By Jason Phillips
Dr. Adele Diamond is one of the best and strongest Montessori advocates in Canada, a position she has attained based on her research that “integrates developmental, cognitive science, neuroscience, and molecular genetic methods to study prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the most complex cognitive abilities (executive functions).” Her research has led her to espouse Montessori as one of “Two curricula that share important similarities [and] have been shown to improve EFs” (p.961). (Tools of the Mind is the other one).
Adele recently spent a Sunday afternoon speaking to a room full of Montessori guides and administrators at a CCMA event in Toronto. A number of DVMS staff were there, and we’d love to share our impressions and takeaways with you.
“What’s happening in modern neuroscience is converging with Montessori,” said DVMS’s Upper Elementary guide Terrence Millie. “We need to be quick to point out that something we’ve been doing all along in Montessori is appropriate to the development of the child’s capacity for executive functioning.”
Diamond emphasized that executive functions are “integral skills” that children need to develop, and she opened her talk by addressing some of the best ways we can relate to children and set them on a sound path to learning and development. She relayed the results of a survey of recent studies that show that “humanity is more important than textbook skills” and that “the best way to communicate with kids is to listen — put your total concentration on the other,” what she calls “mindful listening — staying fully in the present moment and giving your full, undivided attention to the other.”
Related to this is the importance of belief. Diamond reinforced how important it is that parents, teachers, and other caregivers believe in the child’s self, as well as children believing in their own selves. It is in really listening to others that we have the opportunity to experience, and believe in, other’s selves.
Adults also need to remember to respect children’s slower processing speeds, Diamond reminded us. Waiting for kids to catch on or to catch up can be frustrating to hyper-busy adults, but we have to remember that we are working with many more years of experience and practice, and fully developed brains.
The most significant, positive aspect of Montessori identified by Dr. Diamond is the concept of “normalization.”
According to Maria Montessori, “Normalization comes about through ‘concentration’ on a piece of work,” she writes in The Absorbent Mind. She posits concentration as the central point in a scale of childhood development and behaviour, as the action that works to do away with what Montessori identifies as the less desirable, developmentally hindering facets of children’s behaiour: “Caprice, Disorder, Timidity, and Sloth.” Normalization is “the most important single result of our whole work,” says Montessori.
According to Diamond, normalization “includes having functioning executive functions.” She pointed out that most of the time, when it comes to children, our culture chooses to focus on the concept of “inhibition,” and she gave the example of “working memory tests” that actually only “measure the degree children can inhibit impulsive or habitual responses.” Rather than inhibition, Diamond says that executive functions are more closely aligned with what, in her professional parlance, is called “cognitive control,” rather than behavioural inhibition.
For more on the concept of normalization in Montessori, see this excerpt from The Secret Of Childhood.
Dr. Diamond’s second presentation,”The Neuroscience of Executive Functions, including Sex Differences,” delved into some complex neuroscience and brain chemistry (see her presentation slides here).
Some of the primary learning we took away from this talk, and that are relative to Montessori, include the importance of environment for children with a specific amino acid type that affects dopamine levels in the pre-frontal cortex. For these kids, a high stress environment (deadlines, self-esteem tied to grades, competitive) results in them not coping or performing well. On the contrary, a less stressful environment (such as that offered by Montessori) results in an increased likelihood that children with the specific amino acid will blossom and succeed.
The other main takeaway was Dr. Diamond’s views on ADHD. She pointed out that ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are different disorders (see slides 24-34, and slides 84-86). Diamond critiqued the process behind the determination of dosage levels for drugs like Ritalin, believing that “ADHD dosage levels should be evaluated based on cognitive and executive function results, not just behavioural responses.” Her concluding slide on the topic (#86) says, “I hypothesize that many children with ADHD are being prescribed a level of MPH [drugs like Ritalin] that is too high for optimal performance in school and that the high level of MPH is actually impairing their ability to get as much out of class as they could without medication. We hope to put that to the test soon.”
Diamond also discussed the role that estrogen plays in brain chemistry. In summary, she said that estrogen’s influence on enzyme levels relative to dopamine levels results in female animals performing worse under stress than male animals, dependent on estrogen levels and the variety of a certain enzyme a person has.
Adele’s final presentation of the day was titled, “What Nourishes the Human Spirit may also be Best Executive Functions and School Outcomes.” She made the point that executive functions can be improved at any age, with specific activities.
Repetition of action is the only way to shift knowledge from the pre-frontal cortex to more established areas of the brain, said Diamond, in describing how something becomes learned and known.
Ideally, the pre-frontal cortex works in tandem with well-developed executive functions in an integral partnership to benefit (w)holistic development and learning: social, emotional, and physical, as well as cognitive. Diamond emphasized here, once again, that stress can negatively impact executive fuctions, and described the close relationship between executive functions and the development of motor functioning/activity (both executive functions and motor coordination are a part of pre-frontal cortex activity).
Her main points can be summarized as:
- Learn by Doing
- Repeated Practice
- Relax (stress is bad for everyone)
- Believe (in others and selves)
The last few slides of the presentation are also a wonderful summary of her main points: “While it may seem logical that if you want to improve academic outcomes you should concentrate on academic outcomes alone, not everything that seems logical is correct. What nourishes the human spirit may also be best for Executive Functions. Perhaps we can learn something from the traditional practices of people across many cultures & 1,000’s of years. The arts, play, and physical activity may be critical for achieving the outcomes we all want for our children.”
DVMS Learning Resource Specialist, Marissa Achong, also offers up a geat summary of the overall event as it applies to Montessori practitioners:
“Listening to Adele Diamond discuss the biological foundation for observable behaviours related to executive function was a powerful reminder that each child, regardless of environment, comes with their own hidden physiology that affects their day-to-day experience. Essential to our practice of guiding all children to meet their individual potential was her recommendation of specific activities that serve to develop and improve executive functions such as music, dance, and circus skills such as juggling and acrobatics. While as teachers we have to be mindful of each unique child, we must also strive to incorporate those activities which can benefit every child.”
But Wait, There’s More…
We recently posted a link on our website to a video of another Adele Diamond talk that is very similar to what she presented at the CCMA event. You can also view Adele’s PowerPoint slides from the CCMA event here (“What Children Need Most and Why Executive Functions are Important”), here (“The Neuroscience of Executive Functions, including Sex Differences”), and here (“What Nourishes the Human Spirit may also be Best of Executive Functions and School Outcomes”)
You can also view a re-broadcast of a public lecture: “Why Tools of the Mind and Montessori Educational Approaches may be Particularly Efficacious for Developing Executive Function Skills,” that Diamond originally gave at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute & School of Medicine in Roanoke, Virginia.
Diamond has also provided training to Steve Hughes, who many of you know from his fabulous videos espousing the benefits of Montessori, on “evaluating the effects of classical Montessori education on executive functions and other aspects of cognitive development.”
Besides the CCMA event, Diamond has also presented at and for a number of other Montessori schools and organizations:
Diamond, A. (Aug 2, 2013). Neuroscience (& psychology) research and Montessori. Invited talk. AMI International Montessori Congress, Portland, OR.
Diamond, A. (Dec. 13, 2012). What we can do to help every child shine. Invited talk. Montessori Institute of San Diego, CA.
Diamond, A. (Nov. 19, 2012). Leveraging knowledge about brain science & developmental science to help every child thrive. Invited talk. Montessori Professional Development Day, Tyee Elementary School, Vancouver, BC.
Diamond, A. (Aug. 26, 2012). What is key to teaching children so they flourish. Keynote. Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Diamond, A. (Dec. 2, 2011). Why tools of the mind and montessori educational approaches may be particularly efficacious for developing executive function skills. Invited talk. An Inaugural Speaker in Visiting Distinguished Scholar Program, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute & School of Medicine, Roanoke, VA.
Diamond, A. (May 13, 2011). Executive Functions: Insights from Neuroscience and Developmental Psychology. Invited talk. Hershey Montessori Farm School, Huntsburgh, OH.
Diamond, A. (Mar. 28, 2011). Insights from neuroscience and developmental science on ways to improve cognitive control and self-regulation in young children and why that’s important. Invited talk. Montessori Training Center, Minneapolis, MN.
Diamond, A. (Apr. 10, 2010). Why executive functions are important and how to aid their development. Keynote. Annual General Meeting, Association Montessori Internationale, Amsterdam, Netherlands.