This exciting new book brings together Positive Discipline and Montessori education for the first time. The authors discuss how teachers can create and maintain respectful relationships in the classroom and how to address behavior challenges.
(Irene Baker) What was the impetus for writing this book?
(Jane Nelsen) Chip came to one of my workshops and started sending me stories about his application of Positive Discipline in the classroom. I said, "Chip, these are such great stories, we should write a book."
(Chip DeLorenzo) I discovered Positive Discipline out of absolute duress. I had been struggling quite a bit as a new teacher. It seemed like my director, Margaret, would just come in the classroom, sprinkle magic dust, and the kids would behave. Margaret recommended Jane's book and I rode my bike to Barnes and Noble that day to get it. Then I attended a workshop with Jane and began to apply the tools and principles of Positive Discipline with incredible results. The children became more cooperative and respectful, and I began to enjoy coming to work every day.
(Irene) Jane, you dedicate the book to Montessori audiences who "have become my North Star." What do you mean?
(Jane) From the beginning Montessori teachers and parents just loved and were hungry for Positive Discipline. I never had to convince them because Montessorians have basic beliefs that are so similar to Positive Discipline, such as treating children with dignity and respect.
(Irene) You state that teachers need to "prepare the social/emotional environment in the classroom." Can you explain?
(Chip) We spend a lot of time preparing lessons and setting up the classroom. But how we interact with children and teach children to interact with each other is at least as important as preparing the physical environment. You don't hear from teachers, "I wish I had sequenced my practical life shelf differently; my day would have gone better." But you do hear teachers who are under water with behavioral issues wondering why their interactions with students aren't going the way they hope. If we develop an environment that's peaceful, we can connect children with meaningful work.
(Jane) As a parent I knew I didn't want to punish or be permissive, but I didn't know what else to do. Many adults come into Positive Discipline thinking, "I'm going to learn how to get my kids to change. Then they realize, 'Oh, I need to do some changing first.'"
(Chip) When teachers start reading about Positive Discipline, one thing that is sometimes intimidating, but quickly becomes freeing, is learning that creating a social/emotional environment that fosters mutual respect and cooperation is the work of the teacher. It's hard to imagine that our interactions with children might invite misbehavior. You feel guilty. But the good news is, if it's me that has to change, I have some control over that.
(Irene) This reminds me of Montessori discussing the need for teachers to undergo a spiritual transformation.
(Jane) It's so interesting to hear that Montessori talked about the spiritual. I think that's so important. The tools we teach are based on universal principles. The foundation is connection before correction and making sure that the message of love gets through. As one teacher who took my workshop put it, "You have to reach the heart before you can reach the head."
(Chip) We all have a deep desire to find belonging and significance in our communities. One of the biggest transformations for me was understanding the roots of misbehavior— children are trying to find the connection they crave. Their attempts to belong are sometimes awkward and ineffective, leading to discouragement, the root of misbehavior.
(Irene) Corporal punishment is more prevalent in the African-American community, which has a lot to do with the trauma of racism and the legacy of slavery. How can Positive Discipline be introduced sensitively to families of color?
(Jane) It's really important that we understand that history and how desperate parents are to protect their children. Some parents feel that punishment is the way to help their children behave and therefore be protected from danger.
One reason Positive Discipline is so powerful is the experiential activities. Adults role-play being the child who experiences punishment and then experiences Positive Discipline. Afterwards they discuss how that felt and what they learned, from their own wisdom.
(Irene) In introducing Positive Discipline around the world, do you find cultural differences?
(Jane) We find a lot of cultural differences, and yet we have so many more similarities when it comes to our children. In our workshops, we ask adults to list the challenges they're having with children and then to list what they want for their children. They're the same lists around the world.
We have a huge following in China, where we have over 15,000 Positive Discipline trainers. A million copies of Positive Discipline were sold in one year. Because of the famine and other troubles in China years ago, there's this strong drive to help children achieve. Some parents thought the best way to do that was by beating their children. I asked, "Do you mean spanking?"
They said, "No, we were beaten." They experienced a lot of trauma from that.
Some Chinese parents are going to the other extreme now, spoiling their children, who are sometimes called "little Emperors." Parents love the humanity in Positive Discipline. They discover that you can be both kind and firm. Firm does not mean being mean; you can say "no" in a very kind way. "I love you, and the answer is no."
(Irene) If teachers are in a hurry for help, is there a particular chapter they could turn to?
(Jane) People seem to find the perfect page by just opening the book. One of my favorite examples is a teacher who was working in a school where many of the children's fathers were in prison. She said that after a challenging day, she sat in the bathtub and opened the book anywhere and found ideas and encouragement.
(Irene) Your book discusses some of the societal changes since Montessori's time.
(Chip) Reading Montessori we realize that while the circumstances were different in her time, the problems were really similar. If we treat children with dignity, respect, kindness, and firmness, children will normalize. They will become centered and actualize who they really are. Of course, adults still need to provide leadership and guidance and teach children social skills; we have wisdom and life experience that they need.
In the United States, we've experienced a more permissive parenting culture since the mid-last century. Love, warmth, and attention are important, but they need to be combined with responsibility, structure, and limits. People who have been practicing more authoritarian parenting styles often ask, "Can we still be firm?" Yes, but if it's missing kindness, research shows that can be counterproductive.
(Jane) The primary goals are belonging and significance. You can give children belonging and love, but you cannot give them significance. Significance is based on children feeling capable through contribution. What could be more kind than helping your children learn skills and responsibility and giving them the opportunity to work on solving problems?
(Irene) How does your model of class meetings differ from circle time?
(Jane) The Positive Discipline format for class meetings starts with compliments. Children learn to look for and verbalize the good things they see in each other. Most circles are teacher-generated—the teacher decides what needs to be taught. But our class meetings allow for student-generated topics. Children put their challenges on the agenda, then discuss them by passing the talking stick. They come up with great ideas for solutions. The teacher just needs to be there to be the guide.
Sometimes children come up with solutions that are punitive. So we ask, "Is it respectful, reasonable, and helpful?" They get to decide to eliminate solutions that don't fit those criteria. Then the child with the challenge chooses the solution that would be most helpful. I firmly believe that if every classroom in the world had class meetings and if every home had family meetings, we would have peace in the world.
(Chip) When I introduced class meetings to my school, teachers wondered, "Do we have time to fit this in?" We discussed the direct aim of circles—to build connection and community. These goals are inherent in class meetings. Having daily class meetings achieved our aim and we found we needed fewer circles.
Class meetings give the opportunity for shared leadership. Young children can surprise teachers by coming up with ideas that we hadn't thought of to solve problems. A five-year-old solved an age-old snack problem that we struggled with for years. It can be a relief to know that children are as concerned with problems in the classroom as we are and are also much more capable than we give them credit for.
(Irene) Is it respectful to resolve interpersonal conflict in front of everybody in the class meeting?
(Jane) If it's not being discussed in the class meeting, it's probably being discussed in a way that's more harmful, such as on the playground where kids are teasing each other. I have seen children handle the most delicate of situations, such as a little boy who smelled of urine. Everybody was teasing him until it came into the class meeting.
Children started coming up with ideas that were so compassionate: "We could have some spare clothes here." "You can come by my house and shower." (Because he didn't have a shower.) Then he chose what he felt was most helpful to him.
(Chip) We talk so much in Montessori circles about building empathy within children. The class meeting is the center of that, where the rubber meets the road.
(Jane) It's not just that children come up with great solutions, they're also learning valuable social and life skills by the process in the meetings. I have also seen racial divides diminish in class meetings because kids learn to give and receive compliments and offer suggestions for solutions to challenges. One teacher reported that class meetings are one of the best ways for her Spanish-speaking children to learn English because they're so interested in what's going on. They really pick up language in a community of dignity, respect, and encouragement.
(Irene) How can teachers handle bullying?
(Chip) The connection between home and school and the class meeting is really critical. I would have no idea how to handle a bullying situation anymore without using the class meeting. Bullying is fueled by secrecy and threats.
We had a serious bullying situation a few years ago—a young girl was being threatened and intimidated by a boy in the classroom. With support from her teacher, she brought it to the class meeting. The children were so compassionate. They said, "This is not okay; we don't want this to happen." But they also told the boy that they wanted him to learn how to make friends because they cared about him. He shared that he was having a really hard time making friends and felt like he didn't belong.
It didn't go away overnight. But whenever he engaged in that behavior, children who had been afraid of him started letting the teacher know there was a problem. Students started inviting the boy into their games. Within a couple of months, the problem was solved.
(Jane) A misbehaving child is a discouraged child seeking belonging and significance. There was a second grader who was stomping out children's sand castles. Children were angry with him and not letting him belong. The kids didn't have much experience with class meetings, so I asked the boy to leave while we talked about it.
I asked the class, "Why do you think he does this bullying?"
They said, "Oh, because he's mean."
Then one student said, "I wonder if it's because he's a foster child."
I asked, "What do you think it feels like to be a foster child?"
Someone said, "You don't have any friends, you move away from your family."
They started to develop compassion. They came up with this list of things they could do to help: walk to school with him, eat lunch and play with him. I mean, they had a long list and they decided who would do each of those things.
I told the boy, "We talked about some of the problems you've been having with bullying. Guess how many kids wanted to help you?
He looked down and said, "Probably none of them."
I said, "Everyone."
He just looked at me with those big eyes and said, "Everyone?!"
The kids followed through; they all started being his friend. He even got the job of being the sandcastle patrol, to protect everyone's sandcastles!
(Irene) Do parents report that their children teach them this process?
(Jane) All the time. I was working with an elementary teacher in a school that was known for vandalism and violence. He started Positive Discipline-style class meetings. The principal noticed that his kids weren't being sent to the office anymore. Then every teacher learned to hold class meetings. Parents started coming to watch the meetings and were so amazed. They started having family meetings based on these principles.
(Irene) What if teachers make mistakes?
(Jane) Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Positive Discipline is not a magic pill that makes everyone perfect. We all get upset. My daughter once threatened to tell Oprah on me! One of the best things you can do is admit your mistake and apologize. We don't need to feel guilty and, of course, kids are so forgiving. This process of forgiveness and solutions strengthens relationships.
(Chip) If children don't bring up problems about you in the class meeting a couple times during the year, you should take a look at that. If you've created a safe environment, students feel comfortable being open and honest with you and they are part of the solution.
(Irene) What are your hopes for bringing Positive Discipline to the Montessori world?
(Chip) It's my hope that we can move towards a more cohesive understanding of how to interact with children in the Montessori culture. In our Montessori trainings, we get smatterings of discipline ideas. Without a consistent methodology that reflects our deepest-held values as Montessorians, we can be scattered in our approach. That is confusing for children and can invite misbehavior.
It's wonderful to see Montessori schools all over the world adopting Positive Discipline and starting to teach it to their parents. Schools report that these are the most well-attended parent education events. Parents are hungry for this information and they're grateful. They say that learning to practice these skills has helped them understand Montessori in a way they never could have through a curriculum night. It has developed an amazing sense of community among the parents at our school.
(Jane) We're excited and encouraged by the support we've received from the different Montessori organizations. Positive Discipline and Montessori education make such a helpful and compatible partnership. I could work with Montessori groups all day long every day.
(Irene) Thank you both for the inspiring work that you do.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
—The interviewer, Irene Baker, MEd, is a Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 20 years, she has served as a Montessori consultant and teacher-trainer for primary and elementary levels, and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS conferences. Her work with students and teachers is infused with her passions: storytelling, history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, poetry, meditation, music, and the natural world.
—Originally Published 2021