From Montessori philosophy for elementary students to mentoring college students: The value of feelings in learning success
by Alison Van Keuren and Jim Stellar
Alison is an occupational therapist who has taken a learning specialist position at a Montessori school. How cognitive and emotional functions are integrated in all ages of learning from kindergarten through college has been an interest of ours since our time together at Northeastern University and a recent subject of this blog.
Alison’s first point from her experience is that executive function skills are being fostered in this Montessori environment, in part because they are directly tied to emotions, and that this connection is important to develop strategies that can be used by educators to build other skills. Observable executive functions in children include the organization of materials, time management, focus on tasks, planning of materials and ideas, and defining and achieving goals. Less observable more internalized executive function skills are self-restraint, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, and stress tolerance. When these executive function skills are lagging, students don’t have a mechanism for controlling their outward interactions and their reactions in the face of a misunderstanding and they often have a stress reaction. They may go into a fight, flight, or freeze state in response to their lack of performance or issues of self-expression. Once in this stress state, they are not able to learn efficiently and will likely not be self-advocating which is important anywhere but particularly in the Montessori system. Further, other executive functions include proactive communication, problem solving, reasoning and analysis, which all become frozen and inaccessible during a stress reaction.
Her second point is that in any school, students who have neuro-different or neuro-diverse brains may have a difference in accessibility to their executive functions. Some may describe them as lagging skills, but Alison believes that over-sensitivities, including high intelligence, heightened awareness and big emotion may cause inconsistent engagement in and subsequent output of work. This is often referred to as asynchronous when a student has highly intuitive gifts and these gifts trend toward chaos and overwhelm at times. When in a non-stress state, they excel in executive functions, but these children easily shift into a stress state at unpredictable times from unclear causes. Due to the inconsistency of their initiation and follow through, negative memories may result from their previous experiences, and they may then avoid tasks that were once or many times, uncomfortable. Also, neuro-typical children today are increasingly under stress given increasing demands, violence, illness, uncertainty, and pressure. Developing a trusting relationship to understand the child and their availability and regularly checking in with them is vital.
These two points bring us to the Montessori model. The proactive effort to ease the stress of our children, now more than ever, is vital. This school’s Montessori environment is within a house, filled with purposely engineered materials that encompass independent mindful practice to bring curiosity and the discovery of concepts. There is an emphasis of peace and community within the philosophy. The mixed age groups are extremely important. Students acting as role models for each other despite their age is invaluable. The executive function of proactive communication is seen when children ask their peers for clarification, rather than a teacher. And when a student asks a question, the student on the receiving end learns to answer an open-ended question and beam with pride as they discover they have the answers to give. There are so many opportunities for self-esteem and confidence building. Having a smaller number of students per grade creates a natural sense of community which brings diversity in varying skill levels, personalities, and interests. They embrace each other and their uniqueness.
Time is a gift in the Montessori environment. Great care is taken to linger on key community values, often within academic lessons, to resolve an unsettled classroom matter with care. There is an emphasis on taking care of oneself equally to that of others. Educators themselves are most authentically available to their students when they are emotionally ready and regulated. Montessori educators work together as a tight-knit supportive team, covering for one another as needed for the well-being of their students and community. The children observe the respect given between the educators and in turn feel a sense of compassion that they can hold on to deep within themselves.
All of what is written above, we take as a manifestation of the integration of cognitive and emotional brain functions that is seen in experiential education, even in college students. For example, the now classical Kolb model of reflection, about which we have written in college experiential learning and even speculated about links to possible brain circuits. The idea here is that not only can emotions interfere with executive functions, they also can enhance them, allowing insight and value to be brought into the facts-and-theory learning at the cognitive level. This avoids superficial training that can pass for a cynical kind of learning (e.g. teaching to the test) that for us is captured in an often used quote from Oscar Wilde, “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
But there is more. The pausing for the individual student to learn (the gift of time as mentioned above), the emphasis on the value of the child (and the college student), the development of self-respect so that a student at all levels can self-advocate are some of the largest implicit learning goals in any structured educational system from kindergarten Montessori to college student mentoring.
This brings wellness into the picture for both children and college students. Good healthy habits and mindful self-care are motivators in and of themselves. Arriving rested, satiated, and alert. Caring for others, speaking kindly to both dear friends and strangers alike, set the tone for openness. Maslow valued safety, love and belonging. Learning isn’t just academic. It also encompasses acceptance and curiosity to simply listen to others and be there to hear their story. We learn from each other. Teamwork builds a healthy network of ideas and approaches to explore them with mutual respect. Validation and encouragement acknowledge the effort and good thinking of each and every student building their sense of self and guiding them to confidently seek more knowledge through hard work. In addition to Montessori materials, Alison believes that offering a fresh and intriguing curriculum that is relevant to our times also demonstrates respect. Our students are worthy of interesting subject material giving them the skills to make a difference in the work force and follow a passionate sense of purpose.
And if there is one thing that characterizes mentoring anywhere it is the presence of a caring relationship between mentor and mentee. That relationship, perhaps more than any wise advice, enhances the mentee’s performance in the world of education at any level.