A Montessori Approach to Discipline

When it comes to discipline within the Montessori method of teaching, there are several persistent myths and they tend to be on opposite ends of the spectrum.

One myth is that Montessori kids are undisciplined and allowed to do whatever they want, with no impulse control.

On the side of the coin is the notion that Montessori is highly restrictive, giving children little opportunity to exercise restraint and self-governance.

Both of these are misconceptions. Montessori children are highly disciplined but it's because the Method fosters independence and self-reliance from the earliest stages of childhood. It is relatively easy to see where these myths come from, though, if you don’t fully understand how Montessori classrooms operate.

A Montessori Approach to Discipline

The Montessori Method is child-directed and uses positive discipline. To someone who isn’t familiar with these methods, it may seem to rely too much on the child’s discretion. However, the adults in a Montessori classroom (also known as the guides) are expected to provide both a model of ideal behavior and a gentle manner of directing the child back to correct action.

The end result of Montessori aligned discipline is a self-motivated child that understands how to appropriately interact socially and with their environment.

Let’s take a look at what effective Montessori discipline looks like and how you can implement it in your homeschool.

Discipline is not punishment.

The first thing to unlearn is the idea that discipline means punishment. In fact, the word discipline comes from the Latin term "disciplina," which means "instruction and training.” It is derived from the root word discere, which simply means ”to learn.”

Unfortunately, many of us grew up with physical punishment through spanking, or removal punishment - things like grounding or losing privileges. Neither of those methods are really discipline.

We have a concept of discipline very different from that commonly accepted. - Maria Montessori quote

There is no punishment in Montessori.

Montessori does not punish - rather it models ideal behavior and teaches the child that they are responsible for their actions. In reality, Montessori's methods are more closely aligned with the true meaning of the word "discipline".

Creating internal discipline and self-control takes effort, patience, and repetition. Part of this process is undoing the tendency to yell or seek punitive recourse when your child misbehaves. The impulse can be to teach a child that if they misbehave, they will get punished. In a way, this is a cause-effect relationship, but it’s not a good one.

Children need to be taught the behavior you want them to practice by seeing you do it first. If you simply tell them not to do something and then punish them when they act out, you’re showing them that they’re only responsible for their behavior if they want to avoid punishment. This makes for poor internal motivation.

Instead, Montessori discipline is about cultivating the child's own self-discipline, as it springs from the children themselves. The child learns from you the correct way to behave, and they learn why, primarily through natural consequences, not punishment. Cause-effect relationships are a major component of this manner of educating your child.

If/Then Model

For instance, if your child has a habit of being unkind to other children, you can use this as a learning opportunity. Using “if/then” statements can help them understand the link between their behavior and reactions that are external to them.

“If you share and are kind to your friends, then they will want to share and be kind to you.”

“If you want to go to a playdate, then you will need to change clothes quickly/by yourself.”

Using statements like this both empower the child and show them how their actions affect the world around them. By putting the power to do something they enjoy into their hands, they are aware that their actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences are fun.

Likewise, by showing them how important cleaning and maintaining a neat work area/home is, you set them up to clean up after themselves later. It won’t be a battle with negotiations or threats - you’ll have the child that simply picks up after themselves because it’s what they do. In this way, discipline is about how they conduct themselves, rather than “do this or else”, or “don’t do this or you’re grounded”.

Understanding the consequences of their actions

The underlying aspect of your approach to discipline in Montessori homeschooling is helping your child understand and internalize how their actions impact others people and things. For instance, if your child does not want to help clean up, you can talk through what might arise from that.

“If someone else has to pick up after you, then we will be late to the park, and that will reduce the amount of time you have to play.”

Talk to them about how their choices will affect themselves and other people in the grander scheme of things.

It can be easy to dismiss a childlike request outright but it’s incredibly helpful in the long run to calmly discuss their actions, wants, and choices with them. Being dismissive only furthers the narrative that they’re a helpless child, and what we’re doing with Montessori is building emotionally intelligent, responsible children who understand the weight of their actions.

Don’t dismiss their feelings

Children don’t have the same expressive ability as adults - they simply haven’t grown the neurons for the full range of emotive capability. As such, they often melt down or get frustrated over seemingly minor things. As a parent, there are certainly days we want to respond with laughter or frustration (sometimes both!), but we should never just outright dismiss our children’s tantrums.

These are big feelings coming from a place of not feeling heard, or being hurt, or just not being able to explain themselves properly. To hear an adult laughing or getting mad will only add to that frustration.

Instead, keep yourself calm and address them deliberately. “I understand you wanted PBJ for lunch, but today we’re having spaghetti. It’s okay to be disappointed, and I see that you’re upset.” Trying to explain from a position of utter authority while they’re melting down will not help, and only serve to make you both more frustrated.

When they’ve calmed down, then you can explain further, and help them realize the reason for the thing that upset them. It might not always work flawlessly, but this method of approaching their emotions helps them understand their world better. It makes them more emotionally intelligent, and this will help them examine their reactions to adversity better.

Freedom within limits

Part of the Montessori prepared environment is curated learning materials that they can interact with at their discretion. Of course, you curate the materials, but the process itself is child-driven. In most things, you should allow your child the freedom to make decisions and then help them understand those decisions.

Just as you curate the choices within the classroom, you should curate the choices they have in the broader scheme of life. This allows them the confidence and independence of perceived choice, while still giving you some level of control. You can increase their ability to choose as they age.

For instance, allowing a toddler to choose what to have for lunch within a set of options, but then asking an older child for input on a meal plan. Both give them options that are age-appropriate, and help them exercise autonomy and a place in their family. You can help them exercise this freedom of choice within limits by setting out several outfits to choose from when they’re little, and then letting them pick out their own clothes as they get older.

Discipline must come through liberty - Maria Montessori quote

Montessori discipline strategies

One of the biggest things to avoid in Montessori discipline is don’t bribe or threaten your children. As we’ve said before, you want to cultivate a sense of responsibility in your child; telling them you’ll give them something for good behavior runs completely counter to this principle. You want to cultivate intrinsic motivation; good behavior because the child wants to behave a certain way, not because of fear of retribution or the promise of a treat.

Taking responsibility 

It’s not to say that a Montessori child will always be a perfect angel and never do something bad; children are still children. The goal in a Montessori homeschool is to make sure your child takes responsibility and makes the situation right. This might mean apologizing, replacing a broken toy, cleaning up a mess, or making sure someone feels better if they’re hurt.

By instilling a sense of responsibility, your child will further understand the effect of their actions, and understand that they can make amends when their actions cause harm.

Help your child interpret the actions and words of others

Children are impulsive and often lack boundaries or filters, and as a result, can say and do things that might hurt other people. If you find your child being grabby with another child’s toys, or saying something hurtful, it’s important that you make sure your child understands what happened. This will require you to interpret what’s going on, and explaining it in a way your child understands.

Obviously this will be harder with younger or special needs children, but this is the purpose of you as an interpreter. Some children can’t read social cues and will need to be told in a way that they can process. Over time, this method of mediation will help bolster that understanding of cause and effect.

Always model desirable behavior and involve them when possible

Taking a child on errands can be difficult, as they’re suddenly confronted with a million new things to grab and look at. Understanding this fact, consider making them an active part of your errand.

For instance, in a grocery store, talk to them about what to expect going in, and ask them if they can help you. This will reframe the errand from a “parent does a thing while child wants to explore” to “parent and child are on an errand together”.

Ask them to fetch things within a few feet - “can you grab bananas for me?" This will both empower them and distract them from wandering about, getting into trouble. Children love to feel included and love to be helpers.

the way we treat the child the child treats the world quote

Always be aware that you’re constantly modeling behavior to your child, even when you’re not actively thinking about it. They are looking to you constantly, so keeping your cool when frustrated will help them understand that being calm is the best way to process adversity.

Montessori discipline builds confidence

We hope this dispels any myths you’ve had in your mind that Montessori kids are unruly, untended, and undisciplined. Rather than the short term outcomes of punishment or bribery, the Montessori method of discipline models ideal behavior and gently reminds kids when they stray.

Helping children understand their actions have consequences - for them and for others - is critical in teaching them to conduct themselves. If a child’s only reason to “behave” is a reward or to avoid punishment, there’s no intrinsic motivation, and therefore impulsive behavior can easily win out. Montessori homeschooling teaches children to self-motivate, to be responsible, and to take responsibility for their actions.

You are their example.

Be aware that you’re constantly modeling behavior to your children - if you want them to yell less, you need to yell less. If you want them to keep their space clean and organized, you must have your space clean and organized. Additionally, involve them in errands, chores, and daily schedules - this makes them feel important, empowered, and helpful.

Give your children freedom with limits by creating choices that are appropriate for their age. Help them understand their choices, talk through cause-and-effect with them, and mediate their disputes to help them understand how they affect others.

The sooner you start nurturing your child and looking to help them self-discipline and self-motivate, the sooner you can stop relying on punishment, threats, and bribery to affect their behavior. Montessori homeschooling can help you build emotionally intelligent, responsible, confident children, no matter what comes their way.

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