Part Two of Two— Lack of Skill or Unmet Needs, not Badness: How We Handle Discipline Problems in Montessori
In part one of this post, we argued that discipline in Montessori is about helping the child to achieve mastery of his mind and body, so he is capable to willingly conform with (reasonable) rules of life.
This raises the question about what we do when a child does not act in a self-disciplined manner. In other words, how do we handle discipline problems?
As always within Montessori, our answer is individualized to the child and situation before of us. If the child is new to Montessori, we frankly expect her to not be able to be disciplined! As we outlined in part one, discipline grows through practice, not by command. With a new child, our goal is to help her acquire mental and bodily control by connecting her to interesting work in the environment.
A true discipline challenge arises when a child either isn’t able to connect with materials and thus doesn’t achieve self-discipline after an extended time in the Montessori environment, or when a child who previously was behaving well suddenly starts to hurt others or to violate our community rules.
In both cases, our core assumption is that the child has some unmet needs, whether physical or mental. In effect, we view a lack of discipline as an illness, rather than evidence that the child is bad—and our treatment reflects this perspective. We don’t cajole, punish or shame. We don’t administer punitive time-outs or withdraw love and affection. Instead, we try to diagnose and treat the underlying problems. This can take many forms, depending on the child, the classroom setting and the family. Here are a few examples:
- A young toddler who bites.
Biting is a very common issue with young children. To manage it, we try to observe carefully and identify the root cause. Is the child teething and just needs his gums stimulated? In that case, providing sturdy food (bagels, carrots, apples) to chew on or a teether (if very young) can help him feel better. Is he upset by another child who is intruding in his space, and unable to express his needs with words? In that case, we may need to supervise him more closely, keep him apart from the other child, and work on providing words to signal his needs: “I see you are upset that Max took your toy. You can say ‘stop that’ to let him know, then come find me to help you.”
- A new three-year-old who runs in the classroom or yells loudly.
If the child is new to the class, we may need to give him a more productive outlet for his big movements and loud activities, while he learns to better control his body. We may just take him and a few friends out on the playground, and encourage them to get their needs for rowdy activity out of their systems outside—fully realizing that acquiring self-discipline isn’t instantaneous!
- A child who keeps interrupting his peers and annoys them.
Often, this type of behavior happens when the child hasn’t yet found work he finds engaging. So our first thought will be to offer him some choices that we think will meet his need for mental nourishment. If that doesn’t work, we may separate him from his peers—not in a punitive time out way, but to give him a chance to observe them engaged in the many fun activities available in our classrooms. Often, we find that after some time of watching, the child will be eager to try an activity, and he’ll be able to focus on his own work.
- A new child who won’t settle down to any activity, despite the guide’s best efforts to introduce her to a wide range of interesting activities.
Sometimes, a child just can’t seem to get herself settled into our classroom routines. It may be that the child joined at age 4 ½ and just is beyond the activities we normally offer to a new child: this fall at one of our campuses, we had an older boy who was restless, until his experienced teacher introduced him to the Stamp Game, and advance math activity usually introduced to children who have had several years in the Montessori classroom. This boy, who was unable to sit still for anything, latched onto the big numbers, and quickly mastered them, then went back happily to many of the foundational, easier activities.
Sometimes, we may need to call a meeting with the parents to diagnose the problem. Issues at home can show up in behavior problems at school. Maybe the child is hungry when she arrives in the morning, and needs a breakfast with more protein, rather than quickly digested simple carbs. Maybe her bedtime is too late, and she needs more rest to arrive fresh and able to tackle her day with enthusiasm. Or maybe there was a change in the family—the death of a beloved pet, the arrival of a new baby—and she needs to work through her emotions to regain her balance.
If we identify a challenge at home, we count on the parents to work in partnership with us to help the child thrive. We recognize that it may not be easy to change the family dynamic—to serve dinner earlier to ensure sufficient sleep when dad comes home late, or to make time for a nutritious breakfast before heading out for the day. Sometimes, we need to ask parents to get children outside help—for instance, if a child acts aggressively because a speech delay prevents him from communicating his needs verbally. We understand that facing challenges like these can be tough for parents. Yet time after time, we have observed that it requires close cooperation between school and home to help children move beyond such behavior problems and flourish.
A child who misbehaves is a child who needs our love and understanding. We will not let her get away with her destructive behavior (that would be abandoning her) nor intimidate her into submission (which would only lead to the problem resurfacing later and probably in a more violent form). Instead, we will work with you as the parents to diagnose and fix the root problem so she can once again participate joyfully in our classroom community.