Montessori and Adolescent Mental Health

By Michael Draper Physics and Digital Technology Teacher – High School

In a time of increasing concern about adolescent mental health, it’s always great to read about research that backs up Maria Montessori’s guidance on adolescent development and mental health.

Research published by the University of Virginia in January 2022 found that mixed-age classes, greater social stability in school, hands-on learning, self-directed activity, and a collaborative play approach to education leads to better well-being outcomes in adulthood. The research found that those who attended a Montessori school for at least two years reported higher well-being as an adult than those who had not. In addition, the longer a person attended a school of this type, the higher their level of well-being in adulthood.

University of Cambridge Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, expert in the development of social cognition and decision making in the human adolescent brain and adolescent mental health, and author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, writes that the period of adolescence is when “a teenager’s social world changes the most dramatically”. When transitioning from primary to secondary school, there are many biological and cognitive changes: how teenagers use their “social brain” or the “network of brain regions” to interact with others goes under substantial development during this time, development which continues for several years.

That adolescents take greater risks with their friends is a well-known feature of teenage development. As Blakemore says: “There is a huge amount of evidence that they are very susceptible to peer influence – if you think about the risks we are worried about teenagers taking (smoking, binge drinking, experimenting with drugs, dangerous driving) they don’t do those things on their own. They are taking those risks when they are with their friends. … There’s a drive for them to do that because they are particularly sensitive to being excluded by their peer group. To avoid social exclusion at any cost is their number one goal and that might result in them being more influenced by their friends than other age groups are.”  Blakemore goes on to discuss the critical role parents must play in the period of brain development during adolescence, noting: “It is a necessary part of the period of adolescence to become independent from your parents. And in order to do that, you need to forge your own identity, establish yourself with your peer group, test things out and explore.”

A lot of this adolescent ‘work’ happens outside the home, much of it at school, as that is where adolescents spend a significant portion of their time with peers. As a Montessori Adolescent Teacher and Guide, I have the privilege of accompanying our ākonga as they do this work. This involves assisting their academic progress and supporting their social and emotional function as individuals and as a group.  What I find especially wonderful is the way our Montessori adolescents accept and support each other, resolve difficulties and operate as a healthy thriving community.