How to encourage kids to cooperate the Montessori way

You may wonder, if Montessori teachers don't use punishments or rewards, how do they get children to cooperate?

The answer is pretty simple: We try to help develop the child's will, rather than oppose it.

Dr. Montessori wrote about three stages of obedience:

In the first stage, a child can obey sometimes, but only if what they're being asked to do is generally aligned with what they want. A child in this stage understands directions but is still dominated by impulse. Toddlers are generally in the first stage of obedience (though older children certainly can be too).

In the second stage of obedience, children can obey—their self-control is growing—but they do not always do what you ask. They know the right thing to do and may enjoy telling other children the rules, but do not yet always follow them. Children spend a long time in this stage and need frequent reminders of rules and limits during this time.

A child in the third level of obedience not only can obey but wants to obey, as long as they respect the authority doing the asking. A child at this stage does the right thing without reminders and loves being helpful to others. They feel a sense of pride in being a responsible member of the community.

The goal in a Montessori classroom for young children is to help them reach this third stage.

Unfortunately, obedience is not a static thing. A child may have reached the third stage of obedience, but life changes (such as a new baby at home or starting a new school) may set them back for a while.

This can be hard to understand and empathize with, but adults' self-discipline often suffers under times of stress as well. It's easy to reach for those M&Ms;, even if you're in the habit of healthy eating when a meeting keeps you at the office late, or a toddler refuses their nap.

Understanding these three stages, and recognizing that a child's will develops over time, can help us understand and be patient with a child's behavior.

From a Montessori perspective, we can help children along on their journey to self-discipline, but we cannot rush or force a child into being able to obey.

And if you think about it, we really don't want to break a child's will, to force them to obey us out of fear. We want children to be able to think for themselves, while still respecting authorities, like parents and teachers, who have their best interests at heart.

There are, however, a few things you can do to support your child as their self-control and desire to follow the rules grows:

Set consistent limits

Even if you have a young toddler who is still very much ruled by impulse, setting consistent limits is necessary to help them develop their will. Children first need to understand the rules before they can follow them. Being consistent every. single. time. will help them get there faster.

Jump in before you get mad

It can be so frustrating when a child flat-out refuses to do what you ask. Take a deep breath and help them comply before you lose your temper. This might mean taking them by the hand and helping them do the task, or it might simply mean reminding them of the limit and offering choices.

For example: "You're saying no to putting on shoes. We need to leave for school now. Would you like to put your shoes on by yourself, or should I help you?"

Offer help

Children who are still developing their will and their ability to comply with requests often feel the impulse to say "no" if you ask them to do something. Offering to do it together can help the child feel like it's a team effort, rather than something they're being ordered to do. Even if you actually help very little, offering assistance can often change the tone of the interaction.

Don't fight every battle

It's easy to think that your child will never listen to you if you can't get them to do something as simple as putting away their toys. Try to let go of that fear and recognize that building your connection with your child is far more important than getting them to do every single thing you ask. As long as you set clear, consistent limits on the important things, you don't have to fight every battle that comes up.

Recognize that a child's skills are fluid

Even the most respectful, obedient child has off-days or gets too tired to comply with our wishes. All children sometimes need a little bit of help to do the right thing, and that's okay.

Meet your child where they are, at that moment

If they cleared the table and washed their own dishes the night before, but now they're falling apart at the dinner table, accept the fact that this isn't the time push, and that's okay. There will be many more opportunities to help your child along the journey to self-discipline and become their best self.

Working with children to develop their will, rather than trying to break it, is really a shift in mindset. Simply recognizing that this is part of a child's development—just like their gross motor skills or learning to read—makes it a lot easier to be patient when you hear the word "no."

Take a deep breath and remember that this is a long journey. Your child won't remember later how they cried because they wanted puffs instead of yogurt, but they will remember how you treated them with respect and helped them become their best self.

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