3-Thoughts on Montessori - Character Building

Recently, I shared some information with the faculty about discipline. One of the greatest challenges we face as parents and educators is teaching our children right from wrong and emotional control. Children become what they see and hear. So, “monkey see, monkey do” is an expression often used to describe this process. Therefore, we want to model what we hope our children will imitate.

I like to help children differentiate between the Big Me (their best self) and the little me (their misbehaving self). So when you see a child displaying what you consider “right” behavior, you can quickly say, “Oh, I see your Big Me doing such and such. Wow! I’m impressed! “And vice versa, “Oh, I am sorry to see your little me is doing such and such.” Little, by little, children learn what you consider praise worthy behavior and disappointing behavior. I find children can relate to the concept that they have potential for “bad choices and good choices” and that their Big Me makes the right choices and their little me, the poorer ones.

Another layer for adults to consider is whether an infraction or breach of etiquette is a head problem or a heart problem. A head problem is a mistake based on ignorance. In this instance, a child doesn’t know any better and they need teaching (to the mind). In the Montessori classroom this means the teacher gives the lesson again and again until the child has cognitively mastered the concept and can work independently.

A heart problem is very different from a head problem. It is a deliberate, intentional breaking of a rule when the child knows better. These are moral problems by nature involving the heart in willful denial of what is the right thing to do and need to be nipped in the bud. They are more serious than the head problems because will is involved and not merely ignorance. For the heart problem, a logical consequence for the misdeed is needed for the child to make amends.

At Mis Manos, the teachers are working to differentiate reasons for misbehavior. The classroom material often corrects for the head problem. The teacher can monitor whether the child seems to know better or not, and intervene with a lesson, a story, or another way to teach the missing concept. If possible, they let the classroom material teach to the head problems.

Heart problems can also surface. Typical moral violations in the classroom occur when children do not follow through with their work to completion, are destructive with the materials, disturb other children at work or harm another child in some way. These types of deliberate acts are counter-productive to the classroom dynamics of harmony and cooperation. Often group discussions of whether certain behaviors are appropriate or not help children realize other children have a moral sense too. They realize it is not just the adults in their lives, but their classmates who understand morality as well. Even babies have been found to have empathy for others, so it is not premature to expect two year olds to act empathically with their peers. Again, in the case of morality issues it is appropriate to use stories, games or other means of conveying the “right” thing to do. There may not be a piece of classroom equipment designed to teach an important heart lesson so the teacher needs to bring in other ways to illustrate the solution. A time out chair or “meditation” cushion may help the child to recenter.

Children’s behavior often deteriorates when they are tired, hungry or stressed. We don’t overlook the problems they have created, but we make sure they return to stasis which means rested, fed and de-stressed before we help them to follow through with the logical consequence of their actions. You may not agree with me on this, but the brain studies tell us the brain is operating under the control of the limbic system (emotional brain) in these cases and no information is getting to the neo-cortex (rational, thinking part of brain) until the emotions have subsided. So, getting the child calmed down needs to come first.

Self-control is another area of development for people of every age. I often witness children having “meltdowns” at drop off and pick up times – stressful moments of transitions. Verbally preparing a child ahead of time for what is to come can help, but emotional maturity is a slow process and not to be confused with morality. Even adults sometimes struggle with emotional control even though we know the “right” thing to do. So, we shouldn’t be too hard on children. Maintaining a loving feeling for your child regardless of their infractions is key. Losing your harmony gives children an excuse to lose theirs too. Montessori teachers are trained to remain calm. It becomes a choice that parents can choose to make as well.

Dr. Celeste Miller