Montessori Education:
The Importance of Direction and Intervention
by Gary Goodwin

Every facet of authentic work in Montessori has a guiding principle underlying its practice. These principles follow from remarkable observations of the child in the course of his fundamental development. Dr. Montessori’s observations led to discoveries: that the child’s development follows natural laws that are universal among all children. These laws are expressed in tendencies which engage and underlie the child’s formative activity. Education can only be meaningful if it first considers who the child is and takes into account this profound process of human construction.

The pedagogical principle we use follows from these observations: as teachers we look out for and are guided by the child’s expression of these tendencies that inform what and when we present to the child. Also in keeping with these principles, the child requires an environment prepared by the adult with tools designed especially to attract the interest and activity-response characteristic of his plane of development.

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“The pedagogical principle we use follows from these observations: as teachers we look out for and are guided by the child’s expression of these tendencies that inform what and when we present to the child.”

It follows that the adult directing this environment is trained in the practical application of these materials, the principles, and the appropriate manner to guide and direct children with emotional sensitivity. The adult who has learned of the gifts of the child’s potential, often with compelling enthusiasm, accepts the role of securely assisting them, not in learning school subjects, but to be the subject of their own development and learning.

The role of intervention and direction

“Intervention” (also referred to here as “direction” and “assistance”) is central to our daily pedagogy in the child’s work environment.  It recalls specific guiding benchmarks from our preparation as teachers: the material content of the Montessori approach, Montessori materials, and our personal training—our training-in-spirit. It has goals and guidelines, but its practice is an art. Capturing this art requires practice, and its spirit, patience.

The practice of Montessori often requires a personal and transformational departure from previous understandings of education. It requires continuous observation and learning. Intervention requires, in principle, a creative application, boldly applied by adults who appreciate the positive response children will make to confident adults capable of understanding and maintaining the components of leadership as a Montessori teacher/guide. Perhaps most important is the teacher’s ongoing daily attitude. The adult is not just a leader in teaching or directing, but also in her internal compass and mind set, and in her being as an individual. An adult can give presentations to the child which, in their content, is very complete. Unless, however, the adult has found in herself a personal raison d’être related to her role with children, her presentations may not contain a sustaining source and enthusiasm—a light that exposes the beauty of her character—and the children may not find inspiration for their own interest in what they choose to do.

“Intervention” (also referred to here as “direction” and “assistance”) is central to our daily pedagogy in the child’s work environment.”

In short, Dr. Montessori referred to the “attitude” of the adult—that of love for the child—which once educated in the potentials possessed by all children, turns, inspired and follows a more singular path. Abs Joosten, who in Renilde Montessori’s words was one of AMI’s most esteemed trainers, upon opening one of his courses in India, said that we come to training for many reasons, but once we encounter Dr. Montessori’s discoveries surrounding the child, we find we now possess one direction: to help the child.

The practical content of intervening with children includes:

  • Presentations of Montessori materials for self-directed learning
  • Interventions to redirect activity (with materials) that does not fulfill its purpose given in presentations, or social behaviors that do not yet follow appropriate norms for fairness to the child himself, to other children, or to materials in the classroom
  • Interventions to assist or restart activity that is developmentally purposeful
  • No intervention when our assistance is not needed and the child is engaged in work, or if he indicates any other developmental tendencies such as orientation, perfecting, repetition, reflecting on his work, or helping others.

Understanding “intervention” in Montessori pedagogy: A comparison to “teaching and learning” in general education

The purpose and practice of Montessori education is to assist the child, not to teach him. It involves teaching, plenty of it. But the content of our teaching is directed at promoting and supporting what already comes naturally: learning through exploring and acting on his environment.

It is helpful to distinguish Montessori purpose and practice from that of traditional education. In general education the practice of teaching has one objective: teaching is done so that its content will be learned. It is the philosophy and the raison d’être of traditional education. For Montessori teachers there is a rule of thumb to understand our work authentically: it is assistance given to the child in the course of his fundamental development. Showing the child how to sweep is a good example; the activity of sweeping is in keeping with the child who emulates those around him.

“The scope and practice of Montessori is beyond the mere transference of information and can be best understood in the context of the developing wholeness of the individual: where every aspect of the child’s work contains a part of the whole child, physically and in his psyche with respect to what he has already learned, what he is learning now, and what he needs to be prepared to learn in the future.”

  • To do so, he needs to perfect his movements. While learning the basic movements of sweeping, the child is able to respond to inherent tendencies for ordering the environment and to gradually develop the ability to act independently and take care of the environment.
  • This and other activities like it help him to grow intelligently in the sense of openness to understanding “how” and then “why” things work the way they do, such as in the cause and effect of the movements of sweeping:
    • to mature physically in the way that  movements are well-coordinated by the intelligence, that which also guides and promotes the action of the will providing the impetus to act;
    • and humanly in the sense of compassion and consideration both of which form a daily part of human activity in a normalized social environment;
    • and in all, to act with the self-guided responsibility tow ard self, others, and the environment.  

By assisting these goals of human development as they already exist in potential, the adult acts in cooperation with the child’s direction: promoting susceptibility to the power of his own learning and exciting the child to follow his natural learning interests.

The scope and practice of Montessori is beyond the mere transference of information and can be best understood in the context of the developing wholeness of the individual, where every aspect of the child’s work contains a part of the whole child, physically and in his psyche with respect to what he has already learned, what he is learning now, and what he needs to be prepared to learn in the future.

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A NOTE FOR PARENTS: Important momentum is gained in parenting when the child’s daily efforts are understood and parents begin to employ these principles. Practiced at home both child and the school are supported, and we all easily observe the benefits in the growth of the child.  Our interventions, both parents’ and teachers’, guided by the principles that internally motivate the child, promote a much stronger emotional bond and dynamic relationship with him. The bond evolves and strengthens as the child grows in responsible independence. And an exquisite part of our own learning throughout these early years is not what we are better prepared to offer the child, but what we continuously learn from the child.

Helping children develop an innate capacity for independent learning may be initially frightful for a parent and challenging for a new teacher. Prejudiced opinion regarding children’s ability to learn quickly is a part of this difficulty adults will face:  for instance the thought of a two- or three-year-old successfully carrying a tray of glass objects across a room, or a seven-year-old safely handling a lighted match for a science experiment. Events such as these take place in Montessori environments as “everyday events.” They are not taken for granted at all; they are cause for special note in a teacher’s observations, since they reinforce our notion of normal development as well as underscore the amazing insight of Dr. Montessori’s observations.

“The child, coming to school for the first time, may have become accustomed to adult attitudes that do not presuppose a capacity for self-disciplined and responsible independence.”

The idea of “learning in an environment where there is freedom of choice and movement” may be counterintuitive for the adult because our experience with it is limited. Or contrarily, “freedom” may be mistakenly offered as “license” to the child (essentially to do whatever the child wants), or misconstrued as permissiveness with too few boundaries, stemming perhaps from fear of doing something wrong or of “squelching the child’s ‘creativity.’”

The child, coming to school for the first time, may have become accustomed to adult attitudes that do not presuppose a capacity for self-disciplined and responsible independence. For example: A child with this kind of experience at home is often reluctant at first to show any interest in working with any of the many materials that are available to him. These children wait for someone to work with them, particularly an adult, or to do something for them rather than eagerly trying work of their own choice. In general these children have a hard time forming a productive attachment to the environment of materials, in forming an attachment to their need to satisfy their own interests, or to enter into the social life of the environment.

Experienced teachers know that children can at first show emotional upset with change to their routine and to this difference in adult expectations. In these circumstances it is important to be considerate to parents, just as we are to the children. Detaching from their child is a complicated and emotional process for many parents.  Sensitivity and continued communication is required of the teacher in order to form a lasting and positive bond with them.

Often six weeks or more are needed to help the child reorient himself to his own capacity for independent activity, a transformation Dr. Montessori referred to as “normalization.” Thus it can be seen that “intervening” and “directing” children have many points of intersection, at times being indistinguishable.  In either case, our goal is stated best by a child years ago: “Help me to do it myself.”

This is a point of arrival and a point of departure: it is a benchmark for all children. Knowing the child’s capacity for independence we continue our efforts at assistance and encouragement.  We give a presentation directly to the reluctant child, or we make sure we present to another child in earshot of him as an indirect presentation. Keeping this up we alternately observe from afar and intervene when we see the ultimate sign that says: “I’m ready to try this, please help me get started.” It happens without fail sooner or later.


How can parents help their reluctant child? Our best advice to parents is to have faith in the child: he or she will be no different from children before them in their basic tendencies for work seen throughout the environment, but each child will display them differently. They will love their work; you will see a marked difference in your child’s attitude; your child will begin to socialize with others; your patience will be rewarded. And what can you actually do as a parent? Follow suggestions from your child’s teacher. The basics are always the same:

  • Follow the child’s interests and actively help with pursuit of them.
  • Read with your child on a regular daily schedule.
  • Provide ways to participate in daily life at home: cleaning, food preparation, washing, keeping things orderly and put-away; all these should be set up so the child can initiate and perform them independently, in proportion to their age and size.

“It is easy to forget that we are perceived by the child emotionally, through actions, much more so than through our words.”

The Parameters of Intervention

The first purpose of intervention is to help the child know “how” to do his work, not just, “No, it may not be done this way.” When we intervene with “no,” which is at times necessary, we want our intervention to be positive and purposeful, not just a presentation of the negative. Maintaining our composure and goal in such instances is very important. The child needs to observe consistency in the adult. It is a calling for our own awareness and self-control.

It is easy to forget that we are perceived by the child emotionally, through our actions, much more so than through our words. Both the voice of the adult and accompanying action has to communicate the same message. If voice and action do not match, a confusion of the adult’s intention is aroused in the innately perceptive child. His focus then easily shifts away from the adult’s intended message which may become almost irrelevant by comparison to the confounding presence of confusion. Understand also the depth of a child’s reflection. In his silence the child weighs and sorts—an unconscious process certainly—and we must respect it as though a math problem were being solved.

The Specifics of Intervention

  • A primary consideration: We hope to make our interventions both timely and meaningful. To do so we need to be keen observers, ready to study our child and take notes of our observations. Planning ahead for the presentations we will give is as important as if we were planning a speech to a group of parents. Presentations at school or in activities done at home, without planning or preparation, are rarely as successful as we would have wanted. Components of our planning should consider:
    • Have we prepared ourselves by checking for any level of discomfort we may have physically or emotionally. Our “readiness” is an attitude of being alert, of self-awareness, of material preparation and of honesty.
    • Timeliness and meaningfulness of the presentation such as:
      • Noting what we have presented previously to the child and whether the child has used that material
      • Has the child used it then put it away quickly or has he used it meaningfully and with understanding?  Has he understood all its parts or concepts (as in elementary materials)?
  • Second: We have to consider the fact that the child may need us to repeat the same presentation. We look for this in how the child behaves with the material:
    • Is it used with consistent lack of intentionality or without using any of its self-didactic clues that indicate its outer purpose has been achieved?
    • Consider then, next steps:
      • Consider if the adult’s presentation may not have attracted the attention of the child.
      • Did the extent of the analysis of movements exceed the child’s need for them?
      • Was the presentation accomplished as a “natural” activity done by the adult or was there too obvious focus on the child?
      • Or consider another scenario: the child has not completely followed or understood how to do all aspects of the activity.
      • Reflect then also on whether, earlier, you decided not to give all its points of interest. Repeat-presentations are often very important to successfully attract the child’s full attention. In spite of probable protestations from the child that you have already shown this work, your persistence will show that the child may gain more interest in it this time than in the first presentation.
    • While examining the need for a repeated presentation, keep in mind that the child of the first plane of development has not developed the ability to reason abstractly. This does not imply that the child in this plane does not understand. He understands best by being shown how activities are done and develops a foundation for reasoning by working with his hands.
    • But without a reasoned understanding of how the parts of the activity fit together, it is quite easy to understand why in one presentation a child of the first plane of development might not grasp all its component movements or even its purpose. Children can “see” cause and effect of physical activity, but when there are many parts of the activity, capturing all of the parts may not be possible unless presentations are repeated or more guidance is given.
    • At the elementary level, where complicated concepts are presented through the materials (or through play-acting such as with the grammar box materials) many presentations are often needed: the same material to the same group of children over a number of years.
    • In either case, our responsibility comes in persisting with the child while we carry out an analysis of why the child does not use a particular material.

A NOTE FOR PARENTS is important here to clarify why the same materials are present in the environments at both the 6-9 age level and the 9-12 age level. Due to the complexity of concepts, and the fact that they are “materialized abstractions” of complex concepts, each material is presented multiple times over the course of six years. For example, the material that is used to present the concept of “area” for the areas of rectangles and triangles is rarely completely understood without the child’s repeated work over several years. The materials demonstrate how formulas for area are built, but overlays of abstraction are formed with their use and take time for their entirety to be finally understood.

The Montessori approach respects the process of the child’s self-construction and values it rather than an approach that would ask for memorized formulae. Conceptualization of abstractions is important in the development of the intellect; they are formed by each individual in their own time. When “understanding” occurs it is the culmination of a formative process of exploration and discovery. It involves for the child real satisfaction such that can only be found in a creative process.

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  • Third: Consider if our presentation has somehow expressed only a muted challenge to the child. This can be the most difficult part of our reflection. Consider then the following:
    • Learn from the child’s reaction to the presentation by reflecting on our attitude in general or in relationship with the child.
    • Do we interpret the child as needing our constant attention during the presentation (a helicopter teacher/parent)?
    • If the presentation was successful, was an attitude present that expressed confidence in our ability to challenge the child, to engage him?
    • Was there an expression of our personal love in the activity or was there overriding worry whether we were going to be successful?
    • Did the presentation conclude with a crisp departure and a sincere faith in the child’s ability to work independently?
    • Did our departure signal loving detachment from, and good will for, the child’s independence?
  • Fourth: Consider if the child needs our intervention and help. A child’s inaction may indicate help is needed; or is the inaction an expression of the child’s reflection? Observation and analysis is needed.
    • Children communicate their need for attention in different ways: sometimes they can verbalize their need.  But “felt” needs may be beyond the child’s ability to express. In this case they are more likely to be acted out.
    • Children may, for example, stop work and sit at their place at length; others may move about the room and watch other children or disturb them, while others may ask for presentations even though they have not actually worked with materials that have been already presented.
    • There are numerous examples such as these in the classroom and at home with many other possible variations.
    • Our responsibility is to respond to these children and to intervene according to our conclusions from studied observations.
    • It starts with our analysis of the information.
      • Safety and health are the most immediate areas of our accountability. Is the child not well physically or is there some situation that is emotionally and adversely affecting the child?
    • When do we take action to offer assistance?
      • At home as at school the adult may allow too much time while the child is neither working nor reflecting, i.e., not doing much at all. The child might declare that he is “bored.” Our response: We may lay responsibility for this on the child but does it have to do with the adult? Have we encouraged the child to be dependent on us to find something to do?
    • It is important to be aware of what triggers us to decide on a course of action in these circumstances. It is also important to note when we do not take necessary action even though we have awareness of not doing so.
      • Waiting to take action, without making a perceptively observed, educated conclusion is not wise or educationally appropriate.  
      • Waiting before taking action may of course be appropriate. But consider if our inaction takes place because we are unaware of doing so, or because we are not sure of what action to take. Our lack of awareness or our uncertainty in the classroom will almost always result in the class becoming disruptive.
    • The adult must be the leader and decide on responsible action. There is always a solution available, and usually it is found in our own preparation, lesson planning, and then in decisiveness.  
    • Allowing reflection on the other hand, at home or at school, is a serious educational opportunity which the developing child cannot, in good health, be without.
      • We study and learn to observe this difference: between the child in reflection and when intervention is needed.
      • Reflection is important psychologically, emotionally, and for the child’s spiritual and intellectual life. Imagination and inspiration depend on it as a key to human consciousness.
      • Identify the difference between reflection and inactivity. When the child is inactive and our response is not to intervene (for example, when we are busy or tired), then our goal to inspire the child’s work is neglected. Care should be taken that our intent is not misunderstood. Be ready immediately when we are available to extend ourselves to that child. But if the child is actively reflecting and we perceive this is the case, the child will be supported.
      • Moments such as the above certainly happen because we cannot be in two places at once. Children are resilient and forgiving and often they carry on. We would like the child to make good choices during these moments, but sometimes they don’t. It is the adult’s responsibility to be aware and to intervene when called on, even to do so when you cannot make a positive determination regarding the child’s behavior. Taking positive action rather than no action is best when in doubt. Our best action is to be prepared and to offer good choices for work to do.
    • When we conclude that intervention is necessary it may consist of either a brief encounter with the child or with a presentation that we have previously planned and prepared from observation. Brief encounters can be very helpful and be all that is needed to reignite his work. These may consist of the following: check that the materials are organized, ask a brief question, and support the child emotionally through your action. Then move on without delay.
  • Fifth: Consider the elementary child who has a fundamental characteristic for needing group work. We have to provide this in our presentations to groups and even in presentations on how to work in groups (so that the children can then chose to work together on the activity of their choosing).
  • Sixth: Consider whether we have provided for and directed children to know how to “go out” to the community to find answers and experiences that they begin to have and develop as they mature. If we haven’t provided for this and promoted going-out, a void will be experienced and the children not have information they need in their Cosmic Education—the purpose for their lives and for the many lives they will experience outside the walls of their school.
  • Importantly: Keep this in mind—as the adult, you have first and final responsibility for direction and intervention when the children are under your care.
    • Again, before all else we have to ensure the health and safety of the children under our care.
    • We have to always be alert to the fact that the environment will not of its own preparedness, in every instance, stimulate the child to act. To satisfy the needs of the child we must ask if our presentations have included the full curriculum given in the training and if our presentations have satisfied the characteristics and tendencies of the developmental plane we work with.
    • We have to take that leadership role and help the child by initiating the contact with the environment and maintaining that contact. Keep this in mind and train yourself to be ready for this moment. You have choices of what to do; take action without fear. The children, loving you for the effort you make, will inform you of the value of your intervention. This will be your control of error, whereas you would have none had you not acted.
    • We know that at many points along the way the child will spontaneously act, but at others they will not do so readily.
    • Some children during their time with us will more noticeably than others absorb and grow from the effect of normalization in this environment. But for all children it cannot but have a significant impact, one that will soon display itself in the child’s character.
    • Our benchmark is Dr. Montessori’s discovery: the child’s absorbent mind will always use the environment to explore and inform his potential to develop. Our accountability is to use all the tools of our training and our creativity, while we work to discover the child’s vulnerability for and drive to work. No two children ever express this in exactly the same way.
    • Our work is always to lead the child, with the best data we can gather, to the point where spontaneous activity will begin—not to be discouraged when it does not happen. The effort we make on his behalf speaks the loudest to the child because our action is evidence that we continue to believe in him.
    • Keep firmly mindful of the fact: the work you do for one child is also an indirect presentation for the others.

“The conclusive work for a teacher is practice, following with great accuracy the important guidelines gained from training. It is only with this “hands on training”, training which we, like the child, can only do by doing it ourselves, that we prove to ourselves, it really works.”


Our presentations to children are images of ourselves. Outside the family, we are the child’s adult daily contact; our effort with loving persistence and consistency is guidance-by-example. The inherent goal of the child’s development is to become functionally independent and socially interdependent. These are gifts of spirit in every human being. They can be realized through a child’s seeming limitless energy and variety of exploration and activity. And so our work is to offer the child opportunities to act on behalf of his developmental tendencies and of his own growing sense of self.

A pedagogical principle of observation stems from this teaching practice: to be aware of and to analyze the nature of a child’s errors or difficulty in performing any activity. Errors in the child’s efforts are a natural part of development, of their exploration, and of their awareness of and cause and effect. We do not rush to correct errors. Children usually see their errors and, if not, the materials are designed to be self-teaching (self-didactic). We appreciate errors made as they attempt activities we have presented, and we help the child only when necessary. We look for the child to become aware of and to correct on his own, in keeping with his awareness. Our approach during any intervention contains the component of helpfulness—to help the child correct errors in understanding (how a work is meant to be performed given its intended purpose). We do not “do the work for the child” in order to “get the work done”; this would be illogical and counter to the principles and spirit of Montessori education.

To further help the child achieve independence it is important to remember the likely necessity of repeated presentations. After the initial presentation of each activity, it is quite likely that another “point of interest” will be given in a follow-up presentation. Or, perhaps brief interventions of assistance will be needed before a child will be completely independent with a material. One need never hesitate; re-presenting is sound Montessori pedagogy! Adults may feel that a repeated presentation is not a rational solution to children who aren’t working in the environment. Even the children will tell us “you have already shown us this.” But consider the level of the child’s ability to use reasoning or to conceptualize. Consider this for the child of the first plane of development—the primary level—compared to the child at the elementary level in the second plane of development. Young children do not “learn” in a conceptual way, but “showing” with our own handling of the material conveys the information the child needs. This child can gain understanding and awareness by seeing the “cause” and “effect” of activity performed. Repeated showing, especially of activities with several steps or components, is often required. Elementary level children learn abstractly, but do so gradually, as their reasoning expands. However, when more complicated materials convey complex concepts with multiple steps, we have to be prepared to repeat these presentations as well. Re-presentation at the elementary level is pedagogically sound practice.

In the Montessori school environment we intervene with children when their behavior or activity is not purposeful as it relates to fulfilling a developmental goal, or when it indicates misuse or abuse of materials, or their independence within the classroom. We intervene with direction and work, often by giving a presentation, or re-presentation of the same activity or behavior, such as “grace and courtesy.” We also do this when the child’s specific activity with materials has lost focus. We give grace and courtesy presentations in a small group even if we have one child in particular to whom we want to give a presentation. This is done to be gracious in our sensitivity to a child who might have forgotten how his behavior has affected others.  We always consider the child’s physical health and emotional levels in interpreting his behavior, certainly also the psychological characteristics of his age and age-appropriate levels of awareness and physical coordination. The goal of intervention: to help the child connect to and engage with the prepared environment and to its “tools of development.”

Montessori teacher training presents us with the theory of pedagogy using Dr. Montessori’s discoveries of children in the course of their work during her earliest efforts at helping children. The application of this pedagogy, and the study of it, does not conclude with the end of training. The conclusive work for a teacher is practice, following with great accuracy the important guidelines gained from training. It is only with this “hands on training,” training which we, like the child, can only do by doing it ourselves, that we prove to ourselves it really works. And then we learn one of its best lessons: that as adults we can continue to learn alongside the child with as great enthusiasm as when our training gave us the first clues to the “secret of childhood.” Many questions around “interventions,” such as when, what, how much, how often, how little, cannot be fully answered in training. We learn these best from the children.

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