Montessori children have a great deal of freedom. They move freely about the classroom, choosing where to sit, what to work on and how long to work on it. They decide when to eat a snack and whether to sit by a friend or by themselves.
You might think that, given such freedom, the classroom would be chaotic, full of children running wild, but this is not the case. The children generally move about with great care, walking around each other’s work to avoid disturbing it and talking in quiet voices.
How is this possible without an adult standing at the front of the room directing everyone?
Montessori teachers work with each child on developing their will. Children gradually stretch their self-control, their ability to put the rules and the good of the classroom above their impulse at that moment.
Here are five phrases Montessori teachers commonly use when working with children on self-control, and how you can use them at home:
1. “You haven’t had a lesson on that yet”
Starting when children enter the classroom as 3-6-year-olds, they may only choose work a teacher has given them a lesson on.
The classroom is full of beautiful materials for the entire three year age group, and the new 3- year-olds are often so tempted by the work for the older children, they cannot resist getting it off the shelf.
When this happens, the teacher (or often an older child!) gently reminds the child that he has not yet had that lesson and helps him restore it to the shelf where it belongs.
Within a couple of weeks, most children are able to control their urge to grab anything enticing from the shelf and wait until the proper time.
To try this at home, try having some things out that are only for parental use. You should, of course, choose things that are safe and not too precious to you, as it will take your child some time to develop the self-control not to touch them.
This could be a special, beautiful book your child may only look at with you, a water bottle that belongs to you and you don’t want your child to drink out of or a vase of lovely flowers.
Give them the opportunity to practice self-control by having some things in reach that you likely would have hidden away when he was a toddler.
While development of self-control varies by each child, you may want to wait until your child is around three and is more likely to have a stronger capacity for impulse control.
To make the boundary more clear, you might try designating a certain shelf or end table as a spot where you store your things and explaining to your child that he may not use them without asking.
2. “Thank you for waiting”
With each child following an individualized lesson plan and receiving one-on-one lessons, children often want help with something when the teacher is not immediately available.
Instead of multitasking and trying to help five children at once, a Montessori teacher generally has a signal, such as holding up one finger, to inform a child that she is aware that they need help, but is not currently available.
Kids learn that it is of no use to interrupt and have the self-control to wait for the adult’s attention.
You can use a similar signal at home when you are on a quick phone call, helping a sibling, or simply greeting your spouse at the end of the day.
Use positive reinforcement when your child waits without whining or interrupting. Say something like, “I know waiting is hard, thank you for waiting while I finished helping your sister.”
3. “We sit while we eat and drink”
Children are asked to sit while they eat and drink in Montessori classrooms. If they are walking around while eating, the teacher will remind them of the expectation.
If the child continues to walk away from the table or repeatedly get up and down, the teacher may say something like, “I see you walking with your food again. It looks like you’re all done for now. You can try again with a snack later.”
The combination of the clear rule and consistent follow-through enables young children to practice self-control at the table.
This is something you can practice at home at the dinner table. If you don’t think you’ll be able to follow through and tell your child he’s done with dinner, start with a lower pressure situation like a snack while they get used to the rule.
Ask them to sit the whole time they eat. Tell them if they get up, you’ll know they’re done…then follow through. It may be hard for your child at first, but they will quickly develop the self-discipline to follow the rules you set for the table.
4. “What could you do to challenge yourself today?”
Some parents are concerned when they hear that children in Montessori classrooms choose what to work on themselves.
“What if my child never chooses math? What if she draws all day and never learns to read?”
Some kids certainly need more guidance than others, but from the time the youngest child enters the classroom, the teacher gently works with them on choosing appropriate work.
A Montessori teacher does not tell a child which work to choose, but she might ask them what would be a good challenging work to start with or suggest something difficult the child has just had a lesson on.
It takes a lot of self-control for a child to choose something they know is long and hard, rather than something easy and comfortable. This is the type of self-control that will allow your child to choose to study for a test instead of going out with friends every night when they’re in college.
While the context will, of course, be different, you can use this same question at home.
It might mean building something more complex with Legos, drawing something other than the dinosaurs they draw every day or choosing a more challenging book to read, but try encouraging your child to choose something hard sometimes and give them the space to choose for themself.
5. “We walk inside”
While Montessori children are given immense freedom of movement, they are expected to move carefully around the classroom, walking around other children’s rugs, letting others pass by, and walking slowly instead of running.
This is accomplished by establishing a common expectation “we walk in the classroom,” but also by showing the children how.
When a new child joins the classroom, we show her how to carefully walk around the work and shelves. We practice what it looks like to let someone else pass by when there’s a “traffic jam.”
Once the children understand what to do, it still takes time to develop the self-control not to race across the room to be the first in line as soon as snack appears. This is something we practice daily.
Try this at home by setting clear expectations about where your child may walk and run, what furniture is appropriate for climbing, etc. Then step back and let them practice making the right choice.
By setting clear expectations, but then stepping back to let the children practice, we encourage them to develop self-discipline rather than to just obey orders. If you suspect your child is about to break a rule, try asking a question rather than giving a directive. Try, “Where is it okay to run?” instead of “Stop running.”
This way, children learn to observe the situation and think about what needs to happen. They gradually, and with lots of practice and patience on your part, learn to control their immediate impulses and think about what’s right and what’s good for the community.