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This article from Tomorrow’s Child begins with the premise that today people assume that discipline is something imposed from without by an authority figure. Discipline in the Montessori environment is not something that is done to the child, nor is it a technique for controlling behavior. Our concern is with the development of the internal control that enables an individual to choose the right behavior because it is right for both the individual and the community. The role of the teacher is to be a model while supporting the child to the point where the child is able to choose to follow rules of the classroom community. This level of discipline has been reached when children are able to make appropriate behavioral choices even when the adult is not present.

Before the age of three, a child is truly unable to obey unless what is asked happens to correspond with a vital urge of the child. Montessori termed this the first level of obedience. A toddler can obey, but not always. The second level of obedience is reached when the child is capable of understanding another person’s wishes and can express them in her own behavior. When this second level of obedience is reached, most parents would think they had reached their goal. Most parents ask only that children obey.

The goals of Montessori reach beyond this, however, to the third level which Montessori called “joyful obedience”. At this stage the child has internalized obedience where he understands the value of what is being offered to him by authority and willingly obeys. This is not blind obedience at all, but rather is a fully informed choice by a personality that has grown in freedom and developed to its fullest potential. This is what we want for our children. With this level of obedience, or self-discipline, comes a degree of self-respect in which a child cannot help but respect the rights and needs of others. She is able to learn and grow freely in the security of a community of respectful individuals.

One of the secrets of success in the Montessori classroom is freedom within the limits of very clear ground rules, the essence of which are (1) take care of the people and (2) take care of the things. A great amount of time and energy are focused on teaching lessons that demonstrate socially acceptable behavior. Another important consideration is that children have the same range and depth of emotions as adults, but they don’t have the maturity or experience to put these feelings in perspective. The goal of grace and courtesy lessons and conflict resolution techniques is to validate these feelings and give children tools to handle them with success.