Developmental Milestones, aka Sensitive Periods in Montessori

Toilet training is a developmental milestone between 18 and 24 months. Don’t miss it!

One of the hardest things to work around as a parent and educator in a Montessori school is all of the terms Dr. Montessori used when developing the Montessori method.  Today I would like to explain what sensitive periods are and why you are going to want to pay attention to them.  

Sensitive periods are frequently called developmental milestones or windows of opportunity.  As an infant, you don't want to miss the best time to wean your child.  As a toddler, you are going to want to make sure you hit the window of opportunity for optimum toilet training, right?!  The same goes for every developmental milestone: concentration, movement, language, and everything else.  The years between birth and 6 are a flood of development and it is so HELPFUL to know when they are to make your life easier for both you and your child(ren). Once the sensitive period passes for a particular type of knowledge, it is much harder for the child to acquire the skill.  Their minds are pre-wired to learn things in a particular order.  That’s why Dr. Montessori is frequently quoted “never give more to the mind than you give to the hand.”

Let me tell you how I know this from experience.  With my first child, I did not buy into the whole 'put them in cotton underwear as soon as they can walk' philosophy. I didn't believe that he could learn to go to the bathroom when he couldn't even tell me he had to go! So, I let him wear pull-ups.  I have to admit, I was not great about being consistent with taking him to the bathroom and he wasn't bothered by wet pants, so needless to say we missed the window of opportunity for toilet training.  Along comes my second child and I'm determined to hit the window. De-ter-mined. I enrolled her in the Toddler Program and fortunately toilet training is a primary activity in that classroom because the educated guide knows that the sensitive period for toilet training is between 18 and 24 months. The best part was the guide also taught ME how to help my daughter. 

In later years, in the Children's House developmental milestones are both obvious and intangible.  A child has the need for order, concentration, and the refinement of senses.  All of these skills are important but don’t have a tangible outcome like language and movement. Dr. Montessori said:  

“The child has a creative aptitude, a potential energy that will enable it to build up a mental world from the world about it. He makes numerous acquisitions during the sensitive periods, which put him in relation to the other world in an exceptionally intense manner.” The Secret of Childhood by Dr. Maria Montessori.

Translation: there’s a window of opportunity when a child’s mind is ready to accept a new skill.  The sensitive periods are intense and children will acquire many new skills at one time, over and over again until the process changes around age six.  That’s why they are so exhausted when they come home from school at such an early age. They are working very hard building themselves into their own person. 

How Can We Support Sensitive Periods?

The best way to support your child’s developmental milestones is to provide them with the ability to practice what they need during each period.  The Montessori guide does this by creating a prepared environment that provides the appropriate child-sized materials for all of the milestones a child will need before turning six years old.  At home, we can be supportive by giving a child the time to concentrate when he needs to and not interrupting his thought process. For example, I found it helpful to be more thoughtful about when to end playtime for dinner, etc. Would 5 extra minutes allow my son to complete an activity and then transition more easily to dinner time?

At White Bear Montessori the teachers are extensively trained to recognize and take advantage of sensitive periods. If you have questions about what kinds of developmental milestones your child will achieve during her toddler and preschool years, please call us and we will be happy to have a guide discuss normal sensitive periods with you.

What sensitive periods are the easiest for you? Which are the hardest? Let’s have a conversation so we all learn more.

Danielle Cloe