7 Ways Montessori Math Helps Students with Learning Differences
Updated: Apr 26
Montessori math tools, printables and lessons can be a great benefit for SPED kiddos (special needs students, and students with learning disabilities and learning differences). It can help them to enjoy the process of learning math, enable them to be successful, and it adapts to their needs. The best part is Montessori math can help support inclusion, as it tends to be a beneficial approach for general education children as well. In fact, I have seen this first hand in my conventional public school classroom! Here are the top 7 reasons you should consider using Montessori math lessons and materials with your special education kiddos!
Montessori math lessons, or presentations as they are often called, are naturally differentiated. They are primarily designed to be given to individual children, or in small groups when the child is ready for them, as opposed to a whole class lesson from a math text book, as is typical in modern schools. For a child with an IEP (Individual Education Plan), who may be working on skills several grade levels below their peers, Montessori math lesson can meet them where they are instead of where grade level standards and a text book say they should be.
2. ISOLATES DIFFICULTY
No other learning system that I am aware of more thoroughly breaks down concepts into manageable steps and parts than Montessori math. Each new concept, or part of a skill has its difficulty isolated so the child can focus on mastering only one thing at a time. For example, when learning how to read and compose large numbers in our base ten system, children are first introduced to the concrete golden beads. They build quantities given by the teacher starting simple (ex: 200, then getting more complex, ex: 310, and 7,497), and then in the same way they identify quantities of golden beads built by the teacher. There is no writing numbers, or reading problem sets from a book at this stage. The children move on to the next stage when they have mastered this skill in isolation, and through lots of practice. Next, children learn how to read and compose numbers in base ten with color coded number cards in the same way they did with the golden beads. When they are fluent in this, the beads and cards are combined. The children match number cards to quantities built with golden beads, and vice versa. In later lessons they are shown how to record their work. Isolating the difficulty in this way can enable children with special needs to experience success buy not overwhelming them with a multitude of steps, or needing to use multiple skills they may not have mastered. This tends to reduce frustration and math anxiety.
Click the image below for printable number cards.
Dr. Montessori believed that the child learned best through being active and through the use and development of the hand. Her early work was with children in asylums, and in the slums of Rome. Her extensive research and training led her to discover that when these children learned with specifically designed hands-on materials, they became focused, peaceful, and their learning equalled or surpassed that of their typical peers. Concrete materials can help students with special needs to understand math concepts through direct experience, instead of needing to understand an abstract lesson, or even a 2-dimensional visual aid.
Click the image below for a printable fractions booklet.
4. CONCRETE TO ABSTRACT
Research shows that the best way to help children gain a deep understanding of math concepts is to first present the child with concrete materials, then representational, and finally the abstract. Although the first step is often skipped in schools for a variety of reasons, this path from concrete to abstract is even more needed by the special needs child in order for them to be successful in math. This is built in to the very fabric of Montessori math lessons and materials. In learning addition facts for example, children first add in the concrete by counting color coded bead bars. Next, they work in the representational with the addition strip board, by putting labeled and color-coded strips that represent different quantities together on a board to find the total sum. Finally, they work in the abstract and pull equation slips from a container, and either match little pre-written answer chips from memory, or use an addition finger chart to quickly locate an answer they have not yet memorized. Students with special needs can work with these concrete and representational materials to support their learning as long as they are needed.
Although Dr. Montessori had multiple degrees including in Medicine, Psychology, Pedagogy, she did not develop her system in an ivory tower, but with children over her lifetime. Because she used the scientific method in this process, she continually evolved and developed her materials and lessons based on what she learned from observing the children. Her early work was with special needs children, who after working with her, were able to pass the exams given to their typical peers. This led her to wonder how much further students without special needs could go. She made breakthrough discoveries including the fact that given the right materials in the right developmental stages (she called them sensitive periods), children could achieve wonderous results many years beyond what was believed possible. The typical child at her schools would often be working 3-4 years ahead of the public-school children. Montessori math lessons and tools are designed from the get go to meet the developmental needs of all children including those with learning differences.
6. CONTROL OF ERROR
Another unique aspect to the design of Montessori math materials that can be helpful to the special needs child is the control of error. This allows for independence, and encourages the child to conduct error analysis when they make a mistake – to try and figure out what was done incorrectly. Research shows this is beneficial to help children develop a deeper understanding of math concepts. The control of error often comes in the form of a minor limiting factor in the design of the material that clues a child in that something is not right, cuing them to repeat the activity. For example, the Seguin board used for matching loose quantities of objects to a fixed sequence of numbers by putting objects in a slot in front of the numerals has exactly the number of objects needed. If there are objects left over, or if there are not enough in the end, there was a mis count somewhere along the line. For the special needs child, the control of error can help them to find success in their independent practice.
Click the image below for a FREE printable Seguin board.
Long before ADHD became part of our every day vocabulary, Dr. Montessori recognized that children need to move in order to learn. In her day, school desks were literally bolted to the ground, immobilizing children for hours at a time. Not only did she do away with this system in her schools, but she intentionally worked meaningful movement into her very lessons! For example, if a child is practicing a particular math skill, they get up, go to a shelf, gather the materials on a tray, and can work at a table, or on the floor with a mat. When they are done, they put the materials back on the shelf for another child to use. While completing the activity, there are often many fine and gross motor movements involved. For a child who finds it difficult to sit at a desk and fill out a worksheet, doing their math the Montessori way fulfils their need for movement.
Click the image below for Montessori Math printables!