The Advantages of the Three-Year Cycle

Mirani Smith, Executive Director of the Houston Montessori Institute
a Primary student working with bead chains

In case you missed the In the Know! Parent Coffee in October, we took notes! Below is a portion of what Mirani Smith, executive director of the Houston Montessori Institute, covered in the meeting on the three-year cycle. If you want to learn more, she’ll be offering a Montessori 101 parent ed class on Wednesday, November 20, 2019, at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. RSVP in our parent portal.


The early childhood period up to age six is fascinating. A parent may ask their child, what did you do today? And the child may say nothing because they have gone through an experience and only later will be able to attach language to that experience. That’s why education events are so meaningful for parents to attend—in this instance, to understand the importance of the process of learning in a primary three-year cycle.

Taking on a series of roles

Montessori schools, including Post Oak, have a reputation for being an amazing pre-school. But it challenges the norm of a traditional pre-school environment. The curriculum is vast and built on a three-year cycle to follow a child’s developmental needs and growth. Children enter the Primary level in Montessori close to three years old. It is their home, where they find their role first as the youngest, then the middle child, and then the oldest, and they learn the responsibilities of their role as they experience each year. Students come to school to live together, to learn from each other, and to engage.

When they come as a young child, it’s most important that their learning is personalized and individualized—they get individual lessons. The teacher taps them into what they have to do, and the children have to figure out who they are in this community and what they can do. They see children a foot taller and figure out how to learn from them. They are mentees with many mentors. But they also come furiously independent wanting to do their own thing. That thee-year-old is very busy!

At around four to four-and-a-half, they want to connect more with others, so there is peer teaching, sharing, and group work. Can you imagine the esteem children have as they grow in this community? They are developing a greater understanding of their responsibility and role as a leader.

The third-year child moves into the role of the mentor. They have an amazing amount of materials to work with, and they are developmentally ready for that work. And there’s so much to do. This is the child who can go to the library because they’re reading and can gather more information about a topic. This is the child who can work on sentence analysis and be introduced to the grammar symbols.

Every step leads to the next stage.

The three-year cycle is based on a sequence of learning. This sequential work repeats itself in so many ways in the Primary classroom. Completing a cycle of activity is important. It could be a child going to get a glass of water, drinking the water, putting the empty glass in its place, and getting the glass ready for the next person. It’s about process.

Around four is when we start math. There is a particular material in the sensorial area that prepares children to move into the first piece of material in math. It’s called the red rods in sensorial and the number rods in math. They both look the same, except that the number rods are colored by sections, red and blue, for it to be countable. So, if a child can discriminate the length, the next stage (around four) is to give length a name. This is one; this is two. The theme of presenting in math is for them to understand quantity—very different from any other method of math. We want them to understand what one means and what two means. They are learning to understand what that abstract concept of a number means. When they know the quantity, then we introduce the numbers, and we associate.

In the beginning, it’s important we don’t correct their answers in math. We need to make errors on the path to mastery and perfection. There is a time when we will do that, but at this point the answers are very creative. They don’t get a sticker if they do something right. They are internally joyful of the experience of working. The child who is close to five is introduced to the checking chart to check answers and tell how it went. This process allows the child to develop an intrinsic reward for doing the work instead of using an external motivation that can lead to disinterest and lack of enthusiasm when the reward is removed.

The teacher as a guide

The three-year commitment requires you to think about why you are choosing Montessori. To learn to read earlier or work on math younger? Or did you choose it for the bigger picture—do I want my child to be a good citizen of the world, and what does that constitute? The three-year-old is coming in with parents who have different ideas, but the child is the same where they are developmentally. This is where the Montessori-trained teacher comes in to expertly guide the child along their path. They are trained to see where the child’s interests are because the Montessori Method comes from the power of observation of the teacher.

Every lesson we give, we have this trust of giving integrity for the young child. The teacher gives the lesson and fades away. The child keeps practicing and practicing until they master the work. Do we want them to learn it the very first time? No, because then what happens to the process? The child keeps practicing, and the teachers watch and know when to intervene and support the next steps.

The third year (or the Kindergarten year)

  • It marks the passage from early childhood to childhood.
  • The child’s early experiences are internalized and reinforced.
  • Earlier lessons come together and become a permanent part of their understanding (e.g., bank game > operations > memorization exercises).
  • They have opportunities to lead and guide the younger children. This helps the five-year-old to consolidate their knowledge. Moreover, the child awaits the opportunity to play this role.
  • Opportunities to give sympathy are useful to the community.
  • It reinforces their self-confidence: they are cooperative and competent.
  • It gives a foundation for abstract understanding, especially in math and language.
  • Very often, children are reading and writing during their third year, so they are ready to be introduced to reading analysis, grammar symbols, and word studies.
  • The five-year-old begins to reflect on what they know and how they relate to the world—the third year gives them this gift to integrate everything they learned in the first two years.
  • There are opportunities to learn about countries of the world, art history, and music composition.
  • Academics flows into the artistic: they create a story by writing and illustrating it.
  • They move from sensorial explorers to abstract thinkers and seek to explore facts about their world.
  • The child develops a thirst for knowledge about the world.

A parent’s perspective on the three-year cycle

“It’s not the reading, or math, or ability to recite the parts of an arthropod. The qualities a Montessori classroom has brought out in our son are more intangible than that, but no less wonderful. The effects are revealed through his kindness and patience with younger children, his dependability and grace, his pride and confidence in accomplishing a challenging task—this inner sense of peace radiates in all that he does. No doubt, this potential was within him all along.”


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