Act, Don’t Talk

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“She must acquire a moral alertness which has not hitherto been demanded by any other system, and this is revealed in her tranquility, patience, charity, and humility. Not words, but virtues, are her main qualifications.”(Montessori, 2000, p.151)

We talk too much.  Too often, we make a point, and then keep talking, hoping that our reminding, coaxing, and explaining will help motivate a child to cooperate and follow the community guidelines.  Dr. Montessori encouraged us to use as few words as possible when giving lessons.  She understood that when we spoke less and acted more the child’s focus would be on what the message was and not on who was giving it.

Paul, a student in Vanya’s adolescent community was engaged in a discussion with his friends.  He had a math assignment due shortly and he was partially finished.  It was a common situation for Paul.  He was easily distracted and socially distracting. Often Paul didn’t finish his work.  Vanya approached him and reviewed his progress. She said, “Paul, you have a math assignment due in 40 minutes, and you have only done two problems.  If you don’t focus on your work, you’re not going to get it done.”  

Paul replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it done.”  

Vanya responded, “Paul, that’s what you said yesterday and you never finished your essay.”

Paul said, “I said, I’ll do it.”

Forty minutes later Paul completed his third problem, leaving twelve unfinished.  Vanya said irritably, “It looks like you’re going to have a lot of homework tonight.”  

Paul snapped, “Yeah, I know.”

The next morning, Vanya asked Paul if they could talk.  She said, “Paul, I’m not feeling good about our interaction yesterday.  I saw that you were talking with your friends before math class and got worried that you wouldn’t finish your assignment.  I spoke to you about that in front of your friends, which was probably embarrassing. Then I spoke to you harshly when I saw you didn’t finish.  You didn’t deserve that. I’m sorry.”  

Paul said, “Yeah, thanks, I’m sorry that I gave you attitude.”  

Because Vanya knew that Paul would get socially distracted again during the work-cycle she came up with a suggestion.  “Paul,” Vanya began, “instead of talking to you in front of your friends, how would you feel if I used a private signal to ask you to return to your work?”

Paul replied, “That could work.”

Vanya said, “Do you want to make one up?”

Paul, tugging on his ear, said, “How about this?”

Vanya replied, “Sounds good. Let’s give it a try.”

The next day, as you might guess, Paul was talking with his friends during the work cycle and it was distracting others.  This time Vanya didn’t say anything.  She looked over at Paul and made eye contact.  With a knowing smile, she remained present, warm and silent, and tugged on her ear.  Paul nodded his head and went back to his work.  

You may have heard the saying that 90% of communication is non-verbal.  It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but non-verbal communication does speak louder than words.  Researcher Albert Mehrabian (1972) found that communication is actually 55% non-verbal, 38% vocal (tone of voice, pauses, etc.), and 7% words spoken.  Studies have also shown that non-verbal communication by teachers is correlated to student academic success (Babelan, 2012).  So, how we behave is more powerful than what we say.  Vanya found this to be true.  Rather than reminding, coaxing or nagging; rather than trying to string together the right set of words or the most thorough explanation, Vanya simply used non-verbal communication to follow through with kindness and firmness.  For his part, Paul responded the way most students do when treated with dignity and respect.

Non-Verbal Signals (ages 3 and older)

Like Vanya, using a signal is an effective way to follow through with children and build a connection at the same time.  Rather than asking a child to roll up her mat that she left on the floor, the teacher might simply touch the child on the shoulder and smile warmly while pointing to the mat. After observing a lunchbox left out on the floor, the adult might pick up the lunch box and gently hand it to the child, prompting him to put it away.  

     Some other examples of signals to use with children:

  • A tap on the teacher’s shoulder to let the teacher know that the student is waiting to talk to them.
  • A special signal is set up between the child and the teacher to ask the child to center themselves or to take a break from circle and return when they are ready.
  • Using the hand peace sign to ask a group to be quiet and for their attention.
  • Putting your hand out, palm up, indicating that you would like the children who are fighting over an object to put it in your hand.
  • Walking motion with your fingers on the palm of your other hand asking a child to walk.
  • Pointing to your foot to ask a child to put on her slippers.
  • The use of simple sign language taught to all the children.

Signals are quiet, personal, and respectful.  If the adult is modeling kind and firm behavior, the use of signals can be powerful and empowering for the children and will foster a connection between the adult and the child (especially if the signals are given with an understanding smile).  

Use a Note (ages 6 and older)

Short, personal notes can also be a very nice way to quietly set a limit and build a sense of connection at the same time.  Using notes for upper elementary and adolescent students can be very effective.  

As a classroom teacher, I would occasionally just write a note to a child to either follow through with a limit or to give encouragement.  The communication was personal, meaningful, and connective. In Vanya’s situation, she chose to set up a signal with Paul.  She could have also simply written a note and handed it to Paul inconspicuously.  

     Paul, I noticed you’re in the middle of a conversation, and you still have some math to do. What’s your plan?  See you at 10:30.

Notes are also a powerful way to encourage, and let students know that they are seen and noticed and that their contributions make a difference.

     Paul, thank you for your help this morning with shoveling off the walk.  Everyone got to their classrooms safely this morning!  

One of the foundational principles of Positive Discipline is that effective discipline is kind and firm at the same time.  Children feel secure and develop cooperative relationships when they know that adults are on their side, even when it’s time to follow through.  Non-verbal communication is one of the most powerful ways to maintain relationships while we maintain limits.

Until next time…



Montessori, M. (2000). The discovery of the child. ABC-Clio, Ltd.

Babelan, A. (2012). The correlation between verbal and non-verbal communication and its relationship with the students’ academic success. Journal of School Psychology.

Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. (1st ed.). Routledge. 

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About the Author

Picture of Chip DeLorenzo

Chip DeLorenzo

An experienced Montessori Educator who has served in a variety of roles for over 25 years, Chip DeLorenzo is a trainer, consultant and co-author of Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom. He works with teachers, parents and schools across the globe to help them to create Montessori environments that promote mutual respect, cooperation and responsibility.


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