Thursday, June 12, 2014

Introduction to Montessori Developmental Psychology

The child is interacting with the environment and the materials, with the adult facilitating access to both.

You cannot offer help to a person you do not know. Have you ever stepped in to try to be helpful, and you realize you cannot help them at all, because you did not know what the child was trying to do? Unless you understand needs, you cannot offer help. Help must be offered scientifically, with understanding. To help the child, you must know what his task is, how does he have to accomplish this task. What is the natural process? What powers does he have to accomplish this task? We know the child at birth has to acquire language-- you cannot assist the child directly, without understanding how the child acquires language. Knowing his process, you can provide the conditions to allow him to thrive in a natural way.

Begin by teaching the whole, then to the parts: Teach the child the globe, and then move down to the continents, smaller and smaller.

Maria Montessori was a medical doctor, born in 1870. She completed her study in 1896 at the beginning of experimental psychology and the founding of psychiatry. When she left the University of Rome, it was not offered at the university. She herself was a professor of psychiatry and anthropology. Her doctoral thesis was a psychiatric paper. Psychology itself was in its infancy when she started working at the psychiatric clinic at the University of Rome. Around this time, people started looking at children for the first time, since many of the mental illnesses begin in childhood. Then, there was the establishment of pediatrics as a specialization, as well as the discovery of the unconscious. To find children, pediatricians went into schools.

After going into schools, pediatricians discovered the schools were of very low quality. Students were very high anxiety due to the conditions in school (and poor health), having an effect on the later adult psychology. As a medical doctor in her clinic, Maria Montessori went into the schools to begin experimental psychology data collection with children. It was through this work that she began studying children with cognitive disabilities.

The unique element of Montessori psychology is its origin, how it came to be. If you study Dr. Montessori's theory of child development, it began with the child. The chance discovery about the nature of the child. In her many roles, she was also a social worker and a social activist. Their parents were out working, and those children needed care. She and her friends established a daycare center, hired two adults to be the caretakers, and since they came from the poorest families, they were not very hygienic. She wanted to teach them how to take care of their own environment and their own bodies, how to be with each other. As an experimental psychologist, she used the materials she had used to teach children with cognitive disabilities to see how these children would react to those materials-- what she found was that these mentally typical children responded differently to the materials. These children used them with spontaneous interest. They wanted to repeat activities with them. They were concentrating deeply. They wanted to take care of the materials. They showed her that they were more attracted to some materials than others. She changed her environment to allow them more choice and freedom in the environment. This is what she calls the discovery of the child.  It was a study of what they are capable of. Here, the children were able to work toward their own development naturally. Her selection of the materials was very systematic and scientific, over 40 years.

Most of what we know about children is based on them in an unhealthy, disorganized environment. We must ask, why is it that we see a much longer attention span in Montessori classrooms? Why do we see children keeping their own space beautiful and tidy? To learn about the true nature of any creature, you have to go to their natural habitat. Children are not born into a natural habitat, however; they are born into the space that we are providing for them. Most of the studies of children are in adverse conditions, a study of their pathology in an unhealthy place. It is a chance discovery that made it possible for children to reveal their true nature. Only when she observed them in the most adaptive environment could she obtain a vision for describing the psychology of the child. The child can only reveal their true nature when the child is in conditions where he can behave in a natural way. Her objective was to make the environment as conducive to natural function, of normality and human health, as possible.

How do we define Montessori psychology? 

"The study of Man in the course of Fundamental Development as the constructor of his own personality from birth and as the builder of its own development; and also the study of that psychical life and the process of its construction and development as Man the Child who is aided and set free achieves and reveals it."
- M. Raghavendra Swamy's recorded definition from Maria Montessori, according to the oral tradition, passed on to my instructor, U.R.

We are recognizing the autonomy of the child's process, an autonomous process where he is guided and motivated by his own laws within himself to do this work. The process begins at birth, where the child discovers himself as an individual with a particular time and place. Just as much as the infant needs physical nutrition, the child and infant need psychical nutrition.

Understanding the root of human nature builds upon the question of discovering the nature of the child. The learning we have to do is a question of what conditions best support this development. Thi is our approach to Montessori psychology. Toward the end of her life, she summed up all she had learned in 40 years of research as the Planes of Development.


Jeannot Jonte Boucher is a Montessori educator and parent in Dallas, Texas.

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