Montessori and Executive Functions in the Brain

Children all around the world are going back to school. Parents everywhere want their children to do well. Doing well has many facets: good grades, athletic accomplishment, good social skills, and the work ethic, to name a few. The latest research is pointing out that the development of executive functioning of the brain may be among the most important of all.

Executive Functions of the Brain

Executive functions of the brain refer to the ability to focus and concentrate as well as to choose. In Montessori, starting with three-year-olds, children choose their work. They use what psychologists are calling executive functions in the brain. They select what to do on a given day and monitor how long they will stay with it. The more interesting the task, the longer they work and the more focused they become. There are no artificial time barriers, like an hour of this and another hour of that, and then recess for all.

Children work because they are fascinated with the experiences of their own development and the great new information that is presented to them in hands-on formats that they can easily assimilate. Young children, often unjustly accused of having short attention spans, actually work for hours on end when their enthusiasm is ignited.

These five-year-olds are fascinated with their new-found skill of reading

Let’s take the example of addition. If you tell a child that she has to do ten problems, then she will do ten problems. If you show her how to do the problems with concrete materials and invite her to do as many as she would like, she is free to do three or four if she is not particularly interested, or twenty or more if the exercise is presented at the  right time when there is genuine interest. She can use her executive functions to choose what she is ready for and determine how fast to move and how far to go on a given day.

Addition problems

When the child repeats an activity multiple times, you know you have given the right material during her sensitive period of development. If the child is not interested, you simply help her find something she is interested in and try giving the presentation again another day. Once you get in sync with an individual child’s learning capacity and rate of development, it is amazing to see academic skills grow along with self-confidence and certainty in making good choices. And the ability to make good choices is more predictive of success than good grades are.

Helping children learn to make focused choices is something Montessori schools do well. In the  September 3, 2011, Wall Street Journal article, “Learning How to Focus on Focus,” we read some of the recent research on this topic:

Researchers have found that varying personal levels of executive function have a profound impact on nearly every aspect of life. Consider a recent study led by Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffit of Duke University that tracked 1,037 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand. The researchers gave the kids a barrage of mental tests and then kept meticulous records of their behavior as they matured into teenagers and adults.

Children who could better regulate their impulses and attention were four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs and half as likely to become single parents. In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status.

But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills.

The list is surprisingly varied, revolving around activities that are both engaging and challenging, such as computer exercises involving short-term memory, tae-kwon-do, yoga and difficult board games. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain school curricula, such as Montessori…have also been shown to consistently increase executive function.

Link to the Wall Street Journal Article

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