Friday, March 8, 2013

The Benefits of Following Your Child's Lead

   A key aspect of creating a Montessori-inspired environment is to ensure that the teacher or parent follows the child's lead.  As I explained in this post, teachers or parents should work not to direct a child's play or routines.  I have read that studies that look at the effectiveness of a Montessori education have found that children in Montessori classrooms preform on par or slightly better than their peers in non-Montessori environments on academic assessments.  However, studies have found that children in Montessori environments tend to foster greater "concentration, confidence, and independence" in addition to more respect for their classmates and even creativity, which is especially interesting as many of Dr. Montessori's critics focus on her views towards fantasy and creative play.  For this Science Friday, I want to focus on a study that explores the relationship between a mother's directing of her toddler's play and future cognitive and social functions. 
   While the study does not focus mention Montessori practices, it compares cognitive and social functions in 4.5 year old children based upon the extent to which their mother's directed their play beginning at age 2. The researchers decided that 2 years-old was an important age to start observations as it is a time when children have the ability to understand basic verbal communications but still require a caretaker's direct instructions to complete and understand most tasks.  By age 4.5 years, however, much less support from caretakers is necessary. 
Toddlers can certainly come up with some creative games when allowed to lead!
   For this study, researchers observed mothers and their children during two home visits that included daily activities and a play session that included standardized toys as well as an in-office visit that included a play session.  The study took place over a period of 2.5 years.  Standardized tests that have been approved for these age groups were used to determine cognitive abilities.  Social behaviors were measured based upon observations of two specific behaviors- responsiveness (i.e. a child's ability to respond to instructions) and initiating (i.e. the child's ability to direct his mother's attention to an activity.)
   I believe that the findings in this study very much support using Montessori methods at home or in a classroom.  The children whose mothers consistently practiced "maintaining" (asking questions or making comments concerning an activity on which a child was working or responding to a child's requests) versus "directing" (giving specific verbal or non-verbal instructions for the child to follow, providing few options) had higher cognitive and language skills between age 1 and 3.5 years.  Additionally, maintaining also proved to have significant positive effects on responsiveness for these same ages.  Researchers believe that practicing maintaining supports cognitive and communication skills in early children as it works within their limited attention spans and current abilities without forcing them to shift focus. 
   The study revealed the children whose mothers practiced maintaining would ultimately have more success in "joint learning situations."  This is based upon two findings: First, at 3.5 years old, maintaining increased a child's social responsiveness, which ultimately seemed to improve his ability to initiate activities. Secondly, by 4.5 years, maintaining was directly related to a child's increased ability to establish and then meet goals. 
   While many parents may believe that being directing will increase responsiveness, this study and others (one additional example- a study that analyzed conversations between toddlers and mothers showed a mother's requests were more often followed when she adjusted the request to acknowledge the child's current focus) indicate that respecting the toddler's thoughts and activities will ultimately lead to greater success for completing immediate tasks and for longer-term cognitive and social skills.

Crain, W. (2011). Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. Prentice Hall:Boston. 
Landry, S.H., Smith, K.E., Swank P.R., &  Miller-Loncar, C.L. (2000). Early maternal and child influences on children's later independent cognitive and social functioning.  Child Development, 71(2 ) pp. 358-375

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