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Children Thrive At The Early Learning Center

Learn more about the L. Daniel Hutto Early Learning Center at FSDB, as shared by Gail Strassel, program director. This month's teacher spotlight features Brooke Stanfield, who works in the ELC (see separate feature).

Two teachers sit on the floor and work with two blind children.

What is the Montessori Method?

The Early Learning Center offers a Montessori program for young children three to five years old who are deaf/hard of hearing or blind/visually impaired.

The Montessori method is a philosophy of education developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 20th century. Classic Montessori classrooms feature self-directed activities, hands-on learning, and collaborative play. Children make creative, autonomous choices in their learning processes, and they work solo or collaboratively in groups to learn through discovery. They are led to ask questions, to problem solve, to explore, and to investigate.

Montessori classrooms are carefully prepared environments designed to meet the needs of students. Dr. Montessori discovered that experiential learning in this type of class led to a deeper understanding of language, mathematics, science, music, social interactions, and more. Every material in a Montessori classroom supports an aspect of child development, creating a match between the child's natural interests and the available activities.

Children learn through their own experience and at their own pace during long periods of uninterrupted work time, allowing them to focus and engage in meaningful interactions. This approach takes advantage of a child's natural desire to learn, think, and act independently. The Montessori experience nurtures a joy for learning that prepares children for years to come!

ELC deaf/hard of hearing students sit around table and work independently.

What is unique about the Early Learning Center?

Our ELC learning communities are designed for students who are deaf or blind and enable each child to bring his or her individual strengths and abilities to the classroom. We believe that they are children first. They have a deep and abiding curiosity, and each child is unique—bringing his or her skills, talents, and experiences to the ELC.

The ELC's new "home" in the Gore Hall Annex provides the ideal environment for our Montessori classrooms. The children have a large and attractive space allowing them the freedom to move, explore, learn, and build their independence.

Strong friendships develop between students enrolled in the ELC. Some children who are visually impaired learn sign language, and some children who are deaf guide their friends who are visually impaired to the playground or cafeteria.

ELC teachers are certified in either blind or deaf education as well as preschool education; they are guided by Montessori-certified teachers. This training and experience support teachers who then adapt lessons to the individual needs of students; they also rely on observations to determine which new activities and materials to introduce. American Sign Language, spoken English, and sign supported speech are all used to communicate with ELC students.

Teachers provide individual and small- and large-group instruction based on each child's learning style and needs. Students in the ELC work to attain Florida Developmental Learning Standards, so they become kindergarten-ready for elementary school.

Blind ELC girl counting sticks and putting them in the correct bin.

What happens in a typical Montessori classroom?

Preschool children start their typical ELC day with physical education and end with a snack before they go home.

Each day, third-grade students in the Deaf Elementary School Learning Lab come to the ELC to walk the preschoolers out to the bus stop or to meet their parents. This is a beautiful example of older students providing leadership and guidance for our youngest children. Classroom materials and furniture are child-sized to enhance children's learning and long blocks (two to three hours) of independent exploration.

Children in the ELC are systematically instructed in the use of classroom materials and procedures and then given the freedom to move in their environment to learn through discovery. Based on their developmental needs and their interests, students are guided in the areas of language, math, writing, science, social studies, geography, practical life, and sensorial concepts (foundational mathematics)—in line with Montessori learning principles. Classroom materials and furniture are child-sized to enhance children's learning and long blocks (two to three hours) of independent exploration.

Experienced older children share what they have learned by helping younger children learn, becoming teachers and leaders while developing confidence and independence. The process of sharing what they know reinforces what they have already learned. The younger children are motivated by watching older children and are challenged to progress in their work so that they can begin to do what the older children are doing.

ELC excitedly signs yes to deaf boy who matches the right color in the bin.

What else can you tell us about the Montessori method?

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon; Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google; T. Berry Brazelton, pediatrician, child psychologist, author, and Harvard professor; Taylor Swift, Grammy award-winning musician; George Clooney, actor, and producer; and Jimmy Wells, founder of Wikipedia all have one thing in common. They attended Montessori school as children!

In a study published in Science magazine, Lillard and Else-Quest found that children who attended a Montessori primary program were significantly better prepared for elementary school. They outscored their peers in reading and math skills. They also tested better on "executive function," the ability to adapt to changing and more complex problems. This is an indicator of future school and life success. Socially, the same study showed that Montessori children during their kindergarten year demonstrated more significant social development in the areas of sense of reasoning, justice, and fairness. They were more likely to engage in emotionally positive play with peers, and less likely to engage in rough, aggressive forms of play.

Peter Sims published an article in The Wall Street Journal titled "The Montessori Mafia." He cited an extensive six-year study of business executives about the way they think. The study involved surveys and interviews with more than 3,500 business leaders who had either started innovative companies or invented new products. He learned that a number of them had attended Montessori schools, "where they learned to follow their curiosity." Sims stated, in referring to the leaders of Amazon and Google, "Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Montessori alumni lead two of the world's most innovative companies. Or perhaps they can provide lessons for us all."

By Christi Boortz, Instructional Services


About FSDB

The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind is a tuition-free state public school and outreach center available to eligible Pre-K and K-12 students who are deaf/hard of hearing, blind/visually impaired, or deafblind. At FSDB, students learn how to do more, be more, and achieve more, fulfilling our vision of preparing them for a lifetime of success. FSDB gratefully accepts private donations to support vital programs that directly benefit students and are not paid by state general revenue funds. For a campus tour or to inquire about eligibility for enrollment, contact FSDB Parent Services at 904-827-2212 voice or 904-201-4527 videophone. For more information, visit


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