Positive Discipline is Key Tool in Building Internally Motivated Children

By Julie Kelly-Detwiler, Assistant Head of School

positive discipline pyramid

Through her years of careful scientific observation, Maria Montessori created a system of educating children that was revolutionary at the time. At the heart of this new direction in education was her understanding that children want to learn, and that a happy, engaged child, is a well-behaved child. Montessori turned the standard approach to discipline on its head when she instructed that in order to respond to a child who was “misbehaving,” we first must look to the environment, then to the teacher, and only then to the child to understand the roots of the problem.

Say, for example, a child is having trouble settling into the morning work cycle or a home routine. One might consider first the environment: Is the environment distracting or not engaging enough? Is there some obstacle in the way of the child’s work? At home, it could be that the snack is just out of reach in the kitchen. At school, it could be that another student is using a material that the child wants to work with.

It is important to make as many observations as possible about the space around the child. Once all environmental observations have been made, one might next consider the teacher or parent: Do they feel prepared for the day? Are they stressed and is it obvious? Are they communicating choices clearly?

Finally, only after all of the above are exhausted would one would consider the child: Is the child upset? Did the child have a tough morning? Is there a learning or sensorial issue to consider? Does the child have needs that aren’t being met?

Montessori did not see children as blank slates to be molded, but rather, as spiritual embryos in need of careful nurturing to grow. If we start with the belief that the child wants to do good, and needs our support to do so, rather than the prevailing idea that the child wants to disrupt and it is our job to stop this, our role as disciplinarian changes dramatically. No longer do we seek to control and incentivize behavior through rewards and punishments, we now seek to partner with the child to support their strong urge to develop into their best selves. A prepared environment, and discipline, in the form of fair and firm boundaries, connection, and encouragement, is essential for this healthy growth to occur.

 The Positive Discipline Model

Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Montessori, held the same fundamental beliefs about discipline as Montessori. Together with Rudolph Dreikers, they created an approach to discipline, which is now referred to as “positive discipline.”

Adler and Dreikers identified the following five criteria for effective discipline:

  1. It helps children feel a sense of connection.

  2. (Belonging and significance)

  3. It is mutually respectful and encouraging.

  4. (Kind and firm at the same time.)

  5. It is effective long-term.

  6. (Considers what the child is thinking, feeling, learning, and deciding about himself and his world – and what to do in the future to survive or to thrive.)

  7. It teaches important social and life skills.

  8. (Respect, concern for others, problem solving, and cooperation as well as the skills to contribute to the home, school or larger community.)

  9. It invites children to discover how capable they are.

  10. (Encourages the constructive use of personal power and autonomy.)

 Practicing Positive Discipline at Inly

This past August, more than 20 Inly faculty members from all levels attended a two-day training on positive discipline. Recently, we chose the book Positive Discipline in the Classroom, for our fall faculty book group discussions, to help us more deeply embed and apply the many principles and strategies this approach has to offer.

Montessori and the positive discipline approach are perfectly complimentary. Jane Nelson, author of the positive discipline book series says, “It is always such a joy for me to work with Montessori teachers and parents because I don’t have to convince them of the importance of treating children with dignity and respect.

“As Maria Montessori said, ‘Discipline must come through liberty. We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.’

“Would that everyone could visit a Montessori school where teachers ‘follow the child,’ and children are engaged in the love of learning. Montessori provides a light of sanity in the world of education.”

Further Resources

If you’d like to learn more about extending this approach into your home, you can read Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson, or visit www.positivediscipline.org.

The Montessori Approach to Discipline” via The Montessori Foundation

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