We must remember that the phenomenon of internal discipline is something which must be achieved, not something pre-existent. Our function is that of guides upon the road of discipline. (Montessori, 1924).
Over the last few decades there has been a significant shift in how adults respond to children when they struggle. Have you ever observed a parent react to their child’s challenges or disappointments with a sense of embarrassment or guilt, as if they have just failed their child? The response is often to then rescue the child from the experience in the name of helping them. Unfortunately, it’s not just parents who rescue. Even schools have fallen into the trap of shielding children from challenges or mistakes, out of fear of being perceived as uncaring or callous. But what might a child be learning when adults protect children from difficulties, in the name of helping them?
There is so much talk today about building resilience. But how do you build resilience? By struggling, and sometimes failing. Failing and struggling shouldn’t be dirty words. We all make mistakes; we all fail. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn, and experiencing and overcoming failure are critical components to developing resilience, empathy, wisdom, problem-solving skills, creativity, and a sense of capability. If children aren’t given the dignity and respect to struggle and fail, then we steal from them the opportunity to feel victorious when they succeed. Too often, adults jump in and rescue children from the pain and discomfort of their actions. When we steal the struggle, we steal the victory.
There is a significant amount of research that indicates that children need to struggle to mature and develop into strong, capable and resilient adults. Brock Bastian, author of The Other Side of Happiness, explains that resilience is developed through discomfort. He defends the idea that challenges like pain, loss, failure, and disappointment build resilience and help us to be less likely to give up when presented with future challenges.63 Natural Consequences help children build resilience, especially if adults are supportive by showing kindness (love) and firmness (responsibility).
Sometimes the best response is to allow outcomes to unfold naturally, without interference.
Natural Consequences (not to be confused with Logical Consequences) are just that: natural. Natural Consequences happen all by themselves, without adult interference. In order for a teacher to “use” a Natural Consequence, they simply do nothing (except offer a little emotional support). If the adult initiates or imposes a consequence in any way, the consequence is not a Natural Consequence. When using Natural Consequences, teachers simply allow a consequence to unfold, without lecturing or rescuing. This gives the child the opportunity to experience and learn from their mistake with dignity and respect.
Just because we let children experience the discomfort and disappointment of their mistakes does not mean that we withhold our support. That would be unkind. Children need to feel supported when they make mistakes. Teachers can provide warmth, understanding, and empathy by asking questions, validating feelings, and problem-solving when a child experiences a Natural Consequence. Here are some examples of Natural Consequences, and supportive adult responses:
- Peter leaves his coat inside. He goes outside and gets cold. Being cold is the Natural Consequence. His teacher might say, “I’m sorry you’re so cold. What can you do to make sure that you’re warm when you go outside?”
- Teresa forgets her lunch. When it’s lunchtime, she gets hungry. Getting hungry is the Natural Consequence. Her teacher might respond, “Oh no, you must be hungry. There is peanut butter and jelly in the refrigerator if you would like to make yourself a sandwich.”
- Fatima missed the school bus because she took too long to get ready. She was late for school and missed show and tell. Missing show-and-tell was the Natural Consequence. Her teacher might say, “It looks like you’re really sad that you missed show-and-tell. I’m sorry; you must be feeling disappointed.”
- Nicholas forgot his note cards at home. When it was time for his presentation to the class, he wasn’t prepared. He had been looking forward to presenting his research to the class. Missing the presentation was the Natural Consequence. The teacher could say, “I know you were really looking forward to presenting today. You must be feeling disappointed. Would you like to present on Thursday or Monday?”
Notice that in each of these examples, the teacher is supportive and empathetic, but doesn’t rescue the child, or lecture them for their behavior. It is tempting to rescue children from their own mistakes, especially when they are feeling sad. But rescuing is disrespectful. It teaches children they are helpless and unable to work through problems and find solutions. Rescuing children robs them of discovering how capable they are.
It is also tempting to lecture or to impose consequences after a child has experienced a Natural Consequence, especially if the child’s behavior has been repetitive. For instance, when Peter forgets his coat and complains of being cold, a teacher might say, “You always leave your jacket inside and then complain that you’re cold. You can go in and get it this time, but if you forget it again, you’re going to have to go to the office until we come in.” The teacher hoped that, by threatening a punitive consequence and adding an “I told you so” lecture on top of the Natural Consequence (being cold), Peter would remember to put his coat on next time. What is more likely to happen is that the threat and lecture will invite Peter to feel angry, ashamed, and, maybe rebellious. The next time he might leave his jacket inside just to show his teacher. If the teacher had shown empathy for Peter’s plight and simply trusted him, Peter could have decided for himself if he wanted to brave the cold or figure out a way to solve the problem.
Suggestions for Using Natural Consequences
- Take time for teaching. Be sure that the student understands what is expected of them, and how to accomplish it.
- Ensure that consequences are safe and developmentally appropriate. Obviously, allowing a three-year-old to go hungry because they forgot their lunch is a lot different than allowing a twelve- year-old to go hungry because they forgot their lunch.
- Check in with parents to get on the same page. Teachers often worry about allowing Natural Consequences because they are afraid that a student’s parents will judge them as neglectful. You never know until you ask, and it may also be a wonderful opportunity to help parents too.
- Make sure that Natural Consequences are respectful to everyone.
- Show empathy while allowing the child to experience the consequences.
- Use Natural Consequences only when the child is invested in the outcome. If not, try problem-solving with them. For instance, problem-solving would probably be a better approach for a child who “forgets” their lunch in the car so they can instead eat food they prefer from the classroom refrigerator.
Montessori, M. (1924). On Discipline: Reflections & Advice. The Call of Education, Volume 1. Numbers 3 & 4.
Brock, B. (2019). The Resilience Paradox: Why We Often Get Resilience Wrong. Psychology Today.