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  • Montessori Philosphy
Raising a Resilient Child the Montessori Way

Methods for Self-Regulation: Resisting Impulsive Behavior and Controlling Emotions

“Self-regulation” is a broad construct often referenced by child educators and psychologists. The term is often associated with a child’s ability to control his or her impulses and behavior in view of personal goals and standards.

The development of self-regulation in children has always been a key component of The Montessori Schools objectives when creating and refining the curriculum and learning strategies. This article takes a closer look at this issue, defining self-regulation in more detail and exploring the Montessori philosophical principles and practices that support its development in children.

What Research Has to Say About Self-Regulation

A growing body of research has established the universal finding that self-regulation is a crucial indicator of healthy child development. Early development of self-regulation has been shown to have a positive impact on cognitive and social competence, school readiness, and grade point average. In fact, early childhood self-regulation has proven to be a better predictor of kindergarten academic achievement than early childhood math and reading abilities. A promising feature of self-regulation is that it can be developed and enhanced over time.

What Behaviors Encompass Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation encompasses self-discipline, delay of gratification, the ability to think before acting, motor control, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility, and task persistence. The concept in practice requires effort and “top-down management” of impulse, attention, emotion, and stress response systems.

A two-year-old child practices “Flower Arranging.” He follows multiple sequential steps, including carrying a tray, pouring water into the vase, and using scissors to trim the stems. The cycle is complete when he returns the items to the tray and the tray to the shelf.

How Does Montessori Apply?

Montessori methods have a theoretical foundation deeply rooted in the development of children’s self-regulation and, consequently, a child’s capacity to be independent and self-reliant. Contemporary psychology research demonstrates that the Montessori environment enhances children’s capacity for self-regulation, both in the present and later in life as adolescents and adults.

Multiple factors intrinsic to the Montessori environment contribute to a child developing the capacity for self-regulation.

1. Free Choice with Structure (Bounded or Limited Choices)

Dr. Maria Montessori theorized that the integration of free choice with structure helps children develop independent “mental order.” In practice, students choose their own activities to pursue, move freely about the classroom to work, and independently access materials placed on low, open, child-sized shelves. Integrated into this open environment are structured elements.

For example, children have some but not all lessons available to them; they can work with lessons already presented to them by their teachers. When to present a lesson is based on the child’s developmental readiness. Similarly, children work with materials within the constructs of a specific, goal-directed order that requires planning and organizational skills. Classroom materials are arranged in a particular order, and children are asked to return these materials to their designated spot after using them.

Autonomy-supportive learning environments allow students to make their own choices while perceiving that they have control over their own education. Such a scenario enhances self-regulation and creates an intrinsic motivation to maintain control. Children feel supported and, at the same time, they have the “scaffolding” through structured lessons to help them order their minds and their environment.

We encourage children to move beyond their comfort zones into spaces that are challenging enough to promote further development of self-regulation but not so challenging that they cause frustration or lack of motivation for follow-through.

2. Concentration and Task Persistence

Concentration is an important component of self-regulation. Dr. Montessori observed children’s natural capacity for “spontaneous concentration” when working with self-endorsed, appropriately challenging, hands-on activities. In the Montessori classroom, children engage in open work periods lasting two to three hours. This time period allows the children to become absorbed and engaged in self-chosen activities without interruption.

 


 

A large body of research demonstrates that children are capable of sustained attention
and concentration, significantly, if the task was personally chosen by the child.

 


 

States of deep concentration are promoted in the Montessori lessons. Teachers are strategic about the design and selection of lessons. This individualized approach helps ensure that children won’t get bored with a task that is too easy, nor will they get discouraged by a task that is too hard. This kind of precision is considered the “sweet spot” of challenge. The teachers zone in on the optimal level of challenge necessary to capture children’s attention, engage their concentration skills, and further their learning.

A three-year-old student works with the Cylinder Blocks. This lesson involves fitting cylinders of different sizes into the corresponding spaces. The material is self-correcting, as students can visually see and physically feel when a block does not fit.

3.  Lack of Extrinsic Rewards

Dr. Montessori maintained that rewarding a child for specific behaviors can disrupt engagement with work by shifting focus from the activity at hand to the reward. She observed that the work itself can be inherently rewarding for children because of the stimulating and challenging content, which is why teaching practices and materials were carefully designed to intrinsically reward children without adult intervention.


 

Many Montessori materials are self-correcting; through direct interaction
with the materials, students realize if they have made a mistake,
without teacher intervention.

 


 

Montessori teachers are trained in how to guide children away from a need for extrinsic rewards, such as gold stars, awards, or grades, and toward gaining an intrinsic sense of accomplishment. However, we recognize that the development of self-motivation is a process, and we try to meet a child wherever they happen to be in achieving more autonomy.

Research has consistently demonstrated that when children independently choose tasks, as they do in Montessori classrooms, their capacity to be more persistent with a task also increases. Our teachers avoid, whenever possible, overt displays of judgment (negative or positive). By framing feedback in neutral terms, we help children to be less reliant on extrinsic rewards. Children are then more likely to use self-regulatory strategies, such as planning or concentrating, and to voluntarily engage in challenging activities.

For example, at The Montessori Schools, children as young as 18 months gather together prior to entering the indoor play area and wait patiently for their name to be called. The vast open space is very appealing to the children who are eager to climb and explore and socialize, but the children, not the teachers, regulate behavior. They understand that gathering and waiting your turn is part of the process. Similarly, the practice of limiting the number of balls in the play area is a prerequisite to learning how to take turns and to communicate (using words!) what you want.

Developing self-regulation strategies often begins with learning how to work within the norms and expectations of a community and then matures into the capacity for delayed gratification.

4.  Practice through Repetition of Tasks Demanding Self-Regulatory Skills

Through her observations, Dr. Montessori observed that repetition reinforces behavior and allows children to transition from dependence (other-regulation) to independence (self-regulation). In a Montessori classroom, children repeat ordered activities in a specific sequence. They decide which task, execute the task in small, concrete steps, evaluate their progress using self-correcting materials, and repeat the task again and again.

 


 

Children feel a great sense of pride, accomplishment, and joy
when they have practiced a lesson to the point of mastery.

 


 

Practicing tasks that demand self-control has been linked to increased self-regulatory capacity. Expert performance often results from “deliberate practice,” which, by definition, draws on basic self-regulatory skills: planning, breaking tasks into chunks, practicing, self-evaluating, repeating. Ideally, repetition of tasks occurs at levels that gradually increase in challenge. A Montessori education is essentially training derived from the deliberate practice of specific tasks.

Evidence for Montessori’s Effectiveness with Self-Regulation

Over 100 years ago, Dr. Montessori infused her curriculum with several practices that theoretically develop children’s self-regulation. Since then, contemporary researchers have confirmed many of her core observations. We now have an abundance of evidence supporting Montessori’s effectiveness, including the routine adoption of the methods in child psychology practices. Ultimately, Montessori is about engaging children in purposeful, joyful activities that give them a great sense of independence, pride, and ownership over their own learning.

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