Self-Discipline in the First Plane of Development: “Help me to be responsible by myself”

By Rhonda Lucas-Sabater

“We must help the child liberate himself from his defects without making him feel his weakness.” Maria Montessori

            For the child in the First Plane (0-6), discipline goes hand in hand with freedom and responsibility; and by discipline, we mean self-discipline. We prepare the environment in a way that gives the child the freedom to make choices within the limits that we set. When she is able to make choices, she develops the ability to act with responsibility. The more opportunity he has to make choices, the more he develops self-confidence and becomes more responsible with his actions. Self-discipline gradually develops as she learns the natural consequences of the choices that she makes. Being able to make choices allows him to learn first hand how his actions impact the people around him.

           Self-Discipline is a process that needs to be nurtured from birth and it begins when the child is born. Our job as parents and teachers is to help the child begin to control her impulses and understand what is expected in the variety of situations that she may encounter as she grows. A few basic things to remember as we consider self-discipline in the First Plane, is that your child wants to understand the world around him, the routines and rhythms of daily life. It would be helpful for him if we were able to make the routines consistent and clear to him. We want to also remember that movement is crucial to the development of bodily control. If his need for movement is met from the very beginning, then it becomes easier for him to restrain himself or follow your simple instructions when self-discipline is needed. In the Montessori classroom, the Grace and Courtesy lessons are the means that we use to convey what the limits and expectations are within the environment.

Our role as parents and teachers it to help the child develop self-discipline, and here are some important points to consider that will be helpful in this process:

Create an environment that fosters self-discipline with activities that appeal to your child

  • Provide activities that relate to looking after herself and caring for the environment because this is how she learns that the family is a place where everyone cooperates and takes responsibility.
  • This is how she builds relationships with the environment and the people around her.
  • Dusting, sweeping, folding and putting away clothes, preparing food, setting the table, washing and drying dishes, gardening, sweeping the walkway, raking leaves, shopping, carrying and putting away food, organizing cupboards
  • Remember that her focus is on the process, not the outcome.

Create an environment that fosters self-discipline with a friendly attitude towards mistakes

  • We need to remember that mistakes are part of the learning process and we want him to know that we love him unconditionally.
  • Responding to his mistakes without scolding or anger teaches him that love is not tied to accomplishments or behavior. 
  • In fact, she is learning that love is the bedrock and foundation for self-esteem and security. 
  • Letting her know that we all make mistakes in a very matter of fact way and then showing her how to clean up/put it to rights.

Create an environment that fosters self-discipline where inner motivation is nurtured

  • Two key ingredients in order for him to develop self-discipline: motivation and choice.
  • When you offer choice and notice his interests then that choice of activity is what helps him learn new skills.
  • Make sure the activities you offer have some degree of challenge and be sure to demonstrate the activity first, then offer it to him.

Create an environment that fosters self-discipline with clear and consistent limits.

  • Setting limits is what frees her and leads to his independence because you are teaching her a basic life lesson-- that we can’t have everything we want.
  • Find the balance between being overly demanding and not having limits at all.
  • Decide what limits fit your family and adjust the rules as the children grow.
  • Remember that he needs to feel your respect in order for the limit setting to be effective.
  • You want to encourage her to make the right choices and then you need to convey to her that she is on the right path when she makes that choice.
  • It’s always a good idea to make sure that the environment really supports the limits, so use household items and toys for their intended purpose and let her see this from the beginning.
  • Model, maintain and create order in the home (minimize the his choices and make sure you do as you want him to do--children learn what they see)
  • When you do have to discipline, use positive language to redirect her (say what you want her to do rather than order her to do something; keep the focus on what you’re are doing instead of what you’re are not doing; remove the item from her as calmly as possible, if it is being mishandled/misused and get her to help clean up).

Offer engaging activities

  • Show him the process before expecting him to do it. Be sure to demonstrate slowly and follow a clear sequence. 
  • Keep your actions separate from your words; you can’t expect him to listen to you and watch you at the same time. 
  • Use eye contact and smiles to keep him engaged. 
  • You will need to be involved in doing the activity with her at first until she chooses and is able to work without your assistance.

Offer choices when appropriate

  • Young children need opportunities to practice and develop the skill of making choices, working up to more and more difficult choices. 
  • Be very clear in your expectations. 
  • Offer choices only if you intend for him to have a real choice between two possibilities. Only offer choices with two positive alternatives. 
  • A handful of choices a day in the beginning is enough; too many choices can be overwhelming to him.

Limit inappropriate behavior

  • Try to be preventative by maintaining consistency with routines: regular sleep times, regular meals and time together, rest and proper nutrition.
  • Create transitions or signals to help ease him into the new activity and try not to switch between too many activities throughout the day.
  • Doing this provides a basic foundation which gives the child the opportunity to develop the ability to inhibit her impulses more and more but not if she is hungry, tired or overstimulated.
  • Attempt to control your own actions when you are angry because he is modeling his behavior on what he sees you do.
  • Setting and maintaining the limits for appropriate behavior is what helps her feel safe and secure and develop trust in the adults and the environment; she needs to know that you are in charge when it comes to safety; she can tell when you are serious about limits.

Offer encouragement, not empty praise

  • Helping him develop confidence and a positive self-image that comes from inside and not from external sources will go a long way.
  • Be sure that we are not being insincere, manipulative or critical when we speak to him
  • Focus on the action or the effort, not the person; nurture empathy in her (her actions, not feelings); quietly observe your child (they do not expect praise, but they can come to if that is the pattern that you create); express gratitude when she does something you like; observe her actions rather than evaluating them because an observation may build interest whereas a judgment can be discouraging, even if it is a positive comment.

Accept that rewards (and punishment) don’t work

  • If the activity is engaging enough, the reward for him is in the doing it. Research actually shows that when children are rewarded for doing an activity that they like, their motivation for the activity actually decreases.

“No one who has ever done anything really great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a ‘reward’ or by fear of what we call a ‘punishment’…Every victory and every advance in human progress comes from an inner compulsion.” Maria Montessori
  • Punishment tells the child what not to do, and does not empower him or tell him what to do.
  • Oftentimes makes a small problem bigger.
  • The child may remember the punishment and may not connect it to the behavior that triggered it.
  • Need to help the child figure out what the appropriate behavior should be before they encounter the situation; make sure the limits are clear and that the child can follow them; try to prevent things before they happen—look for patterns, triggers, etc.
  • The moment you feel the child is sorry, be ready to forgive. Usually the child is seeking attention, or trying to avoid something or is trying to stimulate himself in some way. 

Aid to Life: Self-Discipline; edited by Louise Livingston and Barbara Kahn;
North American Montessori Teachers Association; 2011 AMI

Rhonda Lucas-Sabater is an AMI trained Primary (3-6 years old) guide and currently works as a Primary guide.  She is the mother of five Montessori children and the co-founder of a public charter Montessori school in Washington, DC.  She is also AMI trained at the Assistants to Infancy (O-3) and Elementary (6-12) levels and is an AMI certified Adolescent guide.

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