Sunday, January 26, 2014

Montessori and ADHD

 “The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy."
“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”

Maria Montessori 

The relationship between ADHD and the Montessori classroom is a tricky one.  Montessori is neither a panacea for children with ADHD, nor an environment that they should avoid altogether.  ADHD is not caused nor cured by diet, the frenetic pace of our culture, television, or poor parenting.  (See my comment about the first article below, and the author's repsonse)  Those issues can certainly affect the severity of ADHD symptoms and a child's ability to develop coping mechanisms, but ADHD stems from structural differences in the brain, is highly heritable, and was first identified in this country before the Civil War.  I am sure that Dr. Montessori met and observed some children who might have been identified as "mentally defective," but may actually have been living with ADHD.

The traditional Montessori classroom, when properly designed and maintained, can be beneficial to a child with ADHD.  Particularly in Children's House, the environment is structured to develop control and concentration.  (I have used some traditional Montessori activities, such as "walking the line" with some of my younger non-Montessori ADHD clients to a good effect) The child has freedom within the structure of the classroom, and can spend a long period of time on activities of choice.  The child learns how to remember and apply multi-step directions when they choose a work, take it off the shelf and carry it to a work area, complete the work, pick it up, and put it away - all of which must be done in a specific fashion.  All of those skills are important for children with ADHD to learn and practice.  Some children with ADHD require years of practice before those skills are mastered.   Children with ADHD will be done a disservice in the classroom when the teacher does not recognize that the child may not be capable of fully implementing these skills without the help of the teacher or a classmate.  Likewise, it will not help the child if the requirements to operated within the defined behavioral parameters of the classroom are ignored.  For the ADHD child to be successful, both the teacher and the parents must be willing to ask the child to perform at the highest level of capability, while providing assistance so that the child will still be successful.  In some schools this balance may be difficult.  More on that in a minute.

Older children must also learn and practice the skills of moving from one work to another in a timely fashion so that they complete enough work each day to make adequate academic progress.  For children with the executive function issues around ADHD, that can be a daunting challenge.  Activation (starting a task - particularly one perceived as difficult), perserverance, and organization all take a hit in the ADHD brain.  Since children in Montessori school often see their worth in the amount of work they complete, continued failure in this area can lead to discouragement and even depression.  A child in a Montessori classroom who is either spending the day wandering around the room with no substantive tasks completed, or a child who is just sitting complacently without showing willingness to attempt anything independently are both illustrations of this problem.  A child who begins to exhibit behavior that seems angry or defiant may also have arrived at the same place.  Again, the teacher who understands how ADHD truly impacts issues around work completion will be able to identify a discouraged or anxious child and will modify the child's environment accordingly, without labeling the child as "lazy", "oppositional", or "unmotivated".  The parents will also need to do their part to listen to teacher concerns as soon as they are voiced, and provide their child with the appropriate assistance at home.  This assistance may need to go beyond medication to things such as creating a structured schedule to help continue the "Montessori Day" into the home, learning all that they can about ADHD and how it affects their child, and agreeing to participate in the extra help that might be offered at and outside of school.

The challenge for many Montessori schools at the present time - particularly public Montessori schools - involves the ability to accommodate children with ADHD within the parameters of shrinking staffs and increasing demands for children to meet benchmarks on a yearly basis.  Even with two adults, it is a challenge to meet the needs of 25+ children on a truly individual basis.  In addition, the degree to which the plan of work may be modified for a child when the school has target standards to meet is limited.  In a traditional Montessori environment, where learning takes place in a three year cycle, children can often take time to practice and master classroom skills that require growth of executive functions. I'm not speaking of skills doing math or writing a paragraph or answering comprehension questions; rather I'm speaking of the skills required to develop a plan of work, do the work completely and properly, ask for help when needed, and do it all in a timely fashion.  Often once they have developed some mastery of those executive functions, learning is accelerated in subsequent years. Children in many types of public schools no longer have the luxury of time to develop executive function skills according to their own developmental timetable, and teachers certainly do not have time to teach them.  Standards are expected to be met on a yearly basis.

So if your child has ADHD, or you suspect they do, you must consider the following things before enrolling your child in any particular Montessori school, whether it's public or private:
  • How much bandwidth do you as a parent have for assisting your child at home?  Are you prepared to continue the "Montessori Day" with the appropriate amount of structure in your home to help your ADHD child?  Are you willing to use agencies and providers to help with ADHD outside of school if it becomes necessary?  
  • Are you willing to adopt and support the philosophy and structure of the school, even when you child is not always successful meeting the school's expectations?
  • Does your child become discouraged easily?  Learning how to behave independently can be difficult work for a Montessori child.  How much comfort do you have with your child trying and being unsuccessful?  Independence often results in "skinned knees."
  • Does your child tend to misbehave or "shut down" in an environment with lots of choice and stimulation?
  • How well to the teachers understand the Montessori theories of developing control and concentration and how do they apply those theories in their classrooms?
  • How well does the staff at the school truly understand ADHD beyond a child's difficulty sitting still or paying attention?  Do they understand what executive functions are and how they impact a child in the classroom?  Do they know and use positive interventions for children with ADHD?
  • What is the school's philosophy about grade-level benchmarks and testing?  What is your philosophy?  If your child shows a slow rate of gain academically in one particular year while they are developing skills for staying productively on task,  how will the school react?  How will you react?  
  • Will there be continual pressure for your child to perform independently yet be "on grade level?"
If any of those things are concerns for you, your child might not thrive in that particular Montessori environment, or might not be a good fit for Montessori at all.  For two other perspectives, I offer the articles below.

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