Updated: May 8, 2021
"Discipline must come through liberty...….We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined." - Dr. Maria Montessori
While carrying out training for childminders and Montessori assistants, one subject causes more discussion than any other; discipline. We each have our own ideas of how we should get children to behave in the way we want them to, often based on how our parents disciplined us or in spite of their efforts. And these methods work.....don't they?! Well let's break it down and take a closer look.
Power - Might is Right:
This method of discipline is, in my opinion, quite clear cut as to why it is not a good way to direct children's behaviour. Often including physical and verbal chastisement, it is all about the power of the adult over the child. This makes the child fearful of the adult which can then lead to fears in other areas of life and further consequences such as nightmares and disturbed sleep, being clingy and nervous, disconnected from others and being unable to take part in new experiences. Dr Montessori herself said "Discipline is enforced by threats and fear. This leads to the conclusion that the child who does not obey is bad, the child who obeys is good.........It is a fundamental error to think that the will of the individual must be destroyed in order that [they] may obey, i.e., that [they] may accept and execute the decision of somebody else's will. If we applied this reasoning to intellectual education we ought to say that it is necessary to destroy the child's intelligence in order that [they] may receive our culture in [their] own mind." - Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind.
Rewards and Punishments:
How often have we asked a child to go and sit on a chair or step and think about what they have done? How many star charts have we made to promote a certain type of behaviour? How many times have we praised a child highly for good behaviour? I'm sure we've all said that we will buy the child something nice if they do what we want them to. We have all used rewards and punishments at some time so it's much more difficult to steer people away from this method. However, what do children learn from this? They learn very little from sitting and thinking as they often don't understand why they are sitting and their minds wander very quickly from what has been said to them. They also learn from these methods that people can be manipulated. Dr Montessori herself said that "such prizes and punishments are...…..the bench of the soul, the instrument of slavery for the spirit." (The Montessori Method of Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in 'The Children's Houses' with Additions and Revisions by the Author).
There are some children who do things just to please us. They want to make us happy so they behave in ways that they think will do that. They often do this so that they won't be rejected which means that they feel insecure in their relationships.
From the time a child can talk we make them say sorry when they have done something we see as wrong. As children do not understand the abstract concept of regret and don't have empathy until they are much older, it is pointless to make them say sorry. Eventually they learn that if they say sorry then they are off the hook from any responsibility.
"Let us always remember that inner discipline is something to come, not something already present. Our task is to show the way to discipline." - Dr. Maria Montessori
So how do we go about our task if we don't have the traditional methods at our disposal? The first and most important tool we have is modelling the behaviour we want to see in the children. This means being respectful, having manners, being present and attentive, actually listening to what the child has to say. At this stage in a child's development (0-6 years) they watch human interactions very closely and begin to imitate adult behaviour, so it's important that we act consistently and adhere to the boundaries we have set for ourselves and for the children.
Alongside being a role model, we must have clear and consistent expectations of children's behaviour. Once we expect the children to behave in a certain way, we know what boundaries to put in place to allow the children to achieve this. For example, we may have shown a child how to get their activity from the shelf, take it to a table or floor mat, work with that activity for as long as they want to and then return it to the shelf. But what if they forget to put it back, or deliberately refuse to do it? In the first instance we would remind them that all of the children are expected to put their activities away, perhaps pointing out someone who is doing just that. It may be that the child is afraid they will drop it but doesn't want to say. At this point I might offer help and suggest we do it together. This may be enough and the ultimate aim is achieved. But what if they still refuse? I would then say that I will put it away this time but that they come with me, perhaps holding my hand. In this way we have still achieved our aim and the child has saved face without actually stepping over the boundary. The expectations must also be age relevant. It is less likely that a one year old will be able to achieve this consistently without being reminded, but a four year old certainly could.
Another tool we can use is prevention, stopping unwanted behaviour before it actually happens. This is where the Prepared Environment and the observation skills of the adult come in to play. The environment allows the child freedom of choice and movement within the boundaries of behavioural expectations. Allowing such choice of activity enables the child to follow their own interests. This provides fewer opportunities for the child to push against the boundaries. However, children often have difficulties at transition times. How can we deal with this? Following consistent routines and giving children a countdown before a transition really helps; "In ten minutes we will be getting ready to go out........In five minutes we will be getting ready to go out.......In one minute we will have to put our coats on so that we can go out". This gives the child time to process that there will be a transition and allows them to finish off what they are doing.
There are some children who seem to find other things difficult and it is not always obvious why they are behaving in a certain way or are having a complete meltdown. For these children we need to discover what triggers such behaviour, and that's when we need to use our skills of observation. When we can see what it is that causes the unwanted behaviour, whether it's boredom, not being able to communicate how they feel, or something outside their control like sensory processing disorder or autistic spectrum disorder, we can then put strategies in place to prevent this behaviour from happening in the future.
Another tool in our arsenal is natural consequences. This is when something happens as a direct consequence of certain behaviour. For example, if a child decides to pour all of the rice from a jug onto the floor, it is then their responsibility to sweep it up and put it in the bin. Another example of a natural consequence is if a child refuses to put their wellies on then they won't be able to jump in the puddles when they go outside. This is a very powerful means of discipline as the responsibility for their actions rests solely with the child.
Offering the child choices is also an important way of allowing them to take responsibility for their own actions. However, we have to be a bit clever with the choices we offer so that the children are still doing what we want them to do. Let's go back to the wellies that we really want the child to wear as their trainers are not really suitable for the wet weather. So how can we give them a choice in this? We can tell them it's very wet outside so we'll have to put our wellies on. We would then say that they can do it themselves or that we can help them with it. In this way they are still putting on their wellies but giving them the choice of who does it.
Something that we often do in a Montessori classroom but can be adapted for a home setting is getting the child to stay close to an adult until such time as we feel they can regulate their behaviour themselves. This would mean giving them tasks and responsibilities, being your helper. So they could set the table in preparation for lunch, sharpen all the pencils, do the washing up or sort out the clothes to be washed. This does require a bit of preparation and creativity on the part of the adult but works well in many situations, distracting the child from their initial intentions.
So what about when a child has hurt or upset another child, or even you? Why not ask the offended child what would make them feel better. Often they will not be able to tell you so maybe you could suggest something. "Look. Your friend is sad/I feel sad. What could make them feel better? (To the offended child) Would a hug make you feel better?/A hug would make me feel so much better." This gives the child a way of sorting out what they have done, giving them responsibility for their actions and the resolution. They will also be getting validation for their own feelings and that they are still loved, despite having done something wrong. We all make mistakes and as children are still learning how to be they will make lots. It's up to us to show that it's ok to make mistakes but we can make it right too.
"Discipline is, therefore, primarily a learning experience and less a punitive experience if appropriately dealt with." - Dr. Maria Montessori
So, as you can see, discipline is less about the adult correcting the child's bad behaviour and more about the preparation of both the environment and the adult. Being patient, kind, respectful, observant and creative leads to the child understanding how to make appropriate choices and regulate their own behaviour, leading to self-discipline rather than discipline through fear or coercion, which is our ultimate aim.
One final thought..........
Edited by Jude Saffron. Written by Sonia Quinn, Open Door Montessori Training. Sonia has been a Montessori parent, nursery owner and childminder with over 25 years experience. She runs courses for CPD tailored to Childminders interested in Montessori and Montessori Assistants. https://www.montessoricpd.com
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