Wms Logo

Montessori and Positive DisciplineWashington Montessori School
New Preston, Connecticut

Child and teacher look over a map

I still remember, in painful detail, how hard it sometimes felt to be the parent of a young child. Once, when my younger daughter was around six, she demanded a gumball. Loudly. Angrily. Publicly. With a kicking-and-screaming tantrum that had both me and my husband flushed with embarrassment. At that point, I was a confident educator and the head of a lower school, but my six-year-old shrieking for a gumball had us flummoxed. 

Disciplining a child is an inevitable part of parenting, but so often it’s accompanied by feelings of guilt, anger, or even shame. We may even feel ineffective, worrying we have been either too tough or too permissive —or both at the same moment! 

In the late 1960s, a young mother named Dr. Jane Nelson felt the same way. As she describes on this website for the Positive Discipline Association: “I felt like a failure as a mother. I would be authoritarian until I couldn’t stand myself. Then I would be permissive until I couldn’t stand my kids. I was a senior in college majoring in Child Development and felt discouraged as I became aware of ideals for children and parents. Unfortunately, the books that explained these ideals did not give much help on how to accomplish them.” 

However, in her last semester of college, Jane Nelson was introduced to the theory of Adlerian Psychology, “…which included practical methods to help children learn self-discipline, responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving skills.” Inspired by her success applying the Adler methods in her only family system, Dr. Nelsen continued her research and eventually published her seminal work Positive Discipline.

And that’s where Montessori comes in. In Dr. Nelson’s brilliant book, Montessorians across the United States discovered an approach that was not only aligned with the Montessori approached, but clearly worked for families and educators. 

At Washington Montessori, all our educators are trained in Positive Discipline. We also provide training for families, in keeping with our mission, which reminds us that our inclusive and joyful learning environment is supported by a deeply rooted community of families and educators. 

At WMS, our children thrive because we all benefit from the gifts of the Positive Discipline approach. 

The five criteria of the Positive Discipline approach

“The challenge of parenting lies in finding the balance between nurturing, protecting, and guiding, on one hand, and allowing your child to explore, experiment, and become an independent, unique person, on the other.”

Jane Nelson, Positive Discipline

Jane Nelson’s work outlines several key principles for adults interacting with children. Here are her five criteria for Positive Discipline from the Positive Discipline website:

  • Positive Discipline is respectful and encouraging, or as Nelson put it, “kind and firm at the same time.” 
  • Positive discipline is built on connection, helping children to build a strong sense of belonging. Positive discipline lets children know they matter. 
  • Positive discipline works long-term. While punishment or permissiveness may work in the short term, these approaches are more negative than positive in the long term.
  • Positive discipline stresses respect, accountability, and cooperation, teaching valuable social and life skills. 
  • Positive discipline instills capability. Children discover their capabilities and learn to use their personal power in constructive ways.

The positive discipline website also outlines these tools for enacting positive discipline:

  • Mutual respect. “Adults model firmness by respecting themselves and the needs of the situation, and kindness by respecting the needs of the child.”
  • Adults need to understand the ideas behind behavior. “Effective discipline recognizes the reasons kids do what they do and works to change those beliefs, rather than merely attempting to change behavior.”
  • Adults teach children communication and build their skills to solve problems.
  • When we use positive discipline, the goal is teaching, not punishing. We are seeking solutions, and do not shame children. But we also don’t just let them do the wrong thing. The goal is not to be permissive, but rather productive. 
  • We use encouragement, rather than praise. Positive Discipline helps adults to “notice effort and improvement, not just success, and builds long-term self-esteem and empowerment.”

The key to Positive Discipline is that it’s not too tough, not too permissive, but just right, and gets results. 

Why Positive Discipline works 

Positive Discipline is not just a theory. It is an approach with a research-backed track record. As we learn in this study filed at the National Library of Medicine, “Effectiveness of Positive Discipline Parenting Program on Parenting Style, and Child Adaptive Behavior”: “The first of these studies looked at 101 parents attending Positive Discipline parenting classes and found that parents experienced a decrease in authoritarian and permissive parenting style along with an increase in authoritative style, at 3-months after completion of the program.”

A second study replicated the approach with a marginalized socioeconomic group, discovering that it was just as effective — perhaps even more effective. It is important that we use research-based approaches that work for all children, and Positive Discipline does just that. Just as Montessori’s approach has been proven effective through research, so has Positive Discipline.  

Positive Discipline in the Montessori environment

Montessori educators know that Positive Discipline and the Montessori pedagogy are naturally aligned. As we learn in “Positive Discipline and Montessori Education,” an article published by the Positive Discipline Association: “Both Montessori and Positive Discipline philosophies share a profound respect for the child. Montessori theory trains teachers to create a prepared physical environment in which children can thrive. Positive Discipline offers strategies to prepare the social-emotional environment that helps children find a sense of belonging and significance in their community.”

Positive Discipline, like Montessori education, begins from a deep understanding of child development. And, like Montessori education, Positive Discipline asks adults to use strategies that help children  feel confident and successful, ready to use their agency. Both approaches allow children to face challenges, make mistakes, and grow from those experiences. The idea that ‘mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow’ is embraced by Montessori and Positive Discipline.

The two approaches are also holistic, embracing a child’s mind, body, and spirit, inspiring children to act in ways that benefit them and benefit others. As the article puts it, “Used together, Montessori and Positive Discipline approaches give teachers what they need to create cooperative, empathetic, and supportive classroom communities.”

As Maria Montessori wrote in The Montessori Method, “…the task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility, and evil with activity, as often happens in old-time discipline.” 

Positive Discipline in action at Washington Montessori School

When I first visited WMS, over a dozen years ago, I was struck by the calm, orderly, purposeful actions and words of the students and teachers I met. Rather than coercion, I saw cooperation. Rather than license and misbehavior, I saw agency and intention among students. And the result of all of that productive, kind feeling was a school bustling with learning and engagement. 

Now, each day, I hear the kinds of words and phrases from teachers that inspire grace and courtesy in students. “We use quiet voices in the hall,” a teacher might say. If a student is unfocused or off task, a teacher often uses a gentle touch on the shoulder, or suggests, “Let’s look back at your work plan so you can make a good decision about what to do next.” 

The positive discipline approach even shows up when students join me in my office for problem-solving. Not long ago, two young students were asked to join me in my office for a conversation and a reset. They had been having difficulty participating, and their abundant energy had drawn them both off task, and disrupted learning in the classroom. 

We sat down across from one another, looked one another in the eye, and started a respectful conversation about what had happened. During that time together, we affirmed our strong connection to one another and to our school. We talked about how they were feeling, and how they could get their needs met. By the end of the conversation, the students were feeling calm and steady, reminded of school expectations, and ready to return to class to try again. 

Director of Education, Melissa Hay, shares another example of Positive Discipline in action:

“A situation comes to mind of a student who would come bounding across the parking lot and into school each morning, running down the hallway and weaving around other students and parents as they were making their way to classrooms. This student was fast and seemed oblivious to the safety rule that we walk with an adult in the parking lot, use the crosswalk into school, and walk in the hallways. One morning, after observing this, it became apparent that I needed to intervene. Walking slowly behind the bounding child, I modeled the appropriate way to traverse the hallway. When I arrived at the end of the hallway where the child was waiting, breathless, seemingly challenging me to try to catch them. I calmly squatted down to eye level and said, “You’re showing me that you really need to run in the morning. When we’re inside the building, running happens in the gym.” I then invited the child to consider how we could make it so they could get their desire to run in the morning satisfied while being safe and appropriate in the parking lot and hallways. 

“After some problem-solving, we came up with a plan that the child would walk into school with their adult and head straight to the gym for two laps before coming back upstairs and walking down the hallway to their classroom.

“In getting down to eye level with the child (illustrating a horizontal rather vertical relationship and my openness to a mutually respectful conversation), acknowledging the student’s potential need for the calming deep pressure that running may provide after a long car ride into school in the morning, and involving them in the plan for a solution, the situation rectified itself almost immediately. It was a win-win, the student received what they needed and the safety issue was eliminated.”

Melissa Hay, Director of Education

When children come into conflict with teachers or classmates — a normal part of childhood, and life! — WMS educators don’t lose their composure, and we don’t shame and blame. But neither do we turn a blind eye to disruptive or unkind behavior. Instead, we give students time and tools to cool down and then walk them through steps to reflect, repair, and return to the learning environment.

Even when a child has faced a truly challenging circumstance, and broken the trust of his or her teachers and classmates, Positive Discipline helps them to move beyond punishment to learning. It is inspiring to watch children face up to their mistakes, choose a better direction, and then begin to thrive, feeling a sense of belonging, independence, and purpose. 

“All children seek belonging and significance; sometimes, when on the path toward this, they have mistaken goals that do not bring them closer to their desired outcomes, but they do not have the tools to change course.

“Guided by the Positive Discipline model, students and adults come together in times of conflict or dysregulation and come up with solutions that work in everyone’s best interest. Consequences aren’t imposed; students are empowered to take ownership of their behavior and learn from their experiences, fostering resilience, adaptability, and a positive attitude toward challenges.

“It is remarkable to see the transformation that some students undergo when they are truly listened to and realize they have agency, as well as the trust and support from adults to change course and move toward more positive outcomes for themselves and others around them.”

Meliessa Hay, Director of Education

Positive Discipline beyond the classroom 

My husband and I are so proud to say that our own children, now adults, have internalized a sense of self — and self-discipline — that serves them well. One is now a stage manager who works with adults and children, leading and communicating with grace and courtesy. Our other daughter is an educator herself, and regularly uses Positive Discipline techniques in her classroom. They are proud of their accomplishments, and we are proud of the confident and kind people they have become. As one of our children wrote to us last week, in a text message: “Thanks for raising me to be my own person.” 

Raising good adults is a long process. And if discipline is something you struggle with, you’re certainly not alone. WMS and the Positive Discipline approach are here to help. Parents often find support in reaching out to their child’s classroom teacher, or may take it a step further by registering for a Parent Learning Opportunity like our annual Positive Discipline series, taught by Education Director Melissa Hay. There are also many excellent books on Positive Discipline; we’ve compiled some of our top picks on our WMS Bookshop page

Additionally, you can always reach out directly to Melissa for a conversation about what you’re experiencing and how you’d like to support your child’s autonomy, sense of self, and long-term emotional health.

As Jane Nelson put it, “Where did parents get the crazy idea that in order to make children behave, parents should make them feel shame, humiliation, or even pain? Children are more motivated to cooperate, learn new skills, and offer affection and respect when they feel encouraged, connected, and loved…. So if you are tempted to ‘teach’ your child by guilt, shame, or punishment, you will be creating discouraging beliefs that are difficult to reverse in adulthood.”

Instead, Positive Discipline helps us to tap into what works best, with confidence and calm. As Nelson reminds us, “The most valuable parenting tools are those you already possess: your love for your child and your own inner wisdom and common sense.”

About the Author
WMS Newsletter

Sign up for instant news and updates.

We will not share your email with third parties.