Positive Guidance: How to Give Firm and Kind Positive Directions (And Actually Get Cooperation!)

by Casey Hardigan


If you’re a parent or a teacher you have likely found that gaining cooperation from your child is the most difficult part of your job. When you’re too firm you end up feeling bad about yourself and perhaps gain compliance at best; at worst you may inspire thoughts of retaliation or rebellion. When you’re too kind you feel inadequate and frustrated with your child.

Positive Discipline, a method created by Dr. Jane Nelson, gives the tools to be both kind and firm at the same time and focuses on teaching children lifelong skills to successfully self regulate in the future when mom, dad, or teachers are not around.

What Does Positive Discipline Sound Like?

  • Instead of “calm down,” -  “It seems like you are [frustrated, sad, etc.] How can I help you?”

  • Rather than “stop crying,” - “I can see this is hard for you.”

  • Instead of “you’re okay,” - “Are you okay?”

  • Rather than “be quiet” - Use an inside voice.”

  • Instead of “don’t hit,” - “Please use gentle hands.”

  • Rather than “stop yelling,” - “Take a deep breath, then tell me what happened so I can hear and understand you.”

  • Instead of “Don’t get upset,” - “It’s okay to feel sad.”

  • Rather than “That’s enough,” - “It seems like you need a minute. I am going to go over here and you let me know when you are ready to talk.”

  • Instead of “I’m over this,” try “ It seems like you are frustrated. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s not okay to kick the chair. When you are frustrated you can take deep breaths, kick a ball, talk to me about why, etc.”

What Does Positive Discipline Look Like?

  • Have clear expectations - “As soon as you finish ___, then you may ___.”

  • Respond with a question - “Would you like to do this yourself, or do you want/need my help?”

  • Check understanding/knowledge - “What needs to happen before you can ___?”

  • Limited choices - “Would you rather get dressed now or take your clothes to school in your bag?”

  • Come to a mutual agreement - “If I let you ___, when will you ___?”

  • Follow through - “What was our agreement?”

Why Does it Matter in the Long Run?

Rewards and punishments are popular methods to gain cooperation among parents and teachers for good reason. Sticker charts, iPad time, and treats will absolutely tame a tantrum or award you a few moments of peace and quiet. Positive Discipline requires more thought, practice, and time. However, rather than teaching a child that he should listen and do the right thing to attain an extrinsic reward - Positive Discipline helps children learn self regulation, responsibility, cooperation, and the belief that they are capable.

In The Science Behind the Genius, Angelline Lillard discusses some of the research. While extrinsic incentives work in the short term, for most children, in the long haul, they “disrupt the very behaviors they aim to promote. Children’s motivation to engage in activities further, their cognitive functioning, their creativity, and their prosocial behaviors are all negatively impacted by extrinsic rewards and evaluations. [...] Research shows that if a person was already motivated to do an activity to begin with, expected rewards actually interfere with their subsequent interest in that activity.” (Lillard, 153-156)

Positive Discipline tools give children an internal compass and critical thinking skills. These things require a lot more patience and time as they require relationship building on the part of the parent or teacher, but are skills that will serve the child for the rest of his life, in every relationship, aiding in the development of an independent, happy human being.

There’s No Such Thing As “Montessori-Like”: How Montessori Tailors Education to Each Individual Child


I was recently asked if I had to give an “elevator speech” describing the best part about Montessori what I would say. There are SO many things that make a Montessori education special; however, if I had to narrow it down, the number one reason is its emphasis on individual development. Montessori education allows teachers to build a learning plan specially tailored to each child’s unique personality and needs. The curriculum is set. The lessons have been proven by contemporary research to work for not just some children - but every child.

Teachers don’t have to create lesson plans for a whole group every week, allowing them time to focus on each individual child. What excites them? In which areas do they need more support?

Careful, Expert Observation One misconception about the Montessori method of following the child is this means letting them do whatever they want. Parents fear that if Susie is drawn to math she will be able to sit and work on math work all day, every day, and never be taught to read or encouraged to paint. This is not the case. Montessori teachers are trained to observe each child’s interests, allow them the freedom and time necessary to practice the lessons they need, and guide them toward other areas as well when it’s time to branch out.


If a child is hesitant to visit another area of the classroom - we ask why. Are they hesitant to try writing because it’s challenging for them and they’re afraid to fail? Are they not visiting the math area because it’s simply not interesting to them?

Interest-Based Learning If the problem is interest - teachers use their powers of observation and years of preparation to decide how they can manipulate the material to draw the child in. When a child is struggling we don’t ask what is wrong with this child; rather how can we change what we are doing to engage and better support them.

In one of the Primary rooms at Suzuki we had a little boy who was OBSESSED with

monster trucks. He would smuggle them into school in his bag and spend hours, mesmerized, playing with them. Rather than become exasperated he wasn’t choosing lessons in math or language - the teachers observed his infatuation and used it. They adjusted a counting lesson by switching out spindles with monster trucks so the child wanted to practice learning numbers because now, it was something he was interested in.

Children Learn at Different Rates An authentic Montessori environment allows for the fact that different children learn and develop at different rates. For this reason you will find Montessori schools have multi-age classrooms. Some children are working on reading chapter books, while others are learning their letter sounds. Multi-age classrooms teach children at a young age that it’s okay to be working on different things at different rates. This sense of community (rather than competition if everyone is the same age, working on the same things) fosters opportunities for leadership, collaboration and teamwork,

Different Materials for Different Learners Different children learn in different ways. Montessori materials account for this. Children learn letter sounds by tracing Sandpaper Letters - getting kinesthetic, visual, and auditory input. Some teachers even incorporate purposeful movement for children whose brains work best when their body is busy. All Montessori materials are intentionally hands-on, ensuring that all learners have the opportunity to process the concept. There are also several lessons that teach the same concept to ensure at least one will appeal to the child’s individual interest and needs. Montessori materials ensure that every child’s unique learning style is honored, rather than choosing one lesson plan that is meant to meet the needs of 25 different children at the same time on the same day.

Why It Matters Every child has a natural desire to learn. If you observe an infant taking in his environment it’s clear that children are scientists - constantly making and testing hypotheses in their interactions with the world. When we honor the fact, as authentic Montessori schools do, that children learn best when they are interested in what they’re learning, given the space and freedom to develop at their own rate, and learn in different ways, we raise capable people with a strong sense of self, a desire for exploration and innovation, and a lifelong passion for learning.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

50 Ways to Keep the Montessori Spirit Alive in Your Classroom

Whether you turn the tray at the end of a lesson, go from right to left or left to right, are AMS-trained, or AMI-trained - there are many foundational elements of Montessori philosophy we can all agree on. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the minutiae - remember the essentials. Below are 50 ways to keep the Montessori spirit alive in your classroom.

  1. Do things with the child, not for them

  2. Model the behavior you’d like to see

  3. Use fewer words - guide with actions

  4. Practice grace and courtesy with the adults and children in your classroom

  5. Move precisely and with purpose

  6. Follow the child’s interest to spark and maintain curiosity

  7. Accept that every child moves at their own pace

  8. Prepare the classroom so every child can be as independent as possible

  9. Embrace simplicity

  10. Own up to your mistakes and apologize if necessary when you’ve made one

  11. Respect the child

  12. Coach the child in acknowledging and managing their emotions - this is a learned skill

  13. Protect all forms of concentration once they begin

  14. Remember it’s okay not to be perfect! It’s important to model this for your children

  15. Be kind and firm - children need love and limits

  16. Trust that the materials are self-correcting - any interference from an adult is potentially a missed opportunity for the child to conduct his own experimentation and learning

  17. Evaluate if you are in constant need of being in control - and let go of it

  18. Have a sense of humor!

  19. Give effort-based praise

  20. Trust in the absorbent mind and sensitive periods

  21. Incorporate the outdoors and nature whenever possible

  22. Encourage curiosity and exploration

  23. Provide hands-on, concrete opportunities for learning

  24. Practice Practical Life activities again and again and again!

  25. Promote peer problem solving and don’t interfere unless absolutely necessary once it begins

  26. Leave the working child unless they are hurting themselves, hurting someone else, or damaging a material

  27. Keep an ordered environment

  28. Associate movement and learning as much as possible

  29. Give children the time necessary to complete a task

  30. Observe the child - what are they interested in? Where do they need encouragement?

  31. Allow yourself to be in awe of the natural instinct each child has to learn and grow

  32. Remark on exciting things in nature and allow yourself to be amazed when a child points something out to you

  33. Model self control and mindfulness

  34. Help the child take control of their learning by answering questions with questions - “What do you think the answer is?” so they are encouraged to trust their instinct or explore and experiment to find the answer

  35. Be an active listener

  36. Speak to the child on his level

  37. Provide feeling words whenever possible

  38. Prepare the room with child sized furnishings and all materials within their reach

  39. Use proper terminology for body parts, bodily functions, names, etc.

  40. Create an atmosphere where mistakes are acceptable and part of the learning process

  41. Accept the child for who they are - it is our obligation to see the light in each child even when their behavior is challenging

  42. Partner with parents as much as and whenever possible. The child is the one that benefits when we do so

  43. Do not seek to change or affect or modify or improve any other human - observe and accept the one that exists and prepare the environment to stimulate their continued engagement

  44. Pause long enough to recognize the difference between a child wandering and a child who is seeking a momentary break in between lessons

  45. Accept false fatigue as a natural occurrence and stay calm

  46. Be grateful in the gift you have been given to share in the lives of the children in your class

  47. Create opportunities for children to be active participants in the care of their environment

  48. Surround yourself with other people who seem to understand how to speak with children - the ones who see the magic. Talk to the teachers who stay.

  49. Find companionship in expertise and expertise in time.

  50. Above all - remember “Of all things - love is the most potent.” No child can learn before they know they are loved and safe in your presence.

What the World Needs Now

“Don’t become preoccupied with your child’s academic ability, but instead teach them to sit with those sitting alone.Teach them to be kind. Teach them to offer help. Teach them to be a friend to the lonely. Teach them to encourage others. Teach them to think about other people. Teach them to share. Teach them to look for the good. This is how they will change the world.”


A few years ago I started my favorite Valentine’s Day tradition as a teacher: asking each 3, 4, and 5 year old in my class what it means when you love someone. I expected a lot of repetitive answers about buying presents, giving hugs and kisses, maybe giving someone iPad time. What I got instead, to my surprise, was a multitude of insightful responses that proved what I already suspected to be true: in their uncomplicated perception of life, children teach us so much more than we can ever teach them.

  • “When you love someone you be respectful to them, give them hugs, kisses, and snacks.” - Perri, age 4

  • “When you love someone you kiss them and get married, and walk to Catch Air together.” - Avery, age 4

  • “When you love someone you give them flowers, take them dancing with you, and buy them a house.” - Reno, age 5

  • “When you love someone you wash dishes, help with dinner, fix the car, treat them nice, and snuggle with them.” - George, age 5

  • “When you love someone you talk nicely to them and say “I want to be your friend.” - Davis, age 5


This project made a few things clear to me. We can tell our children in words what it means to be considerate and kind until we are blue in the face, but the way they actually learn and internalize it is by watching us.

Second: almost none of the children I asked responded that when you love someone you buy them gifts or give them ice cream. As adults, we tend to over complicate things. Children don’t feel love through being given trivial, material items. They know that love is careful communication and spending time with someone.

As parents and teachers we needn’t try so hard to be perfect. Children feel love through our actions, our effort, and our consistent presence. We don’t need to teach them to be prodigies; to be the next Bill Gates or Lance Armstrong in order to be successful and make a difference. We just need to keep showing up and showing them with our behavior what it looks like when you love someone. We need to show them what it looks like to be compassionate and thoughtful. This is how they will change the world.

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” L.R. Knost

5 Best Books for Montessori Teachers

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

-Haim Ginott

As teachers we are the decisive element in the classroom. It’s our empathy, approach, and patience that can cause a child to arrive sprinting into school, excited to learn, or dread coming with a growing pit of anxiety in their stomach. However, it’s easy to forget what a crucial role we play and get caught up in the monotony of recording observations and incessant redirection. Here are the 5 best books to inspire and remind you of your significance as a Montessori teacher.

  1. The Absorbent Mind. Maria Montessori - Essentially the holy grail for Montessori philosophy. Allow Maria to refresh your memory of how crucial the first 6 years of life are in a child’s development. Of how they soak everything in effortlessly and what a pivotal role the teacher plays in preparing the environment.

  2. The Tao of Montessori: Reflections on Compassionate Teaching - Catherine McTamaney. Each verse leaves you with something to ruminate on. It will remind you why your job is so essential and to be intentional each day.

  3. Positive Discipline: The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills - Jane Nelsen Ed.D. Have days where you are pulling out your hair getting children to listen and follow directions? Jane Nelsen reflects on her doubts when disciplining her children: she was either so lenient she ended up not liking her own children, or so strict she didn’t like herself. This book offers guidance on how to be kind and firm at the same time.

  4. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk - Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. A practical guide to rephrasing what you say in order to teach the behavior you want to see. A quick, easy read complete with cartoons.

  5. The Montessori Toddler - Simone Davies. Davies does an amazing job of reminding us that “toddlers can be tricky. [...] They will make you laugh. And they will probably bring you to tears. Or at least a high level of frustration.” She gracefully reminds us that raising little ones is not easy, but we are not alone in our struggles and most importantly, it’s okay not to be perfect. She gives realistic strategies to raise productive, cooperative, independent little people in as harmonious a way as possible.

I wake up every morning and jump out of bed to go to work.  I see everyday in the way a child’s face lights up when I show them a lesson, pause to listen to them, or give them a hug that what I do makes a difference. The gravity of what I do has instilled in me the belief that continual growth and improvement is essential. There is no point at which, as a teacher, you have “made it.” The only way we can ensure we show up our best selves each day and model the traits we want to see in our students is to never become stagnant in our own pursuit of learning. “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” - Maria Montessori