Bringing Montessori Discipline into the Home

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how to have a “Montessori home”. If you have your kids in a Montessori school, most likely the school director and teachers have encouraged you to bring Montessori principles into your home to provide your child with consistency and stability. And if you’re homeschooling using Montessori, it’s only natural that you want your home to be Montessori through and through.

Implementing that can be difficult, though. A school has built-in controls: positive peer pressure and the example of older kids; a full complement of Montessori materials; and most of all, at school it’s all-Montessori-all-the-time, whereas home has to be a flexible place where dozens of real life activities happen. Kids are usually more comfortable and relaxed in their own homes with their families, which is great, but it also means they’re more comfortable trying out negative behaviors at home – behaviors that they might keep under wraps when they’re at school.

In my Montessori training, I learned about the ideas of the American psychologist Rudolph Dreikurs. He believed that children’s behavior was best corrected by realistic consequences, rather than unrelated rewards or punishments. For example, a child who habitually was late getting ready for school should be allowed to be late enough to miss their ride/bus, rather than be punished by grounding, etc. In this way they experience the natural consequences of their behavior, which leads them to make the decision to get up on time. While I’m sure that Dreikurs and Montessori wouldn’t agree on everything, he has some really good ideas that can be expanded to fit a wide variety of discipline situations.

When using the “consequences” system of discipline, it can help greatly to involve the child. For instance, there may be certain behaviors without obvious, immediate, negative consequences (like teasing a sibling). In this case, it helps to sit down with the child when the negative behavior isn’t happening and have them come up with a consequence that they will face when they misbehave. That way, they are taking responsibility for their own behavior. It also gives them a feeling of control over the situation, which can alleviate some of the insecurities that drive the negative behavior in the first place.

It is incredibly important for parents to be consistent: consistent from day to day, and consistent from parent to parent. Many times my husband and I have supported each other’s decisions in front of our kids even if one of us was thinking that we didn’t necessarily agree with the other one. We’ve never been divided in front of the kids on discipline issues (but we’ve had many intense behind-the-scenes discussions!).

Just as important is consistency with the way the child is treated at school. Having a completely different set of expectations at home is confusing for the child and makes things difficult in both environments. At one school where I worked, we had a little boy in our class who had much difficulty listening to directions and obeying. I’ll never forget one Monday morning: the classroom door opened and there stood the mom, holding the little boy in her arms. He was squirming and fussing, and she said, “We spoiled him all weekend. Now he’s yours” and thrust him into my arms. Immediately I understood why he was so unsettled all the time.

In this situation, there was no way that we, as teachers, could correct for the attitude of the parents. The child was receiving conflicting messages, and confusion was the only result. This makes it harder for the parents and the teachers; normalizing the child’s behavior is the result of constructive discipline at school and at home. The school cannot bear the entire responsibility of teaching healthy behaviors.

Something else to be mindful of is that you can change a child’s outward behavior (forcing them to do something) without changing their minds. This is most common when the method of control includes yelling, shaming, and threats. Sure, they’ll obey, but they won’t internalize the correct behavior for themselves. Instead, child need to experience the consequences of their behavior, with support and encouragement from their parents.

Last, it’s a common saying that we should “catch a child doing something right”. I’m not in favor of constantly lavishing them with praise, but most definitely they need to hear positive feedback when they do make correct choices. It can be as simple as, “I noticed that you let your brother choose a cookie first. That was very mature of you” – said quietly and privately. Kids need that, not only to build self-esteem but also as a way to know when they have made the right choice. After awhile they are able to recognize good decisions for themselves.

It may be a bit cliche, but there are times when I’m frustrated with my kids and think, “What would Maria Montessori do?”. Perhaps she would take a deep breath, step back, and try to figure out what the child’s behavior was the result of. Maybe she would offer a new work or activity, knowing that a child is soothed by the routine of completing the work cycle. And sometimes, she might suggest that they just need to get outside and run.

Whatever the case, she knew that the child’s most important teachers are the parents or parental figures; they lay the foundation that others build upon. Through loving consistency and natural consequences, this foundation can be a strong one that results in a normalized, healthy child who considers the needs of others before his own.

Recommended Resources:

Logical Consequences: The New Approach to Discipline by Rudolph Dreikurs
Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful by Donna Bryant Goertz