Dr. Joyce S. Pickering has been a Montessorian for over forty years. A speech and hearing pathologist, and learning disabilities specialist, she has devoted her life to addressing the needs of students with learning differences. Among her many awards and honors, she was the 2013 Living Legacy Recipient for the American Montessori Society. Joyce is Executive Director Emerita of Shelton School & Evaluation Center in Dallas, Texas, the world's largest independent school for children with learning differences.
(Irene Baker) How did you become interested in children with dyslexia and other learning differences?
(Joyce Pickering) Ever since I was a very little girl I've loved to read. It was heaven. When I first heard of dyslexia, it touched my heart deeply, because people don't tell us everything as we're growing up. We learn a lot through the books we read. It was really dramatic for me to hear that dyslexic children are cut off from that knowledge. I read Ann Frank's diary when I was 13. To know that somebody my age lived through what she lived through took me to another place and time. If a child can't read, they don't have that experience.
(IB) How did your work with children begin?
(JP) I graduated from Louisiana State University in 1960 and worked in the public schools as a speech-language pathologist with hearing- and language-impaired children. After having a lot of success with older children, I realized that we needed to do early intervention. If children don't get help early, their self-esteem is wounded.
Our consultant, Dr. Sylvia Richardson, was a pediatrician, a speech-language pathologist, and a Montessori-trained teacher. She was a great inspiration and became one of my dearest friends. She suggested that I look at what June Shelton was doing with Montessori applied to children who were at risk for learning differences. I saw immediately that this is what we needed and I took her training.
(IB) How long did you work as a Montessori teacher in the classroom?
(JP) Three years. I never want to be a consultant to anybody about anything unless I've actually done it. If you've been on the ground, you know what works and what doesn't.
In 1967 I wrote a grant for children with dyslexia and ADHD in Mississippi. The response was, "This must be really innovative because we've never heard of dyslexia." Some people yelled at me, "You cannot do early intervention. You can't work with a child before they're eight and failing." That made no sense to me. We got the grant for $500,000 to serve ten counties in Mississippi for three years.
(IB) I'm intrigued that this was in Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights era. Did you have both black and white children with learning differences in your program?
(JP) Yes. We were the first program in the state of Mississippi that was integrated— both the teaching staff and the children. To enroll children, I went to every public and private school in the district, which at that time were all segregated. It was not unusual or difficult for me at all. From 1967-1970 we had 500 children in the pull-out program and 101 in a full-time school for dyslexic children.
In 1968 the federal government came to Natchez, Mississippi and said, "You must integrate the entire school district by next fall." This was April. All the white teachers left because their husbands wouldn't let them go to the integrated schools. Integration needed to be done. There could have been a better way to do it, over the time period of a year.
(IB) Did most of the white parents pull their children out?
(JP) Oh, almost all of them. They moved their children to the private Christian schools that opened and had low tuition.
(IB) How did you meet your husband Bob?
(JP) I started the dyslexia program in 1967. Bob put that same program into his school in 1968. In 1967 Bob was the first person to implement Montessori in a public school in the United States. I started Montessori in a school district in 1968. So, we were on the same wavelength. About ten years after we met, we married.
Bob was the best superintendent of schools I'd ever seen. I asked, "How are you doing what you're doing? Everywhere I go, superintendents say, "We'd love to serve children with reading differences, but we just can't afford it."
He said, "Joyce, you can afford whatever you want to do." He saw that if you help these bright children with reading challenges, it would also help the teachers and all the children in their classes. We're both very innovative people. We follow the science. Unfortunately, American schools have not followed the science at all.
(IB) It sounds like you and Bob were a great team.
(IB) What is it about Montessori that you found so helpful for children with learning differences?
(JP) Montessori offers a program that allows for individualization. The traditional classroom, in America, was based on the behaviorist philosophy that children had to be made to learn, you teach to the middle, and the teacher was the font of all knowledge.
Montessori for children with learning differences is brilliant: the individualization, multi-sensory materials, and concrete-to-abstract thinking. Breaking things down into much smaller steps helps children be successful. It's not just a benefit, it's critical.
(IB) One small modification you illustrate in your book is for the pouring activity—placing a red dot at the bottom of the pitcher to help children direct their aim when pouring into that pitcher. What other modifications to Montessori lessons do you recommend for children with learning differences?
(JP) It's neurologically very complex to learn to read, write, and spell. The excellent Montessori language curriculum was not written to be remedial, so I wrote a series of manuals, based on my Montessori training and my work with children with learning differences. If you combine the regular Montessori curriculum with more multi-sensory, structured language techniques for children with learning differences, it's a marriage made in heaven.
I've also seen the value of attaching more oral language, especially for children with learning differences, because oral language is the basis of written language.
(IB) Perhaps this modification would also be beneficial for children without challenges?
(JP) That's one of the things that I did. When I married Bob, he became the superintendent of the American School in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We used the Montessori Applied to Children at Risk program for all of the children, typical learners and those with learning differences. That enhancement of oral language was crucial. We had very few children in the program who weren't reading at grade level.
(IB) Tell me about your work training teachers.
(JP) I think that most of our training programs are not doing a strong job of teaching the trainee to meet the needs of children with exceptionalities. There's so much to learn in the traditional Montessori training about the philosophy, curriculum, and methods for the typically-developing child. It's a lot just to get the basic training.
At the Shelton School we offer the Montessori training course where trainees get their feet on the ground with the basics. Then we take them one step further, with the eight-day course, Montessori Applied to Children at Risk for Learning Differences (MACAR). We train teachers to work with children with learning differences including dyslexia, ADHD, difficulties with social skill interactions, and organizational/study skills.
Children with attention deficit disorder, which is really an executive functioning problem, are not going to develop a cycle of work the way other children do. They need a tighter structure. Difficulties with executive function means that you don't have good organizational skills. You can't prioritize. You stand in the middle of a Montessori classroom and you're overwhelmed with the choices. Teachers have to teach children to have a cycle of work. We train teachers in that. It's very simple and yet makes such a difference.
(IB) During my training the only information I received about learning differences was a few articles by you, but it wasn't enough.
(JP) No, it's not enough. There's a lot of information that you need. Many of the trainees come to me at the end of the MACAR course and say, "Joyce, this pulled everything together for me from my Montessori training."
(IB) Why do you think there's an increase in the number of children on the autism spectrum? Is it environmental? Is it being reported more?
(JP) I think it's a combination. It's definitely more reported. All those children in the 1960s, at the milder end of the autism spectrum, were diagnosed as ADHD. Now they're diagnosed as autistic. That raises the number exponentially. I believe that most of these differences are physical and neurobiological. The more you understand about the brain, the more you can help children.
Some experts describe children at the milder end of the spectrum as living in our world, but in a different way. They overreact to stimuli. They have a great deal of difficulty with eye contact, interpersonal relationships, and oral language development.
Children at the moderate to severe end of the spectrum do not live in our world. The sensory input is so overwhelming to them that they shut it out. Many of them are nonverbal and unable to deal with a traditional classroom.
(JP) I am very pleased. My whole reason for writing the book is that I feel it's my duty to pass on this rare knowledge.
(IB) What would you say to teachers who have children in their classrooms with varying exceptionalities but don't have the training to support them?
(JP) My greatest hope is that schools get training for their teachers. I think it's unethical to accept children into your school that your teachers are not trained to serve. I understand that Montessorians feel we can help all children, and that's laudable. But teachers that don't have the training will often be afraid of these children, and for good reason. They don't know what to do. Teachers who don't understand often say, "This child is unmotivated." They're also worried about how to balance the time between the child with a learning difference and traditional learners. Most teachers are thrilled to have the information and will do anything to gain the skills.
Train your teachers or don't accept these children into your school. Or accept them with the understanding that they're going to have to have outside services. The first two chapters in my book cover the philosophy, history, and curriculum of Montessori for the special education person coming into a Montessori school. They need this introduction to Montessori education.
Most of my book is about exceptionalities and how to meet the needs of those children in a Montessori class. The last chapter is about assessment. Teachers need to know how to read reports about the child from psychologists, occupational, speech, and physical therapists.
(IB) If the teacher has the training, should children with moderate learning differences be in a Montessori classroom with more traditional learners?
(JP) Yes, that would be the ideal.
(IB) How many children with learning differences can most teachers handle?
(JP) It depends on the teacher and their tolerance for differences. Some have the heart for it. Some do not. But I think all teachers can be trained to serve more of these children. I would say that every classroom that I've been in (and that's a lot in almost 60 years!) has about 20% of the children at risk for dyslexia.
(IB) Do you have a favorite story from your work with children?
(JP) The typical story is a preschool child who has begun to realize that they're not learning the way other children are. From that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little child, you start to see a child who's worried about themselves and who, in my experience, asked questions like, "Am I retarded?"
I would reply, "Do you think you are?"
They would say "No, not really, but in some way." They're not processing information the way the typically-developing child is and they know it when they're four- and five-years-old.
Teachers with the training can say, "I see that it's not easy for you; we're going to have to work on that. I know how to help you, and you will get it. It may not be perfect, but it's going to be better." That makes all the difference in the world. The child who comes to Shelton early knows that they're never by themselves in the challenge. If they don't come to us until first or second grade, or later, they've often experienced a lot of stress.
(IB) Do you have any plans to retire?
(JP) No. My health is good. I love what I do, so, as long as I can, I would like to continue. I'm going to pull back on the international travel, but I'm working with a group online that's setting up schools for children with learning differences in Mexico, Central America, and South America.
As Executive Director Emerita at Shelton I still run the Montessori Applied to Children at Risk training that we offer every year. The teacher-training is a very rewarding part of my life, passing on what I've been given by my mentors to as many people as possible.
Bob and I have seven children and 13 grandchildren, which keeps us busy. Our lives are about work and family. Our work is not work to us. It's a joy. It has great rewards and intellectual stimulation. I will always work in some way to help children with learning and reading differences.
(IB) What an honor it has been to interview you. On behalf of all of the children and teachers that you have profoundly impacted, thank you.
(JP) It has been a joy to talk with you.
—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 20 years, she has served as a Montessori consultant and teacher-trainer for primary and elementary levels, and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS conferences. Her work with students and teachers is infused with her passions: storytelling, history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, poetry, meditation, music, and the natural world.
—Originally Published 2020