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An Interview with Michelle Lane of The Lane Montessori School for Autism

Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Michelle Lane, founder of The Lane Montessori School for Autism in Toronto, Ontario. Although Michelle is no longer running the school, it was the first school in the world to combine the Montessori curriculum with Applied Behaviour Analysis (a technique frequently used in autism therapy). Michelle received a scholar's award for her post-graduate Montessori teacher training at Sheridan College and holds an AMS Early Childhood credential.

I was very excited to talk to Michelle, because I am extremely interested in how the Montessori method can be used with special needs children. There aren't many programs right now that do this, so her work is truly innovative and cutting-edge.

Michelle Lane

Lori: Hi, Michelle! Thanks so much for talking to me today.

Michelle: My pleasure!

Lori: What led you to Montessori? What came first, your Montessori experience or autism training?

Michelle: I had attended Montessori as a young child (casa program). I was working as a musician - a "starving" artist - when I decided to go back to school in 2000 and chose to get a Montessori teacher's degree instead of a regular teacher's degree.

However, my experience with autism came first. I graduated from University at 19 and started working with children with autism a couple of years afterwards in 1994. I always enjoyed working with these children, so I decided to go back to school to become a teacher.

Lori: When did it occur to you to combine Montessori with autism therapy?

Michelle: During my Montessori training - specifically, the special needs curriculum - I realized I wanted to open up a school for autism. I was fortunate to know behaviour therapy and knew instinctively that the blend would work for the children I had worked for and the children that I was currently working with. It took a few years to develop but the children responded even better than I had imagined.

Lori: In what ways is the Montessori/Autism approach similar to traditional Montessori? In what ways is it different?

Michelle: It is similar only in terms of the curriculum and classroom layout. We use the same materials with the same task analysis (which all Montessori teachers know how to do during a presentation). The difference is how we teach. We work one-to-one, with prompting and reinforcement schedules based on each step of the task analysis. In addition we have set programs/activities that the child must do each day. This is different to a typical Montessori approach which allows the child to have choice and to be shown a presentation before using the activity.

Lori: Could an autistic child have success in a traditional Montessori environment, or does it need to be combined with autism therapy?

Michelle: It depends on what level of the spectrum the child is on. For children on the lower end of ASD I would say a one-to-one model works best. Behaviour therapy has been used with a good success rate for children with autism. It is not the only treatment but this is the experience from which I come from and the blend of the two methods in my opinion creates an even better program for these children.

Maria Montessori originally worked with children with special needs in the asylums and made great gains with them - so much so that their IQ scores were similar to typical children. She created the Montessori method (which is the program you see in most schools) as a way of teaching a typically developing child. For children who are on a higher end of the spectrum or children with Aspergers Syndrome I believe that they should be integrated but still need additional supports in the regular Montessori classroom.

Lori: Can you describe a classroom at your school, and talk about what a typical day looks like?

Michelle: Our classrooms look more like clinic rooms. They are much smaller than a typical classroom but have the full range of materials available to the child. Our typical day starts with a circle in which one child has to lay out a mat, while another child lays out name cards. We have each child pick out their name and return it to the shelf. Another child picks classified cards and we do a small group circle where the teacher will give the least amount of prompting for the children to imitate the words on the cards. If all of the children are non-verbal, we simply say the words while they sit in the group. This is to prepare them for integration where they will have to sit in small groups while encouraging language development.

Once all of the cards are laid out on the mat, the children have to clean up (working together to work on turn-taking and social skills). Once the work is cleaned up, the children start working with their teacher on their programs for the day. We break for snack at the end of the half day program. One child sets the table, while another child washes the dishes after snack and another child washes the table. For children in the full day program, they have their lunch (using the same routine as above), we go for a walk and start the session again with a circle. We end the day with snack time. Twice a week we integrate our children with the children of the typical Montessori program on their walk days.

Lane Montessori Classroom

Lori: How many teachers per child? Do the children ever work independently, or only one-to-one?

Michelle: We have two different types of classrooms. These will be changing as we just changed our status to not-for-profit and will only have one location come September 2007. However in the past we had classrooms for children who had more severe challenges. These classrooms had two children with two teachers working one-to-one. The teachers would rotate daily so that the children would be used to being taught by more than one instructor.

We opened a new classroom last year for children who were higher functioning but still not ready for the regular Montessori system. This classroom has four children with two teachers working on a one-to-two (teacher to student) ratio. This was set up as a stepping stone to integrate these children in the years to come into regular Montessori school.

Children in the one-to-one classroom work consistently one-on-one with the instructor. However, we are always working on fading our prompts so that the child can do the work independently. Once this has been achieved, the activity is considered acquired. Also, once the child is ready for tokens or other similar types of reinforcements, we let them "choose" their own activity for which they can do independently. Children in the one-to-two classroom alternate their independent work with work taught by the teacher. These children need to be at a level where they can do work on their own.

Lori: Do the children choose their own work? Are all the materials available on low shelves similar to a traditional Montessori classroom?

Michelle: The children do have opportunity during the day to choose their own work. Most of the materials are available for the children in order to teach the work cycle and independence. However some materials (especially the trampoline, other toys and puzzles - non-Montessori) need to be requested or we use them during the day for other purposes such as Sensory Integration and development of social skills.

Lori: Are there materials, furniture, or other things in the classroom that you wouldn't see in a typical Montessori classroom?

Michelle: We do have other items in the classroom that are necessary for our children. Montessori believed in looking at the "whole" child. Our children need reinforcements, like communication temptations, as well as items to develop social skills. Therefore we have activities in the classroom that are not Montessori. However most of our "programming" is based on the Montessori curriculum and a full range of the casa program is available in each classroom, even though there may be only two children in the room.

Lori: Have you thought of writing a book about the theory behind connecting Montessori and autism therapy?

Michelle: Yes. I have written a book but it still needs to be edited and unfortunately I have been to busy to finish it so far. Now that I am pregnant, I will be on maternity leave next year. It will be called "Autism - A Montessori Approach". I do have a book available now, called Autism - A Montessori Approach: Program Tracking Manual, and it provides a way to track each child's progress while using this method. The program tracking manual was finished first because this is what we need to use in our everyday program.

I decided to distribute it to help other professionals use the method without having to do all the work of writing up each program. The manual is over 400 pages which includes all of the Montessori materials you would use in a casa (2-6) as well as some beginning elementary work with the prompting, reinforcement schedule, and verbal instructions etc., in order to start programming. It has been sold worldwide and I am excited to see more schools start programs similar to the one we started in our school.

Lori: What kinds of outcomes do children have who take part in your program?

Michelle: We are a small school. Our children have done very well in the program and this is why I received a Premier's award in 2005 and the reason why we have received a lot of positive feedback. We were called the Toronto Montessori School for Autism until this past summer where we received not-for-profit status and are now named The Lane Montessori School for Autism.

I am also very busy with my consulting business that has expanded to provide home therapy for parents who cannot come to our school location. The progress that these children are making is wonderful to see. My sincerest hope is that most Montessori schools will offer this type of program to children with more challenging needs in order to help them integrate into the typical Montessori program in the future.

Lori: Many parents have asked me if your approach would work with children who are not on the autism spectrum, but have issues with ADHD or other learning disabilities. Is this a possibility? Can parents use your program at home?

Michelle: Yes, it does work with other disabilities; however, there may be other methods that would also be useful. One fantastic resource is the Shelton School in Texas. It's a Montessori school for LD children, led by Dr. Joyce Pickering. You can find a wide range of helpful information at their website. To my knowledge they started the first Montessori school for at-risk children. They modify the materials and teachings to help a child with special needs.

Our program is different because it is based on the needs of a child with autism using a backward chaining model used in behavior therapy. We have had a couple of children with ADHD in our school that did very well in the program.

I do think parents can use this program at home. I have expanded my consulting company to do in home therapy because a lot of families were finding it difficult to either pay for school tuition or come to our school location in Toronto. I am starting my first training program here at Sheridan College for parents and caregivers of children with autism called Autism - Montessori Approaches in the Home. You can find current information about upcoming training workshops at my website.

Lori: One last question: I know you that you are a talented musician. Do you use your musical talent in a Montessori setting?

Michelle: I use my music background when teaching the piano to the children in the classroom. Before we became not-for-profit and moved to one location, all of our classrooms had a piano. The reason we no longer have the piano is we share our new classrooms in the same building as another Montessori school and we do not want to disrupt their school day. I am working on putting my music program together for other teachers to use in their own programs. I use it a lot now when doing in home therapy sessions through my consulting company, Michelle Lane Montessori Autism Services.

Lori: Michelle, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to talk to me. This has been extremely enlightening, and I think it will be very helpful to many people. Congratulations on your pregnancy, and best of luck in the future!

Michelle: Thank you so much, Lori!

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