A Montessori education isn’t just about a specific classroom environment or even a teacher’s approach to teaching. It’s about a philosophy of learning that was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, a physician and anthropologist who believed that children can exceed expectations if they are given the tools to be independent, self-guided learners. In a Montessori Preschool setting, you’ll see well-designed, ingenious educational materials that teach one concept at a time and encourage children to practice activities until they master them. Children also work in long, uninterrupted periods of time that are tailored to their own internal rhythms and pacing.

In addition, Montessori educators focus on promoting imagination and the ability to think creatively and tackle new challenges by encouraging children to use the Montessori learning materials in ways they find most interesting. Many parents report that their children are more interested in learning, they’re more confident and independent at school, and they often demonstrate a greater sense of self-esteem and empathy for others.

Unlike traditional classrooms, which place value on standardized tests and benchmarks, Montessori recognizes that every child has their own unique learning abilities. That’s why lessons are designed to support a variety of different learning styles, skills and interests. Children also learn in 3-year age-bands, which fosters cross-age tutoring and gives older students a special responsibility that builds leadership and social skills.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that research on the benefits of Montessori learning is fairly limited. Most studies have been conducted in a small, narrow demographic of children, which makes generalization problematic. While some studies have found positive outcomes in cognitive and social development, it’s too early to say whether these gains are due to the Montessori method or the specific learning materials used by the teacher.

The best thing to do when choosing a preschool is to trust your instincts and choose the place that feels right for your child. Montessori schools tend to be calm and welcoming environments that prioritize student wellbeing. They also offer flexible schedules that give you more options for how your kids spend their day.

While a Montessori school isn’t the right choice for every child, it can be an excellent option for kids with anxiety or sensory processing issues. In fact, the Montessori approach can help kids learn to calm themselves and develop a more respectful relationship with their teachers.

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science journalist who has written for Slate, Mother Jones, Scientific American and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the author of the book The Feminine Mystique and is currently working on her second book about evolution. Follow her on Twitter @melindawendermoyer.

This article originally appeared on Guidepost Montessori.