Interest as the driver of its development
If we were searching the web for information about children’s concentration, most of the results would be articles on useful strategies to boost their concentration and attention. As if children had little or no ability to concentrate!
But is that really the case?
Maria Montessori, after spending many years observing and doing activities with children in schools, revolutionised this way of thinking, which sadly, over half a century later, still persists and views children as incapable of sustained concentration on an activity. In one of her books dedicated to parents, she wrote: “So many childish activities seem trivial to grown-ups, but a child’s concentration is not a trivial thing. Break that often enough and he will suffer all his life." (Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents, p. 70) These are very strong words which might seem excessive, but in actual fact they reveal a great truth that many before her didn’t understand and many after her have still not understood. All children, in varying degrees, have strong concentration skills. And “the child who concentrates is immensely happy”. (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 249)
Concentration and “attention polarisation”
Concentration is, by definition, the ability to voluntarily fix the mind intensely on a particular object or activity, and to shift it towards the desired direction. It easily gets confused with attention, which although directly correlated with concentration, is a passive activity, i.e., an instinctive reaction by the brain to external stimuli (like a sudden noise, for instance, or a flash of lightning, which capture our attention instinctively).
Concentration, by contrast, is a voluntary process and is thus often understood as a mental endeavour that requires effort. But this is not actually the case: real concentration is a perfectly conscious and unconscious process that occurs due to, among other things, certain specific variables.
When the mind achieves true concentration, the rest of the world around us disappears, time suddenly seems to fly, and our mind is pleasantly absorbed in our activity. Shortly after 1907, Maria Montessori called this phenomenon “attention polarisation”, which today we could compare to the “flow state” (or flow theory) introduced by the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, or to Daniel Goleman’s “focus”.
Concentration plays a crucial role in the life of every individual because it is essential for any type of learning. It also teaches children, if trained right from the start, to experience what is present around them and to improve observation, motivation, self-perception and listening. It is no coincidence that Montessori wrote: “The first essential for the child's development is concentration. It lays the whole basis for his character and social behaviour.” (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 202)
How do we achieve this concentration “flow”?
Concentration can be compared to a muscle, which needs regular exercise to be strong and efficient. Obviously, every individual is different, and we each have our own degree of predisposition towards concentration, as we do towards interests and talents; but there is no doubt that all children have some. Adults have the important task of supporting children with useful strategies and practices that can help them improve their ability to focus attention and sustain their concentration – a skill that will be required of them more and more and in different spheres of life as they grow up.
Interest is the first requirement to spark this state of flow. And Maria Montessori saw this very clearly with her children, realising how crucial it was to set up an environment that could satisfy their need to engage in activities and develop, and where they could freely choose the activities to pursue.
It may seem trivial, but that is precisely how it works! Even we, as adults, concentrate far more on activities that interest us than on things that don’t spark our curiosity. This mechanism works in exactly the same way for boys and girls, but what we absolutely must not take for granted is that what they are interested in can vary considerably. When it comes to young children, clearly none of them can focus for too long on a given object, unless the object itself spontaneously attracted their attention. That is why Montessori urged adults to be alert to the objects which awaken the interest of very young children, so that they can develop their concentration skills around those objects.
However, since it is very easy to lose concentration, whether a task or an activity feels really easy or particularly difficult to perform, it is crucially important to consider our children’s maturity level.
The activities that are most conducive to concentration are those which are most closely aligned with their individual maturity and skill level.
What the research says and what we can do as parents
Although concentration and attention are inherent to human beings, research has shown that they can be influenced by multiple factors, both negatively and positively.
A study conducted at the University of Indiana in 2019 investigated the possibility that there could be a direct relationship between children’s attention skills and those of their parents. And its results proved surprising.
The children whose parents had focused attention on a toy or an object while playing with them not only showed a high level of attention but actually carried on attending to the object even after their parents had stopped playing with them.
By contrast, the children whose parents had constantly checked their mobile phones or had been distracted by other stimuli showed lower levels of attention.
But an unexpected and most surprising finding by the researchers was that the children who showed the lowest level of attention were the ones whose parents had over-engaged them through constant questions, interventions and requests.
The researchers concluded that children who are allowed to lead play freely in relation to their parents, and who remain focused on the activity they are engaged in, attain higher levels of attention.
As an acute observer and scholar, Maria Montessori understood this very clearly. She repeatedly made the point that children have great powers of concentration, but in order for these to develop, children must live in surroundings that satisfy their need for activity. Moreover, Montessori pointed out that role of the adult is not that of “instructor and interferer but of helper and friend” (Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents, p. 51).
- Never interrupt a child who is concentrating on an activity. “Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him […] this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched” (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 255).
- Always try to take into account your children’s maturity level and skills.
- Provide a quiet, peaceful environment: if you wish your child to concentrate, remove as many sources of distraction as possible.
- Don’t underestimate the child’s state of mind: tiredness or excessive euphoria (cause) prevent concentration (symptom). Always treat the cause, and the symptoms will improve!
- If your child has to perform an activity or some tasks that they find challenging, help them to break it up into smaller steps and suggest they begin with these or the easiest ones. The rest will come by itself.
- One thing at a time. Our brain is not designed for multitasking, which reduces concentration and lowers our performance.
- If you have older children, plan some breaks during their homework (a snack, a few minutes of playtime or some physical exercise).
Goleman D., Focus. Come mantenersi concentrati nell'era della distrazione, Rizzoli
Montessori M., Maria Montessori parla ai genitori, Leone verde
Montessori M., L’autoeducazione, Garzanti
Montessori M., La mente assorbente, Garzanti
Suarez-Rivera, C., Smith, LB e Yu, C. (2019). I comportamenti multimodali dei genitori all'interno dell'attenzione congiunta supportano l'attenzione sostenuta nei bambini. Psicologia dello sviluppo, 55 (1), 96–109. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000628
Heather A. Wadlinger , Derek M. Isaacowitz, Fissare il nostro obiettivo: allenare l'attenzione per regolare le emozioni. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868310365565