The Magic of Concentration (Part I)
Switch on the lights and what happens then? Darkness disappear. Just like so, when concentration appears, naughtiness disappears – it’s like magic.
“Different forms of naughtiness disappear not through direct intervention, not through good example of grown-ups, but through concentration.”
Maria Montessori in Lecture 31: The Converted Children, 9 December 1946
Every child has their own ‘naughtiness’. We shouldn’t call this ‘naughtiness’ though. It’s a deviation of behavior which exists in every single child who have not yet learned to concentrate. These deviations do not only come in the form of inattentiveness, destructiveness and hyperactivity – it also involves certain passive characteristics from lack of activity such as excessive attachment to the mother or nanny, a need for much sleep, or shyness. The over-attachment of some children to grown-ups disappears and independence comes alongside an interest in a particular work. As the child begins to concentrate in that work, magic occurs and these deviations disappear!
List down issues that young parents nowadays are most worried of about their child and you’ll find ‘trouble concentrating’ to be one of them. It’s common that parents become concerned when they perceive that their child is unable to remain attentive to a particular task at hand for an extended period of time.
But ironically, when they see their child so engaged with an activity, remain engaged for a long time, and does the same activity over and over again – they also begin to worry! “Why is my child not socializing with his friends?”, “Why is he playing by himself?”, “How come she’s not working with other materials?”, “Is there something wrong with my child?”.
What is concentration?
To concentrate is to be engaged in a task or exercise that absorbs your total attention. In the Montessori classroom, the exercise may be a lot of things such as working with the pink tower, washing the hands, counting counters, sweeping the floor, or writing with a pencil. Whatever the material, when a child is interested, all his attention is absorbed in that particular work – this is concentration.
Magic, what magic?
First of all, we must acknowledge that learning, by itself, cannot happen without concentration. A classroom needs to have many opportunities for concentration. Now.. as the child learns begins to concentrate, progress and development sets in and you can slowly see the results of education. Children change when they become interested in something. This interest brings satisfaction to them. It gives them courage. Magic occurs and their personality change.
Once they have conquered concentration, they become different – the disorderly begin to love order, the inattentive becomes attentive, the shy becomes confident, the overactive becomes calm. As Dr. Maria Montessori puts it, they become ‘normalized’. Normalized children work with engaged interest, they work in an orderly way and in a peaceful way, they are confident, independent, and they are happy.
Children who are concentrating will not disturb others, thus the more individual learning as well as teamwork that will occur. Concentration, is therefore fundamental to a child’s development. The formative stage of concentration starts from birth to about three years old. As they grow older, their concentration and attention span increase. In the Montessori classroom, it all starts with Practical Life exercises. This subject area is a corner stone for the beginning of concentration. With the purpose of building independence, improving coordination, and learning to follow steps in a sequence – the Practical Life area builds on focus and concentration in a fun and engaging way.
Respect the child
Development must come through the activity of the child himself. It cannot develop when parents or teachers do everything for them. This is why Montessori stresses the importance for adults to respect the child and his work. We allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. We encourage them to do things for themselves. We want them to make new discoveries and be excited about it because they discovered it by themselves. We don’t interfere. We don’t interrupt.
Remember our old school days? Whenever the bell rings, it’s time to drop everything and move to the next class. Or that countless times we have to go through tests and quizzes, “10 minutes left! Submit your papers to the front of class in 10 minutes or you get a zero.” Remember how you felt? Perhaps this is why we are so enchanted with Montessori and other methods of education where the child is allowed to focus, follow their interests, have the desire to follow through and finish at their own pace.
The Magic of Concentration (Part II)
As you might well know, children can become immediately so fixated on a TV or iPad screen for a long period of time. The media can be so attention grabbing that children don’t have to exert any effort to concentrate. However, this kind of attention does not teach them to practice self-regulation. In contrast, Montessori materials inside the classroom are also attractive and engaging but their function requires children to first regulate their own attention. This is why it takes time for new students in a Montessori classroom to settle down to work. When children learn to self-regulate, they are able to control their emotions, manage his thinking, feelings and behavior, and they are able to focus their attention. In effect, they become responsible human beings who are able to motivate themselves intrinsically and make constructive choices. When this happens, they become more respectful, generous, warm, cooperative and agreeable. Most importantly, they will be able to progressively have longer and longer attention span – thus, the more knowledge and skills they will be able to learn.
What happens when we interrupt concentration?
“If a child’s cycle of activity is interrupted, the results are a deviation of behavior, aimlessness, and loss of interest…So whatever intelligent activity we witness in a child – even if it seems absurd to us…we must not interfere; for the child must be able to finish the cycle of activity on which his heart is set.”
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind.
New York: Henry Holt and company, 1995. pg. 160.
What Maria Montessori means by this is that concentration is a very fragile thing – especially for young children. When we interrupt them in the middle of their work, we shift the focus of the child and his concentration is broken. What does Montessori mean by interruption? Interruption can come in many forms, such as correcting the child’s mistakes, fixing things for him, or even praising him in the middle of his work. Although done with good intentions, when we interrupt a child’s work, his enchantment with that activity will disappear. When this happens, what goes on in the child’s mind is something like, “I was so interested in my work and I was discovering new things. But then you called me. So I stopped. Now I’m not interested anymore.” We don’t want this to happen.
How does the Montessori teacher nurture concentration?
Teachers in the Montessori classroom play a big role in children’s learning. Their main responsibility is first to help the children to concentrate. To support this purpose, the classroom needs to be specially prepared for the purpose of concentration and provide many motives for activity and opportunities for learning.
- Maintain neutral colors in the classroom
Furniture, flooring, ceiling and walls in the classroom need to be in neutral colors to limit overstimulation. This way also, the colorful Montessori materials becomes the focal point of students and they become drawn to their work – not towards the furniture.
- Prepare engaging learning materials and activities
Teachers should always have different educative and attractive learning materials ready for the children to choose from so they may develop interest in their work faster. This is why most Montessori schools have different themes each month.
- Allow repetition
When a child is so absorbed in an activity, he will often want to repeat the same exercise over and over again – we call this the ‘Cycle of Activity’. When this happens, the concentrating child is discovering new things each time and the Teacher needs to allow the child to do so. The ‘Cycle of Activity’ will stop in the future when the child has achieved mastery.
- Not interfere with children’s work
Interference stops the children’s activity and thus stops concentration. This is why the Teacher must allow the child to learn from his own mistakes. When necessary, the Teacher will correct the child some other time when he is not so absorbed in his work. By not correcting him in the middle of his work, the Teacher boosts the child’s self-esteem and motivation to work. The only time when a Teacher needs to interfere is when a child becomes destructive to himself, others, or the environment. When there needs to be interruption – for example lunch time. This is what the teacher will say, “It’s almost lunch time. Let’s tidy up in 5 minutes” or offer a choice, “Would you like me to help you get your snack box or do you want to do it yourself?” Or, the teacher may offer an alternative, “I know you’re having fun, after lunch you can work with this again.” The teacher must not force the child.
- Allow freedom within boundaries
Freedom in the Montessori classroom means that the child is able to move around the classroom and choose his own activities, as long as he is not being destructive and is following the ground rules set by the Teacher. This kind of freedom will grow independence, courage, analytical thinking, and a sense of stewardship in the child. When a child is so engrossed in his work, the Teacher will not force the child to join in group activities – but will continually invite and engage the child so that he will join if necessary. This way his concentration will not be broken.
The Teacher needs to observe and recognize when concentration first occurs in the child, so that she knows which type of material or work that the child is interested in. From there the Teacher will be able to make individual lesson plan for each child, following his interests but also making sure that he learns new concepts and skills as according to the curriculum.