Shannon Rihm says her two children, McKenzie, 4, and Taylor, 2, have extremely different interests and learning styles. McKenzie is a visual learner who enjoys art and writing, while Taylor prefers to build things and use his hands.
A Montessori setting, where children are encouraged to pursue their interests, provided the individual learning environment Rihm sought for her two children. Both children are enrolled at the Village Green Montessori School in Libertyville.
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"By allowing students to excel at what they are good at and enjoy, that causes a love of learning at an early age and encourages kids to continue with their education," Rihm said. "It is not forcing kids to learn about things they are not interested in and lets them learn about things they actually care about."
Instead of creating a curriculum that a child fits into, the Montessori method is an individualized approach. Based on the teaching methods of Maria Montessori, an educator and the first female physician in Italy, a Montessori education emphasizes the academic, as well as the social, emotional and physical aspects of a child.
Classrooms are characterized by their mixed settings with 3- to 6-year-old classrooms being the most popular. Children are educated based on their abilities rather than their age, said Carol Martorano, educational director at the Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School in Wheeling. The school serves children from newborn through 12 years old.
"When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you will see children working individually or in small groups," Martorano said. "A lot of work is incorporated to their interests and students move at their own pace. Students can move on without the group and vice versa. Nobody is pushed ahead or held behind."
The individualized approach builds self-confidence and lets students progress at their own pace, said Donna Butcher, director of Children's House Montessori School in West Dundee.
"It gives children the feeling of success," Butcher said. "They are comfortable and you never have children feeling failure."
That success and confidence results in fewer disciplinary problems, said Ann Phillips, director of Village Green in Libertyville.
"There is not that level of frustration because students can always find something else they can do," Phillips said. "The methods of learning helps all learning styles flourish."
Materials used in a Montessori classroom engage students who may have very different learning styles, Phillips said. They include auditory, visual and kinesthetic -- or physical materials.
"The curriculum is based on the materials and following the child," Phillips said. "That is opposite of traditional schools where the children follow the teacher."
Jessica Maag, who attended the Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School during her elementary years, said the system prepared her for the public school system.
"Going into a public school, I just felt like I could relate things to the real world better than my classmates," said Maag, 33, who now oversees the zero to 3-year-old program at Alexander Graham Bell. "I was definitely very advanced in math, but I was well rounded and well prepared for other subject areas. I felt like I was ahead of the game when I went into public schools."