Discipline In The Classroom: Can Children Really Do Anything They Want in Montessori?

Recently we took a trip to Florida to go to a wedding where I saw people ranging from my sisters to my Father’s distant cousin. What a trip! Although I had met all these people before, some I hadn’t seen in years. As I sat in the kitchen to catch up with my relatives, we ended up talking about Montessori. A cousin told me that a neighbor was considering Montessori but changed her mind because when she visited the school she was very surprised to see a classroom with no desks and children walking about the classroom, engaged in half a dozen different activities.

“I have never seen a classroom where children could just do anything they want,” she told me. “I could only imagine what a challenge it must be for the teacher to maintain order or get anything done,” commented my sister. Clearly she felt the same way. I will share Montessori’s view on discipline with you in the same way that I shared it with her that day.


Myth: Children Can Do Anything They Want In Montessori

“Children can do anything they want” is one of the first things people hear about Montessori – and far too many assume that translates to a classroom where there is no discipline. The mistake in this assumption is thinking that the absence of external discipline is a sign that there is no discipline at all.

The traditional school approach to discipline is based on ideas of restriction and control. Rules and boundaries are set to influence proper conduct. Children are confined to assigned seats to create a sense of order. Socializing in classrooms is kept to a bare minimum to suppress unruly behavior. There is a belief that by imposing these rules and restrictions, teachers are helping students learn a sense of discipline.

But Maria Montessori saw it differently. She said: "It is clear therefore that the discipline which reveals itself in the Montessori class is something which comes more from within than without.” Montessori viewed self-discipline as a set of skills that children master through repeated, deliberate practice, in a carefully prepared environment. Rather than being taught discipline by others, she believed they learned discipline through interactions with others.

For me, this was a difficult concept to get my head around. I – and most people I know – grew up being told the rules at school, at home, at church, etc. If we didn’t follow the rules, there were consequences, and those consequences were generally pretty negative. That was how I was parented, and frankly, that’s how I parented my children until they started in Montessori.

But I’ll tell you, as a parent, I didn’t feel very successful in this area. I cannot count how many time outs I gave my son in the year he was two, but it was A LOT. I worried that his level of “naughtiness” and disobedience was higher than average and felt a sense of failure that I wasn’t parenting right or well.


Truth: Montessori Teaches The Value of Discipline From Within

When I visited White Bear Montessori, I asked about discipline, and shared the fact that my son was not always a good rule follower. Truthfully I was concerned that he would come in and disrupt the whole class and eventually be expelled. But they smiled and assured me that all would be well – and that I might even be surprised at how well he did in a Montessori environment. They explained that in a Montessori classroom, Guides establish clear and consistent limits and communicate those limits to all the children. In the beginning, it’s the adult’s role to enforce the limits and allow the natural consequences to occur.

Children learn that if they go past a certain point or step over an agreed upon limit, there will be consequences. Sometimes those consequences are natural, as in when something falls and breaks because he or she was not taking care of it. Other times they will be logical consequences presented by the Guide, such as losing the privilege of sitting with a friend or using a specific material because it was not being handled appropriately.

However, as children learn to live within the given limits, they will develop the ability to handle increased levels of freedom. More freedom brings more choices and more opportunity to practice self-control and good decision-making. The key is to increase their freedom gradually over time. Baby steps, as it were. A six-year-old can handle a certain amount of freedom; a 10-year-old can handle quite a bit more. The important thing is that the 10-year-old was given some freedom as a 6-year-old, 7-year-old, eight-year-old, etc. so that by the time they are 10, they can handle making good choices. I think back to how much more responsible I might have been at 19 if my parents had started teaching me values at a younger age.


How Discipline Grows over the Years

I have certainly seen this process at work with my son. Although we certainly still see glimpses of the impulsive little boy he was at two, his ability to control his body and mind long enough to build a gigantic Lego castle with little or no assistance amazes me. His ability to patiently describe the rules of the Stamp Game to two younger classmates – and then play with them despite their lower math abilities – astounds me. And despite a persistent penchant for eating too many bananas at one time, I have regularly seen my son making good choices even when he thinks no one is looking. And that, in my mind, is the ultimate sign that he is developing a sense of self-discipline that will serve him well his entire life. But don’t take my word for it. If you would like to watch how guides at White Bear Montessori handle discipline in the classroom, or any other core value for that matter, please contact us and we will be happy to answer any of your questions.

Danielle Cloe