Montessori Theory: The Human Tendencies

Today we pick up the thread of our Montessori Theory series we began last spring. In our Theory series, we dive deep into the foundational principles of the Montessori method and look at how these principles are put into practice at school . Today we’ll unpack Montessori’s “Human Tendencies”, why they are important and how they are addressed in the pedagogy.

Montessori education is more than just a philosophy of education. It is preparation for life.

Dr. Maria Montessori sought to understand how to cultivate the greatest potential in human beings. Through extensive observations, Dr. Montessori  noticed that all people possess shared tendencies. What is a tendency? It is a natural urge, an impulse, an inclination that leads without reason or conscious design. We are not always aware of our tendencies but much of human behavior originates as a result of these tendencies. Humans exhibit certain tendencies: order, communication, orientation, exploration, repetition, abstraction, manipulation, work, activity, and exactness. These human tendencies operate within the child to guide her self-construction. These universal human tendencies form a foundation for Montessori’s method of education. An environment and pedagogy that meets these universal needs provides the fertile soil in which a child (or any human!) can flourish.

Let’s explore several of these human tendencies in light of Dr. Montessori’s “vision for life.”


Humans prefer order to chaos. Montessori classrooms create a well-organized, predictable and structured environment to bring order to the child’s mind. A young child, before the age of six, especially thrives in an externally ordered environment. As she seeks to place herself in relationship to the world she needs to find stability, order and continuity. After six-years-old, the child internalizes this order in her mind and needs less external order. The elementary child, rather, seeks foremost to order his mind.


Humans need to communicate with one another in order to survive. It is critical for the development of the child that the guide allows communication in the classroom. In a Montessori environment, children are provided opportunities to develop their communication skills and ultimately they are encouraged to express their thoughts and share what is on their mind with others. Mastery of communication skills is empowering and important. Montessori environments are alive with the natural buzz of language as children collaborate with each other in their work. Montessori environments do not demand silence during a work period because guides recognize the critical importance of communication for a thriving learning community.

Orientation and Exploration

Humans like to know how we fit into our respective world and the various environments in which we find ourselves. Our senses are the key to helping us situate and orient to any space or place. Humans are naturally, endlessly curious beings and desire to explore beyond their borders of land and space. Montessori guides consider this dynamic when new children enter the classroom constantly thinking about how to best aid a child on her quest to adapt and orient to a new environment


Children have an innate drive to repeat activities until they feel satisfied in their mastery. The youngest children repeat tasks over and over without tiring. The elementary child (6-12 years old) continues to need repetition, but she needs variety in her repetition. The elementary environment caters to this need by offering multiple materials that teach a single concept. For example, children use the checkerboard, the flat bead frame, and the large bead frame to practice long multiplication.


Abstraction is the ability to understand a concept without the aid of physical or  concrete materials. Dr. Montessori observed that humans create what first only exists in their minds. As a result, the Montessori method first exposes children to concepts with the aid of a concrete material, allowing them to explore the concept sensorially before moving to more symbolic representations and, ultimately, abstraction. Moving from concrete to abstract produces a fuller and deeper understanding of a given concept.


Humans are driven to activity which is aided by physical manipulation of our natural environment. Dr. Montessori recognized that the hand and the mind are linked in the pursuit of understanding. Humans possess a proclivity towards work, and we use our hands to achieve our mental and physical ends.


Through manipulation with our hands, humans tend towards exactness, the final human tendency, which can also be described as “self-perfection”. Humans possess the natural desire for precision in their work and we find tremendous satisfaction in giving maximum effort for a worthy product. Guides, aware of  this tendency, frequently ask elementary children if they are doing their best work.

As you consider these universal human tendencies, which ones do you notice most in yourself  and your child? As you become aware of the tendencies operating in your daily life, how can you set up your own environment and schedule to facilitate their expression for you and your child?

Dr. Maria Montessori believed that educators have the responsibility to understand universal human tendencies in order to best guide the child’s self-construction. When we embrace these tendencies in our own environments, we promote the flourishing of each child and help them realize their fullest potential in the world.