Intellectual Development in Early Adolescence - The Montessori Site (2023)

One of the joys and privileges of working with young people using the Montessori approach is that it offers a unique opportunity to accompany them in their discovery of who they are. Spending those days with them - from early in the morning until late at night - is a special privilege.

I suppose the unique thing about this space is that we have a group of bright kids - I mean, they are intelligent, socially conscious young people, many of whom would be top of their class in a traditional school - in an environment that caters to them a considerable degree of freedom. It offers us the opportunity to examine what normal development looks like. In this sense, we discover who the youth really is.

One question parents ask me is what happens to the intellect at the onset of puberty. The child of 12 is in some ways at the peak of his mental powers - organized, rational and stable. And then comes puberty. Huge changes take place in her body quite abruptly. Intellectual function seems to decline.

My observation of infants over the years has taught me two things about development. First, the development is not linear - there are periods of slow growth and periods of accelerated growth. The second is that the child has enough energy to focus on one thing. For example, in some infants it appears that their language development is slow. But watch their movement - they are making great strides in this area. Development must therefore be viewed holistically – the whole child – as well as over time.

In young adolescents, the major changes in their bodies cause their attention to diverge from their minds. They are re-inhabiting their bodies - it's like moving into a new home. Do you remember your last move? Your focus is naturally on settling into your new home. When you cook in the kitchen, your hand reaches for the salt - but it's no longer a familiar movement, the hand moves to a familiar place. Your consciousness has to take that extra split second to locate the salt. Over time it becomes unconscious. Some mornings I can't remember if I turned off the iron - I have to check and yes I did. But I wasn't aware of turning it off - I just did it.

As the house they live in changes, they need to reacquaint themselves with it. That's why anything related to her body is so valuable. They have so much strength and energy, they are tireless. You need exercise, big moves, big moves. I have observed that they are not even sure what they are capable of - they are surprised and amazed at what they are creating. I ask a few of them to turn over a huge pile of compost in the afternoon. They looked incredulous - one of the others said "Paul remembers you're only 12 years old" - it made me laugh. You did it in an hour.

My observation is that young adolescents are reattached to the concrete. There is an incredible surge of energy and power, but it works in the concrete - in your physical reality. It's a sad thing to tie them to paper and pencil - it's like a lion in a cage. You never see their power. It's especially distressing because they don't recognize themselves as lions - and they begin to see themselves as beings without power. I love seeing them in their power. Last week we spent the day at the Tate. They organized the whole thing. At 6:30 I came down the stairs and they were in the kitchen making packed lunches. There was an atmosphere of dynamism and liveliness, it was incredible.

Another significant moment last week was with the rain barrels. We had 15 rain barrels in the parking lot that had been waiting there for 18 months. Nothing happened because we are all so busy. But it hadn't occurred to me, despite my immersion in that world, that young people could do it. When shown how, within 2 hours the rain barrels were all in place. You can't ask that of a 12-year-old. But when they are 13 and 14 – wow! Can you imagine the change in confidence when a 13-year-old has an adult job? They need that. They need to know that they have that kind of power. You want them to be shocked at how incredible they are. Because they are incredible.

When I say they move into their bodies, it doesn't mean that their intellectual abilities completely decrease. It's true that her memory is changing. They forget things they learned earlier. You forget simple instructions. They need a lot more support with things like this. In small ways they show that their thoughts are not the same. But her intellect is incredibly quick-footed. It's sharper. There is a contrast between memory, which seems to be weakening, and actual ability to think clearly, which seems to be strengthening. I hope that makes sense. Thought is a powerful tool in their hands. It's not storage. But the thinking is.

I am often embarrassed because their thoughts are much faster than the speed of light. We have the most incredible conversations - about the interpretation of art, about a person's right to their own life, about the value and meaning of money. They have an inquiring intellect and don't have any of the interests that adults do, so they make delightful conversationalists. I am fully present and attentive in my conversations with them because they are. Your presence calls for mine. Any weakness in the train of thought is picked up on. The argument must be watertight - but if it is watertight, it will be accepted and accepted. It is as if the previous phase of her life, the development of the intellect, has now placed this power in her service. They use this power of thought to ask the big questions.

Young adolescents have that extraordinary combination of passion for the big questions and the silliest sense of humor at the same time. That's one of the reasons why they are so much fun to be with.

My observation is that they can follow a rather complex line of reasoning in relation to a social phenomenon - namely the relationship of one person to another. Our young adolescents read and devour the print edition of The New York Times (international) every day. They are avid readers and writers. They show passion and great commitment to their work, especially work that has a social dimension. By social I mean work that affects others. Your social intelligence is the focus. You notice the subtlest aspects of social dynamics. That's why they're highly sensitive. It's like the 2 week old baby's sensitivity to black and white; the language sensitivity of the 1-year-old. It's just something they're incredibly sensitive to, and it has a function and purpose, and we'd do well to respect that. The more we can put the social dimension at the heart of their daily experience, the more we give them what they really need to develop and reach their full potential.

I think a particular form of slave labor is to have them repeat calculations and so on using spreadsheets. It's incredibly tedious work for them. The younger child finds joy in exercising his logical mind and will, for sheer joy, come up with more and more exercises involving repetition of calculations etc. Young people are no longer called to do this – this phase of life is over. It's like asking why the toddler who loved nothing more than walking stops getting excited about walking. That time is over. Before they left for the sheer joy of walking. Now they're leaving for a reason.

Likewise, the adolescent no longer wants to count for the joy of arithmetic. There is no joy in that. I had the opportunity to see the physics notebook of a seventh grade student in a conventional school. It was filled with demands to calculate given speed, time and distance in different units. It's a special kind of torture. As a result, this incredibly intelligent 12-year-old is bored to death with physics. It's a shame, but that's how it is. Young people are looking for meaning and purpose – they ask existential questions and we give them pages of math. It is truly absurd and a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the age.

Yet the same girl spends hours each week creating Excel models of the community's food costs for the week, and is quite proud of her role as "kitchen manager." It's clearly not the repetition of calculations that has tired her. It is the absolute separation of meaning and purpose in their lives.

So if I ask about the decline of intellect in early adolescence, I would say that memory may decline but intellectual acuity takes a big leap forward; and there is a new and unforgiving demand for meaning and purpose—as it should be. The life of high ideals, brought to its logical and extreme end, comes alive and the young adolescent can do nothing but submit to its fire.

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What is intellectual development in early adolescence? ›

A child in early adolescence: Uses more complex thinking focused on personal decision-making in school and at home. Begins to show use of formal logical operations in schoolwork. Begins to question authority and society standards. Begins to form and speak own thoughts and views on a variety of topics.

What are some examples of intellectual development in adolescence? ›

Types of cognitive growth through the years
  • Uses more complex thinking focused on personal decision-making in school and at home.
  • Begins to show use of formal logical operations in schoolwork.
  • Begins to question authority and society's standards.
  • Begins to form and speak their own thoughts and views on many topics.

What are the 4 areas of intellectual development? ›

Children grow and develop rapidly in their first five years across the four main areas of development. These areas are motor (physical), language and communication, cognitive and social/emotional.

What is a famous quote from Maria Montessori? ›

- “Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.

Why is intellectual development important in adolescence? ›

It is the transformation in how your child can think — or cognitive development. Cognitive development is critical in preparing young people to be able to manage complexity, make judgments, and plan for the future. Adolescents whose thinking is well-developed will be successful and prepared to lead us forward.

What are the 5 stages of intellectual development? ›

What Are the Piaget Stages of Development?
  • Sensorimotor. Birth through ages 18-24 months.
  • Preoperational. Toddlerhood (18-24 months) through early childhood (age 7)
  • Concrete operational. Ages 7 to 11.
  • Formal operational. Adolescence through adulthood.
Aug 17, 2020

What are examples of intellectual development in early adulthood? ›

During early adulthood, individuals continue to develop logical thinking. This is now applied (alongside skills and knowledge) into the workplace, where they are tasked to problem solve and make decisions about more complex situations.

What are some examples of intellectual development? ›

A child's intellectual development in the early years (0-5) includes language acquisition, pre-reading skills and numeracy skills and occurs from birth. Language acquisition, for example, begins to occur before a child can say their first words.


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