Four Stages of Development

by Indira Eisenberg

At the outset I would like to give a quote from the Bible, which says "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is older he will not depart from it." I would just like to change the word 'train' to the word 'assistance' used by Dr Montessori, where she calls education as 'assistance to life'. So we can also say: assist a child in the way he should go.... The assistance the child receives in his formative years or in the fundamental period of development influences his whole personality in the present as well as in the future.

In order to assist the child in his development a lot of research has gone into studying the child and his needs at various stages of his life. If man's life was to be classified into different stages, we could broadly classify it is childhood and adulthood. There is a certain age limit associated with childhood, which can be between 0 -18 years and from 18 onwards one can say adulthood has been attained. But in order to understand the child, and what his needs are from zero to 18 it would be too general to say that because they are children they all go through the same thing or the same experiences. In reality, 0 - 18 years is considered to be the period of fundamental development. At each stage of development in the life of a child from his birth till he attains maturity, he goes through different experiences, different things interest him, his nature urges him to do certain things at certain times.

Dr Montessori classified these into four groups. She came up with a graphic representation, which she called "the constructive rhythm of life."

The four triangles represent the four stages of development:

0 - 6 years - First stage of development

6 - 12 years - Second stage of development

12 - 18 years - Third stage of development

18 -----> - Fourth stage of development

Dr. Montessori further divided them into sub-phases of 0 - 3 and 3 - 6 and so on. These classifications can overlap in terms of development and the passage from one phase to another is not very clear or distinct.

There are certain characteristics associated with each stage of the child's development and can be very different from one to the other. Dr Montessori said, "The characteristics of each phase are so different that the passage from one phase to the other have been described by certain Psychologists as rebirths." Even though each stage of development is different and has its own special characteristics, each plane prepares the child for the one that follows. In other words, a 3 year old will not suddenly start riding a cycle unless in his earlier stage of development, he has learnt to stand, to hold things firmly, move his legs and exercise them to some extent to enable him to cycle. So one stage of development prepares the child for the next.

The developmental phase is not a linear one but there can be sudden spurts of development. At each stage the child acquires something new and leaves something of the past behind. There is a waxing and waning in his growth. Camillo Grazzini described it very beautifully, he said, "Thus the development of man is a sequence of births, of the emergence and disappearance of potentialities, of the birth and death, of interests and of the characteristic which are a manifestation of the sensitivities. But the new abilities acquired remain for the whole of the individual life"

Dr. Montessori concluded from her observation of the child that each phase of development is determined by the sensitive periods: "These periods, correspond to special sensibilities to be found in creatures in the process of development; they are transitory and confined to the acquisition of a determined characteristic. Once this characteristic has evolved the corresponding sensibility disappears." In simpler words we can say that the 'sensitive periods' are given by nature to help the child acquire certain human and well-defined characteristics and functions.

Each stage of development was further divided by Dr. Montessori into sub - phases of 3 years. The development that takes place in the first 3 years of the child's life is phenomenal. This development is not only a physical one but his intellect is active as well. Though this development is not very visible and as apparent as the physical one, it is very much there. The child is active absorbing a lot of things in his mind.

Infancy (0 - 6 years)

What one visualises in the small child, a baby, is the development he goes through in the physical sense. In fact in the first year of the child, he achieves a lot in terms of milestones, and if these milestones are not reached by a particular month then the parents get worried and rush to the doctor to have him examined.

These milestones are universal and are applicable to all the newborns. Some of the milestones achieved by the child are:

  • -at 2 months of age the child can control his/her head movements and follow something of interest, observing it attentively and at length

  • -at 4 months of age the child can control his/her hand movements and grasp something of interest in order to know it in detail. Another milestone is he is able to turn over from his front to his back and vice versa depending on which side the child is placed from childhood. My children always slept on their belly, so they learnt to turn over to their back around 4 months of age.

  • -at 6 months the child learns to sit up.

  • -at 8 months the child holds things and tries to stand up.

  • -at around 12 months he starts to walk independently.

For some children these milestones may come early and for some it maybe delayed but these are developments of the child which take place in his life without much assistance from us. Dr. Montessori called it: "The child working towards his own development." But as the child is dependent on the adult for certain things it becomes the adults role to provide him with good and balanced diet, clothing and shelter.

So we see that in the first year of the child's life a lot of changes take place. In fact during the first year, more development and learning takes place than during any other single year of a person's life.

Apart from his physical needs and his physical development, the newborn child has tremendous emotional needs. For quite some time now more importance is being given to the emotional needs of the child in comparison to IQ or intelligence. Daniel Coleman in his book, "Emotional Intelligence", asks some very provoking questions to those who give importance only to the IQ, "IQ is a genetic given aptitude that cannot be changed by life experiences and that our destiny in life is largely fixed by these aptitudes. " The question Daniel Coleman asks is :" What can we change that will help our children face life better? What factors are at play, for example, when people of high IQ flounder and those of modest IQ do surprisingly well? I would argue that the difference quite often lies in the abilities called here emotional intelligence, which include self-control, zeal and persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself. And these skills, as we shall see can be taught to children, giving them a better chance to use whatever intellectual potential the genetic lottery may have given them." In this book, Daniel Coleman goes on to explain through the lives of many people, who fared really well in life, they had more self-reliance, because of a healthy emotional life. These people also had better family relationships and were able to keep their jobs. In comparison, the children who came from unstable emotional lives, even though they were intelligent, ended up messing up their lives, couldn't hold on to jobs, family relationships were affected.

So a child in his formative years needs a lot of emotional support for him to grow up as a healthy person. The love, acceptance and care a child receives in the first year builds a sense of trust. When a baby trusts his parents to meet his needs, he feels confident and secure. If there is any inconsistency in the adult behaviour then it causes confusion and mistrust in the child. The child then may grow well physically but emotionally he will be affected.

Physical touch of the adult is very essential for the child. There have been many stories of children who have been abandoned as soon as they were born and left to themselves for long periods without anyone holding them and touching them. For many such children, if they didn't receive help at the right time they grew up very disturbed and later on when they were counselled, it was somehow linked to that period of their life when they were abandoned and left to themselves.

Recently we, my husband and I, were at a friend's place, where we met a child who had just been rescued by my friend, from a very critical situation. The child's father had just died and the mother was almost on death bed. The child was malnutritioned and was not able to walk. A few days of good diet helped him to walk but the child had been emotionally affected, he didn't smile at all. The 3 days we were there, the child wanted to be carried by either me or my husband. He would just come and stand before us invitingly. He did not say anything but from his body language it was clear that he wanted to be carried. Our carrying him or rather our touch seemed to fulfill some emotional need in him. Our prayer and hope for such children is that when they do receive the love and care they need, they grow up to be normal children.

Apart from the physical and emotional needs of the child, what sets human beings apart from other creation is his ability to think, reason and act on his intellect. Dr. Montessori identified the intellect of the small child in the first stage of development with a special term, she called it the 'absorbent mind'. In the child, from birth to three years of age, the 'unconscious absorbent mind' is working in the child, and from 3 - 6 years the 'conscious absorbent mind' is at work.

The child in the first few months appears to be very passive but his mind is absorbing a lot of things, in other words his mind is active. When the child sees a movement he follows it with his eyes. Dr. Montessori believed that the child from the time he is born has his senses alive and he is assimilating a lot of information with his sensory organs, be it eyes, the ears, the nose, skin or the tongue. In fact at one stage when the children start crawling they need to taste everything and put everything that comes into their hands into their mouth. Dr. Montessori goes to the extent of saying that the child by the time he is 3 years of age, he has absorbed so much that there is nothing new for him to absorb and his mind has reached the point of saturation.

Even though in a child of 3, his mind has reached a stage of saturation, there is still development taking place in his life. His mind contains a wealth of information which needs to be classified and categorized. There is need for the child to become conscious of the things the child's mind has absorbed.

Dr. Montessori from her observation of the child and man in general from the time he was created came to certain conclusions, which in turn helped her devise material, which helped the child at various stages of his development. She called them ' human tendencies', which are common to man the adult and man the child. To mention them in brief, these are the tendencies for exploration, orientation, adaptation, order, communication, ability to think and act upon it, strive for perfection, which comes through repetition, tendency to work.

The child around the age of 3 is ready to leave his home environment and explore outside his home premises. There is an inner urge in the child to be with children of his own age. I can see that in my own daughter, who is 2 yrs and 10 months. Just till last month she refused to go down to play with other children without one of us accompanying her. But now she goes down on her own to play with other children. We can see that she is ready to leave home environment and explore outside her home environment without the parents.

Keeping in mind the various human tendencies and the awakening of the conscious absorbent mind of the child, the Montessori environment was developed. This prepared environment takes into consideration the needs of the child and offers help to the child taking into consideration the child's past achievements.

At 3 years of age the child's intelligence cannot be reached directly but through his senses. At this stage of development he learns by doing, by being involved himself. A child of 3 years cannot sit and listen while the teacher talks and thereby receive something which helps him towards his development. No, he rather needs to be given a variety of experiences which will increase his understanding of what is real. In other words the child needs concrete material to work with, to experience reality around him. Dr. Montessori in her brilliance answered this need of the child by inventing developmental activities with the help of concrete material. Dr. Montessori believed in giving the child the world at this stage.

As it was not possible to take the child into the world and introduce to all that is real, the world was brought to the child in the form of 'House of children'. This is a specially prepared environment equipped with specially prepared material and guided by a specially prepared adult. The specially prepared materials are mainly materialized abstraction of sizes, shapes, colour etc. These materials are there to help the child to become conscious of things that are real and then the child explores his world with that consciousness.

For the adult it maybe very matter of fact kind of statement when the child exclaims, 'the grass is green' or the 'sky is blue'. But for the child who has just become conscious of colours, these are discoveries. Once the child has learnt the names of colours, he can compartmentalize everything around him according to colours. This gives him a sense of achievement and builds confidence in the child.

Many educationists and people who have worked with children have concluded that during this period of 0 - 6 years in the life of the child, his fundamental personality is formed. When we as parents and teachers recognize this fact and do not have the attitude of "he is only a child and he'll outgrow it" and give him help according to his needs, then the child will grow normally and healthy as he is meant to be.

Taking into consideration the needs of the child and the sensitive periods of the child Dr. Montessori designed many of the developmental activities. Some of these activities are familiar to the child and some are not. These are classified into, Exercises of Practical Life, Sensorial activities, Language and Arithmetic. Apart from these the child also has opportunities to experience other items of human culture like art work, singing, games etc.

These activities are designed in such a way that it brings the child's intelligence, will, and motor movements together to carry out the activity successfully. Dr. Montessori called the coming together of the intelligence, will and motor movements as the integration of the personality. If any of these powers do not cooperate it leads to some abnormality or the other.

When the child comes into the 'House of children' he is mainly introduced to activities which are familiar to him. Within a month once the child settles down he is introduced to individual activities. The child around 3 is discovering the 'I' in him, Dr Montessori calls it the psychical birth of the child. Even in their work they like to work individually. They like to do similar activities as the others of their own age group but individually. As they grow older they are ready for more group activities and by the time they are around 6 years of age they enjoy playing as a team and working more in groups rather than individually.

In conclusion of the first stage of development of the child we can say that the child has achieved a lot, learnt a lot and understood a lot, but as these are formative years, our responsibility as adults is to ensure that during this stage we have helped the child build a foundation which can be further developed and con

Childhood (6 - 12 years)

The second stage of development is between 6 -12 years. Dr. Montessori divides this stage also into sub-phases, one between 6- 9 and the other between 9 - 12. As in the first stage of development, in the first 3 years a lot of learning took place, so it is in the 6 - 9 age group. The child has acquired a lot in terms of language, coordination of movements large and small, he can read and write as well. So at this stage of development the child passes from material sensorial plane to an abstract plane. In other words, his intelligence can be reached directly not only through material.

This is called the intellectual awakening. Along with intellectual awakening there is also a strong moral awakening in the child. At this stage in his life the child has different emotional and social needs in comparison to his earlier years. So we can study and view the 6 - 12 year olds from the point of view of his intellectual, moral, social and emotional needs.

Intellectual Awakening - As seen in the first stage of the child's development, the sensitive periods determine the stage of development. Dr Montessori saw two sensitive periods with regard to the intellectual characteristics of a child of 6 - 12, one is imagination and the other is culture.

The young child is interested in the 'what' of things and the same child when he is older he is curious about the how, when and why of things. The child is curious about everything in his environment and the universe or even beyond. He is ready to take on a lot of information. The child of this age, out of curiosity, explores his world and investigates and tries to find an answer. The role of the adult at this point of the child's development is not to spoon feed him as is done in so many schools but to help him to find the information. We do not have ready made answers to their questions but we can give them simple children's books or children's encyclopaedia to read and find the answers to his questions.

The zero to 6 year olds do not have much of an imagination since they are just coming to grips with reality. But in the 6 - 12 years olds Dr Montessori saw a sensitivity towards imagination. She called it a 'special mental ability of high order'. And this ability enables us to imagine what exists or has existed but can not be seen because of time and space. At this stage of the child's development, because of his sensitivity towards imagination, we can make use of it and give him information on certain subjects which are not a reality in his immediate environment but it is a reality to some other child in this world. (A child in Lucknow can only imagine what the sea looks like while to a child in Chennai it is a reality.) In this connection we can say that the child of 6 -12 years should be given, as Dr Montessori says, the 'elements of all sciences'. It is not necessary at this stage to give the child too many details or scientific abstract ideas, but he should be given a broad outline in science, social studies, arithmetic, history and geography. This will then spark off an interest in him to further investigate and explore the subject. It is very important to interrelate these subjects so that the child receives the whole picture.

As an example we can take language. A 6 - 12 year old will not just be interested in words, long words, complicated words, but would like to know how, when and why language originated. So taking the cue from the child we can guide him from a language class to a history class and give him some historical information of how the language he speaks originated. It has to be presented in a simple way so the child can understand it. This might then lead to a geography class of where it originated. So the child gets a whole picture of things relevant to him. In such cases it is useful and necessary to use the child's imagination creatively to give him the truths related to human culture.

Moral Awakening - This is a sensitive period for the inner development of morals in the 6 -12 year olds. The child becomes very conscious of good and bad. He wants to know whether his actions are approved of or not. They are also very sensitive to the value of justice. Very often they come up to you and say: 'this is not fair'. We have a seven year old in our house and that is probably one of the most frequent spoken phrases we hear from him. But one also sees a sensitivity towards their friends and feelings of others. Dr Montessori saw this stage of development as a sensitive period for morality and of great importance for social relationships. The child is ready to leave his home and parents and seek friendship outside the home. This takes place almost over night that a child starts making plans with his friends to meet after school to play cricket or do something together.

Dr Montessori suggested the scout and guide movement for the 6-12 year olds keeping in mind their social and moral needs. The scout movement provides the child opportunities to socialize with his friends and at the same time as the scout movement is based on certain principals, both his social and moral needs are met. The scout movement offers a challenge to the child, they vow to do certain good and valuable things and there are also certain things they know they ought not to do.

I can remember from my childhood, from my school days, that I really enjoyed being a guide, saying the pledge of the guide, our guide activities, camping over night with friends. I can say from my own experience that the guide movement definitely helped me more in my social needs than in the moral ones.

The 6 -12 year olds need a lot more space and independence to make decisions for themselves and at time can become very rude. Dr Montessori called it the age of rudeness. For the child at this stage of development his 'self esteem and self assertion are both very necessary'. They look for appreciation not only from their parents but also from their friends. They mainly seek appreciation for what they have achieved. Most of all, the child is really longing for his own recognition.

Physically the child at this age is very energetic and as they have already developed a lot of coordination in their movements they aim for perfection, grace and poise in their movements. It is a good age to offer the child competitive sport activities. There is a steady growth in their height and a major physical change for the children at this stage is of losing their milk teeth and receiving permanent teeth. The loss of the first tooth creates quite a loss emotionally, but then seeing the new one emerging gives them great joy. Their speech is also affected at this stage.

In conclusion of the second stage of development of a 6 -12 year old we can say that the child has achieved a lot in the area of information about the world, culture, he builds relationships and friendships with those outside his family. He acquires certain important moral values which will hopefully help him in the coming years, which is termed by some, as the most troublesome age for children. Not only for them but also for the parents in understanding them and helping them.

Adolescence or Teen years (12 - 18 years)

This is a time in their life when they are not seen as children any more, nor as adults by the society. It is like something in between, where they leave their childhood behind, but still have not reached adulthood.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about this age group. Many people view the teenagers or adolescents as very rebellious and very difficult to get along with. I was reading a book by K.ay Kuzma, who is an authority on Christian parenting and she quotes somebody else about the adolescents 'our youth now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority, and disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannize their teachers.' This sounds like it is written by someone who does not like the youth of today, but actually it was written 2300 years ago by Socrates.

It might seem that the youth have not changed much nowadays, but it will be more interesting to see what makes them rebellious and want to be different and difficult. If we try and look into the heart of the adolescent and try to understand them we will be able to help them better.

On the intellectual front Dr Montessori says the intelligence of the adolescent regresses at this stage of development in comparison to the 6 -12 year olds, where there is a rapid growth intellectually and there are keen to know how the society works. The adolescent is more interested in the society itself and wants to integrate and find his place in society and contribute to it. So Dr Montessori said that education of the adolescent did not need only academic help but also needed a humane and social approach.

At this stage of their life they are looking for an identity which education alone cannot give them. They need a cause to live for. Many youngster turn to socialism and communism at this point because for them it is a cause they are serving. Many times the rebelliousness seen in the adolescents comes from their search for an identity. They question everything, especially rules by their parents. Parents need to give their children a lot more space during this period and also deal with them patiently. Once the adolescents have found their place and settles down then they can be the best friends for their parents. But if the parents during this stage of the adolescents life choose to be bossy and impatient with them there is a break in relationship.

My husband and I, in our work with young people, have come across many youngsters who are very bitter with their parents, because they feel they are not understood and loved. In fact they find it very difficult to forgive their parents for it. So it is very important for anyone involved with adolescents, whether they are teachers or parents, to understand them and their need for identity. They also want to spend more time with their peer group than with their parents. At this stage they are also very sensitive to criticism especially before their friends . We have to find ways to communicate with them diplomatically, so that they don't take things personally. The best thing the family can do for them at this point is be available, and befriend them. They need to be seen more as individuals rather than my son or my daughter. Someone compared this stage as going through a tunnel where there is complete darkness and when you come into the light again your parents and friends are waiting on the other side for you.

Another major change that takes place at this stage is in their physical and sexual area. This is a very delicate time for both girls and boys. Some of the things they experience emotionally and physically need to be handled very delicately. It is very important for the parents to prepare their adolescents for these changes and have very open talks with them about the role of sex in any relationship. In today's society it has become very important to impart to the children the place God planned for sex, only in a marriage relationship.

As sex is such a taboo word in our society the adolescent can get misled by watching films reading books and magazines and get totally wrong ideas about sex. As at this stage they go through some real physical changes, they are very curious about the opposite sex. At this stage it is important that the adolescent receives very good and clear guidance.

Dr Montessori suggested that the children be taken away from the family into a prepared environment where they would have the space to develop themselves. She called it the 'Erdkinder Community'. In this prepared environment the children would have opportunities to work on the land, produce something, sell it in a shop and earn some money out of it. Economic independence is also very important for the adolescents.

From my own experience I can relate to the 'Erdkinder Community' concept. After marriage my husband and I lived in a community in a small village near Dehradun. Children, whose parents were lepers and had to stay in leper colonies, were rehabilitated in this community. In the morning the children went to normal schools. When they came back in the afternoon they worked on the farm.

At some point the leader there decided to give the adolescents between 12- 16 years of age a piece of land as their own where they could grow whatever they wanted. I saw a real change in those boys. Most of them grew vegetables. They would come back from school, change and go straight to their plot of land and work there. The ones who grew vegetables came to sell the vegetables to the families staying there. Now when I look back at that time I can understand that this work seemed to fulfill an inner need in the children. Maybe they just felt that they contributed something to the community by growing vegetables and selling it. It also fulfilled to some extent to their economic independence which the adolescents strive for, something they have earned by their own hard work. Had I understood this need of the children earlier I would have been able to observe them with different and more conscious eyes, but I'm glad of that experience anyway.

Another possibility suggested by Dr Montessori in this prepared environment was that of a hotel. The adolescents are capable of hospitality and taking care of all its needs. Running the hotel would give the adolescents scope for social awareness and interaction through means of education. Dr Montessori believed that in such a prepared environment, if his needs were met and fulfilled, then that would not reduce his intellectual activities but it would rather help him to apply to his intellectual activities with more enthusiasm.

A certain child I know became very suffocated in the traditional school because he was not able to perform well academically. His parents knew the child was normal but he was not getting the right help. So they took him out and put him in a boarding school. The stay in the boarding school saw the blossoming of the boy. This school recognised his gifts in arts and sports and encouraged him in his strong points. He turned out to be a wonderful artist and now he has done a training in computer graphics and now is working in this area.

He was one of many children who found the right help at the right time. But there also many others who do not find such help at the appropriate time. After the child goes through these many fundamental stages of development and reaches the age of 18 he reaches an age of maturity where he should be able to make choices for himself. The development from this stage onwards is a continuous one which goes on till he is alive.


For me personally I can say that the 4 stages of development, as described and explained by Dr Montessori, has given me an insight into the life of my own children and the other children I work with. It has brought an awareness and understanding of the need of the child at various stages of his development. I intend to use this knowledge in my walk and work with children and as when I get opportunities share it with others to help them serve the children in a more effective way.


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