Students playing a Jenga game.

Students pull pieces from the Jenga game — a wooden tower comprised of rectangular pieces. Advanced Montessori Programs Director Syneva Barrett (right) penned phrases on the pieces — "emotional intelligence," "encourage curiosity," "weekly lesson plan" — to stimulate discussion. Photo by Sher Stoneman.

Creating a child’s world

St. Kate’s is bringing a 100-year-old Montessori tradition into the 21st century.

By Elizabeth Child

SNACK TIME IS ALMOST OVER IN THE TODDLER ROOM at Cornerstone Montessori School in St. Paul. Some toddlers sit in authentic, miniature dining room chairs at a low cloth-covered table. Others move around the room filled with objects they are free to handle — wooden puzzles, nesting blocks, scoops and lacing cards that rest neatly on shelves.

Two things may seem strange to the Montessori-uninitiated. First, children ages 16 months to 3 years old eat off china plates and pour drinks from glass pitchers. Second, the classroom is quiet. That is, until a plate falls to the floor and breaks.

No one gasps. Two teachers move swiftly to sweep up the shards. “Children learn that things break,” says Liza Davis in a hushed tone, presumably not to distract the children from their activities. Davis is special programs coordinator at Montessori Center of Minnesota (MCM), a premier Montessori teacher training center and the umbrella organization for Cornerstone Montessori School, a private early-childhood program for children 16 months to 5 years.

Classrooms that teach both behavioral and cognitive skills are essential to the Montessori method. So is using china instead of paper plates. “We are giving the children respect,” Davis quietly explains. “Each is developing into the person he or she is going to become.”


St. Catherine University began a partnership with Montessori Center of Minnesota this year to offer a master’s-level initial credentialing program, which allows teachers to receive their initial Montessori teaching credential at MCM while earning a master’s degree through St. Catherine. The partnership replaces St. Kate’s initial credentialing program.

An established leader in Montessori education, the University is re-envisioning how it can best contribute to the future of this innovative teaching method. Through its newly named Advanced Montessori Programs, St. Kate’s is boosting its offerings at the master’s and post-credentialing levels, creating a network for Montessori professionals, and fostering leadership and specialized skills such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

“I am very excited to be partnering with the Montessori Center of Minnesota to prepare Montessori educators,” says Linda Distad SP’71, chair of the education department. “Our two missions align to create an extraordinary program that will make a difference in the lives of young children.”

As one of the few colleges or universities nationwide to offer Montessori teacher education — and the only university in Minnesota to offer an advanced Montessori degree — St. Kate’s fills a unique and growing niche. There are more than 5,000 Montessori schools in the United States, and that number is steadily growing.

Beads in various containers

These bead chains help children learn to count to 1,000 and "skip count" numbers (2-4-6-8) from one to 10. Photo by Sher Stoneman.

Once primarily private, Montessori schools today are public and charter schools, too, and they’ve expanded from preschool and elementary programs to include prenatal through high school programs. Some educational experts see Montessori as a solution to multiple issues that cause American children to lag behind students worldwide.

As the number of credentialed Montessori teachers has increased, however, opportunities for them to update their skills and grow in their careers have not kept pace. That’s where St. Catherine’s Advanced Montessori Programs come in.

Teachers and administrators from coast to coast and Canada were on the St. Paul campus last June for St. Kate’s Acknowledging Montessori for a Master’s (AM2) program. Aside from the first weekend of meeting and working face to face, AM2 is primarily an online program that allows students to delve more deeply into Montessori theory and application, and find a like-minded community.

“Being in your own classroom can be very isolating,” says Karin Gardiner MA’13, who teaches in a Montessori classroom in Syracuse, New York. She looks forward to sharing ideas with new colleagues and re-establishing a firm grounding in Montessori principles.


The first Montessori school was founded in 1907 by Maria Montessori, a pediatrician and scientist who worked with pre-school children in the slums of Italy. The mother of one son, Mario, who later was influential in her research, Montessori developed her methods by observing the sensory, hands-on way in which children learn.

Montessori’s child-centered methods have stood the test of time, but they still can seem foreign to traditional educators. Advanced Montessori Programs Director Syneva Barrett was among them. Hired by a Montessori school after earning her elementary teaching licensure, she quickly learned that Montessori teachers — called “guides” — show children how to use carefully chosen materials laid out in specific arrangements, and then let the children decide what they want to work on, in their own time.

At first, Barrett’s instinct was to jump in and help children with their work. “I literally had to sit on my hands,” she says. Guides watch attentively and quietly encourage. They often answer children’s questions with questions in turn: “What do you think you should do?” By contrast, older students in multi-age classrooms are free to teach younger children lessons they’ve already had as a way to normalize relationships across age groups.

Unlike in a traditional classroom, children move around at will. “Movement is important to psychic development,” explains Barrett. “Children need freedom to make discoveries — to move is to learn,” she says paraphrasing Maria Montessori.

Many teachers (and parents) fear that allowing children to move freely in the classroom will create chaos. But Barrett says children in a Montessori classroom take the initiative to let others know if they are being disruptive.

Syneva Barrett.

Syneva Barrett, director, St. Kate's Advanced Montessori Programs.
Photo by Sher Stoneman.

Independent children who know how to speak up respectfully can influence parents, too. Though conventionally educated himself, Sang Mouacheupao became concerned when his oldest son, Isaac, now in fourth grade, seemed ambivalent about his traditional public school. Mouacheupao took a chance on Montessori, enrolling Isaac and later his two brothers at Cornerstone Montessori Elementary School, a public charter school housed at MCM. “They are happy kids who are enthusiastic about going to school,” he says.

Now, Mouacheupao and his wife, Zang, encourage their children to learn independently and at their own pace at home. The boys dress themselves, including putting on their own boots and jackets in winter. Their 18-month-old son even asked to be toilet trained.

Mouacheupao is proud that his older children approach sports as team players, a fact he attributes to the fairness and friendliness they learn in Montessori. To remain committed to Montessori, however, the academics have to measure up, he says.


Studies nationally show that Montessori schools often outperform traditional schools. A recent study of Montessori grade school children, published in the journal Science, showed they wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling a stronger sense of community at school than did their traditional public school peers. That same study showed that Montessori preschoolers expressed more concern for fairness and justice, and displayed greater self-control.

St. Catherine student Kara-Lisa Mitchell MA’13 works with autistic toddlers at the University of California–Davis MIND Institute. She credits the hands-on materials in Montessori classrooms for the toddlers’ success.

Children hold and trace a triangle with their fingers to feel its sides before they learn its name. They learn sequencing by stacking blocks from largest to smallest or by ordering colored cards from light to dark. Not every child learns by listening to directions, Mitchell says. “If you have a concept to teach there’s always something tangible a child can use to learn. That allows for teaching across abilities.”

But the greatest gift of a Montessori education may be self-confidence, according to Leslie Shade Sticht. Her 20-year-old son, who is studying electrical engineering in college, got into trouble as a young child in public school, so she moved him to the Montessori school in Anoka, Minnesota, where Barrett taught. Her daughter Kara, 15, who is autistic, flourished in Montessori. “Both have the ability to research on their own and a healthy ability and need to ask why,” Sticht says.

In life, china breaks, but such everyday accidents or disappointments become teachable moments in a Montessori classroom. “To want to know, to dig deeper — that sets Montessori children apart from children of other educational backgrounds,” Barrett says.

Northfield, Minnesota based writer Elizabeth Child is a frequent contributer to SCAN.


  • 1985: St. Catherine acquires Twin Cities Montessori Center in St. Paul and renames it the Montessori Teacher Education Program.
  • 1987: The program moves to the Minneapolis campus.
  • 1988: Courses are offered for undergraduate credit.
  • 1991: The program adds an Elementary I level for undergraduate credit.
  • 1992: The program is renamed the Center for Contemporary Montessori Programs (CCMP). It earns American Montessori Society accreditation.
  • 1993: CCMP offers Elementary I-II programs and its first off-campus program in Portsmouth, Virginia.
  • 1998: A Master of Arts degree is approved for the Elementary I-II and Early Childhood levels.
  • 2000: The elementary program is approved for Minnesota state licensure.
  • 2005: CCMP moves to the St. Paul campus, in the lower level of the Chapel.
  • 2007: The Montessori STEM program begins.
  • 2008: St. Kate's launches Acknowledging Montessori for a Master's (AM2), which students complete largely online.
  • 2013: St. Kate's partners with Montessori Center of Minnesota to offer an initial credential and renames its programs St. Catherine University Advanced Montessori Programs. The University also offers continuing education workshops for teachers and administrators.

“To want to know, to dig deeper, sets Montessori children apart from children of other educational backgrounds.”

— Syneva Barrett, director, Advanced Montessori Programs

Leading an evolution

The multi-age classrooms that Maria Montessori preferred and the concept of “differentiation” — teaching to the individual child’s needs and learning pace — are “an enduring philosophy that the public school system is embracing,” says Linda Distad SP’71, who chairs the education department at St. Catherine University.

Increasingly, however, the challenges of modern education — from crowded classrooms and special learning needs to the proliferation of the proverbial “screens” — could risk threatening Montessori’s methods of multi-sensory learning: holding books and other objects, fostering the art of cursive writing.

By taking a lead in advanced Montessori education, St. Kate’s is helping teachers to address these societal changes while maintaining the integrity of Montessori — including the weekly lesson plan, and the encouragement of children’s emotional intelligence and curiosity.

Montessori, as a method, has always been adaptable. Still, the need continually to evolve is a major reason Acknowledging Montessori for a Master’s (AM2) makes action research — conducted in classrooms in real time — a primary part of the master’s program. Case in point: Two years ago Teri Bickham MA’11, headmistress of Oaks Montessori School in Hammond, Louisiana, enrolled in AM2 at St. Kate’s. A third of her primary and elementary students are typically diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder. Bickham introduced children to vibration through toning and chanting, and drawing the circular mandalas used for meditation. These calming practices lowered their pulse rates. “A way-out-there idea has become a regular practice,” she says.