There are many words you won’t hear in a Montessori classroom, including “naughty.” By labeling behavior– or worse, children– as naughty, we tend to stop trying to understand the causes of behavior and do not think creatively and sympathetically about how we can help our children learn self discipline.
At House on the Hill, Montessori principles guide us in our dealings with frustrating behavior, and as with all Montessori we begin by understanding the child:
1. Children are not naughty or bad.
Children are learning! As they move through the world they are trying to learn for themselves what is right and wrong, they are testing the limits, and they are experimenting with gravity as they throw your precious plates to the ground. This does not mean that their behavior is not incredibly frustrating, it just means we have to work hard to overcome our frustration, understand their behavior, and find solutions
2. Bad behavior calls for connection, not separation.
Time outs separate a child in need from their source of support and guidance. Sometimes as parents or teachers we might feel the need to step back and catch our breath during a tense situation with a child, but that is because we are adults who have learned to regulate our own emotions. Children of this age need help learning this skill, and we shouldn’t punish them or separate them when they need help the most: if they are having a tantrum or are struggling to follow classroom rules.
3. The goal is self-discipline, not obedience.
Many discipline philosophies use charts and rewards to get children to obey. Dr. Montessori taught us that children do not benefit from relying on praise in their work, and the same principle applies to their behavior. Children are capable of self-discipline in which they monitor and adjust their own behavior to fit the rules of the classroom or home.
4. Observation can teach us a lot about a child’s behavior.
When we notice bad behavior our first step should be to observe and ask more questions, not to jump to a conclusion and a punishment. We should ask ourselves:
a. Are their basic needs met? Hungry, sleepy, or need-to-go-potty children feel quite uncomfortable, and before they learn to take care of their bodies this discomfort can lead to behaviors that we might find quite frustrating (not sitting still, whining, not listening, bothering their friends). We should help them meet these needs and look for patterns of hunger and sleepiness so we can prevent the behavior in the future.
b. What are they trying to do? A big part of our work is teaching children appropriate ways to get someone’s attention or which materials they can use to fulfil their sensory curiosity. Sometimes a bad behavior can be transformed once the child has a better way of reaching their goal.
c. How can I prevent this behavior? Consider small tweaks in the child’s schedule to get them home before they are too tired, or shift the furniture in their environment so they cannot run through the house at full speed.
These guiding principles shape how we interact with children and correct inappropriate behavior. When our own emotions are running high it can be difficult to think about what is best for the child, and we should always begin by calming ourselves down first. One way to remain calm is to have a plan. Use our tips about these common behavioral issues to help you plan:
1. Repeated rule breaking: When a child repeatedly breaks the same rule ask yourself if you’ve done these things:
- Explain to the child why the rule exists in practical and understandable words. “We don’t leave our toys on the stairs because we could trip and hurt ourselves.”
- Set up a natural, related, and enforceable consequence to breaking the rules. For example, when children wear their muddy shoes in the house they have to help mop and sweep up their mess. Soon they’ll remember to take off their shoes!
2. Tantrums: the best tantrum is the one that does not happen, but even when they cannot be prevented don’t panic!
- Prevent as much as possible by knowing your child’s triggers, being empathetic, and redirecting them. If they tend to melt down when they get hungry at 3 p.m., pack snacks for school pick up. If they are getting upset, get on their level and label their emotions for them; they’ll feel more understood when you say “You’re angry because you can’t go to the playground right now.” And if possible, redirect them to another outlet; “I can’t let you run through the grocery store right now but I will time you for 1 minute as you run in place.”
- When tantrums do occur, be with your child and help them regulate their emotions. Cuddles or telling them that you’re there when they are ready let them know that you are not abandoning them, even at their worst. You could consider having a calm corner where you go together to do breathing or coloring.
- Once they are calm, help them make amends where necessary– apologizing to the sibling they hurt, or cleaning up the mess they made– and then move on.
3. Defiance: “no” is a fun word to say, but not fun to negotiate when you need to get out the door and to that appointment on time.
- We all– children and adults alike– have days when we do not want to do what we are supposed to. When your child refuses to put away their toys, try to be empathetic. “I know you want to keep playing, sometimes I don’t want to stop my work either.”
- In Montessori we value giving children freedom within limits and choice. Consider giving an option, “you can clean up now or in 5 minutes.” Be clear about what the limits of their freedom are, “toys must be kept nicely when time is up. You can pack up the toys now, or I will put them away for the rest of the week.”
- Give your child encouragement that motivates them to keep up their good behavior. Praise will teach them to do things for your approval, but encouragement and thoughtful remarks about their efforts will help them develop self-discipline.
What challenges are you facing at home with behavior? Montessori provides a way forward that centers the needs of the child and brings peace to your home. We encourage you to chat with your teachers and House on the Hill staff about any challenges you may be facing, and you can read more on our blog about how to incorporate Montessori in other aspects of your life!