Child Development: Week 5

Adolescence, Part 2

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Montessori observed that one goal of adolescence is social independence (physical and mental independence come during the first two years).  Jean Piaget wrote about the process of growing out of egocentrism (the childhood cognitive state of not seeing multiple perspectives). The awakening from egocentrism happens in several stages, but the 12 to 18 year old is discovering and learning to live with self consciousness–being conscious of his existence.

If you imagine a child dancing around happily in a field without much worry or pressure as a metaphor for the first 12 years of childhood (the eight year old rarely questions the significance of their piano or soccer skills in the universe, or the way mom/dad dresses as a representation of their identity), self consciousness is something that washes over a young adolescent as if a curtain has dropped and he realizes he is not alone in that field… and never was.  Instead, he was on a stage.  At first, adolescents are mortified and embarrassed that people were noticing them and judging them without their knowledge.  They have to do an inventory about every possible shame to decide how to file it all away and to gauge how embarrassed they should be.  Every detail matters.  As they process their new situation, they have two choices: to hide or to perform.  Both choices have the same disadvantages; they grow exhausted and lonely.  We were not made for a life on a social stage.

As kids head into the latter half of adolescence, they need to transition from the “stage” into a community.  They will gradually find a balance between feeling like everyone is looking at them and knowing they are in a group who is largely going through the same thing.  They need to strip off the costume and the performance, and let people accept them–or not–for who they are.  Again, this is a process and everyone is on their own developmental time schedule, but this transition will largely occur by 18 years of age. As adults, we will still struggle with this now and again for sure!  Some psychologists argue that this stage is currently elongated in the USA, and many of our adolescents are not reaching the final stages as quickly as previous time periods, and other cultures.  The more we help them disable and invalidate the “stage,” the better our childrenwill accomplish the tasks of adolescence and be prepared for the tasks of young adulthood.  As they head into the last official phase of childhood, we want them to have made peace with the idea of community, understand how a variety of relationships work, and their identity within those relationships.  We want them to be as confident in their roles with others as they were tying their shoes at six or practicing their trombone at 11.

Child Development

The Montessori Method challenges educators to shape the curriculum and pedagogy around the developmental needs of each age group.  There is no universally accepted or articulated framework for psycho-social development the way there is for biological development, and frankly, I don’t know many educators or doctors who give much thought to it beyond the superficial stereotypes.

Dr. Maria Montessori

But Dr. Montessori was deeply intrigued by it, as were several of her contemporaries (Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Anna Freud to name three), and they created a solid foundation in developmental psychology, although their theories never seemed to affect mainstream practices significantly.  We know a lot about teenage behavior from neurological research (they’re developing their frontal lobes) and biochemistry (for example, the chemicals of adolescence create mood swings), but why do they feel so lonely?  Why will they engage in something that we think they will mock and then mock something we think they will like?  What is the difference between an 8-year-old who wants to learn and an 8-year-old who doesn’t want to learn?

I believe that the better educators understand these tasks, the more effective our education will be.  We cannot help our students become the best version of themselves, if we don’t truly know them — and know which phases will pass.  We need to work *with* their natural drive rather than against it whenever possible.  In this day and age, with so much data and science and information, it’s shocking how dependent our entire child-rearing system is on gut and intuition.

There’s a lot of information missing still, but most schools are not addressing the information we do have.  I want to spend the next few weeks (here on this blog) discussing what the developmental stages are and how TFS addresses each of these stages in our own way.  The more we all understand our children, the better we can love and grow them.

Week 1: The First Six Years of Life

Montessori2Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the planes of development) from birth until 24 years of age. In the first phase from birth to six years old (infancy/early childhood), children focus on physical independence and the core task is to create their personality.  They are developing independence from mom biologically, and from all adults in terms of fine and gross motor skills.  They want to do concrete tasks by themselves, take care of themselves, and work on skills that interest them.  The foundation of their character, a positive sense of self, will come from their achievements in physical independence.

These are very broad generalizations, fleshed out over decades and thousands and thousands of written pages, but suffice it to say, most of us recognize our kids in those descriptions.  An eight year old does not find the same joy in zipping his own zipper as a four year old.  No one is quite as moody and contrary as the two year old who is setting her boundaries (except maybe the adolescent–we’ll address that later).  Big things are happening inside them during those early years that will shape the rest of their lives, and that’s why we give as much attention to the three year olds’ curriculum and day-to-day experience as our high schoolers’.

Stay tuned next week for Part II of Birth to 6 Years.

Teasing: Control vs. Connection

Teasing is a perennial issue for children of all ages, but probably peaks in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade, at least in terms of intensity of reactions.  It can be a hard thing for a parent to hear about after school each day.

We read “Mom, They’re Teasing Me” by Michael Thompson in our parent book club last week and although I’ve read it many times, I was struck by a core truth in the book this time around.  We are all trying to balance two core needs — control and connection — in our relationships, and most interactions between kids come down to that tension.

This is not a negative “I want to rule the world” control, but rather a “I need to have some power and autonomy in my life.”  That need for empowerment does not usually encourage meaningful connection with others, and so the two are often at odds and kids have to make many decisions each day about what control to give up in order to foster connection, and what connection to give up to gain some control.

Of course, it gets very complicated because children are not born knowing how to proactively and appropriately build connection and negative connection (often articulated as attention) is better than no connection at all.  Teasing is a safe negative connection in the sense that if it doesn’t work, you can hide behind the negativity.

For the most part, kids have to figure it out on their own, but we can help them understand their motives tremendously by processing the conversations with them, asking them for others’ perspectives on the teasing, helping them own their own role in interactions, and sending them the message that you know they can do hard things, thus building up their confidence.

Of course, if you or your child ever feel overwhelmed by any negative emotions, never hesitate to enlist my help, or your child’s teachers.  Navigating social relationships will be one of the most important skills we can develop and it is well worth all of our time to nurture those skills.

Go on… Play.

I want to share with you a couple of articles about the importance of play. The first article (found here) speaks to our younger learners and how important it is for them to learn through playing.

The second article (found here) is a look at this philosophy from the other end of childhood. The article, written by two Harvard professors, talks about how most Harvard undergrads know how to work hard, but some have never learned how to play… and it shows.


What is Montessori? Part III

Parents often talk about Montessori children having a sparkle in their eye or a spring in their step that most students don’t have.  At our school, parents wonder at how their children love school at Fulton, compared to their friends at other schools or to their old school. There are many reasons for this, but two keys are the relevancy of curriculum and the autonomy of the student.

As part of a Montessorian’s call to follow the child (see Part II), we need to tailor the material to speak to them.  This does not mean that third grade boys should only study Legos and four-year-old girls must study princesses.  A true educator knows that you can get kids excited about almost any subject if you approach it appropriately.

We do need to be ready to help children understand why they’re learning.  When we teach a preschooler to zip, she is immensely rewarded by helping all the younger kids who cannot yet zip get zipped up for recess.  She is even more excited to go learn the next thing.  This can get more difficult as the material gets more abstract, but it must remain a priority. However, if we are following the child and the material is developmentally appropriate, the relevancy will be much easier to convey.

Secondly, kids love to learn when there is a little bit of choice.  Can they do their grammar before their reading comprehension?  Is there some give in the schedule when the group gets particularly excited about Egypt?  Can they move on after page 65 or do they have to wait on the rest of the group?  Can they choose a timeline OR a skit?

99% of us would be completely deflated if our professional lives were devoid of any relevancy or autonomy, so how dare we treat our children with less respect?  We can and do, and most children comply, or at least try, but they will not have the sparkle or the bounce that they could have.  They will be surviving instead of thriving.

What is Montessori? Part II

In a blog post early in July, I addressed the question: “What is Montessori?” Thinking about the Montessori Method a little further, I’d like to explain the idea of “following the child.”

Many naysayers and novice Montessorians have misunderstood this to mean: “Do whatever the child wants.” What it actually means is that we need to understand child development and work with their natural drive rather than against it.

Kids under the age of six or seven love to work on their handwriting or rote memory. Elementary students are really excited to pick up a new instrument or develop some other fine motor skill like typing. Middle schoolers hate hate hate the above, but embrace learning to debate social issues and mastering physical challenges (if it’s not embarrassing).

Very few four-year-olds will roll their eyes and ask why you want them to shake the tamborine or sort the buttons, and very few middle schoolers will NOT ask why they have to learn Algebra or read The Old Man and the Sea.

So at a deeper level, a Montessori school is one that works with and respects the child’s natural development, channeling their incredible zest for life into the educational system we need to work with.

The benefits of letting our children fail…

The New York Times ran an article last week called, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” and it was the most emailed article for several days.  The author was looking at what character traits in children translate to the most successful, meaningful lives.  Self control, zest, grit, curiosity, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude are among the most important traits to be fostering in our children.  Such traits are much more important to their futures than GPA’s or standardized testing.  How do you help your children develop such traits?  One of the most important things you can do is let them fail.  Don’t protect them and save them from the many little consequences of their actions.  Don’t argue with their teachers for deadline extensions.  Don’t drive their lunch or homework up to them when they forget it.  Don’t get them in on the birthday party they weren’t invited to. Resilience, empathy, and responsibility are all going to be developed through disappointment and failure, the same way muscles are developed through heavy resistance.  So we have to let them work through those situations.  Some empathy from you? Great.  Fixing the situation? It will hurt your child in the long run.

Babies and different strokes for different folks

I recently watched the documentary, “Babies,” and it has haunted me since.  It’s a simple 70+ minute glimpse at the first year of four babies in San Francisco, Tokyo, Namibia, and Mongolia.  The majority of the footage is of the babies alone, or maybe with an older sibling.  There is no narration, dialog is not translated or subtitled, and the director creates no plot,  But it was fascinating and the cinematography is stunning.  The babies have so much in common–confirming what we know about human nature and child development–but the differences in their lives, the parenting that does or doesn’t take place, and the variety of opportunities and interactions they all have, are shocking.  Curl up with your children some afternoon over break and see what conversations spring up about parenting, childhood, different cultures, and your own family stories.  NB: there is cultural nudity.

Social conflicts

We had an interesting morning, listening to Dr. Tim Jordan discuss the social lives of children.  The biggest take-away for most of us, was probably the simple reminder that growing up and learning about relationships is hard; it was for us when we were kids and it’s hard for our kids now.  There is no way around it.  If we don’t go through it, we don’t get good at relationships. 
As I reflect on the talk, it strikes me that relationships are still hard. Whether I’m struggling through an issue with my husband, muddling through a misunderstanding with my extended family, or nursing feelings hurt by a friend or coworker, my conflicts look very similar to our children’s.  The primary differences are a little bit of tact and a lot more perspective.  When avoided, conflicts breed annoyance at best, and bitterness at worst.  When resolved, the conflict brings deeper understanding, intimacy, and trust with the resolution.  
I put all of my notes on our website for those of you who couldn’t make it.

Discovering vs Instruction

Do you learn better when you discover something on your own, or when someone “teaches” you? Do you prefer a lecture or exploration? Certainly, there are times when a quick explanation is efficient and convenient, however for decades, studies have shown that in general, we learn best when we discover new information ourselves. Here is one such study where a new toy is introduced to 3 and 4 year olds in two different ways. As parents and teachers, we should all be keeping in mind how we inspire interest, as well as how we can extinguish interest. Sometimes it’s a bit counter-intuitive.  I might add that a Montessori teacher does exactly what this article suggests: s/he “discovers” a material in front of the child and demonstrates curiosity about how the material works.  Then it’s the child’s turn…