(Delivered in Chinese at Sai Kung Montessori on 2 February 2018)
The child’s agenda, from the moment he was born, is to adapt to his environment. His environment consists of both inanimate and animate, objects and people. He wishes to navigate himself in the physical environment, find ways to meet his needs, and to accustom himself to social expectations and norms. He is gifted with the absorbent mind as coined by Dr Montessori, which is a subconscious, photographic memory that allows the child to be slowly transformed into a person of his culture – the language, diet, mannerisms, and attitudes, all signify that he has adapted to his environment. The absorbent mind lasts until age 6. In psychology, this adaptation is fulfilled by a set of psychological processes known as self-regulation.
Each person is born with working physical organs at birth, such as lungs, stomach, intestines and liver, that allows the body to function. The body respires and metabolises. Each person is also born with psychical organs, which allows the intellect to function. Examples of psychical organs: brain, hands, feet, senses especially touch (such as the tongue).
Why are our hands and feet so important? The hand is the symbol of grasp, control, manipulation and confidence（把握、掌握、掌控等等都是跟手有關）. The foot is the symbol of exploration, strength and endurance（路遙知馬力，日久見人心）. This is studied in movement psychology.
Our limbs are connected to our brain. When the child stops moving, his brain also stops. Adults too, actually, although our movements are tapered down to, say, spinning pens, tapping feet, doodling textbooks. The synchrony is important. In Chinese philosophy, the noble person is consistent in his thoughts and action（知行合一）.
Psychical organs are present at birth, but the psyche only begins developing after birth, because it is built through interaction with environment.
Psyche = Psychical organs + Interaction with environment
The ego (self) is born with all neurons he has in life. There is an overproduction of synapses at around 1-2 years old. Synapses are terminals on the neurons that help connect brain circuits. The overabundance of synapses mean there are infinite ways our brains can be wired, as accordance to what is required of us. It is a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario. When faced with a task or stimuli, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. Circuitry is established and the brain furthermore wants to insulate these circuits by a process called myelination. The more often the circuit is used, i.e. behaviour or exposure is repeated, the stronger the connection. Myelination increases the speed and stability of mental processes. It occurs at a genetically programmed time in different regions of the brain, which in psychology is known as critical periods and in Montessori the sensitive periods. It is observed as an intense, indulgent but temporary interest in a particular area of development. “Time is Love” – the greatest love for a child is to give him time and space to wire his brain.
The goal of Montessori education is to allow a normal person to be established. ‘Normal’ or ‘normalisation’ may be difficult to think of as a spectacular goal, but in Chinese, ‘normal’ is made up of two excellent words – 正、常。正：righteous, correct；常：the eternal way. ‘Normal’ in Chinese essentially means the right, timeless way/order of the universe. Such a person is positive, resilient, stable, balanced, and functions optimally.
The normal person is of good character. Character in Montessori is essentially temperament in psychology, which consists of both nature and nurture parts – emotional reactivity that we are born with, and the ability to regulate that emotional reactivity. As self-regulation is a result of our desire to adapt, our character is a product of our interactions with the environment, as well as our brain circuitry.
The child is born with his own instincts to grow, discover and learn. He is programmed with a schedule that is in his best interests, such as how baby Juan is stomping his feet eagerly at 4.5 months (and would cry until he is seated on my thigh to stomp). Only stomping would prepare his lower back muscles for the 6-month milestone of sitting without support. It is not something an adult would think of, or could teach, but the adult can facilitate the instincts. We are farmers who ought to provide the right kind of soil, water and sunlight to suit the species we are planting. It is not in our interest to grow wild grass; we need to cultivate our land with the right care so plants will mature and fruit.
Dr Montessori purports a stage theory of development, like many others such as Erikson and Piaget. Dr Montessori divides human growth into the four planes, each of 6 years, with a sudden jump in between. The child at each plane exhibits very different characteristics.
At 0-6, the child’s development begins with himself, indulged in whatever is in his hands, mostly in the home environment. At 6-12, he is concerned about logic, reasoning, fairness, and where he stands in the peer group. The teenager goes further to be concerned about his role in society. The young adult learns his role in creation, i.e. ‘calling’. Development has to begin from the ego, and progress outwards step by step. This is summarised by the Chinese saying, “cultivate self, organise family, govern country, make peace with the world”（修身、齊家、治國、平天下）.
One remarkable outcome of the first plane of development is consciousness. Consciousness continues to grow throughout 0-6, but it is widely recognised that 3-year-olds deliberately use declarative/explicit memory.
Dr Montessori considers 3-6 the best time for education. These young children have enough consciousness and memory to be approachable, albeit in a special manner. She considers the 0-3 child unapproachable. At the same time, the absorbent mind continues until age 6; there is neuroplasticity at the lower, more ‘basic’ brain regions. Therefore, at this age, new circuits can be encouraged and undesirable ones can be dropped. After age 6, brain development is concentrated in the prefrontal cortex, i.e. higher thinking. The subtleties of culture and character are well formed.
To facilitate a child’s development, we must consider his perspective. Let us begin at birth. Imagine yourself going down a long, windy waterslide. After bends and dips, you finally splash into the pool. What would you feel? Perhaps cold, bright, helpless, and startled. This is what Dr Montessori termed as the birth terror. The adult should immediately hold the baby. There is no time or need to dress him. Holding soothes him psychologically, but it is also a biological necessity, for the baby needs skin-to-skin touch to regulate his body temperature. Now that he is outside the womb, he has to learn how to regulate himself to ~37 degrees Celsius. It is only through adequate contact with the adult that he could learn and eventually be independent in his temperature regulation.
Temperature regulation is the first example of self-regulation, beginning with an external source, and eventually internalising the process. The next example is sleep. Daylight, nighttime, noise and the caregiver’s schedule are external cues. With enough exposure to these cues, the child eventually learns to sleep through the night, a relief that comes much earlier than most people would expect – 6 weeks, in my experience.
Consistency is a must; it is embedded in the meaning of regulation. Consistent external cues allow for swift self-regulation. Consistency is the prerequisite for all kinds of learning. If this jacket that baby Juan is wearing is called green today, blue the next, and purple the day after, how would the child ever learn his colours? Language is such an obvious example, but many people forget that this consistency is just as important in other aspects of the environment, in all its details. We call that order in the environment. Order is especially crucial during 1-3 years old. 1-year-old is when the child toddles. He is so thrilled to be mobilising himself. He would toddle to all corners and fiddle with every object. He is so delighted to be proactively interacting with his environment. Gone are the days when he had to beg for someone to carry him! His intense interest for interacting with the environment means he is trying very hard to understand every single rule around him, from mechanics to fluid dynamics, from physical pain to social acceptance. By 3 years old, he would have internalised the order of his environment. This internal order is the framework of his character. This is why in Chinese we say “3 year-old determines (how you are at) 80” （三歲定八十）. The structure has been laid.
Consistency can be rigid at times. For example, me being the consistent caregiver is not enough – baby Juan was very upset when I wore a pullover that has been stowed away for a year. He recognises his mother by smell. The pullover betrayed him.
Apart from offering the founding principles of character, order is also important to a child’s pursuits. With order, there is predictability; with predictability, the child feels comfortable to venture, or to work on his own work. If the environment is at a constant, unpredictable flux, the child, who is so sensitive to change, will have to make sense of the change every time. This means he will have little resources left to cater to his own work. It results in developmental delay.
What is his own work, you may ask? Refer to the beginning of this article. His work is, always, to adapt to the environment, which in turn builds his character.
I ask you to consider the child’s perspective and question, “Do you think the child feels he has a grasp over this environment?” To understand this feeling, take the example of cooking in your own kitchen. You have a good flow because you know your setup, your machines, your inventory and their exact location. It is very different when using someone else’s kitchen – you have to reorient yourself, and perhaps take a few days to adapt. You have a good grasp of your own kitchen, so you can focus on food preparation. Being in control of the environment is crucial to fulfilling one’s work.
The universe is very orderly. Sun and moon have their routines, clouds and trees have their places, fluids and steam obey the laws of physics. The prepared environment that we offer the child ought to mimic such order, in areas such as daily routine, physical organisation and behaviour, as well as natural harmony and the will to flourish.
Order is lived and witnessed; it is the consistency among change. Scientists derive theories from repeated experiments, and they do so in a controlled setup. Limits help us focus, and trials allow us to find order, also to be understood as limits.
Freedom with no limits is ‘wild’. It is not a feeling of free. Imagine Tsing Ma Bridge with no railings. It will be too scary to drive to the airport. We need the railings to feel safe. We need limits to feel safe. We feel psychologically free when we have principles to abide with. We need order to safeguard freedom.
In Montessori, the two main freedoms are the freedom of movement and the freedom of expression. I will explain using the infant as an example. The 9-month-old rolls non-stop. My husband jokes that the baby camera is now our screensaver. I transitioned my daughters to a king-sized mattress on the floor, fenced. The infant is free to roll far even in sleep. When he gets to roll, he is happily fulfilling development and will not cry. If he is in a crib, he cannot roll without hitting against the sides every minute, so he will cry. Sleep regressions denote changing developmental needs. Facilitate them, and the parent of a happy baby gets lots of sleep.
Babies coo and vocalise in attempt to communiciate, but crying and fussing are just as important. Language is not merely muscle control, it also counts on the ability to express appropriately, with exactness. A person who can speak true to his heart is in harmony with himself, and is empowered to feel responsible for himself. It is a virtue for thought and speech to be consistent（心口一致）. A person who is obstructed from expressing when he needs to, e.g. using a pacifier, is more likely to feel awkward or reluctant with expressing.
Dr Montessori says, “Free choice is the highest of all mental processes.” A person who is able to make the very appropriate choices is considered wise and sharp（有慧眼）. It is only through practice and experience that a person gains this foresight. Therefore, from the youngest age, we should offer the child opportunities to practise making choices. Choices have to be safe, and they start simple, gradually building up through the entire process of development. Adults should analyse out loud and model making choices, such that the child learns this self-regulatory process. Make good choices – the young child under 6 has an absorbent mind. Therefore, apart from wanting to make choices to take charge of his life, the young child also learns other people’s choices. Good choices should be in daily details such as colour coordination, style and taste, diet, decoration, scent, etc.
The 0-6 child and the 12-18 teenager have much in parallel. They are both very concerned about self-esteem. It is very important to give them a sense of control over who they think they are and how they feel about themselves. The 3-year-old, who we call the ‘threenager’ is so sensitive to failing to do something for himself. He will cry when he cannot put on his shoes, worrying that he is incapable and truly scared about life being uncontrollable.
The theme for 0-6 is empowerment. The adult ought to step down to support the child’s efforts of grasping the environment. The adult is to facilitate quality interactions so the child can build his character. In Montessori, we emphasise the importance of purposeful work, because it embeds a whole cycle for adaptation. There is first the understanding of social expectations, then through the child’s natural interest for imitation, he uses his skills to complete a work, to meet expectations. The environment provides feedback, partly through control of error and partly through people’s responses. The child is able to know how well he has performed and adjust his strategy accordingly. Therefore, purposeful work is a complete cycle, where pretend play is not. With pretend play, there is little feedback as no work is actually done and no expectations are actually met. There is not a cycle of activity that aids adaptation.
We have high expectations for the child, therefore we give him a quality environment to “help me to help myself”. For example, we give them child-sized and functional tools, as the Chinese saying goes, “to do a good job, one must first sharpen one’s tools” （工欲善其事，必先利其器）. The adult is the child’s steward, his helpful butler, who manages his house, prepares his food, but never tells him how to spend his time, or to dictate a letter to a friend. The Children’s House (3-6) is where the child takes the role of the master, to live a dignified life. The master is a gifted scientist. He pursues his curiosity with an intense passion. He needs space and time for his tireless work, but be prepared to be responsive and supportive when he asks for you. Discoveries will delight him with joy and brighten his character.
The adult is the keeper of the environment, the guardian angel of the child. The Montessori method is not the only way that supports the child, but if we can follow the child with precision and accuracy, we have what it takes to be a Montessorian.
The child’s work is to build his character through adaptation, that is interacting with the environment and self-regulating accordingly. The child can only build internal order through repeated exposure to a consistent external order. Order is hardwired into the brain. Intellect is built through physical interaction, such as with hands, feet, tongue and other sense organs.
The adult’s role is to provide order. Its consistency and predictability allows the child to acquire principles as well as to have a safe space to focus on his own character-building. The adult is to allow freedom within limits, so the child can pursue safe experimentation. With a confident grasp over the environment, the child is empowered and would feel good as an independent, capable entity. Offer plenty of opportunity for practising choice and being responsible for oneself. Freedom of movement and freedom of expression are fundamental to mind-body harmony.