In The Secret of Childhood, Montessori gives an account of a child placed on what we today might call the ‘naughty/thinking chair’ in the middle of a room – apparently as a punishment for something that s/he had done wrong. Being the scientist, and not satisfied with a single indication that this was possibly not in line with her method, Montessori conducted further observations. Her conclusion was that “eventually we gave up either punishing or rewarding the children” (Montessori, 1996, p. 123).
In our Montessori Primary schools, discipline is one of the bugbears of both parents and children. Parenting styles are varied and are often in conflict with the school. Parents are busy and feel guilty that they cannot spend time with their children, and so they excuse unacceptable behaviour. It is however just as easy for the stay-at-home-parent to struggle with discipline. In all these scenarios, understanding the developmental and maturational needs of the child will go a long way in understanding the behaviour and setting boundaries that are fair, attainable and sustainable. Ideally, we would all like to be able to say that we only fill our Montessori primary schools from our Montessori preschools, (so that we can ensure we have normalised children), but this is not a common reality. Even the rigorous assessments we impose on the children in order to root out potential threats to our normalised Montessori environments cannot always ensure that we will know the whole child, simply because of the parameters of the assessments. And anyway, we can all attest to knowing children who have had the opportunity of spending three years in a Montessori preschool who could not come to primary with a guarantee that ‘inner-discipline’ had been achieved.
What to do then, with this 6-9 class where the children are generally joyful, happy and curious?
How do we curb the boisterous behaviour associated with these energetic children?
Should our classrooms be quiet?
What about the children who want to work?
Should we have a new set of ground rules for this age group?
One of the challenges that we have at this level is the parents’ perception that their children are now in ‘big school’. Gone are the days of the freedom of preschool. (The fact that the children were already engaged in ‘big school’ work during their preschool years seems to be overlooked in the fun and carefree nature of that age group.) Teachers have the NCS and more recently CAPS looming over their shoulders, and admittedly any school offering primary school education must be au fait with these documents. Can we get the children through the minimum standards required by law, and do so without the traditional system of marks, gold stars, black dots and the like? Are these rewards and punishments actually necessary? As Montessori observed if we stay true to the method that she devised, and remember the key tenets of her philosophy, rewards and punishments are totally unnecessary.
The key word in the whole recount of rewards and punishments in The Secret of Childhood is the word ‘observe’. We can only really know the child and the needs of the child if we take the time to observe her/him. Take one day, every ten days, to observe the children in your classroom. Prepare work for them in advance – either some revision on work that they have been busy with – or possibly even a little research project, with the appropriate resources so that they can work completely independently for the period of the work cycle. Explain to the children that you will be very busy with your own paperwork for the morning and that your colleagues will be available should anyone need help. This way you can take time to observe the whole child, or the whole environment. Vary the types of observation you do. Look for children who get ‘lost’ in the guise of busy work that produces no real outcome. Can you identify the children who need more frequent guidance and more possibilities in terms of work opportunities? Observe how your colleagues deal with discipline. What strategies do you have in place to deal with behaviour that compromises the learning of the other members of the group? A way to redirect children who are disturbing others is to find that ‘thing’ that interests the specific child. Provide some new materials that may capture their imagination. Read a story one on one with the child. There are very many creative ways of redirecting children and extending their interests. These meaningful interactions will be far more effective than plonking the offending child down in a chair in the corner of the room, ‘where s/he can work and not disturb the others.’
Some see the following response as a consequence of bad behaviour: “If you don’t sit nicely here with the others then that will tell me you are choosing to sit at the corner desk!” Well, no, not really. You, as the teacher are making this choice. This is, in fact, a subtle punishment for not behaving properly. As Montessorians, we should guard against this attitude. Dropping a glass on a stone floor means the glass will break and I will learn to be more careful when I carry glassware over the stone floor. THAT is a natural consequence.
How about observing to establish how we speak to our children?
“Get out of there!” … ”Could you please come away from there?”
“Put those scissors down, you are going to hurt someone!” … ”I need you to put the scissors back in their holder. We do not wave scissors around as it is not safe.”
“Why did you do that?” … ”Is there something else you could be doing right now?”
(Children often do not know why they did something – especially the more impulsive children. Demanding a ‘why’ from them will probably end up with a made-up answer to get you off their case!)
Speaking to children in a more positive way, and making sure that we are always courteous and respectful is the model we want children to be able to imitate. Providing them with alternatives and redirecting their energy to purposeful activity is important. Remember that 6-9-year-olds want to ‘go out’. They need to explore beyond the borders of their classrooms. What purposeful activities could there be for children outside? Bearing in mind the Montessori ideal of freedom within limits, it may just be feasible to have a teacher outside to direct and motivate purposeful learning there too.
“Lack of curiosity, boredom, misbehaviour are biologically appropriate responses to an environment that does not meet the needs of the individual child” (Albanesi, 1990, p. 3).
A favourable environment needs to be prepared for the primary child, just as one was prepared for the pre-schooler. Schmidt (2009) concurs with this and maintains that the child’s development will follow its natural path if we observe the needs of the child and then meet those needs. Provide opportunities for the child to explore and create. Allow time for this exploration and the imagination to develop. This is the age of imagination and we can only stimulate that imagination through opportunity, encouragement and keen interest from our side. Look for teachable moments. A child who is exploring the outside environment and notices the new leaves on the trees may well respond to doing a leaf study, where, apart from the obvious biology lessons, you can include language development (‘Wow, I just found a poem about leaves – shall we write it out/learn to recite it/ read it?) and even math outcomes (measuring the length and breadth of the leaves using their ruler – and then working out cm and mm) etc. Who says that the ‘measurement module’ will only work in the first week of September, using ‘Measurement Worksheet 1’? This child may well have been bouncing off the walls – but is now engaged – outside, in the garden with a notebook, a ruler and a pencil. It is up to you as the teacher to find these moments and seize them like gold.
“When we speak about freedom in education we mean freedom for the creative energy which is the urge of life towards the development of the individual….we are thinking of the energy which must be free in order to construct these children well” (Montessori, 1997, p. 16).
Instead of feeling anxious about the ever-present requirements of meeting the minimum standards of the NCS, connect with it and engage with the children too. Help them become responsible for their learning by discussing it with them. Take small groups of children, explain how they need to get through certain kinds of work, and come up with creative ways of getting them to think about their daily work cycles. Can they maybe keep a journal of activities? There will be no need for reward when the children are working in their own time and with work they have freely chosen. The joy in their work is evident. Of course, you affirm their work and acknowledge the hard work and effort they have put into it. Just because we do not offer a badge, or a gold start does not mean that we disregard the effort. There is no need to punish these children. Imposing threats and putting children in corner desks are not long-term solutions.
What they need is a catalyst (read Montessori teacher) who will guide and nurture them. One with a good understanding of where they are developmentally and one who will walk alongside them on their journey. Look for occasions where you can be a trigger for building self-esteem through positive language and encourage the child to speak well of his/her work and efforts too. A healthy self-esteem will go a long way in supporting the development of inner discipline. Our classrooms are not silent. The 6-9 year old is full of life and energy. Our work is to support that. Use every moment as one where learning can happen. Be joyful with these children. Be happy with them. Be gentle and kind to them. This precious time is fleeting. Let us not encumber it in any way.
- Heidi van Staden –