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Mindfulness Practices in Education

Excerpt article taken from
By Angeline S. Lillard, Published online: February 17, 2011

Mindfulness training has had salutary effects with adult populations and it is seen as a potentially helpful to children’s development. How to implement mindfulness practices with young children is not yet clear; some meditation practices, like sitting still for long periods with internally-self-regulated focused attention, seem developmentally inappropriate. Montessori schooling is a 100-year-old system that naturally incorporates practices that align with mindfulness and are suited to very young children. Here I describe how several aspects of Montessori education, including privileging concentrated attention, attending to sensory experience, and engaging in practical work, parallel mindfulness practices. These aspects might be responsible for some of the socio-emotional and executive function benefits that have been associated with Montessori education, and they could be adapted to conventional classroom methods.

One place to look for approaches to helping even younger children to be mindful is Montessori education. Montessori education includes many practices and values whose goals and structures are consistent with mindfulness (Hanh 1999; Kabat-Zinn 1990). Montessori education was initiated over 100 years ago by Maria Montessori, one of the first women physicians in Italy (Povell 2009). Dr. Montessori used materials stressing sensory discrimination to improve the cognitive achievements of children with mental retardation, which led to development of a full activity-based educational program for children from birth through age 12; development of the adolescent program was ongoing when she died in 1952. Although Montessori education has very positive impacts on school achievement(Dohrmann et al. 2007; Lillard and Else-Quest 2006), it is fundamentally aimed at the development of the whole person (Montessori 1932/1992). Its emphasis on deep concentration, integration of mind with body, practical work, and specific exercises like “The Silence” and “Walking on the Line” all echo mindfulness practices. These as well as other points of similarity in mindfulness and Montessori practices and values are discussed below, followed by a discussion of parallel outcomes.

Deep Concentration
Concentration is also highly valued in the Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori believed concentration led to a psychologically healthy state she called “normalization”—a term she borrowed from Anthropology that essentially meant “being a contributing member of society” (Shaefer Zener 2006), but which also meant that children were constructive and kind in their behavior. Further, she believed that this state is the most important outcome of focused work (Montessori 1967). Dr. Montessori described the event that brought her to this realization: a child was so deeply engrossed in her work (placing ten graduated cylinders in their correct holes) that her chair was lifted up in the air, and the other children (at Dr. Montessori’s direction, as an experiment) danced and sang around her without breaking her concentration (Montessori 1912/1965). Once children have begun to concentrate on work, according to Dr. Montessori, they become “completely transformed …calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive,” bringing out “extraordinary spiritual qualities” (Montessori 1917/ 1965, p. 68). Children who have come to concentrate are said to behave better, no longer “prey to all their little naughtinesses” (Montessori 1989a, p. 16).

Grounding the Mind in Sensorimotor Experience Montessori education begins with grounding in sensory experience via motor movement. Three-year-old children learn to make fine distinctions between different smells, sounds, tastes, colors, textures, and so on, manually pairing those whose sensory qualities match. For example, primary (3- to 6-year-old children) classrooms contain sets of musical bells, eventually used to make music, but initially used to train the ear to distinguish sounds. The teacher will even set the various bells around the room, and the child needs to pair up the ones that match by moving around the classroom, playing each one, carefully attending to its sound and holding that sound in mind while moving to a different bell to play its sound. In addition to establishing sensorial focus, this exercises working memory (attention capacity). Montessori also has tasting and smelling exercises, where a child pairs objects that taste or smell the same, often while the child is blindfolded. Another Montessori activity that involves attention to sensory and motor
experience is “The Silence Game”. The teacher chimes a bell and the entire class falls silent and listens, with the aim of becoming fully aware of their surroundings. When the silence is broken, children can discuss what they experienced, in particular, what they heard. Dr. Montessori (1989a) noted that young children “love silence to an extraordinary degree”
(Montessori 1989a, p. 53; italics in original).
The attention to sensorimotor experience in Montessori education extends to the care Montessori children are asked to take in how they move in and interact with the environment. The Montessori curriculum includes “Lessons
of Grace and Courtesy,” in which one attends to one’s behaviors and their effects on others. Children are given lessons in how to walk carefully around the room, not stepping on others’ workspace, and how to carefully push in a chair so it is straight and even and not in others’ way. “Every exercise involving movement where mistakes can be corrected … is of great assistance to a child… Our children become agile and alert by learning how to walk around various objects without bumping into them” (Montessori 1966, p. 124–125).

The Practical Work of Life
An emphasis on finding meaning in everyday activities that sustain life is seen in Montessori education as well, where children from a very young age engage in the “Exercises of Practical Life” (Montessori 1989b). A budding toddler can carry his or her food to the table and clean the table after clearing dishes. In the primary classroom, young children become absorbed in scrubbing furniture, polishing shoes and brass, and arranging flowers. Specific organized steps are followed in carrying out each of these activities. The Montessori adolescent programs often include hard work on farms and nature preserves, as part of community service work. Dr. Montessori observed that, “There is a strict relationship between manual labor and deep concentration of the spirit” (Montessori 1956, p. 71).
Practical activities are fundamental in Montessori education, and children can engage in them and see their meaning from a very young age. The child needs “activity concentrated on some task that requires movement of the hands guided by the intellect” (Montessori 1966, p. 138). Learning to polish a shoe, for example, a child carries out a careful sequence of steps, knowing the goal—the shinier shoe that he or she will really wear—and
seeing how each step serves this eventual goal. When society is agriculture-based, probably many more of children’s daily activities have this clear connection between an action and a practical, cognized goal to which young children can relate, connecting body and mind. It is much more difficult for a young child watching an adult typing at a computer to grasp the practical end: the abstractions underlying journal publications, grant submissions, financial spreadsheets, or stock purchases are beyond their intellectual capacities. The activities of practical life in Montessori education are thought especially important, because they provide a functional (“important to my life today”) goal to which a child can relate and a series of bodily movements—guided by the mind and attentively engaged with—that the child can use to get there.

Mindfulness Practices in Education: Montessori’s Approach
By: Angeline S. Lillard
Excerpt Article
Published online: 17 February 2011
# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

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