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Discipline in the Montessori Classroom (1 of 2)

Part One of Two— The Theory: What is Discipline and How Do Children Achieve It

“The undisciplined child enters into discipline by working in the company of others; not being told he is naughty … Discipline is, therefore, primarily a learning experience and less a punitive experience if appropriately dealt with.”
—Maria Montessori

When you bring to mind the word “discipline,” what type of image do you see? If you’ve grown up in a traditional educational environment, you might think of sitting quietly at a desk, listening attentively. You’ll probably associate being un-disciplined with negative consequences—being put in time-out, or sent to the principal’s office, or a note being sent home.

In general, when we think of discipline, we view it as something imposed upon us by others. The Oxford English dictionary defines discipline as “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”

If that’s the definition of discipline, as Montessorians we want nothing to do with it!

Our conception of discipline is not one of passive, adult-imposed obedience, but one of active, purposeful self-mastery. As Dr. Montessori put it,

In our system, we obviously have a different concept of discipline. The discipline we are looking for is active. We do not believe that one is disciplined only when he is artificially made as silent as a mute and as motionless as a paralytic. Such a one is not disciplined but annihilated. We claim that an individual is disciplined when he is the master of himself and when he can, as a consequence, control himself when he must follow a rule of life. (The Discovery of the Child, p. 50)

Our goal, in Montessori, is not obedience but self-discipline. That’s why we do not use time out chairs, color-coded behavior charts, demerits, treasure chests, or other rewards and punishments to control our students’ behaviors. Yet, when parents peer into our Montessori classrooms, what they see are students who are working calmly, peacefully, and diligently.

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In this environment, it’s usually easy to recognize a new child: he’s the one who wanders about, going from this to that, interrupting his classmates, talking noisily, bumping into shelves and sending materials flying.  Yet in a matter of a few months, when his parents come to visit during our “Watch Me Work Wednesdays,” they see him sitting at a table, focused on his work. They see him walking about with new-found poise. They notice how he willingly and without cajoling complies with classrooms rules, such as walking instead of running, lining up quickly with his hands behind his back when it’s time to go out to the playground, and using a low, quiet voice in talking to his peers.

The big question is how do Montessori children achieve this very visible change of behavior, in a matter of weeks or months?

Fundamentally, we view self-discipline as a set of skills that children master through repeated, deliberate practice, in a carefully prepared environment. To become self-disciplined, a child must master his mind and body, and understand and be willing to follow classroom rules that respect his needs as a young child. He does so by acting actively in his environment—not by being told to behave himself!

In this blog post, you’ll read about the main principles we use in our Montessori primary classrooms to help students achieve self-discipline; Part 2 of this series then offers up specific examples of how we deal with discipline issues.

Achieving Concentration: The Mastery of Mental Control

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The first and most important task a Montessori primary guide tackles with a new student is to help him find an activity that calls to him, something that engages his hand and mind and allows him to lose himself in joyful concentration. Often, the activity is something simple—pouring water from one pitcher into another, or solving a puzzle where he sets ten knobbed cylinders that vary in width into their proper holes. Always, it is an activity that engages the hand and the mind, something that allows the child to repeat a physical movement and to bring it under his volitional control.

Dr. Montessori observed that self-discipline and better behavior (what she called “normalization”) always

… comes about through “concentration” on a piece of work. For this we must provide “motives of activity” so well adapted to the child’s interest that they provoke his deep attention. … The essential thing is for the task to arouse such an interest that it engages the child’s whole personality.

When we see a new child connect with a material, and repeat an activity a dozen times, we know he’s well on the way to the transformation that so astounds parents! That’s why we ensure children receive many individual lessons—so they can discover materials that call to them. It’s why we jealously protect long, uninterrupted periods for child-chosen work—instead of interrupting children’s concentration to join adult-led specialist classes like art or music. It’s why we work hard to help children choose work, instead of assigning it—because only something the child herself finds engaging will enable her to repeat an activity and achieve mastery.

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In contrast to traditional education, which exhorts the child to just will himself to pay attention, as Montessorians we recognize that purposeful attention—“concentration” in Montessori terminology—needs come from within. It needs to start with something the child himself finds engaging! Only after the child has practiced directing his mind toward something he finds fascinating is he then able to direct his attention volitionally toward something someone else wants him to focus on, such as a teacher’s presentation in elementary school.

Purposeful Movement: The Mastery of the Body

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In addition to directing and focusing her mind, to become disciplined the child also has to learn to control her body. Here again, what must be done is not to tell her to “sit still” or “don’t bump into things,” but to give her activities she finds interesting that allow her to gain control over her movements.

The Montessori guide supports this development of self-control by showing the child precisely how to conduct each daily activity. Writes Dr. Montessori:

If we showed [children] exactly how to do something, this precision itself seemed to hold their interest. To have a real purpose to which the action was directed, this was the first condition, but the exact way of doing it acted like a support which rendered the child stable in his efforts, and therefore brought him to make progress in his development. Order and precision, we found, were the key to spontaneous work in the school. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 186)

In our classrooms, we thus provide purposeful activities that encourage the child to control and refine his bodily movements. When a child places the heavy knobbed cylinder block slowly down on the table, trying to make no sound, she’s engaging her core muscles and balance. When she carries a pitcher of water while walking around shelves and rugs, she controls her impulse to run. When she spoons beans from one ceramic bowl into another, she enhances her ability to carefully control her hands. Thus it goes with dozens of activities, practiced spontaneously every day.

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Our teachers support this process by constant modeling: They slow down their movements when giving lessons, so the child can see each careful step and is able to imitate it. They speak less, and show more, so the child can focus on the movement, and not be distracted by the words. They give what we call “Grace and Courtesy” lessons, such as showing a child how to walk around a friend’s rug so as to not disturb his work, or asking a child to show his skills: “Susan, can you show me how you carry a chair?” so the child takes ownership and pride in walking carefully and not bumping into others with the chair she carries.

With this constant practice, we see the child’s movement become more graceful, the clumsiness of early childhood disappearing. We can watch as her mind assumes effortless control over her body!

Practicing Discipline in the Community

Only after a child is able to purposefully control his mind and body can we expect him to act in accordance with our community rules. As Dr. Montessori so succinctly put it,

How can we expect them to do their work carefully and patiently, if care and patience are among their missing gifts? It is like saying “walk nicely!” to a person without legs. Qualities like these can only be given by practice, never by commands. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 209)

Once children have achieved self-mastery of this type, they become quite eager to follow legitimate community rules. By legitimate we mean rules that protect the rights of others, and that do not place undue limits on the child.

While in many situation the child’s natural needs—to move, to touch things, to work with his hands, to explore with all senses—put him in opposition with adults, in a Montessori classroom, the environment and rules are designed precisely around his needs.

Observes Dr. Montessori:

The tendencies which we stigmatize as evil in little children of three to six years of age are often merely those which cause annoyance to us adults when, not understanding their needs, we try to prevent their every movement, their every attempt to gain experience in the world (by touching everything, etc.). The child, however, through this natural tendency, is led to coordinate his movements and to collect impressions, especially sensations of touch, so that when prevented, he rebels, and this rebellion forms almost the whole of his “naughtiness.”

What wonder is it that the evil disappears when, if we give the right means for development and leave full liberty to use them, rebellion has no more reason for existence? (Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, p. 88)

Of course, a Montessori classroom is not an environment where anything goes. What rules we have are there to allow freedom within an active community. We expect children to speak in low voices—so others can concentrate. We require them to walk around work rugs, rather than over them—so they do not destroy another child’s work. We allow each child to only have one activity out at a time—so everyone can have a turn.

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This active discipline is the point of arrival. It grows out of a child’s increased mastery over his mind and body—and his eagerness to put this mastery into practice.

It is our object to train the child for activity, for work, for doing good, and not for immobility or passivity. It would seem to me that children are very well disciplined indeed when they can move about a room in a useful, intelligent and free fashion, without doing anything rude or unmannerly. (The Discovery of the Child, p. 54)

We hope you agree!