A Montessori approach to discipline

There is a common misconception that Montessori children are allowed to do whatever they like. And another that Montessori is very strict.

In reality, Montessori falls in the middle of these two extremes. The word discipline doesn’t mean to punish. It is actually based on the root word “disciple” which means “to teach” or “to learn.” So I like to say instead of getting angry and punishing a child if they do something like hitting or biting another child, we can see it as an opportunity for us to teach and the child to learn about caring for others.

Here are 8 tips for a Montessori approach to discipline.

1. Not using bribes and rewards or punishment – Bribes, rewards and punishment are all extrinsic motivations. This means that we are getting our child to look to others to do something instead of developing internal self-discipline. A Montessori approach to discipline builds intrinsic motivation instead.

2. Respectful communication – We speak and listen to our children with respect. They are learning that we see them and value them, and sometimes it’s our job to keep them safe and we will support them if they are having a hard time. When we say no all the time or without reason, our children may begin to ignore us. If we shout to solve problems, they learn to shout to solve problems.

3. Model/assist child to make amends – Our children learn to take responsibility when something goes wrong. For young toddlers, we may be modelling how we get a tissue for a friend or a wet cloth for a friend who is hurt. Over time we’ll be there to assist them to make it up to another, and they are slowly learning how to solve problems for themselves.

4. Find ways to solve problems together – Instead of bribing them to do something, we can find ways to work with them. It might be finding ways that help them leave the playground that they like, or ways they can help in the supermarket by keeping them involved in the process, or getting their help to carry something up the stairs instead of bribing them or setting the table so that everyone has everything they need. Our children are learning to be a part of the family not because they get a reward, but it’s about caring for each other.

5. Help child if they are having a hard time – I’ll link to an article I wrote about helping children having a tantrum. When they are melting down, it’s impossible to rationalise with them. First help them calm down. Be patient – this can take 30 minutes or more at times. And once they’ve calmed down (a toddler will often let out a deep sigh), then we can help them to make amends.

6. Freedom within limits – You may have heard the phrase “freedom within limits.” This means the child does have a lot of freedom, yet there are a few clear limits to keep themselves, others and the environment safe.

If there are too many limits, the child will feel like they live in a dictatorship and may be too scared to do things or, worse, sneak behind our backs so they won’t be caught. And if there are no limits, the child has license to do whatever they like without thinking of others or may have the feeling that no-one cares for them.

“Following some inner guide, they occupied themselves in work different for each that gave them joy and peace, and then something else appeared that had never before been known among children, a spontaneous discipline. This struck visitors even more than the explosion into writing had done; children were walking about, seeking for work in freedom, each concentrating on a different task, yet the whole group presented the appearance of perfect discipline. So the problem was solved: To obtain discipline, give freedom.”

– Maria Montessori, Education for a New World

7. Translate for them – I love the idea “all behaviour is communication.” I once explained to a parent it’s like we have to be their translator. As a young toddler grabs for another child’s toy and the other child pulls away we can say, “It looks like they want to finish playing with it. It will be available soon.” More here.

8. Kind and clear limits – When we are clear on the house rules, the children are too. And when we need to step in we can say in a kind and clear way:

“It’s my job to keep you safe. You sit on this side and you on the other.”
“I see you want to hit. I can’t let you hit your brother. Let’s find a cushion or something you can hit.”
“I’m going to put the ball over here. Let’s find something else to throw.”
“It looks like you want to climb. Let’s build an obstacle course you can climb on.”

The work we need to do as the adult

A Montessori approach to discipline requires patience and a lot of repetition on our part.

To stay calm, we need to do work on ourselves and know we are laying the foundation of our relationship with our child which we will build on as they grow from babies to toddlers to preschoolers and to school-aged children and teenagers.

And if all our children here from us are a bunch of instructions and directives they are not going to listen to us. I always say “without connection we get very little cooperation.” But that’s perhaps a post for another day…