Freedom Within Limits
“The liberty of the child ought to have as its limits the collective interest of the community in which he moves; its form is expressed in what we call manners and good behaviour. It is our duty then to protect the child from doing anything which may offend or hurt others. But as regards all else, every action that has a useful purpose, whatever it may be and in whatever forms it shows itself, ought not only to be permitted, but it ought to be kept under observation, that is the essential point.”
- Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child.
As a new school we often show parents around who are intrigued by the serene nature of our classrooms. This often leads on to questions about behaviour management and how we set boundaries.
I decided to write this post to address how Montessori deals with behaviour. As a parent and educator it is a topic that I often reflect and revisit frequently. I hope this post can give an insight in to the Montessori approach to dealing with young children who often have very big emotions!
The first thing to note, is that when Montessori spoke of discipline, she focused on the inner discipline of the child. The term isn’t really used in the traditional sense, i.e. as a way to correct behaviour.
So how does discipline work? Well, let’s start by thinking about the aim of traditional discipline (I am thinking of naughty steps and time out). Is the aim to punish?
I think this is where the problem lies, surely the aim should be to teach the child?
If we used the concept of teaching, putting a child in a time out teaches them very little. In fact the one thing it does teach, is that when we are upset with somebody we send them away. I think we can all agree that really isn’t creating a productive way of dealing with conflict!
There are a number of myths about Montessori education. One is that Montessori education is too structured and controlled. Another is that children are allowed to do whatever they want. Instead, Montessori education embodies an important concept. The concept of freedom within limits. So who defines these limits? Well, as an educator, it is the teachers and at home it is the parents.
Montessori introduced three set limits upon which a classrooms ground rules are based. These limits are; respect for oneself, respect for others and respect for your environment.
In the first place, respect for oneself refers to teaching children how to work safely and productively in the Montessori classroom. Children are free to choose their activities, provided that they have been shown a presentation of the activity, and know how to use the materials respectfully to avoid self-harm.
Furthermore, respect for others incorporates social skills and good behaviour. Children can choose to work independently or in small groups; however, they must be invited to work with another child, and must not interfere with another child’s work. All children must show respect for others within their classroom community.
Finally, respect for the environment relates to the proper care for everything within the Montessori classroom. This includes the proper use of the Montessori materials, packing away, and taking care of all things living and non-living within the environment.
So now we all know how this works in a classroom, how does this translate to home?
It’s a good question, and one I often ask myself when dealing with the extreme emotions of my two year old. How can I, as a parent, create and manage these limits at home?
I was having a very interesting conversation with one of our teachers on this very topic. She explained it in a way that made absolute sense to me. If a child is acting in a way that you are unsure of whether you need to intervene ask yourself a very simple question. “Is their behaviour affecting another’s freedom?”
So for example if they are enthusiastically playing with their marble run (read banging it against the wall!) Is that harming anybody?
Well actually no, but their actions are stopping others enjoying the freedom to use that material, as it may break. My five year old would not have been happy to have come home to find it broken!
As well as preventing his older brother from enjoying the marble run, my two year old is disrespecting his environment. In this scenario, as a parent, I need to intervene as his actions are impinging on another’s freedom.
So, what does that intervention look like? Well, we are aiming to teach and not discipline so it would be showing my son the correct way to use the marble run.
If he continues to disrespect the material after being shown, I would let him know that he is not ready for that particular activity and place it back on the shelf. I could then introduce another suitable activity.
If the marble run is damaged (this is quite often the case), there is no punishment, no chastising or time outs. Rather a Montessori approach would allow the child to appreciate the natural consequence. For the above example, they would be asked to help to fix the material etc.
To summarise I would say freedom is allowed and encouraged as long as it is within acceptable limits. Those limits are defined as above, and set by the teachers or parents. If the child struggles to keep within a limit, a natural consequence and not a punishment should be applied.
I know as a parent it is often difficult to react calmly in the midst of a tantrum. I hope this post helps you to be more reflective of the limits that we set our children.
Please comment below if there are any more topics that you would like me to write about. I am off to rescue our marble run…