Freedom and Discipline in the Montessori Classroom

I am often asked questions regarding the relationship between freedom and discipline in the Montessori classroom. Questions such as, “How do you get the children to behave?” and comments such as, “Montessorians are so strict” or “Montessori classrooms embrace freedom and so children are allowed to do anything they want, right?”  have inspired me to write about the theory behind what we do in the classroom and the important relationship between freedom and discipline. It is the balance of the two that allows Montessori classrooms to function as they do.

Maria Montessori wholeheartedly believed that “discipline must come through liberty.” (Montessori, 1964) This philosophy frequents her writings and is supported by implementation of the Montessori method. Without liberty, a child is not truly the master of himself and discipline is a product of passivity as opposed to activity. It is important that the adults in a particular environment respond to this inner need in their attitudes toward the child and in preparation of the environment. The word liberty, as used in a Montessori classroom, refers to an environment in which children can converse with each other, they can work in a self-decided location, they can get a drink of water and care for their own environment, they can ask questions and move about (to name a few examples). This alternative to the traditional desire for discipline (immobility, passivity, silence) respects and acknowledges a child’s inner desire for self-control and results in an inner discipline that extends far beyond the classroom.

There is a difference between Montessori’s view of the disciplined child and that of the traditional educator. To Montessori, a child becomes disciplined, “when he is master of himself and can, therefore, regulate his own conduct when it shall be necessary to follow some rule of life” (Montessori, 1964) Notice that Montessori mentions “rules of life.” The children must still follow rules. This mastery does not come to the child, however, as he sits still in an adult-regulated space. It comes through activity, through practice. Montessori opposed any method that rendered a child silent and immobile. This puts a damper on the spontaneous activity of a growing child and his/her inner drive to become independent. Montessori believed that the way to discipline is through work and activity.

By preparing an environment of meaningful work and giving the children the liberty to work, an adult can remove impediments to successful development. Montessori wrote, “We have made contribution to the cause of goodness by removing obstacles which were the cause of violence and rebellion.” (Montessori, 1967) In a Montessori classroom, children who are allowed to develop their own self-control attain liberty through the ability to “rid themselves of those many disorderly and unconscious tendencies that necessarily place [them] under the strict and continuous control of adults.” (Montessori, 1967) It is beneficial for the child to learn how to control himself. For if he masters himself, he will be free.

Skeptics of this method of discipline might find it interesting to note that children actively “submit themselves to this process of maturing.” (Montessori, 1967) Most will respond willingly after being shown the way and then left free to practice. This is the difference between “imposing the will and power of an adult upon the child…thus guiding him in all his actions” and in allowing the child to actively apply what he has been shown. (Montessori, 1967) Liberty is, in Montessori’s words, “a condition most favorable to [the child’s] physiological and psychological development.” (Montessori, 1967) Instead of rebelling against a restrictive force, the child finds spiritual satisfaction in the development of himself. Montessori claims that the experience can be positive in that “the more intelligent his acts are the more he finds repose in them.” (Montessori, 1964) Discipline can actually be something that feels good. Discipline is for “activity, for work, for good; not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience.” (Montessori, 1964)

Freedom in a Montessori classroom is not, however, without limits. This is the common misconception: that children can run around doing entirely as they please. In a Montessori classroom, it is hoped that children will instead find activities useful to their development and will thus be drawn to things beneficial (not obstructive) to life. The purpose of limits is to protect the collective interest of the children. A teacher must stop inappropriate behaviors. These actions can, however, be corrected if the child’s will is given the freedom to develop. Montessori believed that discipline rests largely on the “capacity to perform the act it becomes necessary to obey.” (Montessori, 1964) An environment that offers the freedom to carry out various activities and to practice necessary skills is conducive to the discipline of children. If children could articulate the presence of freedom in the classroom, they would say, “It is not that we do as we like, but we like what we do.” (Montessori, 1967)

The relationship between freedom and discipline is an essential element in Montessori’s vision for a child’s self-development. By preparing an environment in which children are allowed to make choices for themselves, the will of the child can develop appropriately and the child will most likely find repose in doing things that are beneficial. Montessori also emphasized that discipline is a process of activity which involves active negotiation in a particular environment. Gradually, as the child learns how to master himself, he will be free from the confines of adult direction. If a child is given the liberty to develop necessary skills, this will lead to an ultimately greater freedom, a freedom that extends far beyond the classroom.

Written by Erin Salter, Lead Elementary Teacher

Sources of Maria Montessori quotes: The Absorbent Mind, The Discovery of the Child, Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook and The Montessori Method