“The mind takes some time to develop interest, to be set in motion, to get warmed up into a subject, to attain a state of profitable work.  If at this time there is interruption, not only is a period of profitable work lost, but the interruption, produces an unpleasant sensation which is identical to fatigue.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

In many traditional classrooms, students move through a series of subject periods, in which they must start and stop their work on a given subject according to a predetermined schedule. Can you imagine the frustration you would feel if fully immersed in a task, deep in concentration, and were suddenly jarred out of your thoughts by the ringing of a bell? You were just about to make a breakthrough? Too bad! It’s on to the next subject. This is not how the real world works and it is also not how children learn best.

So what is the alternative? Dr. Montessori discovered that children as young as three are able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence. The three-hour, uninterrupted work cycle allows students to freely choose work and engage in work more thoroughly. Based on her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, Dr. Montessori wrote: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.” In other words, children are able to develop better concentration skills and focus through undisturbed work.

Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working?  Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?”  In fact, Montessori students do take breaks – they are free to get a drink of water or use the bathroom as the need arises. They may choose to have a snack, stand up and stretch, or observe another student’s lesson. But regarding external interruptions of work, Dr. Montessori wrote, “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.” Once the child’s concentration is broken, it is very difficult to try to engage them to the environment once again. Angeline Stoll Lillard, author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, writes, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”

Interestingly, there is a natural ebb and flow to children’s concentration during a three-hour period. Research on children in Montessori classrooms shows that after about 1.5 hours, there is a tendency for students begin to lose focus. Montessori educators call this “false fatigue.” Montessori guides don’t panic and send the students outside to run a few laps. We find instead that after ten to fifteen minutes of aimlessness, a student will redirect herself to a new activity in which she will become engaged at a heightened level of concentration, sometimes for as long as an hour. The student’s most meaningful work often takes place in the second half of the work cycle.

Lillard points out that, “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.” Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become distracting to their peers.  When children know they will not be interrupted, they choose demanding work and become engrossed.

We want to give our children the opportunity to learn at their own pace, allowing them to concentrate and focus on the task at hand in an uninterrupted, peaceful environment. As Montessori guides, we follow the child’s schedule, not ours. One of the best gifts we can give our children is the opportunity to fully develop their concentration and independence, free from unnecessary adult interruptions.

Learn more about the Maryland Center for Montessori Studies.