Reflections on Discipline in Montessori Primary Education

Have you ever wondered about classroom management and how a guide keeps chaos from reigning in the class? During training we were just presented with the three rules of work and the three rules of intervention, next came positive phrasing, these all seem like wonderful but not powerful tools. Even now, after working in the early education field, I completely agree with all that I have read regarding freedom, discipline, limits, independence and liberty.

I appreciate the open ended nature of Montessori’s theory and interpretation, that limits are based on the individual and the situation so they are flexible – this is a far cry from the conventional method of managing a classroom eg: when you talk in class you are sent to the principal – regardless of the reason of talking (someone could be hitting you and you say stop versus a snide remark to someone) or the blanket punishment and reward system (everyone on the boat either floats or sinks together).

I also think that Montessori’s interpretation of discipline takes a great deal of pressure off of all involved. When it is no longer something imposed by an adult the adult is empowered to look at different avenues to assist a child in navigating discipline (especially emotionally) and observe the child as an individual (there is no longer a “blanket policy” on discipline in a sense) and realize that discipline is a development within the child that they internally achieve and outwardly manifest. The pressure of immobility and silence is taken off of the child, which is often illogically doled out.

All of these are wonderful ideas and ways to discuss these often volatile topics, however; I remain skeptical. I do not assume that Montessori literally “wrote the book” or that her observations are carved in stone. I strongly believe in individualism and so most of these appeal to me because it honors where each individual child is in the process, but I also a concerned that this method takes at its premise that Montessori’s observations are absolute, that children only develop and manifest as she observed, or her colleagues observed and that her writings contain all there is to know. This can’t possibly be true to me because I believe in evolution; I believe in the fluctuation of truth and the inaccuracies of perception and most importantly the fallibility of each individual – myself at the top of the list. I do not want to step into my Montessori classroom and be blindsided by truths not conceived, or to feel like I am drowning without a life jacket.

Parenting has also evolved and with the advent of portable technology (idevices of all devise) childhood has morphed, patience has shortened and tolerance to distraction has become very limited.  There are variables at work today that Montessori did not encounter and possibly could not have conceived. However, I believe that a home-life that embraces the fundamentals of Montessori can help combat some of the variances children experience these days.

The Theory of Freedom and Discipline in Education

Freedom and discipline are naturally at odds in the conventional system of rearing or educating children, a child only discpobtains freedom from the adult after a show of discipline which usually involves immobility and silence. These two requirements of discipline are at their core in direct opposition to the child in the first plane and their sensitive period for movement (making a child immobilized is at obvious odds) and order (often times an adult imposes discipline upon a child with no rhyme or reason, no logic and seldom does the “punishment” fit the crime). Another consideration is the absorbent mind that has taken in snapshots of the environment, including the adult’s own “disciplined behavior” which seldom, if ever, involves immobility and silence imposed by others. Adults tend to discuss their “will” and “discipline”, their self-control as their own exertion over themselves, “Mommy isn’t having a piece of cake because she is dieting”.

The new interpretation of discipline and the resulting interpretation of freedom no longer juxtaposes them during conversation, instead they become intertwined and codependent with different denotations. Freedom becomes the internal knowledge, developed from experiences, that one can make choices and follow through on them. It is an internal state best summed up by the idea that even when the body is imprisoned by others, by ailments, we can still have a “mind that is free”, others cannot take away our thoughts, our feelings, or our emotions – we poses these and therefore freedom at its root can never be taken away from or granted to someone because it is a state of being.

Discipline is then a preparation for living and making choices. It is a way to educate children and ourselves, a developmental potential guided by natural laws (for children in the first plane that can be the sensitive period for movement) that undergoes a process of learning. The outer manifestation of discipline is an external window to these internal processes that are ongoing. In meditation the practitioner first allows themselves movement through yoga, readying the body for long periods of immobility, and then they discipline the mind by becoming aware of their thoughts without becoming entrapped or attached to them. This discipline allows for freedom and the realization of atman, the “true self”, a realization of the cosmic connection, an attainment of Samadhi or bliss. It very closely parallels Montessori’s belief that spontaneous self-discipline is an outcome of normalization.

Within this discussion, freedom and discipline are regulated by liberty and limits. Liberty, when given in a complete and non-lacking way supports the development of both freedom and discipline. It is closely connected to choice and action, and has an implication of permission (eg: “How dare you take such a liberty!” meaning you were not given permission to act in that way). Limits are set with the goal to protect the environment and individuals, defined by the context of a situation and based on the capacity of the individual to understand them, act independently and adhere to their parameters; this makes them flexible and varied.

At the heart of all of these ideas is independence. As an individual’s independence increases the personal limitations to their freedom, their ability to make choices lessens, more opportunities exist. Just as the student who completes a degree has lessened the limits of their personal knowledge the limits to the jobs they can attain are lessened. When they are given the liberty to apply to multiple jobs they are also now capable of the freedom to choose which job suits them best, which has better benefits. The freedodiscplinem to choose their job would not have been available to them if they had not independently sought out education and lessened their personal limitation of pertinent knowledge. It is that same freedom that allows them to think about the consequences of choosing one job over the other; less time at home versus more money, less time at home and the possibility of an unhappy marriage, etc.

This new interpretation of freedom and discipline seems straight forward at its roots. When Patrick Henry and others before him proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death” they were spot on. Liberty is something that can be granted, without it the ability to make a reasoned choice (freedom), the ability to control oneself and follow through on that choice (discipline) and even independence (the ability to act for oneself without reliance on others) is for naught. Without the complete and necessary granting of liberty to an individual, all of the internal self-development is a means to no end; the individual metaphorically dies and in the context of Montessori possibly deviates. A Casa guide must be fully aware of this paradigm for it is one very important facet of the prepared environment.

In Conclusion

Since I am relatively at the beginning of my journey as an AMI Primary guide, with a Masters of Education, I really can not say from heaps of experience if this works.  I do know from experience as a mother to three children, a secondary education teacher, an afterschool program director and the instructor for hundreds of children’s fitness classes, that the conventional beliefs that discipline can be taught, freedom is something you can give a child and that rewards/punishments work are not all they are cracked up to be.