I was so excited to find a great Montessori quote for you about something that sets Montessori apart from every other educational method in the world: Our work to help the child develop his concentration. I reread various chapters of The Montessori Method and Spontaneous Activity in Education and quickly remembered why Montessori guides never list these works as their favorites: It’s all science. There are graphs and explanations and anecdotal evidence. There’s allusion to exactitude of presentations but no focus whatsoever on how to present. While it may be boring to trudge through, it is the essence of our method. So, no interesting quote today, but several take-aways.
First, the children can only develop concentration, when given time to build concentration. This is why we have a three-hour work cycle. Each child has the opportunity to work with a material or project for up to three hours, without interruption. The child is on their schedule for those three hours, not the teacher’s. At home, this means we should be giving children the opportunity to have long, unscheduled times in which they decide what to do. My daughter says she is bored often, during these times. That’s great. She needs to have time to think about how to occupy herself or the freedom to seemingly not occupy herself and just daydream or observe or think. These seeming “down” times entrench the brain’s ability to focus.
Second, the skill of concentration is something that varies with development. Young babies actually have more of an ability than we usually give them credit for. I once visited the infant room and made eye contact with an 8-month old infant. That child held my gaze for more than 20 minutes, as I talked to her and she babbled. This is not uncommon. Younger primary aged children may only concentrate for a few minutes at a time, but that ability to concentrate can be nourished and grows with age. Lower elementary children can often concentrate for up to an hour (or more) at a time, but still crave tons of movement. Upper elementary children often concentrate so much on one task that we interrupt those tasks with lessons to teach the skill of project management—having your concentration broken and being able to go back to it. Adolescents enter a period of tremendous brain growth. Their concentration varies by interest—creative tasks can garner intense concentration, while intellectual tasks are broken up into lower intensity work sessions. We have to start with the concentration level of each child and work to enhance it slowly.
Finally, when we interrupt a young child’s concentration with our own agenda, we are training the child to have a short attention span. A child working to tie his shoes needs time, even if we are running late. A child telling a story needs to finish the story. Building a Lego tower—same thing. We need to protect the child’s concentration as much as possible. Each time the concentration on a task is interrupted, the brain is sent the signal that not completing the task is valuable. This can be very upsetting to young children, resulting in crying or tantrums. As parents, we have got to slow down to allow the child to see through their process.
In an era when soft skills—like focus and concentration—are valued so highly and so rarely found, this mindset as parents and educators is critical to their future success.