A Montessori Framework for Discipline

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How to effectively approach discipline was the most requested discussion in our Family Framework parent community page, and as a parent myself, I can relate. Particularly when my firstborn reached the age culturally framed as “the terrible twos,” I remember feeling conflicted on this. Something that I assumed would come intuitively did not. I have since gained an understanding of how our family can best approach discipline, but I still find myself wanting to engage in this topic because it is not stagnant. Promoting discipline is a longer journey and the ways we respond to and support it must evolve to reflect our children’s growth.  

I also found myself struggling with discipline more during this year’s pandemic. The strain felt from navigating COVID-19 unsurprisingly resulted in higher stress levels. When children detect and adopt parental stress, they often react by engaging in challenging behaviors that parents know we must stop but wish to do so in a way that is not only effective but also respectful, empathetic and grounding. Yet this is no easy feat! We may grow discouraged when our responses do not reflect our intentions or when our children do not react as we expect. Remember, it is a journey for parents, too.  

So, I'll be working alongside the Guidepost Team to launch a new Discipline Guide, where we will continue this conversation across a series. It is one thing to discuss discipline; it’s another thing to practice it! This series will first frame an understanding of discipline and then will also offer concrete tips for at-home implementation.  

First, let’s talk discipline 

During the age society deems the “terrible twos,” our framing and understanding of discipline is critical. If we approach discipline on the basis that it is “us vs. them,” then we are nurturing an environment primed for power struggles. Toddlers are not terrible, and such labeling may seem harmless but in fact influences us to see our children as “being bad." When we decide that our child’s behavior is consciously bad, we react on the assumption that our children should know better and in doing so, we miss an opportunity to model, guide, and teach the concrete emotional skills that they are only at the very beginning of acquiring. 

Bad and good are abstract concepts to young children who are still developing their internal moral compasses. When we get stuck at the surface of seeing our children’s behaviors as “bad” or “naughty,” it is easy to associate discipline with conventional punishment and top-down control. True discipline, however, is not centered on punishment. It is about teaching, meeting our children where they are, refraining from judgment, and asking how we can better guide them so that they can grow into individuals who choose what is culturally “good” and “right” by way of their own processing – not because someone else has told them what is good and right.  

This framing is what Montessori emphasized one century ago with her focus on developing motivation in children intrinsically, rather than externally.  Meaningful discipline comes from within the child’s own processing; it does not come from blind obedience to the words of an adult. Hence, in a Montessori classroom, children are not told what to do; they are shown what to do. So how do we support this as parents? 

Here are 5 key tips from one of our early childhood AMI-trained educators, Berenice Saint-Saens, on how parents can effectively and respectively shift from framing discipline as something we train a child to do to instead something that we guide our children to learn.  

Think proactive, not reactive 

“As Montessorians, we do a lot of external support so that the child can build the internal skills of self-regulation and self-discipline, and we do that by preparing their environment and setting a strong foundation of love and trust.”  

Discipline itself is not a preferred term that Berenice uses in her work with parents because it unfortunately comes with so many reactionary, negative connotations today. If discipline isn’t about blind obedience, control, or punishment, but rather about teaching, then we should focus on the tools that do just that – guide, model, and teach. What are these proactive tools that lead to inner discipline? Berenice says it goes back to the same key pillars of

  • Establishing a consistent, grounded routine  
  • Preparing a home environment with freedoms and limits  
  • Identifying and consistently enforcing boundaries 

Bridge the cultural disconnect between discipline and love 

For parents, the idea of enforcing some of these proactive tools with clear limits and boundaries can feel like gestures we do apart from loving and respecting them, which makes it easy for us to waver. In reality, being firm and consistent in our expectations, routines, limits and boundaries is rooted in a deeper, healthier love and respect. 

“There’s this idea that we have to show our love to children by giving them these monster hugs and doing dramatic gestures or happy dances – but we also show love by having boundaries. Children feel love through our boundaries. Think about the relationships that you have as an adult. My closest friends aren’t the ones who only ever compliment or flatter me, but my closest friends are the ones who are reliable, who are loyal, and who I can count on no matter what comes next in life.”  

Observe more, assume less

This is arguably easier when it comes to nurturing inner discipline within the community setting inherent in a Montessori classroom, where guides have concrete training and tangible practice implementing a whole curriculum of Grace and Courtesy. Guides and peers reinforce the cultural norms of positive interactions, and guides offer formal presentations that further equip children with positive social skills. As parents, we don’t necessarily follow the same formal trajectory as educators who objectively observe and guide children, but such formality of intentionally observing free of judgment is an aspect that we can and should intentionally practice at home! 

“Sometimes we get caught in a negative feedback cycle. Children have a lot of natural energy, and Montessori writes about these human tendencies we have to explore, go out, move, orient ourselves in the world around us. If these natural energies are not directed to purposeful and engaging work, then it is an energy our children will pour into a negative outlet. This can be a vicious cycle because it is easy to assume, ‘My child is not ready for that.’ When we assume, we have not objectively observed the child’s current interests or capabilities, and then that child can’t fulfill their drive for more challenging work. Therefore, the child cannot reach a peaceful state.” 

Actively seek neutral moments

It is easy as parents to draw attention to moments that we would label challenging, undesirable, or bad, because those are the moments that most bother us and that we want desperately to overcome. Berenice cautions that this contradiction can lead to an imbalance whereby children observe they only receive attention when they do something undesirable and therefore they will repeat the “bad” behavior in order to continue getting our attention.  

“Something we do in our training is to guide our educators to give positive attention in neutral moments. It could be a smile, laughing at a joke – gestures that acknowledge the child and show them we value them just as they are, and that we don’t only see them when they are doing something bad.”  

Acknowledge their earliest drive for independence

Berenice added that there is some overlap worth noting between our young children and our older adolescents: a strong developmental need to be independent. 

“Dr. Montessori breaks down childhood into four developmental planes, and interestingly a lot of the hardships in adolescence ring parallel to infancy and young children. Both are living in a world created for adults. Our society is a big “no” for young children, yet they want to imitate us and gain independence. This is at the root of a lot of the conflicts we see in this first plane of development, and it surfaces even with babies when they want to freely move and crawl, but we as the adults hinder their movements because we deem it unsafe."  

With toddlers specifically, this desire for independence intensifies. If we overlook this aspect of their development and don’t make changes to help them orient as individuals, we can find ourselves navigating more power struggles, which leads us to overstep when what the child actually needs is for us to step back.  

Pause, reflect, and ask, “How can I remove myself and better help my child be successful with this?”  

In This Series:

"Positive Discipline with Whole.Child.Home"
"How To Set Limits with Ms Krys"
"How to Bridge Discipline from School to Home with Ms. Brittany"
"How to Approach a Disciplined Dinner with Ms. Jennifer"
"How to Avoid Punishment and What to do Instead"

Guidepost Montessori is a a global network of schools serving 3,500+ families with early education programs, including Emergency Care for Essential Workers (ECEW) during the COVID-19 crisis. Looking for more free content? Download Guidepost Parent from the App Store for personalized Montessori inspiration and activities.

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