The Ongoing Nature of Brain Development

By Jan Gaffney  – Principal

Coming up this Thursday is the parent evening for this term, the topic of which is something I personally find exceedingly interesting. It’s something I wish had been more available when my three darlings were growing up, but is definitely useful in working with children, no matter what the age.

The development of the brain is a fascinating topic. Looking at a baby’s brain shortly after birth and then a short time later, you can see the number of neurons firing as the infant starts constructing themselves.

It is amazing to me that Montessori created a method of education that allows the brain to develop to its potential, and she did this before brain imaging was available. She did this through systematic scientific testing of theories and observation of children in relation to those theories.

She observed how children reacted to the various materials she put before them, taking away what didn’t’ work and replacing it with something that did, and then watched to see what it was the children needed in order to interact with the activities she placed in front of them.

She developed materials that called to the child’s developmental needs at each stage, and then allowed and encouraged the child to repeat each activity as many times as they wanted. Recently we have learned through the study of neuroscience that it is by repetition that automaticity occurs, and automaticity is required in order for someone to be able to do more and more complex tasks.

Such a lot happens in those first six years of life, and this is the foundation on which all else is built. However, the changes that occur when a child goes through adolescence is the time to shore up those foundations, in preparation for the next great flurry of activity.

What happens during this time, has up until recently, been largely a mystery. Now, thanks to modern science, we can learn more about what happens, why children do what they do as they pass through each stage, and better prepare ourselves to support them as they take the necessary steps to becoming a fully functioning adult.

A very exciting process indeed, and one that I’m always grateful to learn more about. I hope to see you here on Thursday night – in Kawakwa class at 7.30pm where we can find out more together.

Adolescents and Self Worth

By Richard Goodyear  – Kawakawa Head Teacher

Recently I was thrilled to be able to watch my daughter give a speech at her 21st birthday party celebrations. She spoke to a crowd of loving friends and family and gave my wife and me a huge acknowledgement. More importantly she simply oozed with confidence in her place in the world.

It made me think a lot about the belief one has (or doesn’t have) in his/her own worth, and in his/her ability to achieve. In modern parlance it is called self-efficacy. In Montessori we call it ‘valorization’, and it has been said it is the most important outcome of our work.

So what does valorization look like here in the adolescent community at Wā Ora?

We start with respect, understanding and belief in the adolescent’s potential. There is a real tenderness and sensitivity in young adults, due to the physical and psychological turbulence going on, so being aware, and tolerant of this, is perhaps the first attribute of the adult.

Dr. Montessori put it like this:  ‘The teachers must have the greatest respect for the young personality, realizing that in the soul of the adolescent, great values are hidden, and that in the minds of these boys and girls there lies all our hope of future progress and the judgment of our times.’ (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 72).

Secondly we must set up the learning experiences in such a way to allow for valorization. Our two key methods for that are occupations projects and community work.

Occupations projects in Kawakawa see the adolescents working for four weeks in a group with one teacher on a particular hands-on project. These projects generally have some sort of problem to solve or opportunity that will benefit the community. For this type of work and to make it more meaningful to the adolescents, the ‘community’ is generally fairly immediate, ie, the class itself, so the fruits of their efforts are very visible.

In community work (in which Tawari students are also involved) the ‘community’ reaches a little wider, being the whole school on a regular basis, and also events such as Peace Day and Matariki.  Community work does also extend out into the wider community with students helping out at Naenae Library, Wesleyhaven Retirement Village and Taita Cemetery. Doing these things in the community are valuable in and of themselves, but they are also small ways to promote valorization – seeing that there is value for others in one’s own efforts.

There is much potential in this idea of valorization for the adolescent and perhaps at the moment we are just scratching the surface. But it is an important part of our work here at Wā Ora. We simply need to think of our current adolescents giving speeches as young adults in a few years time, to see that stepping up as contributing adults in our complex society is a hugely important task

The Power of Suggestion

By Jan Gaffney  – Principal

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to join you for Matariki on Friday, but I hear it was a great day, and the hakari at night went well.  Our next school community event is a presentation from the Brainwave Trust talking about the developing brain from 8 years old onwards.  Brainwave’s focus is on providing education about the vast potential within each child and how we as parents can help to bring it out.  Maria Montessori talked about this a lot also.

Another thing Montessori often talked about was being careful about what was said around children and the need to be extra careful when they could hear, or even see that they were being talked about. She counselled teachers not to talk ‘ill of the child’, whether the child was present or not. There is a very good reason for this.

When a teacher talks ill of a child, he or she is reinforcing an idea of how she/he believes the child to be, and this can then become a fall-back position as to how the teacher feels the child ‘always’ is. This is something teachers  are supposed to avoid; each day we are supposed to come to the class with a clean slate, receiving the child daily as though nothing bad/wrong/inappropriate (call it what you will), has happened.

When we speak ill of a child, we reinforce to ourselves a usually negative perception and each time we do so, it becomes more entrenched. Then, when we see that behaviour occur again, we say, “Oh yes, that’s just what they are like”, further and further attributing certain behaviours as being natural to that child, which soon enough becomes reality, as the child takes his/her cue from the teacher.

This happens too, when we as parents, speak about a child when they are near, inadvertently reinforcing certain concepts, traits or characteristics that they then make part of themselves. When we say in front of them:

She worries so much about….
He doesn’t like broccoli / vegetables / Sarah, etc
She is very shy
He is very / not so good at math / writing / reading / singing / drawing, etc
She is feeling very grumpy this morning
He is feeling a bit sick, so you can ring me if he needs to come home
She is such a good / bad / disorganised / scatter-brained / messy child

All of these things encourage the child to believe they cannot be any different than what is being said about them, and in the long run, this is not helpful to them at all. A child who is quiet and needs time to warm up can be just that. Giving the label ‘shy’ can become a trait that they take on as a personal view of themselves and can become an impediment to their feeling comfortable in social situations for the rest of their life.

Similarly, when we talk about a child not being good at art or maths in front of them, we give them the idea that we think that is the case. Since we are adults and know so much more, what we say must be right, and so the child believes what we say, and makes that an integral part of who they are and what they can or can’t do. When we do this in front of children, we limit them, and I’m sure you will agree, that that is the last thing we want to do!

This is easier said than done I know (from experience!!), but if we are mindful, maybe we can do it less.

The Journey from 6-9 to 9-12

By Sharon Udy  – Totara Teacher, Primary

It’s been an interesting start to the year for me professionally as I moved from teaching in one of our 6-9 classes to working with 9-12 year olds. You may be aware of Montessori’s ‘Planes of Development’ – the six-year cycles she observed in human development. The second plane of ‘childhood’ is from approximately age six to twelve, so I am still working with children in the same ‘plane’, but there are some fascinating differences to get used to.

Montessori advised that in each ‘plane’ we are dealing with a new person – a new set of characteristics, needs and behaviours, but within each plane are two sub-phases of about three years each – a time of creation, followed by a time of development or “crystallization.” This is what I am seeing in the tamariki of Tōtara. They are reaching towards a point of completion, before they start their journey to adolescence.

In the second plane we share a Cosmic Curriculum – everything is interrelated and we make the connections clear to tamariki. We give them a picture of the whole, then give smaller parts and show how they are related to the whole. This approach appeals to their characteristics of imagination and their reasoning minds. We show that everyone and everything has a task. Tamariki come to appreciate everyone and everything, which has come before them, learning gratitude for the creative forces in the universe and for the human beings who have shaped our world.

We introduce cosmic education each year through ‘Great Lessons’. When ākonga hear these stories for the first time at six, they often respond with excitement – the goal is to stir the awe and wonder that resides within these tamariki. They don’t hear every detail, but receive a colourful first impression. They might remember the volcano or another visually impressive part of the story, i.e. just a few of the details.

By the time tamariki are in the 9-12 classes, they have heard these stories a few times. We tell slightly different versions each time, adding more detail to some parts. Tamariki look forward to their favourite stories, knowing most of what is coming and wondering what will be new this time. They become aware of details they had missed earlier and they are more ready to explore details independently. They ask more questions as their minds put together all the information they have heard throughout the years.

These tamariki are ready to make more, and different, connections than they did previously because of all the additional lessons and independent work they have done. They are ready for deeper exploration and in-depth studies. They now have the information and the skills required for these deeper investigations.

It has amazed me how just a brief conversation or a word mentioned in passing, can excite these older ākonga into independent research. They often don’t say what they are going to do, they just go and do it, then ‘report back’ to me with amazing detail and great understanding. I’m loving learning alongside these deep thinkers!