fbpx Skip to content

Guiding the Child Towards Freedom

Guiding the Child Towards Freedom

 These conquerors of themselves have also attained freedom since they have rid themselves of those many disorderly and unconscious tendencies that necessarily place children under the strict control of adults… The grace and dignity of their behaviour and the ease of their movements are the corollaries to what they have gained through their own patient and laborious efforts. In a word they are ‘self-controlled’ and to the extent that they are thus controlled they are free from the control of others.” (The Discovery of the Child p.92)

What does Maria Montessori mean by ‘self-controlled’?

Her understanding of a child being “self-controlled” entails a great deal, ranging from physical movement, both gross and fine motor, emotional control, and intellectual control. Those who work in a Montessori environment understand that leading a child towards “freedom”, in the way Maria understood it, is multi-faceted, and takes many years for a child to accomplish.  It also requires a great deal of work on the part of the child.  She used the term “work” because she knew that through the act of learning, a child is constructing themselves, action by action, discovery by discovery, collecting impressions of the world around them, their place within it, their affect upon it and its effect upon them. She also wished children to become comfortable with the term “work” and to understand it as something they do that is fun, interesting, enabling, empowering. 

Montessori activities are designed to teach and refine the movements of children, so as to gain the self-control needed to carry out a wide range of activities that can increase their independence and their ability to explore further, with increasingly refined movements, that keep pace with their increasing understanding of the world around them. Gaining self-control over one’s own movements involves as much inhibition of movement as it does initiation of movement. The simple act of selecting an activity tray from a shelf involves inhibiting movement that would knock or upset adjacent objects off the shelf. It then requires judgement skills to ascertain how heavy the tray is, how far it needs to be brought out in a horizontal movement to release it from under the shelf above, prior to lifting it further to carry to a table or floor.  Then comes further inhibition of movements that would bump into tables, walk on others’ work mats, or bump into classmates.   Controlling the legs to bend the knees whilst lowering the tray to the floor mat, or the back, to lower the tray to the table, requires further gross motor control and judgement of distance between the tray being carried and its destination.  This involves spatial skills.  It is a joy to see the increasing control a young child gains by repeating this simple task with a multitude of activity trays over even the course of one term, let alone three years, in a Cycle One classroom. The self-control gained empowers the child to select as many activities as they like, with the minimum of disruption, thereby allowing more time for them to engage with the activity through to completion and the subsequent satisfaction that results from this completion: this personal success.

Once an activity is selected, there is an opportunity to practise fine motor skills, as they engage with the materials according to their specially designed purpose. Again, inhibition of movement plays as much a part as initiation of movement. Without inhibition of movement, water can be spilt, objects knocked off the table. Whatever the object of the activity, skilled movements are required to complete it.  These are myriad but suffice to say that all the movements required in Practical Life and Sensorial activities are not only teaching the child how to do careful, considered movements, appropriate to each task; it is also developing the pre-requisite skills required for learning in Language and Mathematics throughout the child’s educational journey. This comb ination of inhibition as well as initiation of movement is what Maria meant when she stated that  “…the ease of their movements are the corollaries to what they have gained through their own patient and laborious efforts.” In other words, the children’s work.

 Maria also spoke about “…The grace and dignity of their behaviour…”.

The word “behaviour” is used a great deal in the education world.  Usually in respect to Behaviour Management.  Maria herself had quite a strict view of appropriate behaviours, but her means of guiding children towards adoption of these behaviours was in stark contrast to those of her peers at the time of her writing.  She believed that engaging children in purposeful work to employ their psychic energies, combined with explicit teaching and modelling of Grace & Courtesy, would both guide and empower a child to learn how to inhibit destructive movements, learn how to initiate constructive movements, and develop within themselves the ability to make choices that sought positive outcomes for both themselves, and those in their community.

“If freedom is understood as letting children do as they like, using or more likely misusing, the things available, it is clear that only their “deviations” are free to develop; their abnormalities will increase.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 206)

“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… (The Absorbent Mind, p. 205)

Maria’s term, “deviations”, was one utilised at the time her writing, although some may recoil at this term. The term stems from Latin “deviare”, meaning to “wander off the road/course”.  She simply meant behaviours which hinder a child from focussing on their work, which is the construction of themselves, or which cause disruption to others who are also constructing themselves.

“Conscious will is a power which develops with use and activity.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 254).

Maria also spoke about “will” or “volition” in her writing.  She refers to the deliberate choice of an activity and choice of behaviours. We know that very young children are often controlled by their sensory needs, their lack of understanding of the world around them and their lack of sufficient language to explain their feelings and desires. She created Practical Life and Sensorial activities to engage the young child in purposeful movements that harness their restless, chaotic energies, to achieve a goal that would combine and satisfy both their psychic and physical energies. She understood that through deliberate movements, the child would gradually gain control over their own will. They could make their own decisions about how to utilise their energies in a satisfying way. In her years of observation of children, she saw time and again how purposeful activity led the child from chaotic movements that seek to satisfy an inner urge in the moment, towards deliberate, purposeful movements that enabled the child to gain independence from inner urges that work against them. As the child gains more self-control over their movements and learns, by experience, to make wise choices for themselves, they increase in both skill and understanding of the world around them, which is what children seek to do. It is an imperative in a child to seek to understand. Some children display behaviours that at first may seem disruptive, but to those with a trained eye, reveal themselves as a child trying desperately to satisfy an unmet need, psychic or physical.  Sometimes a child needs to go outside the classroom to either engage in gross motor movement or to gain relief from over stimulation in the classroom and do some calm breathing exercises with a mindfulness activity.  Both of these opposing activities can have calming effects upon a child, depending upon the child’s need and what they are feeling at the time. Because in a Montessori classroom children work at their own individual pace and are often working on different activities simultaneously, children who need this time outside the classroom can often be accommodated, under the watchful eye of an adult.  This serves to calm the child who is experiencing difficulty and learn strategies to meet their needs, whilst also allowing the children in the classroom to continue with their work undisturbed.  In this way the rights of all children are met.

“Free choice is one of the highest of all mental processes.  Only the child deeply aware of his need for practice and for the development of his spiritual life, can really be said to choose freely. It is not possible to speak of free choice when all kinds of external stimuli attract a child at the same time and, having no will power, he responds to every call, passing restlessly from one thing to another…He is still a slave to superficial sensations which leave him at the mercy of his environment.  His spirit bounces back and forth like a ball. Manhood is born within him when his soul becomes aware of itself, when he sets himself a task, finds his way and chooses.” (The Absorbent Mind, p.271).

“Choice”, is inherent in a Montessori environment, but its companion is “responsibility”.  They could be said to be almost symbiotic, because ultimately, they cannot function properly without each other. Without responsibility, a person’s choices can be restricted, due to their disruption of societal or communal harmony.  Without choice, a person is enslaved to the will of others or, indeed, “… superficial sensations which leave him at the mercy of his environment.” Sometimes a child will choose to act in a manner which is disruptive to others because they have not yet learned to both inhibit, as well as initiate their own movements in a manner that will enable them to engage in an activity which they will find satisfying. They need assistance by an adult in learning how to achieve this balance between inhibition and initiation.  Only through gaining this balance can a child truly benefit by the inherent learning built into their classroom activities. This can require patience, but also insistence by the adult guide who must reiterate the correct usage of classroom materials.


“Choice”, is inherent in a Montessori environment, but its companion is “responsibility”.  They could be said to be almost symbiotic, because ultimately, they cannot function properly without each other.


A child who, upon choosing to engage with the Pink Tower or Brown Stairs, proceeds to bang them together or, after building the tower, knock it down noisily is shown, with patience, how to use the materials in such a way as to reveal their inner values.  Using deliberate movements, inhibiting as well as initiating movement, they are shown how to place one block after another, with minimal noise, to reveal the differences in dimensions of each block, sensorially feeling the dimensions as they build. These simple activities teach a multitude of skills: ease of movement, spatial skills, judgement of dimension, respect for the materials.  Every activity in a Montessori classroom is designed to engage the child in a manner which enables them to gain control over their movements, as well as their urges: long term satisfaction, rather than short term gratification. It is the child’s transformative journey from being controlled by spontaneous inner urges, towards gaining control over their urges and psychic energies towards the attainment of increasingly sophisticated goals.

Students are offered the use of materials when they display readiness to adopt the concepts inherent in those materials. They are shown how to use them respectfully and in a manner for which they were designed as learning tools, then trusted to treat them with the respect modelled by the teacher. If the student then misuses the materials, they are reminded how to use them respectfully and with purpose and are given the opportunity to display these qualities. However, students who do not adopt these guidelines are simply displaying a lack of readiness to use them and are directed towards more suitable materials. There are no recriminations for misuse, just re-direction towards materials more suited to a child’s needs on any given day. This is how Montessori teachers “follow the child”.  Misuse of materials can result from a lack of readiness on that particular day, or at that stage of their learning journey, or a sensory need for activities that work the muscles in a manner different to that which the materials call for, such as heavy muscle work, building or creating something or a need to do a calming activity before using any Montessori material. Montessori teachers are trained observers who can re-direct students towards activities they believe will provide for a child’s need, socially, physically, or intellectually throughout the various stages of the day. It is not about denial, but rather readiness; this makes sound pedagogical sense. “Their success in this is dependent on the use of the objects for the purpose they are designed to serve, a thing which is also conducive to the child’s “mental order”. If they are used with care and precision, this leads the child to the co-ordination of his movements… Mental order and the co-ordination of movement guided by scientific standards are what prepare for concentration, and this, once it has occurred, “frees the actions of the child,” and leads him to the cure of his defects. We say “concentration”, and not just “occupation”, because if children go indifferently from one thing to another, even if they use them properly, this is not enough to remove their defects.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 206)

In discussing  “…the cure of his defects” , Maria is not being insulting, as the term “defects”  may be considered by some readers.  Again, it is simply the language of the times. By defects, she means non-purposeful movements of a child that cause damage to materials and disruption to the concentration of both themselves, and their classmates. It is contextual. This does not mean that banging objects or throwing them are not, in themselves, purposeful actions. They can be, in the appropriate context, such as when outside using a ball or when hammering in a nail when creating something, or simply learning the skill of hammering in a nail.

“Now, to help such development, it is not enough to provide objects chosen at random, but we have to organize a world of “progressive interest”. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 207)

Montessori teachers observe children’s engagement with materials and present new materials when they believe the child is ready for the next step. Lev Vygotsky,an early 20th century developmental psychologist, used the term Zone of Proximal Development to describe the space between what a child can do independently, and the skills they can learn when guided in a new task by a skilled adult or peer. This is what Maria meant when she spoke about the need “… to organize a world of “progressive interest”. However, in order to continue to progress to a new level of understanding, a child must be able to display controlled movements and sound judgement in their choice of learning materials, their use of it to gain the value inherent in its design, and, harnessing their control of movement and the application of focus, display the ability to complete the activity (a Work Cycle) with ease and understanding.

Maria, in her teachings, kept referring to what she described as the “Normalised” child. The term could be interpreted as more of a value statement than a pedagogical term. However, the term “Normalised”, means a child who has gained control over their own physical movements and developed the ability to make conscious choices to engage in meaningful tasks. that will aid them in their own self-construction. Tasks that enhance their skills and understanding of the world around them and further guide them towards purposeful independence. This is in contrast to the term “deviations”, which refers to that which hinders the development described as leading towards “Normalisation”.

We live in a society,: the term stemming from the Latin “socius”, meaning member, friend, or ally. The general acceptance of this term suggests that humans, in general, strive for and expect behaviour from those around them that is non-threatening, and in some way contributes towards the wellbeing of those who live in the society. As children develop towards the Second Plane of Development (ages 6-12) they display a strong interest in issues of morality, or fairness. It is often referred to as the “age of rudeness” as children begin to strive for independence from what, up to this stage, are very adult driven lives. They often seek to broaden their social sphere, fostering friendships in groups, as well as pairs. They become more aware and observant of the behaviours of others and the results of these behaviours. Did their peers gain or lose by their behaviours? Should I copy those behaviours? Children experiment more with ways of being, as a means to discover on a deeper level, not only who they are individually, but also in relation to those around them.  Their perspectives broaden in comparison to the child in the First Plane of Development (ages 0-6).

The yearning for increased independence, coupled with an exploration of the meaning of the concepts of morality and fairness, can sometimes result in conflict within the child, resulting in behaviours that would be considered “inappropriate” by societal standards.


A second side of education at this age concerns the child’s exploration of the moral field, discrimination between good and evil.  He no longer is receptive, absorbing impressions with ease, but wants to understand for himself, not content with accepting mere facts.  As moral activity develops, he wants to use his own judgment, which often will be quite different from that of his teachers.” (To Educate the Human Potential, p. 4)

Teachers are well acquainted with the conflict raging within the students they teach. Sometimes there is conflict between “I want…” and what is available to them at the time. A lack of availability of what a student wants at any given time can cause great angst, which is defined as  …”a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.” The word stems from angh, a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “tight, painfully constricted, painful.” During this conflict a child’s behaviour is an outward manifestation of this inner turmoil and their inability to find a way out of what they perceive as a trap. It is a crucial period for children because gaining awareness of this inner turmoil and learning strategies to help themselves, can assist students in forming long-lasting and meaningful relationships with others.  The self-control can enhance their ability to learn, decreasing the amount of interference these “big emotions” can cause.  Have you ever tried to focus on something important at work when you are fuming, nervous, anxious?  Worrying thoughts interfere with our ability to function in an orderly manner towards achievement of a goal.

“Freedom is understood in a very elementary fashion, as an immediate release from oppressive bonds; as a cessation of corrections and of submission to authority… it means only the elimination of coercion. From this comes, often enough, a very simple “reaction”: a disorderly pouring out of impulses no longer controlled because they were previously controlled by the adult’s will. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 205)

According to Maria Montessori, the role of adults in a child’s life is as a guide, rather than an enforcer. However, this guidance involves clear directions about what is available to the child, according to their own choice of behaviour. Because classrooms use shared materials, there is a necessity for these materials to be treated with respect, to ensure they last in a condition that will be conducive to imparting the concepts and enhancing the skills for which they were designed. Another guideline is for students to return materials to the place they were found. This may sound pedantic, but the reasoning is twofold: it ensures that all members of the class know where to find the materials at any given time when not in use by students, which ensures equity, as well as instilling a sense of order, which is an important component of executive functioning.  Students who show they are not yet ready to follow these guidelines are allowed access only to materials that they have shown they can use sensibly and with respect for these shared materials.

Montessori classrooms are prepared and designed to be environments in which children can access learning materials easily, due to the orderly arrangement of the shelves, and focus upon their task, without interruption, towards completion of the activity; thereby increasing their understanding of the concepts inherent in the activity. A child engrossed in a learning activity is in the process of constructing themselves, which is taken seriously by Montessori educators, and therefore a child’s workspace is respected and protected in a number of ways. Grace & Courtesy instruction includes respecting each other’s work, which may be on a table or a mat, or sometimes the kitchen shelf, depending upon the activity. Children are asked to leave a child’s work untouched and to refrain from disrupting them in their concentration.  If they need to interrupt for a sound reason, they are taught to stand or kneel by the worker quietly and wait for a suitable time to get their attention or to say “excuse me” quietly and wait patiently for the other child to acknowledge the interruption.  Montessori children learn to take interruptions in their stride, as it can be a natural part of life which they need to learn to accommodate. They become skilled in listening to the interruption, acting accordingly if required, and then returning to their task.

Grace & Courtesy instruction endeavours to ensure that all children are allowed a calm, quiet working space, in which children can engage in purposeful activities. This is one aspect of Montessori classrooms that observers like, as they understand its value.  Non-purposeful endeavours, disruptive actions and disrespectful behaviours interrupt this atmosphere, rendering it difficult for children engaged in work to concentrate, thereby losing some of their valuable learning time. This is inequitable, as all parents expect their children’s workspace to be protected under Montessori guidelines. This is one reason why parents choose to enrol their children in a Montessori school.

Maria spent many years observing children in different cultures engaged in learning activities and came to the conclusion that purposeful work actually assists a child in various ways.  It develops motor movement and executive functioning. Their work develops focus, which is gradually increased as a child persists with a task. It enhances their skills, which enables them to engage in more complex tasks as they progress.  Increasing their skill level results in a sense of accomplishment which enhances self-esteem and builds courage to try new activities, or work at a more sophisticated level which will challenge them and provide satisfaction.  This is what Maria meant when she spoke about organising “…a world of “progressive interest”. Children actually like to work.  They enjoy learning because it satisfies their inner need to create themselves. They have a subconscious understanding of the need to work, in order to construct themselves.  I have seen time and again the look on children’s faces when they accomplish something to which they have dedicated time and focus to achieve. It is more than satisfaction. It is Joy, which stems from the Latin gaudere -“to rejoice” or “to take pleasure in”.  In an environment in which children’s work is respected, protected and fostered, children experience this spirit raising emotion on a regular basis. Learning is associated with self-construction of their being, satisfaction, enhanced self-esteem and joy. This is why it works!

Behavioural Management in a Montessori setting involves a relationship between the teacher and each individual student. These relationships are fostered through respectful and consistent modelling by educators who set the tone for the classroom; one that seeks to show respect for all and meet the needs of all, in a context that has as its purpose the education of children. The latter, for it to be successful, requires an environment that fosters learning and therefore any behaviours that detract from this have to be managed to achieve an outcome whereby all children can achieve the aim for which they attend school. This is the only way to ensure a school can fulfill its mandate to educate and keep the children in its care safe.

Although the reasoning behind Behaviour Management can appear clear and self-evident, the reality is complex, because human beings, and therefore children, are complex beings. They all have their own needs, sensitivities, life experiences, strengths, and challenges.

Behavioural Management strategies employed by educators strive to take into consideration the complex needs of individuals. Educators work to find strategies to teach children to empower them to develop skills in self-regulation, and thereby learn to manage their own behaviour.  To recognise their own inherent needs that cause them distress, resulting in behaviours that sometimes work against the maintenance of a calm, happy learning environment where everyone feels respected, safe and is conducive to learning. This applies to the child themselves. No child wishes to feel frustrated: when they do, we as adult guides, must acknowledge their frustration, try to determine the source of it, remove or ameliorate that trigger and assist the child to self-regulate.  When they are calm, they can be guided to a task that employs their psychic energy in a useful way, that gives them a sense of purpose, achievement, and satisfaction.

Any area of human endeavour which involves more than one person, if it is to be successful, requires an understanding of the concepts of compromise, which can sometimes feel threatening as it requires a delaying of gratification or a change in outcome from what we expected. These can engender “big feelings” in children who are still learning to distinguish between what they can handle and what they can’t. Time teaches us all that we will live through disappointment and the unwanted feelings this creates. Time teaches us that if we learn to compromise, delay our gratification, or forego a desired outcome, our needs can still be satisfied, but in a different form. Experience teaches us that when others voluntarily forego immediate satisfaction of their own desires, we are the beneficiaries. Life consists of give and take.  This is what it means to live in a Society; to be a member, friend and/or ally.

Maria advised educators to equip children to take their place in the society in which they live. To equip children to achieve this goal we must teach them to gain control over themselves, through understanding themselves. We must show children how to communicate their own needs effectively but without negatively impacting upon others, which in turn, gives others the message that their rights are respected, even when one is having a bad day.

The way we behave immediately conveys a message to others, whether or not we intend this to occur. When children are taught how to control themselves, whilst also showing empathy for the needs and sensitivities of others, and adjusting their own behaviour accordingly, this creates an atmosphere in which everyone feels O.K to be themselves.

Real freedom, instead, is a consequence of dev elopement: it is the development of latent guides, aided by education. Development is active. It is the construction of the personality, reached by effort and one’s own experiences: it is the long road which every child must travel to attain maturity” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 206)

About the Author

Recent Posts