How Montessori Promotes Mindful Learning
Young children aren’t usually known for intense concentration. To the contrary, kids are expected to bounce from one activity to another with the attention span of a gnat. 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. Speaking with Karen Cusanelli, director of GREAT BEGINNINGS Montessori School in Fairfield, she says, “I think one of the first things that catches the attention of a visitor to the Montessori classroom is the peaceful atmosphere. The materials provide for concrete, hands-on learning. The classrooms are designed to foster the growth of the ‘whole child’; meaning they aim to meet the needs of each individual’s physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual development.”
Parents are just as surprised by what they don’t see — no lecturing teachers prodding reluctant kids to complete assigned work. “Teachers are guides, not lecturers; they facilitate instruction to keep each child optimally challenged. They must observe, mentor, mold and guide the child to his full potential,” adds Carolyn Chapman, head of school at Children’s House of Montessori in Woodbridge. “The classroom is prepared to foster independence. Materials are created to be self-correcting. The teacher has to be always ready to help, but never to dominate, so that the child positively responds to the adult’s love and respect.”
Montessori learning is hardly novel — Maria Montessori’s first school opened its doors in 1907. But, a trend toward mindfulness in education is sparking new interest in this century-old style of education, and new science is showing how this type of learning benefits today’s young minds.
Over the past decade, organizations like Mindfulness in Education Network, Association for Mindfulness in Education and Mindful Schools have sprung up, training teachers, hosting conferences and producing research aimed at helping children become more focused, motivated and intentional in the classroom.
But, just what is mindfulness, exactly, and why does it matter? MindfulSchools.org paints mindfulness as a deep, in-the-moment focus, characterized by self-awareness and internal motivation. In a world filled with chaotic distraction, advocates of mindfulness say it can be a salve for the conflict, impulsiveness and stress plaguing modern students and schools.
Steven J. Hughes, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist specializing in attention, concentration, planning and organizing — a set of traits known as executive functions — defines mindfulness as “sustained positive engagement.” Other scientists refer to a “flow” state of prolonged, energized work that produces both calm satisfaction and profound joy in learning.
Whole Body, Whole Mind
Maria Montessori didn’t coin the term “mindfulness,” but she was an early advocate for sustained focus and internal motivation. Her methods deliberately encourage intense concentration as the best context for early learning.
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, Hughes says. Kathy Aldridge, head of school, at West Hartford’s Montessori School of Greater Hartford (MSGH) adds, “The classroom is set up so that the children, even at a very early age, can maintain and care for it. The products needed to do the tasks are accessible and appropriately sized. A toddler who is 15 months won’t be able to handle a dustpan and floor brush, but he can wipe up a spill. An older child’s willingness to show a younger child ‘the ropes’ develops empathy, leadership, confidence, collaborative skills and patience. As the child grows older, his self-esteem increases because of the confidence and independence gained from this experience. The result is a student who is not afraid to take risks. Mistakes are inevitable, and he is willing to seek his own solutions to problems.”
Happy Work: Environment, Schedule, and Shared Focus
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. Chapman states, “Now, a century
after Maria Montessori’s first Casa de Bambini ‘Children’s House,’ teachers still design a prepared environment based on their observations. They create materials guided by children’s needs.” Contrary to traditional school, the children are not expected to study and progress at the same rate. Each student can reach his full potential and work at his own pace.
“The work or play that the child does over the course of the three years the children are in our Montessori Primary community, helps them to develop into happy, independent children with a positive self image,” says Cusanelli. “They love learning and they love creating. When they leave our school, each child is prepared to stay in a Montessori program or to enter mainstream education.”
When children are motivated by their own interests, deep concentration is a natural result. Chapman says, “Freedom of movement, freedom of choice and freedom of repetition lets the child enjoy and discover the environment around them. The materials arouse the inquisitive nature of the child and allows [him or her] to think of other ways to do things.” 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, without being told to hurry up and move on to something else.
Though the terms focus and concentration conjure up images of a child working alone, mindfulness is not always a solo pursuit. Montessori-style learning helps kids learn the fine art of shared concentration by encouraging them to engage in tasks with a classmate or two — a critical skill in the age of teamwork.
How does this Montessori-style mindfulness benefit children? Aldrich sums things up quite succinctly: “Whether parents stumble upon Montessori or are drawn to its approach, all parents want the best education for their child and they soon discover that an authentic Montessori school delivers this. In today’s world, it’s important that children be exposed to as many cultures as possible so they can appreciate the differences and recognize the similarities. At MSGH we are fortunate to have a diverse population. All of our classrooms are dual-language — Spanish and English — where the children are totally immersed in both. This begins in our toddler level and continues through adolescence.”
Cusanelli states the Montessori education stands the test of time. “Children still follow the same laws of development today as they did 100 years ago. The list of well-known and highly successful Montessori students speaks for itself. Just ‘Google It’ and the names of both Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, will come up. No matter how many advances we make as a society, an educational method created to support naturally occurring development of the whole child, rather than imparting information, will always be in style.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer specializing in parenting. She’s working on adopting Montessori-inspired principles of mindfulness at home.
For this article, Joel MacClaren localized the content to share some of the Montessori opportunities available in our area; both of his children attended a Montessori school.