Different Environments, Different Behaviors

Observing children in the Montessori Environment is an enlightening experience. Teachers and Parents alike reflect on the mysteries of children’s behaviors and choices. We often hear both parents and teachers marvel at how different a child will seem from one environment to the other.

But, why is that?

Why would a change of environment make such a difference?

The simple answer is that there are a lot more differences between home and school then just being in a different space. The Environment encompasses more than just a setting. The more complex answer to this question requires we compare how each component and the two environments, home and school, impact our children’s choices and behavior.

Difference #1: THE PEOPLE

At home
The usual players: parents, siblings, maybe grandparents.
Number of people close by: 2-8

At school:
The usual players: classmates, teachers, teachers from other classrooms, specials teachers, administrators, classmates’ parents, special guests, classroom observers, student teachers and may vary from day to day.
Number of people around: 10-20 or more.

While the home environment contains consistent, familiar people, the school environment may feel a bit less predictable. There are also far more people around to talk to, watch, and play with. This can make school seem more exciting. This excitement may be enjoyable for part of the day, but having a calming place to unwind and spend time alone or with only a few people is a chance to recharge.

Difference #2 THE SETTING

At home, the rooms, furnishings and colors have all been thoughtfully arranged and maintained with the well-being of the specific group of people who live there and their favorite home activities in mind. Comfort is often an important consideration in a home environment with soft seating and lighting and areas of the home designated for time alone and time with others.

At school the environment is created to inspire interaction with the learning materials. In this space the plan is to stimulate children and draw their attention to new activities. Our Montessori classrooms are outfitted with wooden tables and chairs and bright overhead lighting. The classrooms have some variations in seating, but still have the group together in their classroom for the majority of the school day.

Difference #3 THE THINGS

At home a child has her own things, as do the other people in the home. These things are typically recognized to belong to her alone. There is sometimes a co-ownership with one or two siblings, but a feeling of ownership exists. Among a few people, taking turns or sharing can be negotiated relatively easily.

At school the materials in the classroom belong to the whole class. In Montessori, the notion of sharing exists as the responsibility of co-ownership of the classroom environment and materials. Children assist their community by caring for the materials respectfully and putting their work back carefully in its place, to restore the environment, when they are finished with a work. Only once a work is returned to the shelf is it available to be chosen by another student. Most of the materials in the classroom are used by just a single student at a time in order to foster concentration and perseverance in the work cycle (choosing a work, taking it to an appropriate space, completing the work, returning it to its proper place.)

Difference #4 THE RULES

At home routines, boundaries and guidelines may adjust depending on the other things going in the life of the family at the moment. Parents are able to be flexible and use all they know about their child as an individual to best meet their needs.

At school the rules and routines are rarely changed. With so many students in the class, and the need to be consistent and ensure equal opportunities and choices fair for all, adjustments to the rules are minimal. At school there are also peers who model behaviors and create a positive peer pressure for each other to stay the course and abide by the rules of the community.

Difference #5 THE CHOICES

At home children have the ability to move freely within the home environment, even choosing to spend time in their rooms alone. They can move seamlessly between activities and spaces without waiting for anyone.

At school children are required to be supervised during most or all of their day depending on their age and level of independence. They are often bound by the routine of their class and must practice patience while waiting for other children to move to the next space or activity.


Our children are amazing people, capable of deciphering the complex rules and routines of different environments and groups of people. They move easily from one place to the other with little interruption and thrive within a variety of settings. This is an important life skill. As adults we move through many different places and expectations in the course of a single day. Each of these environments have different guidelines and sets of acceptable behaviors. At sporting events we learn to clap and cheer, at the symphony we learn to listen quietly, at a restaurant we learn to filter out the noise from other tables to give our dining companions all our attention.

Children sometimes need a little more time understanding unspoken rules of all the different settings of their life. During this time of exploration they will sometimes choose the most comfortable environments to let their guard down and/or test those limits and unspoken guidelines. This is totally normal and just one more way that children gather information about the world and how they fit into it.