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How to Motivate Children in a Montessori School

November, 2017
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How do we motivate children in a Montessori school to love learning the way Maria Montessori said they would? How do we get to the stage where we can say, “the children are now working as if I did not exist.” (Montessori, Absorbent Mind, p.277)

motivation-jiading-1There are many experts in the field of educational research today, but one that stands out most prominently is Alfie Kohn. Daniel Pink is another proponent of motivation and they both believe in the principles of self-control, self- directed learning and intrinsic motivation as Maria Montessori did.

There are 4 C’s of motivation according to the research data.

Choice. This is an important element in fostering intrinsic motivation. In a Montessori classroom, this is referred to as ‘uninterrupted work time’ but it is not necessarily the “going it alone” type of choice. According to Daniel Pink, it means acting with choice – which means that we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others (Pink, Drive, p. 90).  So, to put it in simpler language, we must allow choice for the children but also give them autonomy in how they exercise that choice and not interfere or tell them how it should be executed! For example, in the practical life area the child may choose to prepare an apple to share with his/her friends. S/he will take the tray with the necessary items, fresh apple, apple slicer, small serving plate and tongs to their table. S/he will proceed to use the slicer to segment the apple, use the tongs to transfer the apple to the plate and ask other children if they would like a piece. Then the child will wash the slicer, the plate and tongs and dry them and return to the shelf for the next child who wishes to use it. This activity may take ten to fifteen minutes or longer depending on the child’s age. This allows the child to maximize the process and gain in self-confidence and independence.

Content. What we teach and what we ask children to learn has an important impact on whether they are motivated or not. The content must be meaningful, or as Alfie Kohn puts it, ‘worth knowing’. We must remember that children have lives and interests outside the school environment, they have their own perspective, and ways of doing things. What we teach must take account of this.

motivationCollaboration. This is another factor in intrinsic motivation. Learning at its best is the sharing of information and ideas. If we can challenge someone else’s interpretation and have to rethink our own and work on problems in a climate of social support – this enhances our road towards intrinsic motivation. The vertical age grouping in a Montessori classroom ensures that children moving through the group will be exposed to both older and younger peers; facilitating imitative learning, peer tutoring and collaboration all around. For example, a younger child is struggling to zip up or button up his/her coat, the older child will come along and say, “it’s ok, I’ll help him to do it.” Children help when they see others struggling, not when they want to ‘hurry’ the child.

Challenge. We have to find a happy balance between challenge and success in order to allow for mistakes and learning taking place. If you are driven by the desire for ‘mastery’ rather than performance goals then you are interested in learning in order to master a topic. These people like a challenge and persist to achieve their mastery. People with ‘performance goals’, however, tend to like to do the easy jobs that make them look good! Challenge is important for emotional intelligence, problem solving and managing risk taking with limits and boundaries. As teachers and parents, we should ‘stand back’ and allow children to make decisions and take risks that are developmentally appropriate and allow them to be in charge to increase their repertoire of skills, thus adding to their bank of experience.

The 4 C’s provide us with a framework for a prepared environment both in the ‘home’ and in the ‘classroom’ in order to foster intrinsic motivation in children. Our hope is to provide children with opportunities to engage in productive work with joy and passion.


By Aileen O’Brien,

Director of TMEC (Trinity Montessori Education Center)

Montessori School of Shanghai Curriculum Standards Leader


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