How to Respond to Defiant Behavior the Montessori Way

“No!” my five-year-old declared, “Cleaning up toys is boring.” He’s usually pretty helpful cleaning up his room and enjoys helping around the house, but sometimes he gets in a mood. When that happens, it can be tempting to turn his defiance into a power struggle. Should I force him into cleaning his room, using my power over him as his mother? It’s certainly tempting. But, what’s the Montessori way to approach defiance?

Here’s how we try to respond to defiance the Montessori way:

Show Empathy

Don’t we all feel frustrated or upset when we are faced with doing something we don’t really want to do? I know I don’t always feel like cleaning or doing work, but, I don’t always get to do exactly what I feel like doing. Sometimes I like to vent to my husband or friends about a task in front of me.

So, when my son says that “cleaning is boring,” it’s really quite understandable. Although children at different ages express themselves in different ways, essentially, the message they’re sending is “I don’t want to do what you’ve asked me.” We have to remember that we don’t always want to do what we have to do either. Although we might not throw a tantrum because we know how to handle our feelings in a more mature way, this might be the way our children choose to tell us “No! I don’t want to do that!”

When facing children’s behaviors and activities Montessori said, to

“Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.”

A part of this is attempting to understand my child’s feelings. I can help by naming his feeling and validating it. In this way, I show empathy for his situation. In response to my son not wanting to clean his room, I might say, “Yeah, it can feel boring to clean. I don’t always feel like cleaning either.”

However, this doesn’t mean he’s off the hook.

Limits and Choices

Montessori believed in allowing children a certain level of freedom within limits. The Montessori philosophy encourages parents and teachers to create an environment where many negative behaviors are actually prevented because most of the child’s needs are fully met.

In the Montessori classroom, limits are clear. Children who use materials incorrectly must return the materials to the shelf, usually after a warning. Children who are unable to respect others who are concentrating must stay close to the teacher or are even asked to sit out until they can participate respectfully again. At home, we can use a similar approach to set limits while still fostering independence by giving choices.



In the example of my son not wanting to clean his room, I might say, “Would you like to clean your room now or in 10 minutes?” Or, I might set a limit such as “You can clean your room now, or I’ll clean up and put away the toys for a week.” This limit shows my son that he must be responsible for his toys, otherwise, he’ll lose the privilege of having them available in his room.

Natural consequences are a great way to explain to children why you need them to comply. For example, “If you leave your toys out, someone might step on them and break them.” Or, “When you leave toys out, it’s dangerous because I might trip over them.” This approach offers an easy way to explain why you need your child to put a jacket on or why they can’t have ice cream for dinner either. All you have to do is state the practical reasons that you can’t allow your child to do or have what they want.

Follow Through

Children are constantly testing limits. In order to make your child feel safe, you have to enforce the limits you set. I don’t know where I saw this, but I loved  this analogy that perfectly describes why limits are so important:

When you go to an amusement park and the staff pull a lap bar down over your legs, what’s the first thing you do? Jiggle the lap bar. You check to make sure it’s secure.  From toddlerhood through to their teenage years, children need us to be a solid lap bar that won’t budge. This doesn’t mean we should be unreasonable, unwilling to negotiate or cruel about it – it just means we have to use limits when necessary.

That means if my son doesn’t pick up his toys and I’ve said that I’ll put the toys away for a week, I have to follow through. Believe me, all it takes is one or two times of following through on an issue and your child will understand. Even though my son still complains about cleaning his room occasionally, I state the consequence (losing toy privileges) and he cleans up. He’s also lived through the natural consequences of leaving toys out. They’ve gotten broken or lost as a result. All he usually needs is a reminder of what happens when toys aren’t cleaned up to get the motivation he needs to put things away.

For the youngest of children, you can also perform a task alongside your child and gently enforce compliance. This means if your young child refuses to put on a jacket, you can offer a choice, “Either you put it on, or I’ll help you do it.” Then, if a choice isn’t made, you can gently put the jacket on your child. Empathize with them when they get upset about it. “You didn’t want to put on the jacket, you’re upset. I know it’s hard.” The same goes for cleaning up. Encourage your child to clean up with you and help them in the process until they are old enough to complete the task on their own.



Use Montessori Praise

You can help encourage your child’s good behavior through descriptive praise. This means you describe the positive actions you see your child doing and explain why they’re helpful. Instead of a generic “good job” after your child has complied with a request (which can actually just inflate your child’s ego without many benefits), you might say “Now that your room’s clean, it’s easier to walk around.” Or, “Now that your jacket is on, you’ll be warm outside.”

Defiant behavior can be difficult to manage at times. It’s so easy for these moments to devolve into a power struggle of “Why can’t you just listen?!” and “Stop complaining!” or worse. However, if you can keep your wits about you by taking a deep breath and face your child with empathy and firm limits, the outcomes will be much more positive. Over time, your child will learn to regulate their emotions, and these encounters will go much more smoothly.

Now, you tell me, how do you handle defiant behavior?

Need more help with social skills and discipline? Check out my book, Montessori at Home Guide: Gentle Parenting Techniques to Help Your 2 to 6-Year-Old Learn Social Skills and Discipline

4 thoughts on “How to Respond to Defiant Behavior the Montessori Way

  1. Just what I did with my kids. Was not sure I could apply it in the classroom. Guatemala! Beautiful country! Did you teach in the Montessori school in Antigua?

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