Q: I'm concerned with how my two children treat others and want them to learn to be kind and considerate of others. What should I look for in a preschool curriculum that will help them develop these characteristics?
A: Children develop their character through clear expectations, role models and examples. This can happen in many settings — at home, with friends and relatives, and in school. Most often it is the adults who children respect, admire, and love who set the tone. The best way to teach these traits is to describe them to children clearly and also to model them regularly. Children are keen observers. They see and hear everything, even when we don't realize it. This is why all the adults involved in the child's many environments must be focused on the same goals.
When interviewing a preschool, ask if they have a character education program. The program should have a method that is integrated into the classroom and uses books or activities to help the children learn to understand each topic. For example, if the preschool uses the Heartwood program, you will see a list of seven key terms, such as honesty, bravery, and fairness, used throughout the year. To teach each topic, the teacher reads a story. Then she uses a puppet to discuss the story and how its key principle applies to children's daily life.
Ask to see the list of topics, themes, or words the character education program uses throughout the year. Are they traits or attributes of the character you want to build in your child? Ask the classroom teacher how she or he positively models these traits, or look for this when you observe the classroom. Look for evidence of activities in the lesson plan, books in the library and language from the teacher that is positive, kind, compassionate, and sensitive. Watch and listen to see how respectful the teacher is of each individual child. Does he bend or stoop down to look children in the eye? Does she listen carefully while the child asks a question? Does she intervene when children disagree and model positive interactions? Do the classroom rules support fairness, honesty, compassion, and helping others?
Remember that your example is also important to your child's growth. When your child gives something to you, always respond the way you want him to respond. You can also plan and do specific things to develop these traits in your child. Give one of your children two cookies, one for him and one to share. If your son or daughter uses unkind words or calls others names, say, "Those aren't words we use in our house." Then drop the subject. Be as consistent as possible. Children will test you a few times to see if you mean what you say. Talk about how what we do and say makes others feel. Take time to volunteer or work for charity, buy and take toys to the homeless shelter for the holidays, or donate books to a children's hospital. Each little action teaches children the meaning and the feeling of compassion, kindness, and consideration.