Since I first did my AMI Montessori training, back in the 90s, people have been asking, "But aren't children different today than they were when Maria Montessori first developed her method?" The answer is a resounding YES!
In some ways, children are most certainly different today than they were even five years ago because we humans are biologically programmed to adapt to our culture: our time, place, and group. But that is actually not news. Humans have been doing this since we became a species.
What teachers are reporting now is that children seem to have:
- Weaker social skills
- Less language (vocabulary and expressive ability)
- More difficulty regulating their emotions
So is this true or is it misperception by the teachers? I think teachers are pretty accurate reporters of what they see in child development. I mean, seriously, they're actually trained to be accurate reporters! So, let's just get off the teachers' backs and listen to what they are saying.
The real question is, why are teachers seeing these changes? To figure this out, we have to look at what has happened in our culture in recent years. How about EVERYTHING! So, I'm just going to throw out a couple of tiny little things that have happened in the US in the last five years like the rise of social media and, oh yeah, finding out out of the blue that no one can leave their house for 18 months for fear of dying from or spreading a deadly disease.
These huge events have led we humans to change our behaviors as we adapt to the realities of this new world. And, as Dr. Montessori and Charles Darwin taught us, that is what we humans do. We adapt. That is why we survive.
Sometimes we adapt in skillful ways (like shifting our lifestyles to be healthier because we've seen the data) and sometimes we adapt in unskillful ways (like binge watching Netflix to escape from a reality that we just can't handle at the moment). But no matter how we adapt, these changes in our ways of being change our brain physically. These changes are so profound that there's actually a whole field of science that studies this: cultural neuroscience.
I can't cover everything that has changed in the world in a blog post. So, I'll focus on the low hanging fruit of screen time. Both children and adults are using screens way more often than we used to (see Trott, et al., 2022 for a review).
But, is using screens more than we used to actually interfering with we adults being "normal" humans? And what does it mean for young children to regularly use screens?
I'm not going to get on a soap box here. I mean, I'm a mom who lives in the US. I remember one time when my daughter was three and couldn't stop vomiting. After the first hour in the bathroom when I realized it wasn't ending anytime soon, I got us a big bowl for her to throw up in and popped Sound of Music into the VCR (yes, it was that long ago). She kept throwing up for hours but both of us were not as upset about it while Julie Andrews was singing about the beauty of life.
So, is there a good place in the world for movies, etc? Absolutely!
I'm actually not here to judge. I'm just going to report on what's happening developmentally with children in 2023 that is different from how it was in 2003 or even 2013.
Children are driven to become humans like the adults around them. So, if the adults they see are often using screens, their brains become programmed to think that regularly using screens is what normal humans do. And, of course, these same adults are giving young children screens to use as well.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows that increased internet screen time is associated with depression (Kandola et al., 2022) and externalizing behaviors (see Eirich et al., 2022 for a review). It's important to note here that, at least in adolescents and adults, playing video games may actually be associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms (Kandola et al., 2022). So how we use screens matters.
One thing I'm seeing a lot of is parents giving their phones to their toddlers and preschoolers whenever they need a minute to speak with a store clerk or focus on their chores, etc. Are you seeing that too? And it's not just in the US. I was in Poland last week and saw this happen again and again.
My major concern here is what children aren't doing because they are being entertained by a screen. They aren't, for example, learning how to wait. If they're given the screen to calm themselves down, they don't learn how to work with their emotions skillfully; they aren't learning to self-regulate.
This lack of opportunity may lead to deficits in executive function development. Remember that before age six is where humans are programmed to learn how to be flexible (cognitive flexibility), keep track of things (working memory), and inhibit unskillful behavior (inhibitory control). These are experience-dependent skills which means we only learn them well if we get a chance to do them. So, we need to allow children the opportunity to wait, to calm down without a screen (but with emotional support), and to regulate their impulses. When we're looking at young children, screen time means they are missing key opportunities to actively develop their neural architecture.
Increased screen time may also mean that we aren't getting the preferred amount of physical activity. And physical activity is incredibly important for healthy brain development.
So, have children changed? Yes. Do we need to change? Yes and no. I think the core guidance that Dr. Montessori gave us is still valid. The difference is that we need more patience.
It may take longer for children to find the appeal in our lovely calm environments. In the short-term, they may not seem as compelling as bells, whistles, and animations. But, if we keep enticing them to connect with the environment and to exert themselves on meaningful work, normalization will come.
I encourage you to be persistent, consistent, and tenacious in adhering to the principles Dr. Montessori taught us. Honor the human tendencies; those haven't changed but they may be a bit obscured.
Eirich, R., McArthur, B. A., Anhorn, C., McGuinness, C., Christakis, D. A., & Madigan, S. (2022). Association of screen time with internalizing and externalizing behavior problems in children 12 years or younger: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry.
Kandola, A., Owen, N., Dunstan, D. W., & Hallgren, M. (2022). Prospective relationships of adolescents’ screen-based sedentary behaviour with depressive symptoms: the Millennium Cohort Study. Psychological Medicine, 52(15), 3531-3539.
Trott, M., Driscoll, R., Irlado, E., & Pardhan, S. (2022). Changes and correlates of screen time in adults and children during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. EClinicalMedicine, 48, 101452.