How can we effectively involve children and parents in character education? Eleanor N. Childs, attorney and child advocate, shares her thoughts with Early Childhood Today
EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: What should early childhood and kindergarten teachers be thinking about as they incorporate character education into their curriculum?

ELEANOR CHILDS: We need to put ourselves at the child's level - to understand the moral development of the child, where the child is, and what the child understands. This means we need to be empathetic. As you walk for a moment in children's footsteps and see the world as they do, you can begin to figure out how to bring concepts to their level. Of course, character education is about showing respect for children. Like the Reggio Emilia philosophy, character education involves respecting each child's work, giving each child access to what he or she needs in order to learn in a loving environment.

ECT: What are some of the important things teacher should do with young children?

CHILDS: Explain that there are certain boundaries and let children know that these boundaries are based on safety and caring about people's feelings. Then, just by talking, involve children and give them a say in what happens in their world. Pose questions like "Is there anything you would like to have happen in this classroom?" "In what ways do you show kindness to people?" "Are there any people you love in your life you'd like to invite to come visit?" Also read and discuss stories that share a principle or set an example. Encourage children to retell the stories and talk about things they do that are similar to the actions of the characters. Plan related activities to help children process their thinking.

ECT: Please share strategies teachers and parents can use together.

CHILDS: Teachers need to schedule meetings and conversation groups with parents. I love roundtables because they give everybody power. Facilitators can be very helpful in bringing everybody's voice to the floor.

Teachers can share with the parents, and parents should be encouraged to come in and share what their children do at home and what their children love. Teachers should keep a portfolio on each child and try very hard to build unique personal relationships, making sure no child feels left out.

And every program should invite the parents to visit. Children are never going to get a sense of community unless they see the people in the community interacting as a community.

I believe we also need to understand and value one another's cultural traditions. When I meet people from other cultures, I ask which aspects of their culture they wish were a part of "world culture." So much of what they tell me is just beautiful. The commonality is a love of children and family.

Then I think we can ask that same kind of question at the child's level, saying "Each of you is so special. Tell us something special about you that you bring to our group." That's the job of the teachers - to learn about and bring out the strengths in the varied makeup of your class. As you learn the fine aspects of each child, write them down as reminders of what to build on. Aim toward synergy, always asking: "How do we dance this class together?" "How do we make it work together?"

Eleanor N. Childs's 12 years of research in character education was key in developing the Heartwood Ethics Curriculum for Children.