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Early Childhood Education Methods: Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, and Beyond

Early childhood education provides students with a foundation of learning that can impact the rest of their lives. For years, education experts have researched the most effective models of teaching young children—should students learn in the classroom, a forest, or by doing? Should teachers guide or lecture?

This research has led to the development of several early childhood education methods like Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, nature schools, and parent co-ops. Each model has pros and cons, and different models may work best for certain students and families.

If you’re entering the early childhood educator field, or even if you are considering different approaches for your child, this guide will describe the different models of early childhood education to help you find the right fit.

Montessori

Montessori is a child-centered method of education based on the teachings of Italian physician Maria Montessori. This method is most common for children 2.5 years to 6 years of age, though some schools use the method for students as old as 18.

Philosophy

The core of the Montessori teaching method is the idea that students are naturally curious and thrive in mixed-age classrooms focused on hands-on discovery and self-motivated growth. Montessori teaching aims to nurture each student’s natural desire to learn and understand the world around them. Maria Montessori stated, “To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.”

A typical day as a Montessori teacher might include reviewing an individual student’s current needs and preparing the self-directed learning environment. This might include setting up stations for self-directed art, sensory bins, or a pet feeding area.

An official Montessori school will follow Maria Montessori’s philosophies exactly, while a “Montessori-inspired” school blends the idea of self-development with traditional teaching methods. An official Montessori school is accredited by the American Montessori Society (AMS) or Association Montessori International.

How Much do Montessori Teachers Make?

According to Glassdoor, Montessori teachers made an average of $38,644 in 2020.

How to Become a Montessori Teacher

To become a Montessori teacher at an official Montessori school, teachers must complete a teacher preparation program accredited by the AMS in the age group they wish to teach. Credentials can be completed in one to two years.

What the Parents Say

Kelsey Jones, who is a parent of child in a Montessori school, explains:

“We choose Montessori because of the emphasis placed on independence and learning of new applicable life skills. I also was often bored in school, so Montessori’s focus on letting kids’ interests guide their activities was important because then I knew our son would be able to learn more about what interested him.

The school has a set schedule with defined “work times” where the students choose a STEAM activity and work on it for a set period, such as painting or filtering water through a series of cups.

They have to put away their activity before getting a new one out. We really like that children are taught to pick up after themselves.

The teachers also work on “life skills” with the students, such as doing the dishes and wiping down surfaces. This has taught our son that it’s important to help in our house because he’s part of our family, and we take care of our home together. Because Montessori also works on language development, our son is using four- and five-word sentences already, making him over a year advanced over what’s “normal” for his age. We will continue to keep him in Montessori until kindergarten.”

Waldorf

Waldorf is an educational philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. This teaching method aims to create well-rounded students by offering a holistic education of academics, art, music, physical education, social education, and emotional education.

Philosophy

The Waldorf philosophy uses distinct learning strategies for each of the three developmental stages, which last from birth to age seven, seven to 14, and 14 to 21 years of age.

Steiner theorized that students in the first stage of development learn best through unself-conscious imitation and opportunities for imaginative play.

Waldorf teachers stay with their students throughout each developmental stage—for example, from birth to age seven.

A day in the life of a Waldorf teacher might include developing a home-like classroom, organizing festivals to teach children about other cultures, and planning circle time where students participate in songs, games, or stories.

How Much do Waldorf Teachers Make?

Waldorf teachers earned an average of $46,670 in 2020 according to Comparably.com. The reason Waldorf salaries are higher than other methods is likely due to the fact that teachers at Waldorf may teach students through high school grades.

How to Become a Waldorf Teacher

To become an official Waldorf teacher, teachers must take a Waldorf teacher preparation program approved by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America and participate in a self-study and peer review.

What the Parents Say

According to Ali Foulk, a mother of a student in a Waldorf school:

“When we were looking for schools for my eldest son, we were looking for an environment with a warm, homelike atmosphere and gentle discipline. We knew little about the Waldorf pedagogy at the time, but were attracted to the kind kindergarten teacher and natural aesthetics of the classroom.

My eldest son enrolled when he was five and spent three years in the early childhood class, in which the children learn through gentle, play-based activities. Looking for an alternative to public schools and rigid curriculum standards, we agreed with the Waldorf grades learning method and practice of teaching, which includes low tech and emphasis on the arts.

What we love about Waldorf schools is the community aspect and the fostering of relationships within the school community. Our son had the same “Main Lesson” teacher for four years and most of the same classmates. This creates a sense of family within the classroom and an intimate and loving place for children to learn.

[My son’s] teacher teaches with art, song, and movement incorporating the whole body. The school is low tech, using books and experiences instead of the internet and computers for learning. The school also honors the significance of the arts in education with art, music, or handiwork practiced daily. No matter the weather, there are long recesses daily and monthly outdoor days in local hiking spots.

Also, the Waldorf School has a really great Toddler and Me program that I did with my second son. I highly recommend it. Most toddler and me programs are only an hour, but this one is 3 hours and you really connect with the other families. I started my son when he was nine months old.”

Reggio

The Reggio Emilia educational philosophy focuses on student-centered and self-guided curriculum with a focus on relationship-driven environments. Teachers are viewed as “co-learners” and observers to the children’s self-driven curriculum.

Philosophy

Reggio is based on the “hundred languages of children” philosophy, which refers to the many ways children have to express their thoughts and emotions.

The Reggio method suggests that students form their personality in the early years, and focuses on teaching children to express themselves through the symbolic languages of painting, sculpting, and drama. Reggio teachers help foster children’s creativity and encourage repeating or modifying lessons.

How Much do Reggio Teachers Make?

According to Glassdoor, Reggio teachers earn an average salary of $46,276.

How to Become a Reggio Teacher

There is no official certification to become a Reggio teacher. The official Reggio Children website offers webinars and study groups for teachers interested in the Reggio philosophy of education.

What the Parents Say

According to Lydia Poon, a mother of two children in a Reggio school:

“For our family, we didn’t go looking specifically for a Reggio-method school. In fact, I had never heard of the Reggio approach until researching my kids’ preschool, and we primarily selected the preschool based on its word-of-mouth reputation and the great “vibe” we got when visiting the facility.

But I liked that the stated Reggio orientation set a higher bar for education—it means the school staff and teachers are committed to doing something that takes more effort to achieve and adhere to than not labeling their program as Reggio Emilia. The teaching staff arrive at their curriculum very thoughtfully because of this approach.

What I like about my kids’ Reggio preschool is that the students’ own interests are used to guide the curriculum. If a kid is really into space, or bugs, or houses, those themes are picked up and reflected back in the lessons and “provocations” by the teacher that then relate to STEM lessons or art projects.

This learner-centric curriculum means individual children have a lot of choice in what to work on or play with during the scheduled day, and I love that my kids have that autonomy. Also, our preschool has a strong component of nature-as-teacher in the curriculum, including one class that is held nearly completely outdoors, inspired by the European forest school tradition. I’m not sure if that’s strictly speaking part of Reggio, but at our preschool these approaches are very complementary, even for the non-outdoor classes.”

Primrose: Balanced Learning

Primrose is a preschool educational model built on the idea that all children learn differently and that skills should be introduced when students are ready. The Primrose philosophy aims to help pre-school children develop a love of learning and prepare them for kindergarten.

Philosophy

Primrose is a research-based learning philosophy that combines the teaching philosophies of early educational philosophers such as Montessori, Gesell, and Vygotsky with modern research about how children learn most effectively. Primrose: Balanced Learning helps children build on previous skills in literacy, language, science, math, and social and emotional understanding.

How Much do Primrose Teachers Make?

The average yearly pay for a Primrose teachers is $25,000 per year, according to Glassdoor.

How to Become a Primrose Teacher

Primrose schools follow a proprietary curriculum, which includes a professional development plan for teachers. There are no official certifications or degrees in the Primrose philosophy.

Religious Schools

Religious schools are private schools that have a religious component to their teaching, or function to specifically teach religious texts and ideas. For example, a Catholic school may provide students with classes in math, science, history, art, and Bible classes. A Jewish school might provide students with a well-rounded education while requiring Hebrew or Torah classes.

Philosophy

Religious school curriculums are often based around teachings from religious texts, which can vary by religion. Most private religious schools aim to provide students with a well-rounded education viewed through the lens of one specific religion. The specific educational philosophies can vary by religion and school.

How Much Do Teachers at Religious Programs Make?

The salary for teachers at religious schools varies wildly based on location and school. For instance, according to Indeed.com, a teacher at a Baptist school earns an average of $9.36 per hour. A teacher at a Jewish Community Center Preschool earns $13.41 per hour, on average.

Language Immersion Schools

Language immersion is an educational technique in which students learn in a language other than their native tongue. For example, rather than taking French as a single class, students may learn writing, math, and reading in French. Schools often focus on English and one other language, including French, Spanish, Chinese, or American Sign Language. This method is designed to promote bilingualism.

Philosophy

The core philosophy of a language immersion school is that language is best learned through daily immersion, rather than through one course.

There are several versions of immersion teaching, including:

  • Total immersion: students learn in one non-native language
  • Partial immersion: half of class time is spent in the student’s native language and half in another language
  • Two-way immersion: native speakers of two different languages learn together with the goal of all students becoming bilingual

The curriculum and philosophies of teaching language immersion often vary by school.

How Much do Language Immersion Teachers Make?

Language immersion schools are usually private schools, and teachers may teach a range of subjects and ages. According to Glassdoor, preschool Spanish teachers earned an average of $46,276 in 2019. Teachers in other language likely earn around the same amount.

How to Become a Language Immersion Teacher

The requirements to become a language immersion teacher will vary by state and school. Teachers should expect to be fluent in the language of the immersion school and qualified to teach in their subject and grade level of choice.

HighScope

HighScope is an educational model that helps children develop a broad range of skills, including interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, and communication. It promotes active learning and classroom “centers” developed around the interests of the students. HighScope is targeted to preschools students.

Philosophy

The HighScope philosophy is based on three core principles: children should have an active part of choosing, organizing, and evaluating learning activities; teachers should plan activities based on developmental milestones and observation of students; and goals should be based on “key experiences.”

How Much do HighScope Teachers Make?

HighScope teachers can expect to earn a salary slightly above the average preschool teacher salary of $30,520 per year due to additional training and certification requirements. According to their site, they offer “competitive salaries.”

How to Become a HighScope Teacher

To become a HighScope teacher, educators must complete an appropriate training course, demonstrate knowledge of the COR Advantage assessment instrument, complete a daily lesson plan, and apply for certification through HighScope.

Bank Street

Bank Street Method is a preschool educational approach that focuses on providing diverse educational opportunities through hands-on and play-based learning. Students are active participants in their learning experience and learn by interacting with the environment around them.

Philosophy

The philosophy of Bank Street focuses on play-based learning. Teachers often use play, puzzles, field trips, and hands-on activities to promote a love of learning. For example, a teacher might use the concept of shopping at a grocery store to explore ideas such as where food comes from, how food grows, and how to make a shopping list.

How Much Do Bank Street Teachers Make?

Bank Street teachers earn an average of $13.71 per hour in 2020, according to Indeed.com.

How to Become a Bank Street Teacher

Bank Street method is an approach, not a specific certification. Teachers can attend Bank Street College of Education, or work for a school that focuses on the principles of Bank Street.

Parent Co-Ops

Parent Co-Op preschools are an organization of families with similar philosophies that hire a teacher to provide a high-quality preschool education.

Philosophy

The philosophies of parent co-ops can vary from co-op to co-op; however, most are focused on play or nature-based education, livable wages for teachers, and high levels of parent participation. Parents are generally required to volunteer a few days a month in the classroom.

How Much Do Teachers at Parent Co-Ops Make?

Co-op teachers can expect to earn a slightly above the average salary for preschool teachers, which is $30,520 per year as of 2019 according to the BLS. However, this can vary based on location and teaching philosophy.

How to Become a Parent Co-Op Teacher

There is no specific certification to become a co-op teacher. Educators will likely need a degree in early childhood education.

Forest Schools

Forest schools, sometimes called nature schools, are preschools where students learn critical skills in a nature-based environment. Students may explore an on-site nature area or visit nature preserves, parks, lakes, and other natural spaces.

Philosophy

Nature schools do not have a single overarching philosophy. The educational model is based on delivering a traditional preschool education experience in an outdoor environment. Students learn empathy, motor skills, communication, and creative play by interacting with the natural world.

How Much Do Forest School Teachers Make?

Forest schools are growing in popularity; however, there is no data on salaries specifically for nature school teachers. The salary for a teacher at Fidalgo Nature School Preschool is $16.72 per hour, according to Indeed.com.

How to Become a Teacher at a Nature School

There is no specific certification to become a nature school teacher. Those wishing to become nature teachers should pursue a degree in early childhood education.

What the Parents Say

According to Ali Foulk, who has a son in a forest school:

“My second son is very active and needs outdoor time to be his best self. He is a kinesthetic learner and thrives in an uninhibited environment climbing, digging, and running with abandon.

The school we found is run by a physical therapist and the teachers are professionals in various therapies. Forest school is similar to Waldorf in that it emphasizes time in nature and is child-centered, low tech, and delays formal education.

My son returns from Forest School absolutely filthy, but with a full heart. He’s become so much more resilient not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.  The school is on a farm and he takes so much joy in caring for the animals that he calls it “Pig School.””

Tips to Choosing an Early Childhood Education Method

As you’ve seen, there are a number of educational models for preschool and early childhood education. Choosing the right educational method as a teacher can be a complex decision due to the amount of information available. Here are a few tips to help you decide which educational method is the right for you:

  • Research several methods to better understand the principles and philosophies of each model. The chart below explores the most important differences.
  • Find out if the model you are considering requires additional certification(s). Do you have the time and resources to continue your education?
  • Set up informational interviews with teachers who work in the methods you find most interesting. Ask questions about what their daily schedule looks like. Are there any areas they find challenging?
  • Explore curriculums and teaching plans for each specific model. What types of lessons are most interesting to you? Do they make sense based on what you’ve learned?
  • Tour schools that adhere to several different educational models. Pay attention to the way the classrooms are set up and how teachers interact with students.
  • Complete a teacher internship at more than one type of school to fully immerse yourself in different models.

Which Early Childhood Education Method is Best for You?

Early Childhood Eductation Methods

Montessori is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers are “guides” that facilitate the learning experience. There is no set curriculum. Rather, teachers explore the interests and needs of their students.
  • Parents: Promotes independence and self-directed learning through hand-on teaching.
  • Children: Individualized, child-centered model that focuses on naturally learning self-discipline and inspiring creativity.

Waldorf is good for…

  • Teachers: Less focus on standardized testing, teachers move with students through the early grades.
  • Parents: Promotes limited screen time, art, music, and drama.
  • Children: The lack of technology and slow-paced education allows children to explore their creativity.

Reggio is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers serve as a co-learner and adapt the classroom and curriculum to students.
  • Parents: Teaches children problem solving and social skills through play.
  • Children: Children develop a life-long love of learning and develop self-confidence.

Primrose (Balanced Learning) is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers enjoy a sense of community and help children understand complex topics quickly.
  • Parents: Parents can ensure their children have early exposure to the arts.
  • Children: Children learn to explore music, art, and creative play. Primrose encourages curiosity and confidence.

Religious Schools/Church Preschools is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers can work in a school that respects their beliefs and help teach a new generation the principles of a particular faith.
  • Parents: Parents can be confident their children’s school respects their faith and instills religious teaching.
  • Children: Students explore religious texts in addition to traditional topics.

Language Immersion Preschools is good for…

  • Teachers: Expose students to another language and culture. Teachers can also keep their second language skills fresh through constant use.
  • Parents: Parents in bilingual homes can ensure exposure to both languages and encourage fluency in their children.
  • Children: Students learn a valuable second language while (occasionally) helping other students learn English.

HighScope is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers support and extend the learning experience, rather than providing direct lessons that can frustrate some students.
  • Parents: Parents are viewed as partners and can participate in field trips and other special events.
  • Children: Children enjoy a supportive educational experience where they feel heard and understood.

Bank Street is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers can help teach a wider range of skills and give students the tools needed to navigate the world.
  • Parents: Children learn independence and self-confidence.
  • Children: Students learn by doing and develop a life-long love of learning.

Parent Co-Ops is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers are well-supported and become part of a community of parents and families.
  • Parents: Often more affordable and allows parents to help build a community and be more involved in their child’s education.
  • Children: Children explore education through a community lens and take pride in working with their parents during co-op days.

Forest/Nature School is good for…

  • Teachers: Teachers use the natural environment as a teaching tool rather than relying on traditional educational tools like worksheets.
  • Parents: Little to no screen time, children learn in an outdoor environment, and explore the world through play.
  • Children: Instills a love of nature, increases problem-solving skills, and allows children to focus on play and exploration.