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The Montessori Advantage ~ Excellent Executive Functioning Skills! October 22, 2016

Filed under: Child Development,impulse control,learning,Montessori education,Uncategorized — bevfollowsthechild @ 11:45 pm

11934944_10153555355176774_4321930277428401165_nPhoto caption ~ “May we watch you work?”  Impulse control practice!

I have thought long and hard about what I call ‘the Montessori advantage’, that special characteristic of Montessori students that allows them be successful in later schooling, relationships and work, and to become the people they were meant to be.  At the recent annual conference of the Montessori Institute of America the keynote speaker, Dr. Steven Hughes presented on Education for Life.  You can find out more about Dr. Hughes here:

I had the pleasure (and the fear – it is very hard to follow a keynote speech by Dr. Hughes!) to present on the development of Executive Functioning skills in children.  These skills (short term memory, flexible thinking and impulse control) are an important part of education for life.  These skills help us succeed in school, at work, in relationships, and as a parent.  You can hear more about executive functioning skills by following this link to a short video:

I think that Montessori schools provide children a wonderful environment for the practice of these skills, and like any skill, practice helps develop and strengthen the skills.  The video clips in the executive function overview include many set in Montessori schools, yet Montessori education is never mentioned.  That’s why I think it is important for us to join the conversation as Montessori parents and teachers.  ‘Executive functioning’ are buzz words in education right now, and this is something Montessori education excels at ~ providing the opportunity to practice, develop and strengthen working memory, flexible thinking and impulse control.

Just think of these examples:

Working memory ~ consider all of the distance games (matching pink tower or broad stair pieces, shapes from the geometric cabinet to cards on a rug across the classroom), three period lessons, matching games, remembering the sequence of a lesson, remembering where a work goes on a shelf . . .

Flexible thinking ~ so many works (knobbed cylinder blocks, binomial cube, trinomial cube, puzzles) encourage a child to persevere and try a different arrangement to solve the puzzle

Impulse control ~ walking on the line, fine motor control activities, just having one of each material so you have to be patient and wait your turn, watching a work without touching, waiting for a lesson. . .

With twenty children in a room, all moving freely and making their own choices of what to work on, you can see that our students get a lot of practice on focusing on their own work and avoiding being distracted by the movement and choices of those around them.  Their executive functioning skills get a daily workout.

As parents and educators, we can not only provide lots of opportunities for practice of these skills, but also set about providing the best environment to avoid long term factors that negatively impact the development of these skills.

  • Poor role models
  • Stress
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of opportunity to practice and develop

Please note: In the short term, tiredness, hunger, not feeling well, can also impact a child’s (and a teacher’s or parent’s!) executive functioningIf you consider how you feel less than your best when you are tired, hungry, stressed, not feeling well, you can see how detrimental these same factors are on a long term basis.  Within our school we provide lots of opportunities for practice, we stress excellent nutrition (no junk food), we provide a predictable routine, opportunities for gross motor play, yoga to prevent stress and our teachers strive to provide positive role models to our children.

When I consider the lack of opportunity to practice and develop, I think of two extremes.  When a parent or teacher does everything for the child, and prevents the child from making choices, making mistakes and facing natural consequences, the child does not have the opportunity to practice executive functioning skills.

When a child is afraid to make choices or make a mistake because of fear of ridicule or punishment, the child is also prevented from practicing and strengthening these skills.  Fear makes for stress, a long term factor that inhibits the development of executive functioning skills.

I have included some references and resources for interested parents and teachers.


Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from

(above links to 20 page full paper)

(above links to two-page summary of full paper)

Download a sixteen page guide to developmentally appropriate activities ( six months through adolescence) to strengthen executive function skills

Video overview of executive function, with many video clips set in a Montessori classroom

Fifteen-minute TED talk, about helping adults develop executive function skills, and the ability this has to lift families out of poverty:

Thanks to the parents and teachers who asked me to share some more information about Montessori education and executive functioning.


Observation March 22, 2016


We talk a lot about the importance of observation for the teacher, but perhaps overlook the importance of observation by the child of another child at work.  The two children watching in this photo are using an amazing amount of self control to watch another child at work without touching the work, or interfering in any way.  With hands in laps, they are respectfully watching, and perhaps gathering ideas for their later exploration and work with these materials.  They are indirectly practicing an important executive brain function skill, impulse control.  This is really challenging, even for adults!  Just think of a time you were either asking for help with a new computer skill, or trying to show someone else how to do something on the computer.  This is so difficult to do without the person in the teaching mode taking over the keyboard!

For visual learners, this may be a very important way to learn – by watching.  Montessori education respects the diverse ways children learn, and encourages children to find out for themselves what works best to facilitate their best learning.  This is a skill for life.


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