Why is Isolation of Difficulty Important in a Montessori Classroom?

Posted on by Helena Eddings

The signature of all Montessori education is equipping children to be self-sufficient, almost as if they are teaching themselves.

In our tradition, we have a little secret to this learning style, and it’s called the Isolation of Difficulty.

So, what does this mean?

It’s just like it sounds. It’s an educational technique that involves removing unnecessary obstacles, allowing the child to focus on and gain mastery of just one difficult element.

If you look around at the supplies in a Montessori classroom, you might notice that they are far plainer than what you’d see in a typical toddler classroom. The pink tower blocks are intentionally all the same color, rather than being different sizes and different colors.

The task with those blocks is to teach visual discrimination so that’s why other obstacles (like multiple colors) are removed, thus isolating the difficulty.

You’ll see this concept implemented all over Montessori classrooms. Look for it in these examples:

  • Pouring water
  • Cutting in a straight line, then moving to cutting curves and zig-zags
  • Sandpaper letters

As the child develops and masters skills, she can handle multiple concepts at once and won’t be distracted by elements she has already learned. However, when learning a skill for the first time, the Montessori classroom will always defer to isolating the difficulty.

Isolation of difficulty happens all throughout development. It might seem like it would take longer to teach skills one at a time, but isolating the difficulty, and teaching skills in sequence is effective and efficient.

Think about when you were learning to drive. You probably learned to drive in a straight line first. Then, once you were confident in that skill, you learned other skills like using a turn signal and changing lanes.

How to use Isolation of Difficulty at home:

In your day-to-day life at home, think about the one skill you want your child to master in any given activity. Then find ways to isolate that.

For example, maybe you want your child to help you with sorting laundry.

Try starting with the towels, or perhaps socks (if they’re all the same color). Task your child with sorting by size first. She can separate hand towels, washcloths, and bath towels from each other, or Dad’s socks from her own socks.

Then once she has mastered the size, work with her on distinguishing colors. Isolate that by giving her all of her own socks and matching the colors together. The size will stay all the same, but she’ll be able to pair the socks together by color.

As your child grows and masters skills, combine them. Teach her to separate her strawberries and blueberries, (different colors/shapes/sizes).

Once your child is familiar with numbers using the sandpaper numbers in the classroom, have her match numbers that are different colors (use 2 sets of numbers, in which the 1s are different colors, etc). She’ll strengthen her cognitive skills in this area, but only once she’s mastered the first level.


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West Side Montessori is an independent, accredited Montessori school educating children 13 months through 8th grade (preschool, kindergarten, elementary and middle school) with locations at 13587 Roachton Rd in Perrysburg, Ohio, and 7115 W. Bancroft Street in Toledo, Ohio.