Two Common Misconceptions about a Montessori Classroom

by Sheri Papke


1) The classroom is too permissive, and the children do no productive work or;

2) The classroom is too strict, and the children are not able to play or use their imaginations

The teacher who understands the importance of freedom and discipline can help develop a CAREFULLY-PREPARED environment/classroom where the children are given true freedom of choice and can peacefully engage in productive and independent work. This helps the child learn to self-regulate and develop self-discipline.

In the Montessori classroom, a balance must be formed between freedom and discipline for the child to fully develop. We often think that these are contradictory. Freedom and discipline go together in the development of the child, two sides of the same coin as it were. Freedom is often thought of as “the ability to do what one wants” and discipline is thought of as “being made to do something.” The word discipline comes from the base word “disciple” which means “student/pupil” and the student needs to be shown the way. Therefore, discipline is a prerequisite for freedom in that one cannot truly be free without discipline.

In the Montessori classroom, the child is given three basic freedoms (freedom of choice, freedom to repeat, and freedom of movement), but each freedom is granted within limits. The freedom of choice is limited by whether the child has been given a presentation/lesson on how to use the material correctly and purposefully. The freedom to repeat allows the child to use the material for as long as desired if the material is used correctly. And the freedom of movement allows the child to decide where in the classroom to work with the materials chosen. Whether in the classroom or in the home, the adult needs to find a balance between too much freedom (which leaves the child feeling neglected and abandoned by those they love most) and too little freedom (which leaves the child unable to think for oneself and will only follow the rules when an adult is present). 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.” (Absorbent Mind, p. 205)

The key to developing self-discipline is the carefully prepared Montessori environment. It is in this environment; the child is drawn to the appropriate work which he/she may freely choose. Being able to do this, even the most “exuberant” child can, over time, become calm, peaceful, and focused. Maria Montessori discovered through her observations all children have an innate hunger for learning and will work diligently at a task which meets their specific developmental needs.

In this carefully-prepared environment freedom of choice can be given because all the choices presented to the child are good choices. Some children will struggle when given these freedoms, so the adult will give limits to help them. It is these limits which allows the child to know what to expect if they do make an incorrect choice.

When we are born, we have no freedom. We are completely dependent on our parents. All parents have the goal for their child to become a mature and independent adult. To do this there must be an increase in the child’s level of freedom as they grow. A two-year-old cannot handle the same freedom a six-year-old is given, but it is important the two-year-old be able to experience some freedom within limits for self-discipline to develop. Each child is different, and the teacher/parent must observe to determine the amount of freedom the child can handle. Finding a balance with freedom and discipline is a life-long process, not something that happens overnight. The true test of this is what a child does when left alone. The child who makes a good choice when no one is looking is an example of a balance between freedom and discipline.

Helpful Resource about Freedom and Discipline:

Understanding Montessori: A Guide for Parents by Maren Schmidt and Dana Schmidt