You might be familiar with the idea that children learn best when they are following their interests. But you might not know that by “following the child”, you’re also helping them develop executive functions: skills like impulse control, delayed gratification, problem-solving, strategizing and concentrating, which are much bigger determinants for success in life than IQ.
I recently attended a talk by Dr. Steven Hughes, where he focused on the development in childhood of executive functions. I learned that when a person engages in work that challenges them, satisfies them, and gives them a sense of purpose, their brain produces just the right amount of a hormone called dopamine, which is responsible for managing drive and motivation, and regulating executive functions. This explains why children rarely misbehave or make bad decisions while doing productive self-chosen work.
I did a little more research after his talk and discovered that boredom is related to a lowered production of dopamine, which explains why most children have to be bribed to do uninspiring school work (receiving bribes increase dopamine, but also leads to a bribe addiction because the motivation isn’t coming from within the child). It also explains why children act out when they’re bored at school; they are not producing enough dopamine to remain in control of their behavior!!
Meanwhile, even low levels of stress (like those caused by threats, assessments, and externally-imposed deadlines) lead to a dopamine flood that shuts down the prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain that regulates executive functions.
In other words, when we pull the child away from his self-chosen explorations and force him to do the work that WE thinks is beneficial for him, along with killing his love of learning, we are also impairing the development of his executive functions.
So, please, it’s time to start listening to Dr. Montessori and to modern science. Let’s stop thinking we know what’s best for the children and start allowing their creative and productive energies to lead the way. Are you ready to follow the child? I know I am.