the younger children nap.

✅ For older children (around ages 4 and 5 in Children’s House), is there a greater focus on literacy and math materials?

As children get older, there should be an increasing focus on literacy and math materials. Lower-quality programs rely heavily on practical life work, which is great for young children who are still developing concentration and confidence, but can leave older children unchallenged if more abstract work isn't introduced as well.

❌ Are there reward charts or bribes?

In an authentic Montessori program, there should be no use of reward charts, bribery, punishments, or over-praise. Children should learn to evaluate their own accomplishments, rather than depend on someone else’s approval of their accomplishments.

Most importantly, the children should be building self-control, focus, and perseverance by engaging in activities that are meaningful and captivating to them, slowly but surely embedding the skills and attitudes they need to be self-directed and responsible.

Unwelcome behavior, on the other hand, should be met with redirection, reminders of the classroom routines, and by finding work to inspire the child.

❌ Are children given quizzes, tests, or worksheets?

Traditional worksheets, tests, and quizzes aren’t used in an authentic Montessori early-childhood classroom. To assess a child’s understanding, guides instead closely observe the children’s work on a daily basis. Additionally, all the learning materials are built in such a way that a child knows if they’ve made a mistake and can self-correct on their own, right in the moment (rather than waiting to get their test back from their teacher to find out if they did something wrong).

✅ Does the staff embody values of grace and courtesy?

Montessori guides model how to be respectful, patient, and kind — it’s one of the hallmarks of a Montessori education. Pay attention to how the guides speak to parents, to one another, and to other children.

✅ Are the Montessori guides knowledgeable about the Montessori method?

Montessori guides should speak about the method and how it benefits child development as a whole, not just academics, social-emotional development, or motor skills in isolation.

They should also be able to show the connection between the materials and classroom setup to how the child's developmental needs are being met. And they should be able to show how materials isolate difficulty and prepare the way for the next step along the child's journey.

Guides should also be able to explain the importance of Montessori principles like uninterrupted work periods, control of error, the progression of Montessori materials, the emphasis on “concrete before abstract”, “freedom within limits”, and why work and play are one and the same in the Montessori classroom.

Another way to determine a school’s commitment to the method is by looking at the accreditation of training for their teachers. Lead guides should be certified Montessori educators from a program accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE). All Montessori teacher training centers that are accredited are accredited by MACTE, and many have other affiliations with Montessori organizations such as American Montessori Internationale (AMI) or American Montessori Society (AMS).

At Guidepost Montessori, all lead guides are required to have already earned a MACTE-accredited Montessori certification or to be in the process and continually making progress on a certification during their tenure. Guidepost partners with Prepared Montessorian Institute (PMI), the largest MACE-accredited training center in the U.S., to sponsor rigorous and supportive training for all our guides.

PMI's training is designed specifically for the working educator—enabling guides to put theory into practice from day one in the classroom. And through the supportive global network at Guidepost, guides can elevate their skills and hone their craft while collaborating with those who are further along on their journey.

If your Montessori school meets the criteria on this list, you’ve more than likely found a great option that fully embraces the Montessori method!