How Montessori Handles Discipline

The revolutionary approach to education developed over a century ago by Dr. Maria Montessori has transformed schools across the globe. Whether you’re a teacher in a Montessori classroom or a parent looking to bring these practices home, discipline in the Montessori system can help children to grow and learn.

Montessori education handles discipline by helping children to consider consequences using clear, precise language to validate a child’s emotions and ensure that they are free to make their own choices, as long as they are willing to face the consequences of those choices.

The core of the Montessori Method is to foster self-motivated growth in children and adolescents by making them aware of their choices and the attendant consequences. The Montessori approach to discipline stems from the same principle and is adaptable to every age group.

How Does Montessori Discipline?

“The first idea that the child must acquire, in order to be actively disciplined, is that of the difference between good and evil; and the task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility, and evil with activity, as often happens in the case of the old-time discipline.” –Maria Montessori

The Montessori approach to discipline is simple, but it can be a challenge to strike the delicate balance between freedom and respect that it requires. Freedom might seem antithetical to discipline, but to foster true discipline, from within the child and not outside sources, we must foster an understanding of the freedom of choice and the consequences that come along with that freedom.

Starting from a young age, have meaningful conversations with children in clear language and using vocabulary that they will understand. Children of different ages will require a different approach to discipline under the Montessori Method, working eventually to foster what Montessori called “joyful obedience.”

“Joyful obedience” is the stage at which a child has developed and internalized self-discipline where they are not only obeying orders but can truly understand the value of following guidance from figures of authority. This comes through seeing figures of authority as a model and guide for self-discipline to the point where the child chooses to accept the “rules” of class behavior.

One of the basic tenets of Montessori education is fostering freedom and developing the power of personal choice to its fullest potential. As such, self-respect is requisite to reach the highest levels of self-discipline. This ensures that children choose to self-discipline even when figures of authority are not present.

How To Discipline A Toddler In Montessori?

Children under the age of three, i.e., children who are not yet in preschool, are unable to obey outside of their vital urges. Their personalities haven’t formed yet, and they are incapable of making the critical decisions required for true discipline.

The Montessori Method describes this as the first level of obedience. Toddlers, children aged between 12 and 36 months, cannot always obey orders. They haven’t developed the critical thinking capacity to understand the consequences of their choices.

Even so, parents and educators can guide toddlers to be open to Montessori discipline by encouraging freedom of choice and movement from a young age. The first step is observation – watch your child as they are developing interests and learning new skills.

Encourage those activities to which they take naturally rather than engaging them in activities because you think they need to learn something. If the child likes books and stories, get more picture books. If they love to move around, provide more opportunities for motor skills activities, and create safe spaces that they can move around freely.

Encouraging a child’s natural abilities will develop self-respect and respect for authority. Instead of seeing the parent or educator as a hindrance to their natural desires, they will begin to see figures of authority as facilitators and gain respect for parents, educators, and other authorities.

Additionally, it is crucial to frame failure as an opportunity for improvement rather than something of which to be ashamed. Treat the child with respect so that they will respect you in return by helping them to learn from mistakes rather than scolding or using negative reinforcement.

toddler playing

How To Discipline A Preschooler In Montessori?

Preschool-aged children are generally in what the Montessori Method designates as the second level of obedience. Preschoolers can understand how another person wants them to behave and can process that information enough to express it through their own behavior.

This is often the stage at which most parents and educators stop developing discipline in children because their only goal is obedience to authority. The Montessori Method asks educators and parents to reach beyond that level so that children internalize the difference between right and wrong and develop the critical thinking skills to understand that actions have consequences.

When disciplining a preschooler using the Montessori Method, it is time to have conversations using clear, direct language and vocabulary that the child can understand. Teach them that they are free to choose what actions they take but that each of those actions has consequences.

Positive reinforcement is crucial at this stage to let children know that their good actions have good consequences. Often, bad actions will come with their own bad consequences, and even if they don’t, the Montessori Method discourages negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement will never be as powerful as positive reinforcement; it only offers an immediate solution to an ongoing problem. It is important to make children aware that they have the freedom to choose their actions and to begin developing an understanding of the consequences of those actions through conversation.

preschool student

How To Discipline A Kindergartner In Montessori?

Depending on the rate of language acquisition and cognitive development, children in Kindergarten may or may not be ready to advance to the third level of obedience. Often, Kindergarteners are still developing at the second level, processing what figures of authority expect and connecting both positive and negative actions to consequences.

Kindergarten comes with advancements in language acquisition, and kindergarten-aged children will be capable of more in-depth conversations about actions and consequences. It is still important to encourage those skills that come naturally to the child, to provide both positive and negative reinforcement, and to normalize viewing failure as an opportunity for learning.

Never assume that a child understands what it means to be respectful of authority. A lot of time and energy in this stage of discipline should go into modeling the behaviors we expect from children. Educators can use role-play and pretend play, which are important for advances in language acquisition and cognitive development, to model the behaviors they expect.

Also, make sure to surround these children with adults and older children that respect each other and show self-respect. Kindergarten is the perfect time to teach and model the social graces that we want children to mimic. Engage students in role-play exercises such as practicing greeting people, politeness in conversation, and conflict resolution.

Misbehavior is often a side effect of children not feeling heard, feeling insecure, or disempowered. Make sure to have conversations with children when they misbehave to help them understand their emotions and what is causing the misbehavior rather than just providing negative reinforcement.

kindergarten student

How To Discipline An Elementary Student In Montessori?

Elementary students – students going into first and second grade – should be able to reach the third level of obedience as defined by the Montessori Method so long as they received the proper nurturing and attention to discipline at younger ages. The third level of discipline is when children have internalized self-respect and self-discipline through an understanding of choices and their consequences.

Treat elementary students with the respect that you expect them to exhibit and give them freedom to make their own choices. This is one of the basic principles of Montessori education. As children move into elementary school, it is important to continue to talk about choices and consequences often.

It can be easy to fall into a “be obedient or else” mode of discipline, especially as children get older. Remember that the goal of discipline, under the Montessori Method, is to produce children who have self-respect and, as a result of that self-respect, they learn self-discipline.

If a child is misbehaving in class, perform exercises that will model and get them to display the desired behavior. For instance, if a child is talking to neighbors in class, remind them that it is important to listen to the teacher so that they learn the lesson of the day. Later on, you might have a group of children practice sitting quietly while working on individual tasks.

Discipline in the Montessori Method is a constant task that requires parents and educators to work together to inform children of their choices, make them aware of consequences, and use model behaviors and lessons to enforce obedience. Make sure students understand what they are gaining by being obedient, and what they stand to lose, such as a quality education, if they misbehave.

elementary students

Does Montessori Use Timeout?

Timeout, as a practice of negative reinforcement, is generally discouraged in the Montessori Method, but let’s understand why that is. Timeout is a classic disciplinary action that has students sit quietly, away from toys or classmates, to think about their actions.

Ask yourself: is giving the child time to think about their behavior the most effective way to understand what they have done wrong? In most cases, probably not. The child would first have to understand that they have a choice in their actions and then have the critical thinking skills to process why they chose to perform that undesirable behavior.

Using lessons that model good behavior and get students to practice an alternative, good behavior is much more effective than using negative reinforcement. A timeout is more likely to cause resentment in the child than to encourage good behavior.

Rather than punishing the child for not displaying acceptable social behavior, the Montessori Method encourages that we find ways to help the child understand the repercussions of what they’ve done. Talk with them about how it affects them and their community through conversations and lessons about what acceptable social behavior is and what behaviors are not acceptable.

student and teacher

Creating A Montessori Classroom That Fosters Discipline

Educators and schools that use the Montessori Method create orderly spaces that help the student to learn how they should act within the space. Children should feel encouraged to explore the space and learn about how the freedom to explore requires responsibility.

Two ground rules guide discipline in most Montessori classrooms: that students take care of themselves and others in the environment, and that students care for the material things in the environment. Respect, then, is the basic principle of Montessori discipline.

With respect for self and others comes self-discipline. If a child is engaged in an environment where everyone is practicing the same basic respect, the disempowerment and insecurity that are at the root of misbehavior don’t have the opportunity to develop.

It is important to remember, though, that we must teach children how to be friendly, kind, and obedient. When they display undesirable behavior, it can be due to an ignorance of desirable behavior, and it is the job of parents and educators to teach them right from wrong in the Montessori Method.


Montessori Discipline At Home

Children enrolled in schools that utilize the Montessori Method will be encouraged to develop into self-respecting and self-disciplined individuals. Still, it is just as important that parents practice the Montessori Method of discipline at home as it is to practice it in the classroom.

The first step is preventing behavioral issues before they can occur. Children need to feel that they have an important position in the home, which is why it is crucial to foster their interests rather than foisting interests on them. Building a garden, teaching them simple housework tasks, and framing failures as opportunities for learning are all a part of helping your child to feel respected.

Model the behaviors you want to see from your children. This can be the most difficult part because, as parents, we often have personalities and experiences that we haven’t interrogated. The Montessori Method requires parents to have conversations about the emotions that cause bad behavior, and those conversations are crucial for both parents’ and children’s emotional outbursts.

Natural consequences can sometimes be hard for children to understand, which is why it is important for parents to both talk about natural consequences and provide them in certain instances—not through negative reinforcement but thorough modeling. For instance, if your child is hitting their sibling, you might stop them from playing together for a while and tell the child, “I won’t let you hurt your sibling.”

This, of course, requires that you stay close to your children and observe their behaviors. Rather than using a timeout, the Montessori Method encourages “gluing” in both the classroom and home. Children who have trouble learning social expectations might be required to stay near the teacher or parent so that they are part of the action while being aware that their actions are under supervision.

4 Rules For Montessori Discipline

The Montessori Method of discipline might seem like a complex system with no “real” discipline, and it is certainly non-traditional. But the Montessori Method is proven to help children develop into self-respecting, self-motivated, and self-disciplined individuals.

Here are four quick, simple rules that can help you to ensure that you are following the Montessori Method:

Talk Often Using Clear Language

Clear and consistent conversation, along with freedom of choice, are the cornerstones of Montessori discipline. It is your job as a parent or educator to ensure that students and children understand that their behaviors have consequences.

Have conversations about both positive and negative behaviors to emphasize that every choice has consequences. Use simple “if-then” logical sequences and keep your language clear and vocabulary within the child’s range to ensure understanding.

These conversations will build trust between the parent or educator and the child; they will also remind the children that you respect them, their desires, and their emotions and help them to give you that respect in return.

Emphasize Natural Consequences

Children don’t have the critical thinking skills to understand the natural consequences of their actions, which is why conversations about consequences are so important. Rather than imposing rules on your children, ask them leading questions to get them to consider the consequences of their actions.

For example, if a child wants to eat a lot of sweets before bed, ask them, “How do you feel when you eat a lot of sweets? How do they make your stomach feel? Don’t they give you a lot of energy? It’s almost bedtime.”

Asking leading questions will get your child to think about the consequences of their actions for themselves, developing those critical thinking skills. It is important, though, that you follow through with the next rule when emphasizing natural consequences in this way.

Give Children Maximum Freedom

Children have to choose to learn from those choices. So, for children of all ages, it is crucial to give them the maximum freedom possible within their range of choices. Offering that freedom doesn’t mean that you give in to their every impulse, rather that you give them a specific range of choices and respect their decisions.

For example, provide your toddler with a wide range of motion and freedom within your house. Tell them that they can choose which toys to play with or which books to read rather than asking them what they want to do. This way, you are guiding their behavior while giving them the freedom and respect they deserve.

Validate Emotions

Children, especially younger children in the first or second levels of obedience, will be prone to outbursts of emotion. Use the rules above to talk about and validate those emotions while still providing the natural consequences of outbursts of anger or frustration.

During an outburst, tell children, “I understand your anger. I get angry sometimes too,” and ask, “Why are you angry? What is causing your anger?” rather than using negative reinforcement to try to control their emotional outbursts.

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