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Devoted to guiding educators towards a centered and intentional Montessori practice.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Considering Adolescence: A Holistic View of Child Development

The child promises a special gift to the world: within each resides the tremendous potential and hope for a future imagined and not yet seen. As both a child advocate and peace activist, Dr. Maria Montessori believed that in order to “improve society we must transform the child” (Ewert-Krocker). This, she proposed, could be accomplished through aligning the natural laws of biological and psychic development from birth with intentionally prepared educational environments that match those patterns of growth at every stage:
[T]he whole concept of education changes. It becomes a matter of giving help to the child’s life, to the psychological development of man. No longer is it just an enforced task of retaining our words and ideas. This is the new path on which education has been put; to help the mind in its process of development, to aid its energies and strengthen its many powers (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 24).
For the adolescent, the child on the cusp of adulthood, we must continue to be mindful stewards. Our mandate is to ensure a “valorization of the personality” (Montessori, “From Childhood to Adolescence” 71) as they continue to self-perfect within their culture of origin. To do so requires a careful study of their journey of self-construction through childhood.
In observing children across the globe, Dr. Montessori concluded that there are specific and distinct phases of physical and psychological development through which all human beings grow - regardless of cultural context. These planes of development are biological universals, with predictable timelines and characteristics. “[T]here are different kinds of mentality in the successive stages of growth. These phases are quite distinct one from another… they correspond with phases of physical growth…. There comes a time when one psychic personality ends, and another begins” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 15). In Dr. Montessori’s view, there are four overlapping planes of human development - each spanning six years - and each marked by an initial three years of creativity and acquisition, and a subsequent three years of refinement and crystallization. The four planes are: birth to six years of age; six to twelve; twelve to eighteen; and eighteen to twenty-four. Each plane contains very specific developmental tasks that the body and mind are naturally predisposed to satisfy. The four planes of development highlight the optimal time periods in which these biological milestones are met and consolidated, thereby providing for successful adaptation and independence within the culture in which the child was born.
Dr. Montessori recognized that, in addition to the planes of development that humans move through as they mature, they are also unconsciously motivated to fulfill specific human tendencies: a set of conditions that humans of all ages are psychically predisposed to work to satisfy throughout their lives. She viewed these as “mysterious guiding principles which will be the source of [a person’s] work, character, and adaptation to its surroundings” (The Secret of Childhood 19). The tendencies are basic to all humanity, and manifest differently at each plane of development. They are drivers of behavior, and are irrefutable and intrinsic calls to self-actualization. The human tendencies, as developed by Dr. Montessori and explained by her  son, Mario, are: Order, Orientation, Exploration, Communication, Work, Repetition, Exactitude, Abstraction, and Self-Perfection. While the planes of development are rooted in biology, the human tendencies are psychic in nature. They will manifest in different ways as the child grows. Taken in concert with the planes of development, they are the foundation upon which educators must necessarily base their work. Mario Montessori writes, “There are certain basic factors which do not change. What may change is what is given the mind… These tendencies can be helped or hindered towards the fulfillment of their tasks” (The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education 15).
Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child has a different relation to his environment from ours. Adults admire their environment; but the child absorbs it. These things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul” (The Absorbent Mind 54). The absorbent mind is the a term she used to describe the incredibly rich phase of neurological development from birth to six or seven years of age in which the child’s brain is voraciously absorbing information from his environment: “[T]he child absorbs knowledge directly into his psychic life… Impressions do not merely enter his mind; they form it… The child creates his own ‘mental muscles’, using for this what he finds in the world about him” (The Absorbent Mind 21).
From birth to three, this absorption is accomplished without conscious selection, prejudice, or fatigue. The information that is collected during these first three years of life is broad in nature and sensorial: images of the child’s immediate surroundings are indelibly recorded; relationships between things are established; order, rhythm, and predictability are set; and the feelings, attitudes and emotions of others are internalized:
With this sub-conscious mind the child achieves his wonderful work of creation, through a power of such marvelous sensitivity as resembles to some extent a photographic plate, automatically recording impressions in the minutest detail. The things in his environment seem to awake in the child an intense interest, an enthusiasm that penetrates into his very life… These impressions do not only penetrate the mind of the child, they form it; they become incarnated… We have called this type of mind the ‘absorbent mind’ and it is difficult for us the conceive the magnitude of its powers. (Montessori, “Education for a New World” 13-14)
At three years of age, the child begins to more consciously interact with the material world through his hands. A focused intensity appears as the child makes new meaning of his surrounding through physical activity and manual manipulation of the objects that comprise his environment. Children may display particular sensitivities to, and deliberate preference for, specific aspects of their external world - becoming invigorated through work. Indeed, one of the remarkable characteristics of child development that Dr. Montessori consistently observed in young children was the emergence of particular sensitive periods in which they appeared to be particularly attuned to one or more aspects of their immediate environment - to the exclusion of others. She writes:
A sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in the process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait, or characteristic has been acquired, the special sensibility disappears. (The Secret of Childhood 38)
For an organism born without the benefit of instinct, Dr. Montessori believed that these periods serve as critical developmental milestones for the human child as they learn to more intimately connect to one’s family, culture, society, and local geography. This is most noticeable in children in the first plane of development (ages birth to six). As an infant, children are initially unconsciously drawn to these sensitivities, endowed by the resonant power of the absorbent mind. They are engaged and committed to constructing meaning from their world, driven from within:
It is the child’s way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so he passes little by little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love. (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 22)
As a three-year old, these sensitivities become further enhanced to incorporate progressively more complex information, accompanied by an increase in core physical stability and manual dexterity. Examples of these sensitive periods include: Movement, Refinement of Sensorial Perception, Language, Order, and Manners:
The hidden powers he was previously creating are now able to show themselves, thanks to the opportunities for conscious experience, which he finds in the world about him… [T]he period from three to six is one of ‘constructive perfectionment’ by means of activity. The mind’s power to absorb tirelessly from the world is still there, but absorption is now helped and enriched by active experience. No longer is it a matter purely of the senses, but the hand also takes part. (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 148-149)
These moments can be seen as “windows of opportunity” (Girlato) that the child’s parents and guides can anticipate, prepare for, and support as they manifest.
The depth and breadth of a child’s intellect is ultimately the result of the unconscious, sensorial rooting and organization of abstract concepts that took place during the first six years of life during the period of the actively absorbent mind. Concrete exploration of more abstract ideas and/or processes, provided at a time when the child is developmentally prepared to engage with and manipulate specific hands-on materials that inform a concept (approximately three years of age) is critical to the child’s further engagement with the world. These materialized abstractions are especially resonant to the children of the first plane. “Children show a great attachment to the abstract subjects when they arrive at them through manual activity” (Montessori, “To Educate the Human Potential” 9). While the direct aim of the materialized abstraction may not be readily apparent and/or explicitly identified to the child, it is the process of working with the material - through exploration and repetition - that ultimately results in greater cognitive understanding and a more mature mathematical mind.
Human beings are naturally predisposed to create order out of the information gathered from their environment. “[T]he form of man’s mind… all the riches of perception and imagination… is fundamentally a matter of order” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 165-166). To have a mathematical mind is to be able to categorize and organize the world in predictable and reliable ways that promote an ever-evolving understanding of one’s world and ease of adaptation to the cultural context in which one lives and learns. “[C]larity comes from order” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 165).
As the child develops through the first plane he is absorbing, consolidating, and incorporating sensorial information from his immediate surroundings into his body and his  intellect so to help guide successful engagement in his immediate cultural context. It is “this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 55).
One of the hallmarks of Dr. Montessori’s approach to education is the belief that children will inherently gravitate towards interacting with their immediate surroundings in ways that are purposeful and disciplined when the environment has been properly prepared for such exploration and engagement. This natural predisposition is organically rooted in the intersection of the child’s place along the continuum of physical and psychological development, and in the ways the human tendencies typically manifest at that time. “The human being is a united whole, but this unity has to be built up and formed by active experiences in the real world, to which it is led by the laws of nature” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 182). Normalization is the term Dr. Montessori used to refer to this most natural state in which students find themselves spontaneously free from distraction and errant behavior, and are preferentially focused on work with great concentration and joy. She explains:
[T]he normal child is one who is precociously intelligent, who has learned to overcome himself and live in peace, and who prefers a disciplined task to futile idleness. When we see a child in this light, we would more properly call his ‘conversion’ a ‘normalization’. Man’s true nature lies hidden within himself. And this nature, which was given him at conception, must be recognized and allowed to grow (The Secret of Childhood 148).
The child of the second plane of development presents differently than when in the preceding six years years. Fully rooted in the senses, the child now has an intellect capable of imagining things unseen. They can interact with their world in fundamentally new and different ways not only tethered to the concrete. Dr. Montessori said, “We must help the child after six to fulfill his tendencies. They now urge him to understand no longer, as previously, only the immediate environment, but also that which is not accessible to his sensorial exploration” (qtd, in Montessori, The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education 12). For the child between six and twelve years of age, the Montessori guide must provide an ever-increasing diet of opportunities to increase the child’s understanding of one’s culture and society. At this critical stage of development, “[t]hese two powers of the mind (imagination and abstraction), which go beyond the simple perception of things actually present, play a mutual part in the construction of the mind’s concept” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 165). This is accomplished through leveraging the child’s capacity for imagination, deep sense of justice, and the desire to contribute to the betterment of one’s immediate community:
[A] need arises for a special method, whereby all factors of culture may be introduced to the six-year-old; not in a syllabus to be imposed on him, or with exactitude of detail, but in the maximum number of seeds of interest… Since it has been seen to be necessary to give so much to the child, let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality and an answer to all questions. We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity (Montessori, “To Educate the Human Potential” 3-5).
During the second plane of development, great impressionistic stories and lessons are employed to excite and enthrall the students about the universe, the world, and their place in it. At this age, students have the integrated sensorial underpinnings necessary to allow for reasoned abstraction about things that they do not yet understand. They are primed to tackle big questions, and consider their role in the great universal story. “To the young child we give guides to the world and the possibility to explore it through his own free activity; to the older child we must give not only the world, but the cosmos and a clear vision of how the cosmic energies act in the creation and maintenance of our globe” (Montessori, “Cosmic Education” 7).
In order to ensure that the arc of a child’s natural progression towards self-perfection is maintained without interruption, environments must be intentionally designed and prepared - built in accordance to the characteristics of the students’ relevant plane of development; the human tendencies and how they might manifest at that particular plane; and, with the appropriate materialized abstractions, activities, and experiences best suited to those children and their developmental tasks. Regardless of age or cultural context, the result of a properly prepared environment is children working with spontaneous, purposeful concentration and joy. As before, in the first plane of development:
[t]he child has to acquire physical independence by being self-sufficient; he must become of independent will by using in freedom his own power of choice; he must become capable of independent thought by working alone without interruption… We have to help the the child to act, will and think for himself. This is the act of serving the spirit (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 255-256).
Such centered independence, grounded in purposeful work - accomplished within one’s wider community - is the key to the to the development of a thoughtfully engaged citizenry. Dr. Montessori saw in the children the characteristics needed to build true solidarity:
The child’s characteristics… are mental qualities that we find in the cohesive part of society. The child collects and incarnates them, and by this means constructs his own personality… When we let the infant develop, and see him construct from the invisible roots of creation that which is to become the grown man, then we can learn the secrets on which depend our individual and social strength. (The Absorbent Mind 216).
Dr. Montessori applied this natural predisposition of normalized children for social cohesion (The Absorbent Mind 211) to what is needed in the adult sphere. Paramount to Dr. Montessori’s vision for the future was a peaceful and just society. To achieve that end requires an attention to morality grounded in a centered sense of one’s own self (abilities, knowledge, and understanding), and an awareness of one’s part in maintaining the health of one’s immediate community:
[T]his is the key to social reform… it should be made the basis of all education. Social integration has occurred when the individual identifies himself with the group to which he belongs. When this has happened, the individual thinks more about the success of his group than of his own personal success (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 212).
Dr. Montessori recognized, however, that no manner of external organization - replete with rules of governance - can be as powerful or sustainable as one formed out of authentic need, by adults whose earliest years provided for the full sensorial rooting of the material world and their place in it.
As servants of adolescents, who with both trepidation and courage step into the future, ours is the job of shepherding their journey into adulthood. They will become the architects of tomorrow, and require as sensitive and carefully designed an approach to their education now as when they were in the first plane of development. The adolescent desires freedom, independence, and recognition for who they are. “Joy, feeling one’s own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul” (Montessori, “From Childhood to Adolescence” 87). In reflecting on the developmental path children have taken to adolescence, we gain valuable insights into how to support their ongoing self-construction.

Works Cited
Ewert-Krocker, Laurie. “Characteristics of the Adolescent”. AMI-NAMTA Orientation to
Adolescent Studies. July 1, 2016.
Girlato, Sandra. “The Characteristics & Sensitive Periods of the Child: Three to Six”.
AMI-NAMTA Orientation to Adolescent Studies. June 28, 2016.
Montessori, Maria. Education for a New World. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing
Company, 2007. Print.
---, From Childhood to Adolescence. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company,
2007. Print.
---. The Absorbent Mind. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2014. Print.
---. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. Print.
Montessori, Mario. Cosmic Education. Amsterdam: Association Montessori Internationale.
1976. Print.
---, The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education. Amsterdam: Association
Montessori Internationale. 1966. Print.

(Image Source: Nature Camps, Inc.)

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