Monday, June 22, 2015

The Sensitive Periods

Context: These are my thoughts about Dr. Maria Montessori's ideas regarding the Sensitive Periods, or individual time periods when a child has special powers for developmental conquests. The Sensitive Periods bear a special significance for education; namely, that if we allow the child the proper freedom during the sensitive period, the child makes the most complete advance into her growth.

The child in the process of creative, constructive development is endowed with special powers which enable her to do the work of her own development. One of the powers that the child has, according to Dr. Maria Montessori, is the Absorbent Mind. The other is the Sensitive Periods. In the course of their development, children are universally, consistently drawn to certain aspects of their environments at particular times; this is the meaning of the Sensitive Period. As a consequence of this interest, which only lasts for a short time period before waning, by the end of the period, the child has made an important developmental conquest.

Inspiration
In observing this phenomenon, Dr. Montessori compared her study of the child to the work of Hugo de Vries, the Dutch botanist pioneering the field of embryology, leading her to apply his idea of the Sensitive Periods in animal life to the child as well:

“It was the Dutch scientist Hugo de Vries, who discovered the existence of sensitive periods in animal life, but we ourselves, in our schools and by observing the life of children in their families, were the first to discover the sensitive periods of infancy, and to respond to them from the standpoint of education.” (Montessori, Secret of Childhood, Page 34)

Hugo De Vries observed that larvae of a certain kind are attracted to light, during the periods in their lives that they need to be at the tips of the branches, to find the most suitable food for their development. As they age, the impulse to draw near the light diminishes and disappears. This is equivalent to the attraction that children exhibit at marked points in their development. Some of the characteristics of the sensitive period is that it is irresistible and pursued with great enthusiasm. Applying this idea to the child’s environment, Dr. Montessori also describes the child’s interest in those things which are constant and unchanging, and to the position of the body in relation to the environment.

Characteristics of the Sensitive Period
In Secret of the Childhood, Dr. Montessori says that the characteristics of the Sensitive Period are that of an innate power that guides growth. With this animating impulse, analogous to a spotlight, the child directs her attention to a particular aspect in the environment, which Dr. Montessori called a “violent attraction”, although these attractions are transitory and change along with the age of the child. The ebb and flow of interest, such as in language or words or grammar, stimulates precisely directed activity, helping the child to acquire the characteristic function of the species. It is not a constant and steady power, but it does last over a period of time to a gradual waning. Indifference to the activity comes about later when the function prescribed in that Sensitive Period has been satisfied. The Sensitive Period compels the “urge to activity”, in her words, toward a refinement of the characteristic human function.  A final quality of the Sensitive Period is that the conquests performed are made with an almost effortless joy, determination, and enthusiasm. The Sensitive Period, therefore, is the companion power to the Absorbent mind of the child, guiding the Mind according to a certain timetable.

In relation to the Absorbent Mind
Regarding the companion powers, Dr. Montessori writes, “This absorbent mind does not construct with a voluntary effort, but according to the lead of inner sensitivities, which we call ‘sensitive periods’ as the sensitivity lasts only for a definite time period, i.e., until the acquisition to be made according to natural development has been achieved,” (The Formation of Man, Page 70); that is, the Absorbent Mind does its work through the vehicle of the Sensitive Periods. Colloquially, there is continually a sense that certain events can have a greater impact on the child at certain points than at other points in life, and neuroscience is still being defined and refined. In current neuroscience, it is known in the context of synaptogenesis and synaptic pruning, which are analogous to the theoretical concepts that Dr. Montessori described prior to the discovery of the brain structures in those time periods. Dr. Montessori called the child’s inner creation incarnation, or ‘making flesh’, but the formation of neurons and dendrites in coordination with the environment is literally a ‘making flesh’ as she described, on the neurological scale. However, the creation of connections is not necessarily the most efficient manner of thought, and the refinement of the thought processes is the notion of synaptic pruning. This is the way the correct neural pathways remain with us, as a type of learning which is called experience expectant learning in the development of the human personality.

Functions Resulting from Sensitive Periods.
In each sensitive period, there are various aspects of the sensitive period, such as vision or language. The result of the Sensitive Periods is the normal development of the organism. Therefore, according to these Sensitive Periods, there are characteristic functions that result from sensitive period activity. These Periods are order, movement, language, and refinement of sensory perception. The child acquires order in orientation and adaptation to the environment, and the refined movement takes place in the form of the child’s increasingly precise bipedal locomotion in equilibrium, and the use of the hand as the instrument of the mind. The child acquires language and then the ability to communicate, and the foundation of intelligence grows as the refined sensory perceptions build the capacity for abstraction, reasoning, and imagination. 

The Inner Process
Dr. Montessori likens the Sensitive Period to “a spy-hole opening on the inner processes of the mind in the making”. As such, we cannot observe the inner workings of the child’s development, since the mind is an abstract thing. We only observe the outer manifestations of the development in terms of new abilities. One might be able to guess which of the Sensitive Periods the child guides himself along, for psychic construction, but no observer can be exactly certain.

Furthermore, because of the adult’s uncertainty as to what the child is doing or learning exactly, the child’s freedom of choice and movement must be more ardently protected. The animating impulse of the development comes from inside the child, stimulating activity that puts the child in relation to aspects of the environment necessary for particular development. While the environment is not the cause of the growth, it provides the means for that growth. Observing the child’s activity in the environment provides a clue to the psychic construction that is taking place, as the “spy-hole” Dr. Montessori describes.

Behaviors
“When something in the environment hinders its inner-working, the existence of a sensitive period shows itself by violent reactions, a despair that we believe to be causeless and therefore set down to naughtiness and temper. Naughtiness is the expression of an inner disturbance and unsatisfied need, a state of tension: the child’s soul is crying out for what it needs, seeking to defend itself. This shows itself in an increase of useless and restless activity comparable on the physical plane to the high fevers to which babies are liable without any proportionate pathological cause… Well, if every disturbance of function is considered a functional disease… we must call the disturbances that affect the psychic side of life functional disease also… The first “naughtiness” of the baby is the first sickness of the soul.” (Secret of Childhood, Page 40). 

The child will manifest pleasure, joy, concentration, calm, peace, and a lack of fatigue when in the Sensitive Period for an activity. The child might be very content, and without noticing, that might be the time when the child is best being met by the environment as a manifestation of the Sensitive Period being met for the child. These are all everyday behaviors which could me missed were it not for the lens of the Sensitive Periods. 

Sensitive Period for Order
For the Sensitive Period for order, this is the faculty which provides the child her first lessons in orienting herself to the world, becoming something like the child’s compass. Accumulating all the external images around her is not helpful without a principle for organizing the relationship between the constituent images. The foundations of organizing thoughts, as well as oneself in space, comes about through the working of the sensitive period for order. In this period, the child feels disorder as a kind of pain and cannot tolerate disorder as they perceive it—Dr. Montessori even describes their interpretation of disorder as a kind of wound, because they need order for orientation. Additionally, this sense or orientation is not only spatial, but it is also related to thought and abstract purpose.

Sensitive Period for Movement
When an activity meets a need, there is no fatigue, only joy. This is instantiated in the efforts of children walking for miles and miles in this Sensitive Period even at the age of one or two, when the child experiences the strong urge toward bipedal motion. They take great pleasure in the movements of dressing in clothing. Motions like how to reach for things are not simply programmed into our genes, but the ability to make even simple motions is a thing which is learned through constructive effort, as a learning conquest through the animating impulse to strive ceaselessly toward the activity of grasping. Effort is critical in the child’s learning, and the adult cannot interrupt the action even if the child does not succeed. Giving the child space to exert her own effort is difficult for the adult, but it is the only activity which will lead toward the child achieving her goal.

Sensitive Period for Language
The small child is capable of exact reproduction of his own language. Although it is not complete at an early age, it is far beyond the capacity of the child to explain understanding, yet the knowledge conveyed by the Absorbent Mind in the Sensitive Periods registers the nomenclature of the world around her and the semantic construction of her own language, to express ideas. The Sensitive Period for language is the time with the child’s sensitivity is directed toward registering and fixing the sounds in the environment, followed by the time of naming and semantic expression. With the environment providing the appropriate stimulus for language, the adult’s speech constitutes the material for the construction of language.   

Sensitive Period for the Refinement of Sensory Perception
The child needs to develop the capacity to see the variety in the environment is the basis for imagination and abstraction, then language. The child has an interest in sensory input in the environment, to pick up things, to smell them and to touch them, as the child absorbs it. The focus on smelling and touching things is impelled by the Sensitive Period for the refinement of sensory perception. Each sense has a different trajectory, and each sense has a different focus at a different time. Dr. Montessori writes about the long sensitive period, lasting to age five, wherein the child has a capacity to absorb images in the surrounding word. In Secret of Childhood, she connects this process with the child bringing about her capacity to reason. 

The Role of the Adult
If the child is not given the opportunity to exercise herself in accordance with the Sensitive Periods, that natural path of development is permanently hindered. It requires special skill to observe the needs of the Sensitive Periods, however, because the only way to observe the Sensitive Period is through the effects of it, and the child may have been in the period for some time before the adult is able to discern it. This is the importance of the prepared environment, that it be ready for impending needs, as well as those of the present. If the adult waits until there Is evidence of a particular Period, the child will have already been in that state experiencing a lack. Dr. Montessori writes that, “Even up to the age of five years, it is impossible for anyone to teach the child anything. This is a special period, a period during child the child carries out the most difficult studies of his whole life. Only he must take for himself by his own special method. We cannot be teachers, but we can help children, and out work must be to render this tremendous work of exploration which he carries out, easier. We must try to prepare for him a suitable and favorable environment. We must be persuaded that we are humble people who cannot do anything but witness this enormous capacity for self-development in the child,” (Creative Development, Volume 1, Page 38).

Therefore, our responsibility in preparing the environment, that everything surrounding is worthy of their absorption; that their work is their own; our work becomes that of facilitating nature rather than directing it. The impetus for learning comes from within, and the teacher must step out of the way to allow the child’s internal impulse to be the driving force within the environment. The child will not ever make the conquest with the same degree of joy and perfection, should it not be completed at this time.

Significance for Education
The Sensitive Periods guide the child in the task of construction. Instead of following the adult’s timetable, the child is only well-served when we allow their inner guide to direct education. The Sensitive Period is the most powerful tool in education, along with the Absorbent Mind, since these furnish the joy and ease to learning. When the environment provides the materials in developmentally appropriate ways, that is when normal, healthy development proceeds with vigor and success. Making an environment of beauty, the child will take in what is suitable to her needs. As educators, it means we are not charged with identifying the minute details to fascinate the child at any point, but the adult must create and environment which will stimulate any child to act with freedom in accordance with the inward drive, at any time. We use the Sensitive Periods as a guide for preparing the child to receive all notions of human culture. Giving the aspects of human culture in developmentally appropriate ways makes the conquest of culture very easy.

Implications for the Adult’s Work
Thus, the guide prepared the environment in anticipation of the Sensitive Period needs, not in response to them. The knowledge of Sensitive Periods allows the guide to observe behaviors in an intelligent way, looking for signs of various Periods. We impart culture through language, math, geometry, geography, botany, and music in the Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori relates that the child must make the conquest of writing, but the child first needs the foundation of spoken language during that Period. In the sensitive period for the coordination of movement, that is when the child obtains the skill for holding the instrument.

We provide the right task at the right time, when it is done in coordination with the Sensitive Periods, so that each educational conquest is done with joy and choice. If we see a child being “naughty” or misbehaving in any way, we analyze which need is not being met. We look beyond the behavior itself to the needs and patterns and behaviors. When a child is calm and joyous, we see it as an example of the child’s needs being met. The education of the child is proceeding with respect to her natural needs, and it will be most joyful and complete.

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