by Malia Jacobson
Young children aren’t usually known for intense concentration. Kids often bounce from one activity to another. That’s why parents are surprised by what they see when they tour a Montessori school: Children as young as 3 are happily engaged in independent, focused work for long stretches. They don’t see lecturing teachers. The children are self-motivated.
This ability to focus at a young age is a hallmark of Montessori education, and the teaching method has a rich history: Maria Montessori’s first school opened in 1907. But a trend toward getting students more engaged in education is sparking new interest in this century-old style of learning, and new science is showing how this type of learning benefits today’s young minds.“At Montessori schools, children have very little limitation,” says Trayce Marino, head of school at Montessori School at Emory in Decatur. “If a child sees an older child doing something and he wants to tackle it, we give that child the support and tools to do so. We let them explore their interests.”
Over the past decade, organizations like Mindfulness in Education Network, Association for Mindfulness in Education, and Mindful Schools have sprung up, validating the Montessori model. These organizations train teachers, host conferences, and produce research aimed at helping children become more focused, motivated, and intentional in the classroom. Why does student engagement matter? Scientists refer to a “flow” state of prolonged, energized work that produces both calm satisfaction and profound joy in learning.
Maria Montessori was an early advocate for sustained focus and internal motivation. Her methods deliberately encourage intense concentration as the best context for early learning.
Montessori’s approach to motor development stimulates cognitive development and deep concentration. When children begin Montessori education at 3 or 4, they work on motor-skills activities like sweeping, polishing silverware and pouring. These aptly-named “Practical Life” activities prepare kids for greater independence and self-reliance in daily tasks, but there’s something bigger going on – the development of higher cognitive functions essential to concentration and attention.
“We see everything as interrelated,” Marino says. Measuring ingredients for a baking project, for instance, uses fractions and a student can relate fractions in baking to fractions in math.
Montessori tasks like wiping a table or washing dishes develop fine motor control, but they also activate areas of the pre-frontal cortex essential to executive function, which paves the way for greater concentration and focus, says Stephen J. Hughes, a pediatric neuropsychologist specializing in attention, concentration, planning and organizing.
“Dr. Montessori wrote about the close relationship between cognitive development and motor development in 1949; 50 years later, scientists made the same connection,” Hughes says.
This whole-body approach is part of the reason numerous studies show that Montessori-educated children have an academic edge over children educated in traditional classrooms. If your children are exposed to similar methods at home, or through teachers trained in engagement methods, they, too, might have an edge.
Here’s more that parents can learn from Montessori:
One way Montessori promotes focus is through a carefully prepared environment, a key component of Montessori learning. In Montessori classrooms, specially-designed materials, from child-size brooms to lacing cards to counting beads, are prepared to be aesthetically appealing and accessible for young children. Simplicity, beauty, and order are paramount.
Children choose their activity, and choosing one’s own activity promotes sustained engagement. Montessori-taught children choose their own work from a palette of developmentally-appropriate options that grow progressively more complex and challenging.
Montessori schools incorporate concrete learning goals into a child’s educational plan, but children are free to choose when and how to complete their work within a specified time frame. Montessori believes that when children are motivated by their own interests, deep concentration is a natural result. During a 90-minute work period, children can take their work through its beginning, middle and end. Working through this natural sequence promotes competence and mastery; children can repeat the activity as many times as they want.
Though the terms focus and concentration conjure up images of a child working alone, Montessori-style learning encourages kids to engage in tasks with a classmate or two, a critical skill in the age of teamwork. Classrooms typically are grouped in age ranges, so younger children can learn from older ones and older children can teach and lead (ages 15 months to 3 years, ages 3-6, ages 6-9 and 9-12). Children benefit with greater confidence, longer attention spans, and natural self-motivation, lessons parents want them to learn along with their academics.
Metro Atlanta has 24 Montessori schools accredited by the Association Montessori Internationale and about 40 others accredited by the American Montessori Society or other organizations. Other schools may follow some Montessori education methods, but aren’t official Montessori schools.
Most Montessori schools are private and cover kindergarten to sixth grade, but a few, such as Arbor Montessori in Decatur, Montessori Academy at Sharon Springs in Cumming, Montessori School of Covington and Springmont in Sandy Springs (formerly known as First Montessori, the first school in the Southeast) teach middle-school students. Counterpane Montessori School in Fayetteville has a full K-12 program.
DeKalb County School District has Montessori kindergarten and elementary programs at Briar Vista, Huntley Hills and Midway elementary schools, though Briar Vista is the only school to fully implement the Montessori curriculum. Students are selected by lottery.
Any school can claim to be a Montessori school, because the name is not trademarked, and some schools may not employ certified Montessori teachers, who must complete a full year of training in the education method in addition to their college degree. Check the school’s accreditation and credentials.
The American Montessori Society recommends these strategies:
Create an Ordered Environment: This allows children to find what they need and offers fewer distractions, so kids can focus on the project at hand. Suggestions: Provide low shelves or drawers for clothing, keep a step stool in the bathroom and kitchen so kids can reach the sink, put toys and games on low, open shelves, put healthy snacks on a low shelf so kids can serve themselves, put drinks in small pitchers and allow kids to pour their own.
Teach Real-Life Skills: Let kids wash tables, organize shelves, prepare their snacks and assist younger children; younger children can peel vegetables, fold clothes, match socks or care for pets. Tweens can prepare dinner, read to siblings, help with home maintenance or manage their own bank account.
Promote Concentration: Figure out what interests your child, then set him or her up with the tools to explore that interest, without interruption.
Nurture Inner Motivation: By expressing encouragement and appreciation for your child’s efforts, you help develop pride and pleasure from within; children will apply themselves when they feel there is value to their work.
Some of the traits that set Montessori schools apart from traditional schools, according to the society: