The Montessori approach to discipline is just like every strand of Montessori teaching in that we aim to enable the child to develop discipline within themselves, for their own value. Is this like telling someone what’s good for them? How are we to know whether or not encouraging a child to develop the skill of patience, for example, will positively or negatively affect their lives? The problem is that research provides only a small window into the ever-changing and controversial phenomenon of discipline.
What exactly is discipline? A quick online search delivers the following definition:
‘The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.’
I’m not sure about you, but that definition scares me a little bit. We as a society have found ourselves in a time where we find a basic code of behaviour to be necessary, both legally and morally. This code of behaviour benefits us as in theory it encourages us to take a path which respects the lives of other human beings. It lays out our expectations as a cohesive society in efforts to establish limitations to our actions. However, those who are not willing to adhere to this code are excluded or, as the above definition suggests, punished. This idea scares me because I find it hard to believe that there is a proven and established code of behaviour that leads to morally good human behaviour, which is in essence what a code of behaviour should be for. Is it morally acceptable to exclude those who do not fit our model of social acceptability? The definition suggests that we are both ‘training people’ (language that mirrors the training of animals) and using punishment to respond to those who deviate from the suggested ‘norm’. But if we do not agree with these notions then how else can we possibly understand the concept of discipline?
Maria Montessori tells us that “discipline is the fundamental instinct of man, as children prove to us. It is a normal need of human nature when it is protected and not deflected from its normal path”. This indication that discipline is something inherent within human beings, much like our survival instinct, makes the concept somewhat easier to understand; that we all strive to achieve self-discipline because it is a basic need that leads to a better chance of survival. Our success in doing so reaches different levels depending on the environment in which we live. As a result of this thinking, Montessori put the onus of the development of discipline on the child themselves, and so the adult’s responsibility becomes providing an environment in which discipline may develop rather than enforcing discipline on the child. Thus, we deviate from our traditional definition of discipline, with the use of punishment no longer being necessary. So how then do we enable a child to discipline themselves rather than us disciplining them?
The answer to this is strong, reasonable limits. In a Montessori classroom there are only three rules:
- Respect the environment
- Respect others
- Respect yourselfThese three rules comprehensively limit a range of negative behaviours which can always be boiled down to one of these rules. None of the rules are without reason, none of the rules proclaim the adult to be of a higher status than children, but rather they indicate the limitations of our world and the code of behaviour that we are inherently capable of holding ourselves to so as to function most effectively in our society. If these rules are implemented in a child’s environment, both at home and at school, then the child is in a perfect environment to practise regulating their own behaviours and thus form discipline from within. Children carry a basic human desire to be part of a group, first as part of the family group and then in the wider world, as part of society, so an understanding of the limitations of that group is vital for the child. We need to reframe our approach so that we realise we are trying to help children fit into this world, not chastise them when they don’t. No matter the standards that we hold ourselves and our children to, we must recognise that self-discipline requires practise, and practise is not always successful in the first instance, but it can become successful with time and patience.
By showing a child that they are responsible for their own behaviours, rather than us being responsible for them, we empower the child to make more conscious choices in their lives. Gradually they come to realise the consequences of their decisions affect both them and the world around them, thus leading to a true conscious desire to start making better decisions. This we cannot expect overnight, yet with time and most importantly consistency it is possible to see children’s self-discipline grow with them. When a baby is born, they do not know how to function in this world and this society; our job is to show them how.
1 Montessori, M. (2015) Education and Peace p100, Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson
Shallal Qureshi is an AMI 3-6 Diploma holder who currently works as a Montessori Guide in a Children's House setting. She holds a BA in Ancient History from King's College London as well as the AMI Observation Course Certificate and the AMI 6-12 Assistant Certificate. Shallal writes on education and has a particular interest in the development of self-discipline at a young age. In addition to her role as a board member of the Montessori Society AMI (UK), she volunteers for various social purpose organisations, ensuring that a philosophy of inclusion is always present in her work both inside and outside of the classroom.