Explaining “Why” Is an Investment

June 12, 2008

I recently gave 10 parents a tour of the school I work for.  I explained the concepts that set Montessori apart from other pre-schools, pointed out the materials used in the classroom, and reviewed a typical day in the life of a Montessori child.  During a question and answer session at the end of the tour, a parent asked me how we disciplined the children.  I told them the truth: we don’t.  Children discipline themselves.

The Montessori philosophy requires limits (rules) in the classroom, among them: how to carry a chair, how to interact with classmates, and how to use the materials.  While a few limits are established by the guide (such as when they can eat lunch, the fact that they can’t have cartoon characters on their clothes, etc.), most limits are set by the environment.  

What does this mean?  Take, for example, the limit on how to carry a tray with materials on it.  Children who are new to the Montessori environment are formally introduced to the classroom materials before they are permitted to manipulate them, because a child who lacks self-discipline is likely to carry the tray haphazardly and run through the classroom.  When the child enters the classroom for the first time, the guide will silently demonstrate how to carry a tray correctly and how to walk in the classroom.  She will explain why the tray should be carried gently and with two hands, and she will explain with very few words that we walk in order to avoid accidents.  The child will also be shown how to clean up a spill if he does have an accident.  

At this point, the responsibility to care for the material has passed from the adult to the child.  From then on, the child will become conscious of his duty to carry the materials correctly, and will control his movements in order to prevent any accidents.  He is developing mastery over his body and actions, which is the core foundation of self-discipline.  

If he ignores this limit, the natural consequences will be that the material will fall off the tray, break, and not be replaced for a few days (or even a few weeks!).  The material, by its fragility, is setting the limits to how the child can move.  He will also have to clean up the spill (another natural consequence and a crucial aspect of building self-discipline) and he’ll have to live with the knowledge that his carelessness has prevented others in the classroom from having access to the material (a great lesson in social responsibility and collective consciousness). 

What he won’t ever experience in a Montessori environment are adults who show lack of trust by repeatedly reminding him to be careful.  Nobody will yell at him, nor will an adult clean up after him (unless broken glass is involved).  Thus, he won’t carry the tray correctly to earn points with the teacher or avoid being admonished.  He’ll do it because he knows it’s the right thing to do and he is aware of the natural consequences of his actions.  

Yes, it takes a bit more energy and dedication on the part of the adult to explain why (sometimes more than once) and to allow natural consequences to occur, but if the result is a child who is self-disciplined and can therefore be set free to safely discover the world around him, then explaining why is time well spent.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this post. You explained the concept very well.

    Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

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