Thursday, October 6, 2011

Young Children Today and the Development of Concentration & Self Control

In Maria Montessori’s day, near the turn of the last century, children did not have access to any of the technology that we have today. Our children today are bombarded by images from advertisements on TV, cartoons and other shows that move so fast that the child’s attention is riveted.  Some mistakenly think that because a child can focus on a TV program, they have concentration and a well developed attention span.  On the contrary, many TV shows and other digital media capture the attention, passively entertaining the child.  The child (or adult for that matter) does not have to work for the entertainment.  It costs little to have images and sounds fed to the brain.  Many have casually observed over the years that those who are most engrossed in TV or similar media have the most trouble with concentration and self control.  One author and psychologist, Angeline Lillard (, recently coauthored a study using the cartoon SpongeBob which is very fast moving and fantasy based rather than realistic.  The study included 60 four-year-old children.  20 four-year-olds watched SpongeBob for nine minutes, 20 watched a slower moving, realistic show and 20 drew and colored for nine minutes.  Immediately afterwards they were tested in areas of self control, ability to follow directions, remembering what they had been told, ability to follow rules and problem solving.  The SpongeBob group did significantly poorer than the other two groups which were about equal with each other.  The conclusion was that watching shows such as SpongeBob has immediate negative effects on a child’s ability to concentrate and on impulse control.  This study did not address long term effects.  One has to wonder, though, at the seemingly higher incidence of the diagnosis of ADHD.  Is this due only to a greater awareness of the disorder or is there an environmental component as well?  Other studies have linked a child’s ability to delay gratification with future success in doing well in school, holding down a job and other important areas of life demanding self control.  It would be a sad thing if a child were to grow up unable to plan for the day, plan for a career or be unable to sustain a healthy marriage relationship. Yet in today’s world we often encounter individuals that struggle with these areas. 

The good news is that in Montessori classrooms, children are constantly working on the area of self control.  Little Mary sees Johnny doing a work that she would like to do and she is told that “right now, this is Johnny’s work.  When Johnny puts this work away, you may choose it if you want.”  Soon the children learn that they must choose only work that is on the shelf, not work that another child is doing.  This is a natural mechanism in the classroom that gives the child the opportunity to develop his executive functions so important in later life.  It also is a way in which children learn to respect each other.  They have the first glimpses of a true community life.  Also in Montessori classrooms children are given time to concentrate on the work they have chosen.  There is no timer that buzzes telling them to go to the next station.  The child can thoroughly work through what he is interested in until he is satisfied.  The concentration he develops as a result feeds into his ability to control his own impulses.  The child becomes the master of himself rather than the slave to his own appetites which can be influenced by advertising or by others who do not have the best interest of the child at heart.

 In our classrooms, even the youngest children begin to learn concentration and self control through their work and their interactions with one another.  I recently saw one of the Toddlers going through the classroom dumping materials and running wildly.  At the beginning of the school year this type of behavior is not uncommon in a toddler room.  I took him by the hand and calmly showed him how to pick up the work he had just spilled and how to do it correctly.  Even that simple little action began to spark concentration in this child.  Though this child has not yet become the model “Montessori Child” so to speak, he is well on the way to learning mastery of his own impulses.  He is well on the way to productive and long lasting learning as well. 

Submitted by: Lori Twining

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