June 2013

Loving Authority and Discipline

Every year we ask our student teachers to undertake research into a specific question  to deepen their understanding of Waldorf pedagogy. This gives balance to our intensive program and offers them a chance to experience the essential role of research in Waldorf education. We have received a number of exemplary individual research projects. This one is by Philip C. Hartman, Professional Development for Waldorf Teachers full-time Class of 2013 from London Ontario.

How does the Waldorf teacher implement and administer discipline from the perspective of loving authority in the grade one class?

 There are no courses on disciplinary methods or techniques and much is learned through trial and error. My intent is to collect useful and meaningful resources that can be used by all Waldorf teachers, new and experienced, to help guide them in their own disciplinary endeavors. This is in no way meant to be a step-by-step instruction manual for a ‘cause and effect’ style discipline but merely a resource that gathers real world experience from a variety of teachers, young and old.

In order to investigate this topic I conducted a number of interviews with current professional Waldorf teachers. I chose teachers to interview that I not only respect for their teaching style but for the way they hold their class. I have researched and included appropriate quotes from Rudolf Steiner to support and outline the methodology expressed in the interviews. Steiner wrote very little with regards to specific disciplinary techniques but covered it more broadly under the umbrella of loving authority, a topic which will be further discussed. Through my research I have been able to divide the subject of discipline into several sub-categories:

  • Loving Authority
  • Preventative Discipline
  • Curative Story
  • Immediate Discipline
  • Inner Work of the Teacher

Before exploring the aforementioned categories, it is important that we discover what discipline means to us as teachers. In our society the word discipline can be seen as being harsh and rigid, which in no way would appear to fit in with the holistic practices of Waldorf education. But if we study the word discipline from an etymological point of view a new image altogether rises. From Latin disciplina means "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge," also "object of instruction, knowledge, science," from discipulus. Discipline and disciple share a common root and meaning relating to learning. If the teacher views the student as a disciple of the pedagogy, then the perception of discipline, being merely a form of punishment for bad behavior, would surely give way to a more holistically encompassing archetype. The teacher must be a representative of humanity so that the child may learn the discipline of being human. If the teacher views the child as a disciple, without any hint of megalomaniacal tendencies, it will force the teacher to evaluate his own worthiness for emulation and cause him to rise to his highest potential as class figurehead. One thing that has been made abundantly clear during the course of my research is that discipline should be one-hundred percent individualized to meet the specific needs of the child. Standardized and generalized disciplinary methods are dangerous to the harmonious development of the child. The teacher must intuit what is needed for the situation, child and class. Different children and situations will require different disciplinary approaches and thus, having a ready-made solution to an unforeseen problem would severely limit the teacher’s ability to deliver the pedagogical ‘medicine’. The flip-side of allowing the children to do as they please in the interest of freedom would bear far more disastrous results. The class teacher must view the whole picture so that the children experience not only a successful main lesson, but a successful school-life as well. This may seem like a daunting task at first, but throughout my research I have found that discipline is not a one-stop-shop category of its own. It is woven into the fabric of all that is done as a Waldorf teacher and it starts with the teacher’s responsibility of cultivating loving authority

Loving Authority

Through the works of Steiner we are told that children between the ages of seven and fourteen learn primarily through loving authority. This loving authority, cultivated by the teacher, will enable the child to learn in a natural and developmentally beneficial way. The importance of this authority is clearly outlined:

“The main emphasis must now be on authority and community. The children should experience something of the power and glory that surrounded the early leaders. The most important issue that concerns a school, therefore, is the teacher. The teacher’s authority must be self-evident for the children, just as what was taught by the great teachers was self-evident to the human soul. It is bad, it does great harm if the child doubts the teacher. The child’s respect and reverence must be without reservation, so that the teacher’s kindness and good will, which must be present naturally, seem to the child like a blessing.” – Rudolf Steiner

Interviewing profession Waldorf teachers has led me to discover a variety of methods for developing this indispensable loving authority. It is of the utmost importance that the children love their teacher. Through this love the children will more readily and aptly enter into the subject matter of the curriculum. When children do not foster a love for their teacher the power flips and the children will begin to reference each other for authority, causing a great amount of problems in their development. Children need authority in order to flourish. When boundaries are clearly set and maintained the child will have no anxieties about what is expected. When children don’t have to worry about order and power structure in the class they are able to experience an inner freedom that will allow them to fully engage in the activities of the class. From this perspective it becomes evident that building loving authority takes precedence over academic endeavor in the grade one class. The emphasis is on building a strong foundation, which in truth began with the work of the E.C.E. teacher, which will enable the child to acquire the necessary tools needed for future academic success. The Waldorf pedagogy is laid out in such a way that it takes the entire development of the child into account. The children are on a journey, the boundaries of which extend beyond the circumference of the classroom and the school yard.

“We must be conscious that the child needs to develop quite different strengths in both body and soul than adults need to develop in their relations to one another. Education must work with what lies deep in the soul, otherwise we will not progress.” – Rudolf Steiner

With this in mind it is important that the grade one teacher spend the first portion of their year with dedication to building loving authority. A few ways to implement a sense of loving authority are as follows:

  • Boundaries -The teacher should be conscious of setting clear and definitive boundaries with regard to most activities in the class. The children should be well aware of what is expected of them.
  • Direction - The teacher should give clear and concise direction to the children at all times during the day. This is especially important for the early days of grade one.
  • Consistency - Once a boundary is set and a direction given, it is the job of the teacher to insure that it is consistently followed at all times. If the teacher sets a boundary one day and ignores it the next the children will begin to have an inner questioning of the teacher’s authority.
  • Fairness - The teacher should strive to find fairness in all direction and boundaries as well as in the enforcement of consequences.

The importance of the teacher’s authority has been clearly demonstrated above but it is important to remember that it is not a totalitarian, tyrannical authority that is sought after but rather a loving authority. The interviews revealed that the 'loving' aspect was much easier for the teacher to cultivate than the 'authority' aspect. Teachers in general, and Waldorf teachers specifically, are ideally drawn to the profession because of an inherent love for children and the desire to be a positive influence in their harmonious development. Anthroposophically speaking, teachers are chosen by their students in the spiritual realm and karmically linked together in the physical world. This belief adds another layer of depth to the teacher’s sense of responsibility to the student. Every teacher I spoke with expressed a deep desire to do what is right for the child, not for themselves. It is with the child’s best interest at heart that boundaries are set, directions given, consistency maintained and fairness sought after. The relationship that the teacher develops with the children is crucial because it is a long journey that they are embarking on together, ideally grade one through to grade eight, and their course will be much smoother if the child has developed an inner feeling for the teacher’s loving authority.

“Most naughtiness arises because the children are bored and lack a relationship with the teacher.” – Rudolf Steiner

It is important that the teacher find ways of endearing himself to the children. In grade one there is more time available for the building of this important relationship. It should be noted that loving authority is not only displayed in the teacher’s relationship with the children but with his relationship to the material as well.

“You must develop in yourselves capacities that allow you, at the moment you enter upon a subject with the children, to become as absorbed by the subject as the student is with the lesson, regardless of the subject you are treating. “ – Rudolf Steiner

“When a Teacher is not inwardly permeated by what lives in the children, as is sometimes the case, then the children immediately get up to mischief and begin to fight when the lesson has hardly begun.” – Rudolf Steiner

The pedagogical approach to the curriculum affords the teacher with another avenue in which to not only strengthen his loving authority, but to put into practice methods of preventing behavioral ‘problems’ before they occur. There is an old saying that bears much truth; “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Preventative Discipline

The lesson plan itself is the pedagogical tool used to help the children with harmonious development. The curriculum is secondary; child development is the primary focus of Waldorf education. It is as if the curriculum is the spoon and the pedagogical development of the child is the pabulum. In Waldorf pedagogy, according to Steiner, children between the ages of seven and fourteen are developing their freed etheric body. This is the body of, among other things, rhythm. Therefore, creating rhythm in the classroom is one of the greatest acts of preventative discipline and harmonious development a teacher can perform.

“You cannot have the proper effect upon the child’s will when you tell the child just once what is right, but only when you allow the child to do something today, tomorrow and the next day. The proper action does not at all lie in reprimanding the child or giving the child rules of morality, but in guiding the child to something that you believe will awaken a feeling for what is right and allowing the child to repeat this. You must raise such deeds to habit. The more things remain as unconscious habit, the better it is for the development of feeling. The more the child becomes aware of the need to do deeds out of devotion to repetition, because they should and must be done, the more you elevate these to true will impulses.” – Rudolf Steiner

Rhythm is strongly introduced through the three day rhythm method in which the material is brought to the children. Succinctly it is as follows:

Day one – New material – a story
Day Two – Recall of story and artistic deepening of material
Day Three – Writing sentence from story, or letter etc.

The most important aspect of rhythm for the teacher is to be well planned for the lesson. Preventative discipline is not sequestered to rhythm alone, however. There are many practical tips that may be beneficial to the teacher, including:

  • Transitions - The teacher should be aware of down time or transitions between activities. It is during this time that children may lose form and begin to act up. Create songs, clapping games, verses, poems etc. to fill the gaps that transitions leave. Some teachers have specific songs that lead from one activity to another, i.e. from morning circle to desk activities. Other teachers use meaningful recorder songs, chimes and clapping cues to let the children know what they should be doing.
  • Non-verbal communication - It is important to communicate non-verbally as much as possible. If a child is acting up or becoming restless it is better to give a tap on their desk or a hand on their shoulder than to disrupt the whole class with a verbal cue. Hand signals for silence while you are talking are important. If a child becomes fidgety or restless place them beside you. The most important thing with non-verbal communication is that the children are seen and know that they are seen.
  • Teacher Presentation - The teacher is the ego of the class and must always act as such. The children need the teacher to be in charge. If they don’t know who is in charge they will fill in the gap, which leads to disruption. It is important that the teacher knows the material well, so when things go off course the teacher can gently direct the class back without becoming lost. The teacher should not speak in questions. Make sure that all statements are clear and concise. Asking the children if they can please form a circle projects the image of uncertainty and choice. Be definitive with direction, “Children, now make a circle”. There should be sternness in the voice when needed but never without love and compassion. The teacher should deal with disciplinary situations in a matter of fact way. Get both sides of the story, and as the teacher make the decision as to what should be done. These tips are not only for preventative discipline but for creating loving authority as well.
  • Positive Reinforcement - Within the first three months of grade one specifically, the teacher may rely heavily upon group praise. This will build a community atmosphere and group responsibility. Positive notice helps the other children to want to do well. “I see Johnny is ready” etc. The most important thing to remember about positive reinforcement is that it has to be true. The teacher must be aware of the class culture they are creating. Only take note of positive actions that are truly done well. Steiner indicates that it is very damaging to take note of the negative actions of children and bringing them to light. One teacher used a system like names on the board but reversed. She would draw flowers on the board beside a student’s name when they did something positive. Once three flowers bloomed the teacher would write a new page in a personalized story she had made for each child.
  • Surprise - The element of surprise is indispensable for a teacher. Make sure you have a variety of activities you can choose from. This will allow you to really feel for and adapt to the class’ needs.
  • Humor - It is important to bring humor into the classroom. The teacher will do well to make light of situations that do not require serious repercussions.

“And remember, humor is also a good method of reducing to an absurdity, especially minor faults.” – Rudolf Steiner

Meaningful Work - It is important to notice the signs of a child who is beginning to lose interest in the class. At these times it would be beneficial to give the child a job to perform, i.e. take a note to the office for the teacher. The child in grade one most likely will not be able to read so the teacher may write in cursive, ‘Johnny needs a little break’. This gives the child the opportunity to move and walk around before returning to class. Another teacher would have students take an anvil to the woodworking teacher. The weight of the anvil allowed the children to come into their limbs while performing a meaningful task. A class pet can help also. This will give many opportunities for meaningful work.

“The most important thing here is that you should evoke feelings that will lead them away from naughtiness. A harsh punishment on the part of the teacher would only cause fear and so on. It would never inspire the children to do better.” – Rudolf Steiner

Curative Story

Curative stories are an extremely effective method of dealing with ‘problem behaviors’ and situations. The story is given the day an incident occurs. The effectiveness of the curative story lies in its ability to affect the children on a sub-conscious level. Creating the stories can be a lot of work for the teacher but it will become easier as the teacher progresses. Teachers can always rely on their colleagues as resources for effective curative stories. The curative story consists of a few fundamental parts:


Sit the children down and create an image rich mood in which the stories can live and grow. The children will listen because they always do. Some teachers create a world full of characters that become familiar and beloved by the children. They can use this imaginary world as a teaching aid and as a basis for curative stories. It is important that the teacher be fully invested in this world.


Tell the story of the incident, clothed in animals or gnomes or whatever shape your imaginative world has taken. The stories do not have to be literary genius, just simple, imaginative stories that outline the message you want to communicate.

Sleep & Recall

After the children have slept on it, use recall the next day to highlight the important points of the story. This gives the teacher insight into what lessons are living in the children.

It is important to note that the teacher should not bring the reality of the situation to the consciousness of the children. Children of this age have not generally developed the intellectual capacities for directly dealing with these situations. Bringing too much to the intellect may be harmful in the development of the child.

“Now if you tell the children a story of this kind they will most certainly listen to such things. But you must tell it in the right mood, so that when the children have heard the story they somehow feel the need to live with it and turn it over inwardly in their souls. This is very important, and it all depends on whether discipline can be maintained in the class through the teacher’s own feeling.” – Rudolf Steiner

Immediate Discipline

There will of course come a time when a child has acted out in such a way that immediate discipline is necessary. When a child is rude, physical, insulting and totally defiant more direct disciplinary methods are required. Verbally lecturing and admonishing children in grade one is not effective or recommended. Some direct methods of discipline could include:

  • Chair/desk – Some teachers place a quiet desk or chair at the back of the class where children will have to go when they are not respecting the boundaries of the class.
  • Hall - Send the child out to the hall to break a disruptive habit, not to punish. The teacher should find time to talk with the child one on one. Sometimes the child may need to count to ten and then return. It is dependent upon the severity of the child’s action.
  • Office – If a child is disruptive beyond the point of having them go to the hall the teacher should find a way to have their class preoccupied by a colleague, and take the child to the office. Once in the office the child’s parent(s)/guardian should be called. It is very important that the children understand their school lives and home lives are connected. The teacher should be well connected with the parents and let them know in advanced that unacceptable behavior will result in a call home requiring the parents to pick the child up. Parents should be well informed about emotional outbursts, problematic behaviors, and consistent problems. Developing strong parent/teacher relations is very important and could be the subject of a separate research paper. The child needs to know that the teacher and parent are in charge.
  • Disciplinary Policy – Every school will have their own policy with regards to discipline and code of conduct. Generally these policies are grade level specific and tend to be more lenient on grade one children. Grade one children come with a lack of ability to be disciplined. They generally lack the maliciousness that would require disciplinary action at this level. In some schools grade one students are on probation so that the teacher can determine if the school is meeting that child’s specific needs. Disciplinary policies are important because they allow for a collegial approach to specific disciplinary situations.

Some children may need a stronger or more intellectual approach to discipline. Children with older siblings, higher media exposure or stronger personalities may need to be met at a level most children are not yet ready for. In grade one, the less talk the better and circle discussions should be avoided because it brings too much to consciousness. It should be noted that children in grade one need to face each other. It is important that they shake hands after an incident has been dealt with. They can also make a craft or card as a way of apologizing for what they have done. The teacher should make a conscious effort to not carry over guilt. Every day should be approached as a new opportunity to succeed. If the teacher does yell, and it happens of course, he should be conscious of immediately drawing the room back in to a harmonious state.

Inner Work of the Teacher

“Above all, we must be conscious of the primary pedagogical task, namely that we must first make something of ourselves so that a living inner spiritual relationship exists between the teacher and the children.” – Rudolf Steiner

The teacher’s inner work affects the life of the child more than anything. It is the most important aspect of discipline. A teacher cannot expect something from the children that they cannot do themselves. It is ironic for a teacher to yell at students to be quiet. The irony will be picked up by the children, even sub-consciously. The teacher must always be striving to become the best version of himself. There are some important factors that teachers should note:

  • Personal Well-being – Teachers should look after themselves. Consider the airplane analogy. When there is trouble on the airplane you put on your oxygen mask first and then are able to help others. It is the same with teaching. Take care of your body through sleep, nutrition and exercise. It is recommended to have a hobby or passion outside of school to keep loving life. Keep your professional and private lives separate. Create strong boundaries. Don’t take things personally. When faced with horrible behavior remain calm. Steiner relates the meeting of this behavior with being caught in the rain. Simply accept it as you would an unexpected down pour of rain. Stay calm and hold the highest image of that child in your mind. If you get mad, make sure it is with the student’s behavior and not with the student. Remember no child is bad.
  • Spiritual Well-being – Waldorf teaching is not like other teaching professions. There is a strong spiritual element infused in the wisdom of the pedagogy. A Waldorf teacher should be ever striving to find their Spirit Self. Meditation and self-reflection are necessary. Look for the fault in yourself before blaming the children and always ask yourself how you could have done better. Be compassionate and forgiving. The teacher of the grade one class should be consciously working on their astral body, their likes and dislikes and their feelings. It is important for the teacher to be actively meditating upon each one of their students on a regular basis.

“These things may easily come within your experience; it simply depends on whether the teacher is willing to meditate upon the whole group of children with all their peculiarities every morning… all teachers and educators must work upon themselves inwardly.”– Rudolf Steiner

In conclusion, in can be seen that the question of discipline is not separate from the pedagogical task of Waldorf education. Every aspect of the curriculum is aimed at promoting the harmonious development of the child and it is this holistic approach that is itself the greatest disciplinary action. Through loving authority, the teacher creates a relationship with the children and strives to become worthy of emulation. Of course the ride is not always smooth but it is the spiritual underpinnings of the pedagogy that allow the teacher to navigate the children towards their greatest potential. The teacher must strive to be the greatest version of himself and always hold in mind that he does not want to disappoint the children. It is a large responsibility but in the hands of the dedicated, the burden becomes a blessing.

“Our task is to find teaching methods that continually engage the whole human being. We would not succeed in this endeavor if we failed to concentrate on developing the human sense of art. By developing this sense we lend strength to the future inclination of children to become interested in the world in ways that are appropriate to each individual’s total being. The fundamental flaw so far has been the way people inhabit the world with only the head, and the rest of their being merely trails along behind. Consequently, those other human aspects are now guided by animal urges that indulge only untamed emotions … This phenomenon arose because people have not been nurtured in their wholeness. It is not simply a matter of cultivating the artistic aspect; our teaching itself, in every subject, must be drawn from the artistic realm. Every method must be permeated by the artistic element. Education must become a true art.” – Rudolf Steiner


Steiner, Rudolf. The Foundations of Human Experience. Anthroposophic Press

Steiner, Rudolf. The Education of the Child. Anthroposophic Press

Steiner, Rudolf. Discussions with Teachers. Anthroposophic Press

Steiner, Rudolf. Practical Advice to Teachers. Anthroposophic Press

Steiner, Rudolf. The Kingdom of Childhood. Anthroposophic Press

References – Interviews

Merwin Lewis – London Waldorf School – Grade Eight Class Assistant Teacher, Supplementary Main Lesson and Enrichment Teacher

Erin Poirier – London Waldorf School – Grade Four Class Teacher, Physical Education Teacher, French Teacher

Jessica Gladio – Trillium Waldorf School – Grade Four Class Teacher

Mary Lu Spinney – Toronto Waldorf School – Grade Two Class Teacher

Sandra Ghali – Toronto Waldorf School – Grade One Class Teacher