As parents, we know that children are not automatically able to focus. When a toddler loses interest in a toy, she stops paying attention. She can’t just will herself to keep going.
So how is it that a child eventually acquires the mental stamina necessary to master skills such as reading? How is it that in later years, a high schooler is able to resist the temptation to check her Facebook account and keep at a demanding essay?
In his recent article, “Learning How to Focus on Focus”, the Wall Street Journal’s Jonah Lehrer suggests that it’s the child’s capacity to engaged in focused attention that marks the difference. The key, says Lehrer, is “what psychologists call “executive function,” a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses.”
“Executive function” refers to the skills underlying a person’s ability to choose to sustain attention on a particular task, despite distractions. Strong executive function is highly correlated with many desirable behaviors, not just an ability to study and succeed in school:
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.
Research suggests that executive functioning is a learned skill, and that a child’s school environment and curriculum content can make a huge difference. Dr. Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, has catalogued a list of activities that develop executive functioning. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain educational approaches, such as Montessori, consistently increase the capacity for executive function in children. Yet, notes Lehrer in his article, “despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function.”
While “developing executive function” isn’t how we would have coined what we do at LePort, one of the reasons we champion the Montessori approach is that it teaches children how to focus. In Montessori, children are placed in a carefully prepared environment and then encouraged to choose from an array of fascinating activities. Montessori materials are specially designed to encourage extended engagement, so they can enable a child to build mental stamina. And extended, two to three hour long “work periods” give a child the luxury of time to persist with an activity much longer than a typical, adult-let preschool schedule of 30 minutes this, 30 minutes that would ever allow. It’s no surprise that the result is that our students acquire an enhanced capacity for executive functioning.
When you see Montessori children engaged with the materials in their classrooms, intently focused on building up the Pink Tower, or tying bows on a Dressing Frame, or coloring in complex geometric shapes with the Metal Insets, they are getting a “two-fer”: they are learning about volume, practicing self-care and pencil control, while they are also building up that foundational skill of concentration.
As Mr. Lehrer writes in the article, “it’s not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills of executive function directly and creatively.”
In Montessori, it’s never either arithmetic or executive function. The beauty of Montessori is doing both at the same time.