Written by: Kendall A. | Umm Iman
One of the aspects of the Montessori classroom that was particularly appealing to me was the emphasis on having young children build concentration and focus through practical life activities, which would then carry over into longer math works or other areas of the classroom that required attention to detail and sustained focus. This is an important skill in the progression of a life-long learner and one who is motivated by learning, as opposed to other factors. It is also a factor that I did not feel was supported in the traditional classroom or in traditional models of teaching where there is a high emphasis on dialogue throughout the learning activity, instead of holding space for when a person is experiencing deep concentration and flow. Developing this sense of focus was achieved in a few ways that are outlined below:
- Show, Don’t Tell: When a child first enters the Montessori classroom, much of her time is spent in the Practical Life and Sensorial areas of the classroom, because these are the most familiar and similar to the home experience. Children have a keen sense of observation that is taken advantage of in giving lessons. Rather than verbally explaining how to do something (for example: pour water into a cup, sweep up a small spill, etc.), the teacher: 1) sets up the activity in an appealing manner that contains everything the child needs to successfully complete the task, 2) uses slow, intentional movements to show the child how to complete the task, and 3) simply names the activity at the beginning and end of the lesson. The child then has a choice to either engage in the work independently or not. This format facilitates concentration, because the child is required to pay close attention to detail in order to complete and explore the activity accurately. Similarly, once the teacher leaves, the child has the opportunity to work with the materials for as long as she would like to, uninterrupted by the teacher or classmates (example: child A can have a turn for five minutes and then child B will take a turn).
- Start Simple and Become Complex: Lessons in the Practical Life and Sensorial areas of the classroom start off small, with few steps and become more complex. This builds stamina, sustained focus, and deep concentration on the task at hand. An activity could be as simple as lifting a tray containing paper and colored pencils to as complex as requiring several steps in the set up, completion, and clean up of the activity. By starting off with short, simple steps and building to longer, more complicated steps, children build a deeper focus on what they are doing.
- Self-Correcting Materials: The majority of the materials in the Montessori classroom are self-correcting, meaning that children will learn and come to discoveries of information on their own, rather than having a teacher tell them that their work is incorrect. This is beautiful, because it hits the point and joy of learning that I shared in the piece on whether or not grades are not necessary. Self-correcting materials help build focus and concentration, because it is obvious when the work has not been completed correctly and the child then has to figure out where they erred in order to correct it.
- Do Not Interrupt the Work of Others: There is high value placed on respecting other people’s work in the Montessori classroom. This means that when a child or teacher is focused on something, we hold space for that by not interrupting them. “Interrupting” someone’s work can look like (but is not limited to): talking to a child about what they are playing or drawing or doing as they are doing it, forcing a child who is playing independently with something to share it with someone else, a child taking a play piece that another child is using, or engaging in other distracting behavior, including: using a loud voice. Some of the things mentioned here are taught in the traditional model of teaching, such as: engaging children in dialogue while they’re working, having children share the pieces of a toy that they are playing with, etc. These behaviors actually break a child’s focus, because when he is working on or playing with something, he is in his own world, coming to certain conclusions about the work or play that he is engaged in. When adults or other children interject, it breaks the thought-process and concentration. In the Montessori method, the belief is that, so long as a child is not engaged in unsafe or destructive behavior, allow her to focus on whatever she is doing without interrupting her.
- It’s Okay Not to Share: This is a point taken off of the previous point. Contrary to popular belief, it is okay for children not to share a toy or activity that they are deeply engaged in independently. There is a time for independent play and learning, and a time for collaborative play and learning. If a child is engrossed with something, be it a learning activity or even playing, it is not appropriate to break that focus by forcing them to make it a group activity. Think about it like this. How often do parents comment on the desire to simply finish a thought, meaning that they constantly feel interrupted by something or someone vying for their attention. It can be frustrating to keep starting and stopping a task. The same is true for children. The difference is, we often don’t extend this line of thinking to children. Dr. Maria Montessori stated, “Play is the work of the child.” In this sense, we shouldn’t interrupt the child’s play or work in an effort to allow them to build focus, independence, and concentration on a task.
- Respectfully Wait for Availability: This is another point taken from the section on interruption. If we, as adults, must interrupt a child’s focus, we should do that in a respectful and least obtrusive manner. This should be role modeled to children, so that they interrupt our work in the same way. Gently placing your hand on a child’s shoulder and waiting for their acknowledgement is a respectful way to interrupt and wait for availability. Similarly, if another child wants to use something that the first child is using, we can simply explain that it is not available at the moment and help the second child to find something else to use while he waits. We can also model respectful waiting by watching or observing quietly without touching the person’s work/play or talking to them, so as not to break their concentration. This is important, because as we have already established, talking to the child who is playing or engaged in a work or forcing him to share the material she is engaged with, breaks the focus and concentration that we are trying to develop. We must protect the child’s work and play by not interrupting ourselves or allowing other children to. Think about it like this: when you go to the doctor, don’t you want her to pay close attention to what she is doing lest she make a vital mistake in your care? We must model respecting when a person is focused on something, so that children will begin to see the importance of this as well.
I hope this gave you a better idea of some ways to build concentration for children through acknowledgement and respect of when they are focused on something. If we can create the space for children to focus, they will do so!