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Devoted to Guiding Educators Towards a Centered and Intentional Montessori Practice.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Getting Out of the Way: Rethinking Discipline in the Montessori Classroom

Framing the Work

Presentations on discipline frequently focus on the rules and regulations, and the policies and procedures necessary to keep children safe. These conversations, however, have to be more than just about what forms to fill out and who to speak with about a student’s challenges. 

In our world, the question is not whether you handle the issue in your class or refer it to the office; it really has to be much more fundamental to our practice than just a question of paperwork.


The way in which words are used is important. They carry particular weight, depending upon the time period and culture in which they are adopted. And, these subtle, commonly agreed upon meanings change as cultures develop.

discipline 1. from the early 13c. meaning "penitential chastisement, punishment"; 2. from Old French descepline (11c.) meaning "discipline, physical punishment; teaching; suffering; martyrdom"; 3. from the Latin disciplina meaning "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge".  (Source: www.etymoline.com)

When we look at the etymological origins of the word discipline, we see that most recently it has been used to refer to something that is done to someone, a correction, indicating a necessarily lopsided power-over relationship.

We can also see, however, that this was not always the case. Look at discipline’s earliest record of usage: "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge". Perhaps, when taken this way we can come to view discipline as less of a reactive behavior, and more of a proactive one – one where power is shared.

So, let’s reframe our definition of discipline and refocus our energies in a positive, future-oriented way so that we are building relationships with children.  

The Art of Discipline

The art of discipline is to mold others in your image: who you are and (most importantly) what you do. Who and how you are helps to define what kind of people your students will become.

I would argue that this is our most important work. 

After all, who has the greatest opportunity for consistent messaging about what it means to be fully human? 

We do.

Discipline is best viewed as an act of peace education, distilled. As learning to be peaceful is an active process we need, therefore, to examine our own practices to ensure that the actions that we model to our students are aligned with this vision.

Looking Inward

When we are presented with behavior that flies in the face of our desires and expectations we need to look inward first. Most of the time it is about how we have prepared ourselves and the environment to meet the child’s needs that is the root of the child's actions. 

This can be a challenging proposition for us: it means that we have to be as open to change and risk as we ask the children to be throughout the school day. To accommodate this demand, we need to be flexible, spontaneous, dynamic, humble, specific, direct, and purposeful in our work with children. 

How Do We Get There?

It is important that we recognize our personal limits of behavior:

·      What is it about certain behavior that really pushes your buttons?
·      What is your “shark music” (those cues that alert you to a change in a child’s behavior that will be challenging for you)?
·      How will you convey that “music” to your assistant(s) and colleagues so to get the support you need?

Challenging children are not malfeasant beings created to undermine your every move; they are waiting for your loving guidance and support.

If there is a behavior issue, you need to examine what are you not providing the child: 

    What is it about your choices and decisions that have led to this point? 
Are you fueling and fanning the flames?

When faced with behavior that does not align with your expectations for the moment, what do you do?

·      Do you give a little more, loosen the reigns a bit and wait?
·      Do you pull in tight?
·      Which action allows for sustained and transformative changes in behavior?

Preparation of the Teacher

We must be present to the struggles within us as we make these decisions around our interactions with children.  

It is this mindfulness that will allow for partnerships to triumph over punishments.

Think about the children you have worked with. Which students come to the forefront of your memory? What kinds of memories are these? Do you feel:

                                                         Happy?                   Bittersweet?
                                                         Proud?         OR       Remorseful?
                                                         Fulfilled?                Embarrassed?

Why do we feel such conflicted emotions?

I propose that if we feel a mixture of emotions it is because we ourselves know that our most important work is to “be there” for the children in our care. And, that because of our own baggage around schooling, or our fears and pressures of the work we do, or the demands placed upon us by the multiple stakeholders in public education – we lose our way. 

We lose our focus and prime directive: to be stewards of the Spirit in the children who gather around us.

So. Take a few breaths. Think quietly and explore the light and the dark, the fear and the joy, the clouds and the sunshine of our work with children. As you think about the year before you:

·      In what ways are you coming from a grounded and present place?
·      In what ways can you see yourself growing?

Breaking Old Habits & Developing New Ones

It is through the Montessori curriculum that we meet the children in their heart spaces. As servants and stewards, we worship the child not the curriculum - children first then content, hearts first then minds.

How we frame the energy of our classrooms and the work that goes on in there is truly as important a component to "preparation of the environment" as is where the shelving is placed. 

Discipline is problem solving.

Discipline is more often about letting go and giving in.

Our goal is to become meaningfully attached to the children with whom we work, a system synergy.

·      What do you wish for in that relationship?
·      How would it feel?
·      In five, ten, fifteen years, what memories would you like to have made of the experience?

So often with issues of discipline we can get caught up in what the child is doing or not doing relative to our desires and expectations.

But here’s the thing: 
It’s not about us. 
It’s about being ready for them.

Seeing the Child Anew

We can be champions of our students' thirst to learn and experience the universe around them. We can stand beside them as they call out to their muse in search of beauty, liberty, trust, and joy!

Say Yes More

Anticipate the Struggle

Be Uncomfortable

Take Risks

“Sit on Your Hands” 

Choose Carefully When, Where and Why You Intervene

Let It Go

Broaden Your Definition of Work

Start Seeing “False Fatigue”

Give it time


Rethink Your Use of Consequences 


Discipline re-framed as peace education allows for the chance to teach and experience new ways of being in the world – both for the child and the adults that serve them. When we do this, we walk together towards a brighter horizon.

Additional Resources on Discipline

1. “On Discipline – Reflections and Advice” by Maria Montessori

2. “The Montessori Approach to Discipline” by Mary Conroy and Kitty Williams Bravo 

3. “Freedom and Discipline” by Marcie Hogan

4. “Liberty and Discipline in the Montessori Classroom”

5. “Freedom and Responsibility: A Life in Balance” by Seth D. Webb

(This post includes excerpts from a staff development training given on August 7th, 2013).

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