Helping Kids Learn Self-Discipline

Self-discipline is a strength that you have inside that lets you control your feelings. It helps you do what you know is the right thing to do, even if you don’t want to do it. When it comes to discipline, the teachers in a Montessori class help to guide the children along their journey, with the ultimate goal being self-discipline. Your discipline tactics shouldn’t be about controlling your child. Instead, discipline should be about teaching your child how to control himself. Kids who learn self-discipline will be better equipped to face life’s challenges, manage stress, and make healthy choices even when you’re not around.

When I envision self-discipline, I see the child making independent “good choices” about behavior without prompting from an adult. There is a difference between being self-disciplined and being obedient. The intent of completing an act varies from a self-disciplined child and one who is obedient. The self-disciplined child will complete an action, regardless of who is watching. He will do the behavior because it is the right thing to do. In contrast, an obedient child may follow directions to please a parent/teacher, to avoid a consequence, or to receive a reward. Being obedient is following directions or commands from an adult; or exhibiting “good behaviors” when an adult is present, whereas, having self-discipline is making those choices without the presence or reminders from adults.

So, how do we move the children towards that self-discipline? In the classroom, we talk quite a bit in our circles about why we have the expectations that we do. One of the examples is ‘walking in the classroom’. I ask the children, “Why do we walk in the classroom? The answers children give are usually spot on:

“Because we may hurt ourselves if we tripped.” “Because we may run into someone else and hurt them.” “Because we may hit something else and make it fall and break, like a material or work.”

The discussion can continue with other examples such as: why do we sit in control of our body at Circle Time, or any gathering, and why do we sit to eat a meal? The answers the children give require a bit of thought on their part.

Part of the point of this discussion is to highlight the importance of knowing why certain social expectations exist. So I continue with another question…”Do you do those things (walking inside, being under control in the circle, and sitting to eat) because Ms. Sara says to?” Then I remind the children of all of the reasons they previously gave and the fact that no one said “Because Ms. Sara said” as a reason. This helps the children reflect and consider: shouldn’t we act appropriately no matter who we are with–a teacher at school, mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, any adult, or even if there were no adults anywhere?

When teachers have these behavioral expectations at school, but the child is not held to the same expectations outside of school, it will take a longer time on his journey toward self-discipline. The child is getting mixed messages that “I have to do this with Ms. Sara, but I don’t have to do it any other time.” That’s when obedience comes into the picture. Your child may be obedient because he can follow our directions at school, but is he translating those actions at home because you have the same beliefs? Do you see the subtle difference between being obedient and being self-disciplined?

At home, you can join in this journey of self-discipline by having and following through on appropriate social behaviors. In conjunction with those expectations, remember the importance of talking about the why behind them. If you are not doing that yet, please consider starting, so your child understands why you are giving a direction, rather than just blindly following it (again the difference between obedience and self-discipline.) For example, to your child you would say: “I will hold your hand in the parking lot so that I can help keep you safe. Cars may not be able to see you.” “Please use a quiet voice inside this building, there are other people working.” At a restaurant, “You may sit in your chair, so that other people can also enjoy their dinner around us.” We hold our children to social expectations that exist not just in school but in all areas of life. After all, isn’t life what we are preparing them for?