Friday, September 20, 2013

Montessori’s Three Levels of Obedience: Developing Self-Discipline

NAMC montessori three levels of obedience boy pouting

The ability to exercise control over one’s behavior amidst temptation is known as self-discipline. Dr. H. Stephen Glenn, of Developing Capable Young People, and Jane Nelsen, of Positive Discipline, both agree that children below the age of 7 or 8 are really incapable of self-discipline. (Glenn & Nelsen, 2000) In terms of Montessori, immediate gratification and lack of impulse control is a concrete behavior while self-discipline is more abstract. Young children are not capable developmentally to understand the consequences of giving into impulsive behavior. (Glenn & Nelsen, 2000)

This modern research clearly supports Dr. Montessori’s doctrine of the Three Levels of Obedience. “What we call the first level of obedience is that in which the child can obey, but not always. It is a period in which obedience and disobedience seem to be combined.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1964)

This first level of obedience is generally observed in children 3 and under, however, older children may also exhibit disobedience. “Even after 3, the little child, must have developed certain qualities before he is able to obey. He cannot, all of a sudden, act in conformity with another person’s will, nor can he grasp, from one day to the next, the reason for doing what we require of him.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1964)

“The second level is when the child can always obey, or rather, when there are no longer any obstacles deriving from his lack of control. His powers are now consolidated and can be directed not only by his own will, but by the will of another.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1964) This may appear to be the highest level of obedience; however, because it is dependent on outside variables (adults or authority figures), this is not true obedience. The child is merely satisfying someone else’s wishes, not his own.

The third level of obedience is when the child “responds promptly and with enthusiasm and as he perfects himself in the exercise, he finds happiness in being able to obey.” (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, 1967) This is the stage of true self-discipline.

Self-Discipline in the Montessori Environment: Making Mistakes Is a Normal Part of Life

Children are often punished when they make mistakes because adults think they are being naughty. Rather than punishing the child, either physically or emotionally through shame and humiliation, we need to see the misbehavior as a teaching moment. The adult’s response should not take the form of revenge, such as “your behavior disrupted my lesson so now I will punish you.” Instead, the response should be a logical consequence that:

  • relates directly to the behavior
  • is respectful to both the child and adult
  • is reasonable to both the child and adult (Glenn & Nelsen, 2000)

NAMC montessori three levels of obedience teacher greeting girl

In responding to misbehavior the Montessori teacher always considers the child’s level of obedience and developmental ability to obey, and remembers that children are deserving of rational, respectful treatment at all times.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Friday, September 20, 2013.


  1. I think some examples of logical consequences would be really helpful here. Do you have any to share?

  2. I would like to respectfully disagree with parts of this post.

    Dr. Montessori talked about the three levels of obedience in reference to the 3-6 classroom (not 7 or 8 year olds). The reason why so many researchers come to a different conclusion is because they are not observing Montessori children who have had the benefit of the prepared environment.

    In fact, Dr. Montessori said that the obedience of her little ones was so refined that teachers needed to be careful how they phrased things. She tells a story on page 261 of the Absorbent Mind (1967 edition) of a teacher who said, "Put everything away before you go home tonight." The children did not wait for her the sentence, but as soon as they heard her say, "put everything away" they started to do so with great care and speed. Then, with surprise they heard the words "when you go home tonight." Their obedience had become so prompt that the teacher needed to learn to say, "Before you go home tonight, put everything away." Things like this kept happening every time she expressed herself without enough thought. The promptitude of the children's response gave her a feeling of responsibility.

    In my classroom, children who start in school in the Fall are usually at the third level of obedience by January.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comment on our blog. Many modern child development experts tend to agree that young children may be unable to exercise self-discipline. This may be a social and cultural expectation. It is clear that through modeling clear and precise expectations, Dr. Montessori demonstrated that young children are indeed capable when they experience an environment that supports this type of growth and development. When expectations are clearly set, and appropriate behaviors are modeled and enforced, children will develop these self-discipline skills which lead to normalization. This is clearly the case in your classroom as well, as you guide young children to reach their potential.


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