Mindfulness and Self-Discipline in Montessori Education
Christine Carrillo, M.A.T, A.M.I. certified Montessori Educator
With the start of a new decade, I felt that my piece had to be of a reflective nature, as the closing of one ten year cycle, and the start of a new ten-year cycle can be very important moments in people’s lives, and are often natural times to reflect on the past and contemplate the future.
On a personal note, I am a daily practitioner of yoga and meditation. I am particularly into hot yoga, and I go almost every single day because I find that it makes me a better teacher, wife and mother, in other words, it helps me be my best self. So, as the new decade was about to start, back at the end of December, I was at a mindfulness workshop where we were encouraged to focus on one word as our mantra for the coming decade. The other attendees were coming up with words like, “persevere”, “push through”, “commit”, “achieve”, “strive”…and I was feeling frustrated…I felt like there is sometimes too much of this self-improvement/more more more/ go go go mindset, and while I can understand wanting to improve and push on, I also know that there needs to be time to slow down, sit back, observe, and absorb what is happening in your life. And the only word that came to my mind was “breathe”. So “breathe” has become my 2020 mantra. And I use it a lot…especially with my teenage daughter…and pretty often in the classroom too.
So, this idea of breathing, of being present, observing and seeing what is happening around you at the moment…this is mindfulness. We are often heading through our days at a breakneck pace, in survival mode, jumping from thing to thing and we are not present. (Have you ever gotten in your car and been so distracted that when you arrive you have no idea how you got there?) I found myself in that situation and made a goal to pay more attention and be more mindful this year. And I found myself turning to my 2.5–6-year-old students for inspiration.
What is interesting about this idea (mindfulness and self-discipline) is that it connects directly to what I observe in the classroom with my students. When a child is engaged, focused and enthralled in their chosen work, that is mindfulness. Mindfulness in the Montessori child looks like a child who is completely absorbed in his or her work. They are calm. They are completely present in their activity, shutting out all of the external stimuli, and in a state of flow.
The question we get most often during tours is: “How do you get them to do that…just sit there and work with the materials?? My child would never, could never..doesn’t have the discipline..would tear things off shelves, would throw things..….etc.” Often those tours are observing children who have only been part of a classroom for two weeks or even two days. So what is it that about our method, our way of working with children, that helps them develop the ability to be present and mindful and stay with and do their work?
Maria Montessori had some ideas that were radical in her day and still might seem radical to all of you today. Her idea was that self-discipline in a young child comes about through freedom. She was famous for saying “freedom and discipline are sides of the same coin.” The words freedom and discipline are heavy. What do they mean? Isn’t discipline a form of constraint? We know that freedom is powerful. Many wars have been fought in its name. In Sumerian culture, the idea of freedom was connected with being returned to one’s home after being indentured. So freedom meant “home”, In Norse mythology, the term freedom was associated with the goddess Freya, so freedom meant “love”. The ancient Indo-European roots of the word discipline are varied, are some related words are dignity, doctor and decent. These words all convey an idea of “rightness”, so being disciplined is to do what is right. In Latin, the word discipline comes from the word “to teach”. It has nothing to do with punishment. Montessori stated, “What is generally known as discipline in traditional schools is not activity, but immobility and silence. This type of environment creates frustration, which festers inside a child arousing rebellious feelings. In our schools, the child has free choice. Freedom and discipline are closely connected. They are not opposed to each other.” (1939).
Montessori wrote this book (Creativity and the Child) in 1939!! Can you even imagine how radical that thought was then?? Heck, it’s even radical now!! But we know its true because we see it in Montessori classrooms every day.
So, how do Montessori schools allow for this mindfulness, freedom, and discipline? One of my favorite Montessori quotes is “ the only true freedom is to be able to act independently. This is the basis of individuality.” Freedom is tied to self- control. Freedom grows as the child’s capacity to control herself grows. The more self-discipline grows, the less important outside constraints are. This is a gradual process.
In a Montessori classroom, we offer the prepared environment, as well as the prepared and trained teacher. The classroom itself provides motives for activity and movement and allows the child to work on things he or she finds purposeful. When the child chooses work that he or she finds purposeful, that leads to concentration, and being fully in the moment and absorbed in work, hence mindfulness in action.
We respect the dignity of the child we match the child’s natural impulses (AKA, I LOVE pouring water, or going to the sink, or cutting apples) with activities in the classroom. To do this we have to LOOK at and SEE the child. We, as Montessori guides, ask ourselves:
-What are this child’s abilities?
-What sensitive periods are at play in the child?
-Where is the child at THIS moment?
We then offer lessons based on being present, in the moment with the particular child.
Gradually, the child learns to choose work that he or she can do independently and will concentrate on it for a longer and longer period of time. This concentration leads to feelings of pride and pleasure, and a high level of sociability and goodwill toward others. This is an important aspect of mindfulness and self- discipline. The child who is content is his or her chosen work, over time, sets an example for the other members of the community. She becomes aware of how her examples and choices impact others. These traits will grow with the child into a social phenomenon as she becomes a member of society. The child will think, “I want to do this..but….” She thinks of how her choices and actions will affect her community.
What an incredible achievement for the young child.
In summary, being mindful and in the moment with the children in our lives allows us to present them with choices that feed their needs in that moment.
In my case, as a Montessori teacher, it allows me to present lessons at the right time.
For parents of young children, it may help you observe that your child is not throwing a fit because he doesn’t want to leave the house, perhaps he just wants the opportunity to put his own shoes on rather than you doing it for him. In the child’s case, allowing for freedom of choice leads to contentedness and concentration, and allows the child to grow into the best version of himself.
As children begin to develop their own inner locus of control, they are truly free. Observing your child without judgment is an important practice. I recently read a quote from a mindfulness practitioner that states, “If you love me, don’t create me in your mind.” Observing our children allows us to see who they are, rather than creating an image of who we want them to be. It’s important to be mindful of our own feelings while we are observing our children. It is important to pause before responding in anger. Often we feel like we have to be doing something to or doing something with our children, rather than just observing them. I had a parent recently tell me that they heard their children arguing and immediately wanted to go and sort it out and solve the problem. Or saw their child struggling and immediately wanted to solve the problem. By practicing mindfulness and a little more self-discipline as parents, we can pause and listen to the conversation, or pause and observe the situation and think of the motive for wanting to intervene. Are we wanting to swoop in and be the savior? Is this an ego move? If so, don’t intervene. Intervening can often rob a child of the chance to work it out independently. Sometimes children do need our help, however, and the ability to make this distinction comes from observing our children without judgment, as they are, rather than as who we wish they were.
As adults, we can model slowing down, breathing, taking time to develop our own activities and have our children observe us in complete concentration and self- discipline. We can observe our children and offer them opportunities to choose and concentrate on activities where they can use their hands and whole bodies. And we can come to see that self- discipline is a fruit of freedom and mindfulness.