Students at Chesterfield Montessori School work on a project. photo courtesy of Chesterfield Montessori School

A good education for their children is the No. 1 priority for most parents. It‘s what drives their choice of learning environment, even as early as preschool. But distinct differences between a few well-know educational approaches can make this a difficult decision. We asked some local educators to explain the learning theories upon which their schools are based.

At Chesterfield Montessori School (CMS), founder and head of school Anita Chastain says the emphasis is on individual attention. Founded by Dr. Maria Montessori in Rome in 1907, the Montessori method gives the child freedom to work independently and realize his or her own potential. “The approach allows children to work with scientifically developed materials, make creative choices and move forward at their own rate,” Chastain explains.

The school includes children from 16 months through sixth grade and emphasizes independence at all levels. “Walking down the hall this morning, I saw a 5-year-old tying the shoes of a 2 1/2-year-old. Those are the lessons we impart early on, teaching them to be independent from adults,” she says. The role of adults in a Montessori program, says Chastain, is to serve as aides for the child‘s optimum development. “In the classroom, the teacher never stands in front of the children. Instead, teachers usually sit next to a child and give that student an individualized presentation. The student is then given the freedom to repeat that work as many times and as long as they want to.”

Chastain says Montessori education promotes relationship-building between the teacher and student and among classmates. “Many of these presentations are given over a period of three years in the same classroom. The teachers get to know the child well, and the children get to know each other,” she says. Grounded in the Montessori program is the belief that children have an innate love of learning. “They‘re born with it, and Montessori fosters that,” Chastain says. “Montessori is all about providing an environment in which the children can unfold, the teachers are there to move them forward.”

Another educational philosophy, the Reggio Emilia Approach, is used at The St. Michael School of Clayton. Headmaster Ashley Cadwell explains that it was developed in Italy following World War II and has evolved over the past 60 years. “Simply put, we believe the child is powerful and full. They come to us filled with potential, as opposed to an approach that says a child is empty, and it‘s the school‘s responsibility to fill him or her,” he says.

At The St. Michael School, Cadwell says the task is to give 3-year-olds through sixth graders rich, authentic experiences through which they can develop an understanding of the world. “It‘s a very carefully organized, structured but flexible environment.” The learning experiences, combined with seasoned and passionate teachers, set the foundation for development, he says. “Rich understanding occurs when you have teachers who are capable of listening and developing relationships with children. The result is the wonderful ideas that are formed, be it through painting, term papers, plays or other creative modes.”

Cadwell says Reggio Emilia classrooms are not the old, open classrooms of the ‘70s. “This is a highly organized balance of traditional academics and innovative, integrated, multi/disciplinary research projects,” he says. “Of course, the children still need to be doing the three ‘R‘s, and to test well, but at the same time, there‘s a real investment around these research projects.”

As an example, Cadwell says students are made keenly aware of sustainability issues. “We start with a simple question, ‘What is water?‘ We ask children what they know about water and what else they‘d like to know about it,” he explains. “Then we take them through a series of experiences to develop understanding. We‘ve taken them to see the Pulitzer exhibit on water and discussed its scientific aspects. We‘ve also tackled the cultural issues by talking about the significance of Cahokia as the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.” Cadwell says in the end, students learn about man‘s relationship to water. “They‘re becoming conscious of it and asking really big questions.”

When asked about his school‘s goal for students, Cadwell refers to a prevailing mantra: “We believe each child becomes ‘a thinker who listens, an inquirer who negotiates, an inventor who collaborates and an individual who believes in him or herself.‘”

Yet another approach is the Waldorf Movement, offered at Shining Rivers School in Webster Groves. Shining Rivers was founded in 1994 as Missouri‘s only Waldorf school, serving 2-year-olds through fourth-graders. Co-founder and faculty chair Bryan Wessling says Waldorf was created in Germany in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and educator. “Steiner wanted an education based on promoting independence and social action,” she notes. “The idea was to consciously work with children so they could become good human beings, not just intellectually, but also socially.”

Wessling says a holistic approach, integrating art with an academic curriculum, is applied in the classroom to maximize the child‘s temperament and style of learning. “Steiner spoke about each child having 12 senses, which are related in some ways to working with multiple intelligences,” she explains. Each morning, Wessling says sensory integration activities are introduced to prepare children for the day. “We do certain movements and activities to make them more receptive,” she says. For example, a class may open with movement and song. “These are not just random songs. They work with body geography, consciously doing things like crossing vertical and horizontal axes in the body to affect different parts of the brain.” Verses are another way to begin the day. “They might be chosen for certain sounds or have very positive images about working together,” Wessling says. “For first-graders, we have a verse that begins with The sun with loving light…makes glad for me each day.”

The idea behind Waldorf is to have children connect emotionally to what‘s being presented to them, Wessling explains. “Comprehension increases when a child is emotionally connected to a subject. There‘s a lot of storytelling that goes on, setting the context for curriculum material. We have no textbooks; instead, students work from their own book.” She says the goal is for students to become problem-solvers. “We don‘t want them to be fearful of the times. We want to equip them with resources that will help them solve some of the challenges of today‘s world.”