Montessori-style Discipline: 3 Ways to discipline without punishment

Is it possible to discipline your tot without using punishments? This Montessori Educator thinks so…


You’ve likely heard of the positive parenting approach. The approach focuses on mutual respect and connection with your child, above all else. A big part of this is avoiding any shaming or punishment.

Montessori parenting and education takes a similar approach. If you were to observe a Montessori home or classroom, you would not likely see any punishments (or bribes) being doled out.

Does this mean that there are no rules? Do the children simply run free, making their own choices without regard to order or expectations? On the contrary. Children in Montessori environments are generally held to fairly high standards. The approach to achieving this discipline is different though.

Here are the three keys to Montessori-style, or positive, discipline.

1. Freedom within Clear Limits

The Montessori philosophy says that children should have freedom within limits.

The idea is that by setting minimal, but clear and consistent limits we give children the freedom to just be kids. They don’t have to worry about what the rules are or what will happen if they break them because they already know. They can carry on doing the fun work of childhood, playing and exploring to their heart’s content.

While having too many rules can cause children to rebel and lash out, they generally find comfort in a few concrete rules they can depend on. Does this mean they’ll never break the rules? No, of course not. But it does mean they generally feel less of an impulse to constantly test the boundaries.

So what happens when a child does break a rule? Their freedom is limited further.

For example, if a child continually jumps off of a tall playscape on the playground despite reminders from a teacher, the teacher will likely ask the child to remain by her side for a period of time until they can be safe.

The difference between this and a time-out is subtle, but important. The adult’s demeanor should be calm rather than angry and punitive. The goal is not to punish the child, but to help them regroup and to make it clear that they can’t play freely if they can’t be safe.

2. Problem Solving

Helping children problem solve challenging situations is another cornerstone of Montessori discipline. The end goal is always to include the child (where possible)  in the process of figuring out how to improve a situation.

For example, if a child always throws a tantrum when it’s time to leave a playdate, you might get their input on how you can help them be successful when it’s time to leave. Would they like a warning five minutes before it’s time to leave? Would they like to help set an alarm on your phone to remind them? Would they like a piggy back ride to the car?

Discuss some options when everyone is calm and make sure to ask for (and write down!) your child’s ideas as well. Show them that you’re in this together, that you’re here to help them be their best self.

If your child hurts or is unkind to another child, problem solve on how you can make amends. Say something like, “I wonder what you could do to help Sophie feel better.” If they’re not ready to participate, model the behavior you’d like to see. Check on the other child and offer them a bandaid, a drink of water or some other form of comfort.

3. Natural Consequences

While we want to be collaborative and connected to our children, it’s also important for them to learn that actions have consequences. Consequences are most effective when they occur naturally, rather than when they’re prescribed by an adult.

For example, if your child refuses to put on rain boots, the natural consequence is that their feet will get wet and they may be uncomfortable. There’s no need to coerce them into putting on their boots or punish them for refusing. The impact of the actual consequence will be much longer lasting.

In some cases though, you may have to settle for logical rather than natural consequences. For example, if your child runs into the street, you of course wouldn’t let the natural consequences play out. But you could impose the logical consequence of ending the outing, saying something like, “I see you can’t be safe right now. We’ll go home now and try this again another time.”

This type of consequence is more effective because it is tied to the behavior. It also prevents unnecessary power struggles.

Some aspects of Montessori discipline may seem subtle, but the underlying goal is to help a child develop self-discipline, rather than externally imposed discipline, or discipline born out of fear. The goal should always be respectful communication and working with the child, rather than against them, to improve behavior.


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