Creating Optimal Environments for Adolescents

By Coe, Betsy | Montessori Life, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Creating Optimal Environments for Adolescents


Coe, Betsy, Montessori Life


School of the Woods, celebrating its 40th year, began its secondary program 21 years ago by adding a few 12- to 14-year-old students to its late elementary class. During the school's history, each level has been added after the faculty felt that the previous level was well developed.

Remembering both Montessori's appraisal that "Schools as they are today, are adapted neither to the needs of adolescents nor to the times in which we live" (1994, p. 97), and the Carnegie (1989) report statement, written in the early years of the program, that there is a volatile mismatch between the psychological and intellectual needs of adolescence and the curriculum and structures of schools today, I sought to provide an environment that met the needs of this unique age group. The program was designed based on my experience and certification in Montessori classes for children between 2 1/2 and 12 years, on rereading Montessori's works from the perspective of the adolescent, on adolescent psychology, research on brain theory and learning strategies, and current trends and issues in education.

My dissertation, Creating an Holistic, Developmentally Responsive Learning Environment that Empowers the Early Adolescent (1988), identifies the premise of the program in its early years. The program has continued to be developed based on the observations and feedback from students, parents, and other educational institutions. With the establishment of the Secondary I teacher education program at Houston Montessori Center 11 years ago, I had the opportunity to observe Montessori middle schools weekly in some part of the western hemisphere. Secondary teacher education students also do active research projects each year, asking pertinent questions about adolescents and our practice. The information gathered through my observations, active research projects, and current research is integrated each summer for the new cycle of teacher education; and the middle school continues to be a dynamic process of learning, growing, and creating.

Four years ago, School of the Woods started its high school, graduating its first senior class this spring. For many years, when parents and educators asked me if I envisioned a high school, I would respond, "That is someone else's work, not mine!" Well, here I am, developing a high school with our faculty. It is very exciting work and has many new challenges, some similar and some different from initiating a middle-school program. This article will compare the program design of the two levels, as I understand them at this time in our growth. We have much to learn, but I think we are on the right path of this journey.

The Adolescent Period

Adolescence is a time of applying previous knowledge to action projects and developing more independence and interdependence. Adolescents are seeking to find their cosmic task and where they will fit into the world. They want the curriculum to be relevant and meaningful to their lives. Developmentally, early adolescents are going through rapid physical and cognitive changes. This then has an impact on their psychosocial and moral development.

Around the age of 12, due to their new brain development, students are able to reflect, plan ahead-and easily get overwhelmed. They are also egocentric, have ups and downs of moods, and experience changes in their physical bodies. These changes can inhibit focus and concentration and spawn needs for movement and sleep in school. They are changing their friends from proximity to same-interest groups and exploring new activities and passions. Research indicates that there are 8 developmental years in each group of 13-year-olds. Psychologically, Montessori expresses it this way: there are doubts and hesitations, violent emotions, discouragement, and unexpected decrease of intellectual capacity. The difficulty of studying with concentration is not due to a lack of willingness, but is really a psychological characteristic of this age.

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