Self-discipline: Montessori and the… ahem… aggressive child.

I am neither proud nor ashamed to admit that I have a child who sometimes tantrums at school, in the process sometimes biting, kicking, and shoving other children. It’s difficult, and we’re working on it. I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here, except that I led a school tour this morning and the prospective parents raised the question of discipline.

“How is discipline handled? Do they do time-outs or is there some other system in place?”

It’s an interesting question. My memories of school are that misbehaviour was punished. (At this point there are those of you who are saying, “well DUH!” stick with me. You might learn something.) I suppose the philosophy there was that the child could control her behaviour if only she wanted to control it. Really, that’s the only circumstance under which punitive discipline can possibly work.

Montessori teachers understand that, given the right environment, all children want to function well socially. Everyone¬†wants to have friends and be happy. So when a child pushes or bites or tantrums, that’s an indication that the child lacks certain skills or abilities to cope in another way. The teachers don’t punish the child; they remove her from the situation, allow her to calm down, and then discuss what happened and what the child could do differently the next time. If a classmate was hurt in the scuffle, the aggressor might help that classmate to feel better, often by getting him an ice pack or a drink of water.

And then, the Montessori teachers do what Montessorians do so well… they watch.

The next time the teachers see this child’s social behaviour begin to deteriorate into aggression, they will quickly step in with a reminder: something simple like, “If you’re starting to feel upset, please take a walk around the classroom.” Over time the teachers will need to step in less frequently as the child become more self-aware and can remind herself of how to cope with rising frustration.

A wonderful benefit of this approach is that a child who is immature or for some other reason has difficulty regulating his own behaviour is never made to feel like a “bad child.” Every student is working on something – some children need more coaching to be able to carry a bowl of water without spilling; another is still learning how to set out his work so that it doesn’t encroach on someone else’s work mat… and one child is learning how to cope with frustration in a way that doesn’t involve pushing or hitting. There’s no particular shame in needing any of those lessons – each child relies on the teacher to help them improve their skills and form their identity.

The word “discipline” is from the same word as “disciple” and both come from a root word that means “to teach.” Yes, our teachers discipline our students… they teach the children to discipline themselves.

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