Magic of Montessori Demystified: No Rewards, Punishments, or Praise, Oh My!

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A lot of what sets a Montessori education apart from traditional methods are the aspects of the environment you can’t see upon first glance - the intangibles. There are no punishments, no rewards, and only carefully thought-out respectful interactions, encouragement, and redirection. That’s right. No “time-outs,” no sticker charts, not even grades.

The absence of rewards and punishments is usually what baffles parents and new teachers most. Most children are not initially miraculously self-motivated and independent, choosing their own work, completing it, and concentrating for hours at a time. Their concentration takes time to develop and they typically need help to focus or choose a lesson. Sometimes their “cry for attention” exhibits itself by them running around the room, chasing a friend, or constantly touching and interrupting an older friend’s lesson. Montessori teachers don’t implement traditional behavioral techniques like “time outs.” The child is not acting out because they are “bad;” rather, they would like to be focused and interested in something, but need some assistance to get there. Maria Montessori said “to let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”

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In a Montessori environment, the teacher acts as a guide and, in these cases, takes the child by the hand and helps them find something they will be captivated by. For some this looks like Polishing a Bracelet - a Practical Life lesson with upwards of 50 steps. For other children, it’s painting a picture for a friend on the easel. What propels, excites, and stimulates a child’s creativity, enthusiasm, and attention is just as individual as it is for adults. Rather than punish the child, teachers connect them to the prepared environment and teach them a new skill they will be interested in, which will in turn also boost their confidence, rather than bring them down. It is human nature to respond better to a positive direction, rather than a negative one. Instead of saying “don’t do that,” say “come try this instead.”

Praise can also be a fickle friend. When a child brings over work they are proud of, rather than responding “good job,” teachers encourage introspection, saying things like “you must be really proud of that hard work you did.” With more specific effort-focused acknowledgement, the child finds intrinsic motivation rather than constantly searching for outside approval.

Montessori classrooms also help promote self confidence, autonomy, and leadership skills in their structure. Primary classrooms are multi-age, usually spanning 3 years. The classroom is a community where the children learn from each other. The older children who have mastered lessons demonstrate and guide younger children, developing leadership skills and compassion. The teachers and assistants get to know each individual child closely through careful observations. As the children gain independence, the teacher is able to step back and assess who needs more attention or assistance, meet them where they are, and adapt the environment or lessons as necessary to best fit each student’s interests and learning style.

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The Montessori environment and philosophy have been around for a long time and span the globe, but if you didn’t grow up with it, you may feel lost trying to understand the magic or explain it to others. The most notable difference is the respect given to each child’s individuality and what they have to offer the world. With the absence of mandated tests, or arbitrary curriculum pressures, teachers are free to truly honor each child. Marianne Williamson said “there is no single effort more radical in its potential for saving the world than a transformation of the way we raise our children.” What better time than now to unravel a mysterious, yet time-tested method of education?