How to Follow Your Child in a Montessori Homeschool

Welcome to Lesson 8 of the Montessori Homeschooling 101 Series

Today, we are uncovering the mysteries of "following your child" in a Montessori homeschooling environment. 

Montessori Homeschooling 101: How to Follow Your Child

Following the child is another catchy, famous Montessori phrase that can elude even the most optimistic homeschool mother. 

Following your child means putting him in charge of his decisions. 

Think of "following your child" as putting the child in charge of his decisions. This can be a great thing in the homeschool, as it places great responsibility upon the child for his own learning. It also takes a lot of pressure off of the homeschooling mother. When this wisdom is followed properly, you will see great fruits of your effort in supporting your child as you follow him, allowing him greater success because of your aid instead of greater frustration because of your hindrance. 

I will explain further, but first let's look at the two extremes of following (or not following) your child. 

  1. Put the child in full control of his day, work, choices, etc. 
  2. Never allow the child to make decisions for himself. 

Neither of these scenarios will bring any success to your child's life or homeschooling endeavors.

There is a sweet spot, and by following some guidelines, you will be able to find it for your own family!

Here's the plan: 

1. Allow your child to make his own decisions... 

2. But there have to be limits to the decisions your child is allowed to make... 

3. And as the homeschooling mother, you play an active role by "guiding from behind" and steering your child to fruitfulness.


But there have to be limits to the decisions your child is allowed to make. 

We talked about "Freedom within Limits" in Lesson 7 of this series. Limits and barriers help the child be successful without the constant correcting and redirecting from Mom. Keeping your home, homeschool, routine, and rules simple helps set boundaries for successful living with children (and all family members!) 

So, let's say a limit you have set in your home is that "school-time" happens between 9:00AM and 12:00PM. The start time may vary from day to day, as you have a toddler, a baby, and your primary-aged preschooler whom you are homeschooling. 

As soon as you step into your school space, you have a routine that you consistently follow. You may start with "circle time" where you sing some songs, do calendar, read a Bible story or a picture book, and pray for your day. Then you jump right in to your subject-specific Montessori presentation for the day. 

This routine is expected, and you have built up to this routine by adding just one thing each day (or week) so your preschooler experiences success with circle and presentation time. Her focused attention is the fruit of your patience and slow build-up to the 15 minutes it takes to complete your start-of-school-time routine. 

Here is where the magic of following your child comes into play. 

After your Mommy-led time, you hand over the reigns to your child to make her own decisions about how she will spend her "school time." 

Let's say you are currently at the 30-minute work time step, as you are working your way up to 45 minutes or more of work time at home. You have used 15 minutes for circle time and the lesson presentation, which means your child is expected to work for 15 minutes. 

Your child can choose the work you just presented or another option off of the shelf. Remember, you do not have too many options, because you are diligent about not overwhelming your child by offering more choices that she can handle at her level of maturity. 

As soon as she makes a choice, your child is in the lead.

The time goal of 15 minutes of work time starts as soon as your child chooses a work. You will encourage her to finish what she starts and choose another work if she finishes before the time goal has elapsed. 

Be careful! If she works longer than 15 minutes, you should not stop her! We have flexibility as homeschoolers to build in margin to our days. If there is any possible way, try never to interrupt your child when she is focused and working. And always be a gentle encourager for your child to persevere through distractions and discouragement, as you want to help foster the habit of full, focused, prolonged attention in your child that will bear fruit for a lifetime of learning! 

The time-limit is really a help for those who need to prolong a child's attention on "school-related" tasks, not a cap where you abruptly end school time by following a timer. 

Did you notice the limits to the decisions your child can make herself? 

She DOES NOT get to choose whether or not to have work time. 

She DOES NOT get to choose whether or not to do circle time.

(This is up to you and your homeschooling goals, by the way! Circle time is not considered pure Montessori.) 

She DOES NOT get to choose whether or not to be given a lesson.

(Again, your choice. You can change this to your child deciding which lesson - of the ones available - she will be given each day. I have found that with homeschooling, it is better for me to choose at least one lesson each day to present.)

She DOES NOT get to choose to work less time than your set time goal. 

She DOES get to choose which materials to work with during her work time! 

She DOES get to choose how long to work with each material (as long as she finishes what she starts and doesn't stop before the time goal, of course). 

And as the homeschooling mother, you play an active role by "guiding from behind" and steering your child to fruitfulness. 

As a guide to your child's learning and development, you set the stage. You control the environment of peace and orderliness, above all else. You choose what goes on your child's shelves each week. 

You know which materials your child needs, is ready for, and is interested in currently (and if you don't know, you make a well-thought-out guess). 

You follow your child by observing her patterns, interests, and current abilities. Let's say your child is fascinated with buckles. You put some buckles on the shelf - tailored to the strength of her hands. When those buckles are mastered, you remove them and put harder-to-buckle buckles on the shelf or choose a different fastener. 

You can do the same with teaching your child to read. You have a starting place, and you progress with the work available on the shelves as you observe your child is ready! You start with differentiating sounds with the "I Spy" game, then you progress to introducing a few sandpaper letters at a time, then you progress to matching objects to beginning sounds, then pictures to beginning sounds, then listening for middle and ending sounds, then building whole words, then building whole sentences, and so on! (See the Montessori Reading Games Curriculum for more guidance.)

You also have so much control of the environment that you have the responsibility to change it if its not working! If a work is not chosen by your child after being out for some time, change it. Alter the way it looks on the shelf to be more inviting. Or remove it and make a note to put it back out a little later down the road. If the work is too easy, remove it or make it more challenging. If a work is too difficult, scale it down or remove it until your child is ready!

Another really cool thing you can do is discover what actually interests your child. I am a big fan of children's picture books - the good ones. You can introduce so many concepts in all subject areas via a good story and beautiful illustrations. It is through reading picture books and exploring the real world that you will discover your child's interests! If your child shows an interest in a particular animal, plant, or thing - incorporate it into your child's shelf work. You can make classified cards or three-part-cards for just about anything. You can learn the names of different species of animals, sort them into biomes or continents, learn what they eat and how they act, or learn the parts of animals. You can learn different names of things - plants, cars, horse species, rainbow colors, art techniques... really, anything! 

All of this "tailoring" you are doing in the work you are presenting or offering as choices for your child is following your child. You are keenly observing your child's needs, interests, and abilities, and you are custom-planning her education to reflect them.   

I used to think the Montessori method was mostly hands-off, but I could not have been more wrong. 

It actually takes more effort to follow the child than it does to lead the child. More preparation, more observation, more self-control, more hands-on work from Mom. 

It would be much easier to open a curriculum, and follow steps 1-24 for a spectacular education. You would be an expert at gathering the materials, presenting the proper lessons, and going perfectly in order. 

The problem is, it doesn't work. Your child is not meant to fit inside a box. 

I truly think this is why there is a huge over-buying of curriculum problem in homeschools. If I can just find the "right" curriculum, we will be successful. 

Instead of chasing after curriculum, step back and observe your child. Take time each day to just observe without interfering. 

Here are a few guiding questions to try and answer as you observe your child that will help you in preparing her lessons: 

1. What time of day is she most interested in shelf work? (Try your best to offer lessons at this time.)
2. Does she choose work off of every shelf, or does she gravitate toward one or two? (Maybe you should rotate the choices you would like her to pick to her "favored" shelf.)
3. What are her top 3 interests right now that you could incorporate into her learning choices? 
4. Is she uncoordinated in some area that could be improved by focused work? (Tying her shoes, pouring, mixing, stacking, holding a pencil or crayon, cutting with scissors, etc.)
5. What are the things she does that bring her joy? 

Using curriculum can help you guide your child, as long as you don't let it use you

Curriculum has saved me time and time again, and I am grateful for it! I just have a tendency to want to check every box. It's taken me a long time to let go of that stumbling block and truly use curriculum as a help instead of a hindrance. 

So, the next time you have a "snag" in your curriculum, ask yourself if you are using the curriculum to serve your child as a help to her learning or if you are requiring your child to serve the goals of the curriculum. 

That one distinction will help you step back, take a deep breath, and clearly see how you can change the curriculum to suit the current needs of your child. 

Is it moving too fast? Slow down. Is that lesson too easy? Skip it. Is this lesson too difficult? Tailor it to your child. Doing too much altogether? Scale back. 

You've got this, mama! 

Montessori Homeschooling 101: How to Follow Your Child

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