Rarely, if ever, has a generation of children been raised in such an atmosphere of uncertainty. Constant change and myriad messages-from the media, parents, teachers, and peers - can make it difficult for children to find stable, consistent moral and ethical standards that can guide their development.

Who today is teaching children how to use good judgment? Where are our children learning the character attributes necessary to become responsible, caring adults? Who are our children's heroes? Positive role models? How can we offer guidance during these confusing times?

Everyone needs to play a part in passing ideas and traditions to the young, giving them feelings of cohesiveness and community. You, as educators, bear a special responsibility because of the many hours children spend in your program. By this point in the year, you've probably spent a good deal of time working to create a classroom environment that promotes values that help children work together as a group. Of course, this is an ongoing effort, with a reasonable number of expected pitfalls along the way. Let's take a look at some other ways you can reinforce character development in your room.


In order to have a cooperative, caring classroom, we need to help children cultivate friendship, sharing, respectfulness, truthfulness, and caring. Part of this teaching is helping children, over time, apply these attributes, establishing models who reflect them and supporting families as the primary moral educators. In this article, you will find developmental definitions of these attributes, activities to integrate into your curriculum that help build children's understanding and practice, and suggested books to inspire thinking and discussion.


Belonging and being part of a group is important to young children. After they develop a sense of who they are, they struggle to understand who others are, first as family members, and then as members of friendship groups. As children change focus from self-centeredness to other-centeredness, they often take comfort from possessions. As you know, many preschoolers have a favorite toy or object that reminds them of home and family, and gives them a sense of belonging even when they are far away.


1. Share examples. Ask children to share examples of what it means to be a friend and to have someone be a friend to them. For example, being a friend means wanting to be close to someone and enjoying that person's company. Friends like each other and enjoy spending time together. Friends usually get to know each other very well. They learn each other's likes and dislikes, and so on.

2. Make friendship bracelets. Supply yarn or string and beads and encourage children to make a friendship bracelet to give to anyone they would like. As children work, talk about what their definitions of friendship are and how we show people that they are our friends.

3. Get to know each other. Bring in magnifying glasses, mirrors, and tape measures. Let children spend time looking at themselves and finding out about their faces and hair, even the lengths of their arms. Encourage children to discuss how they are alike and how they are different, both physically and in the things they like to do. Talk about ways people can be different and still be friends.

Suggested stories:

Jessica by Kevin Henkes (Scholastic Inc.)

Lucy's Picture by Nicola Moon (Puffin Books, 1997)


Young children often have a difficult time seeing another's point of view, including who has rights to materials. Sharing is difficult because they are not yet able to see the relationship between giving up something immediately and getting something later on in return. At the same time, they are learning to take responsibility and like to show how grown up they are by helping with chores in their environments. They are also interested in helping each other.


1. Ask children what they think. Talk about what it means to be unfair and to be fair. You might help children by adding that being fair means taking your turn, following rules, and treating everyone, including yourself, equally. Being fair means keeping your promises.

2. Share snack. Bring in a snack that children will need to divide so everyone gets an equal amount. Ask them what they would do if another child joins the group or some parents or teachers decide to join them.

3. Play cooperatively. Help children sit at tables in groups of four. Have plenty of paper available as well as four different color markers on each table. Ask children to draw anything they'd like - the only rule is that they must use all four colors. As children work, involve them in a discussion of sharing materials. After everyone is finished, ask children to share their thoughts about accomplishing their drawings.

Suggested stories:

The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins (Scholastic Inc.)

On Mother's Lap by Ann Herbert Scott (Clarion, 1992)


During the preschool years, children gain a sense of who they are in relation to others. They become intensely aware of similarities and differences, often excluding those who are different in a variety of ways. Seeing themselves as different sometimes makes children feel less valued. But children are also intensely curious during these years, and the growing competence that comes with learning helps them to be more inclusive of others.


1. Share your thoughts. Explain that respecting someone means taking care to not harm someone's feelings or possessions, such as respecting someone's block tower by not knocking it down or respecting a bird's nest by not disturbing it. Ask children to share other examples of ways people show respect.

2. Take a nature hunt. Make a list of things children might use their senses to notice outdoors, such as seeing a feather, a hole in a tree, a particular color of leaf; hearing a bird, a bee, trees blowing in the wind; feeling wet mud, a prickly plant, tree bark; smelling pine or spruce needles, a flower, the grass; watching an ant move, a spider on a web, a leaf falling. Talk about ways we can show respect for all of these things in nature. Then take a walk to find them. Ask children for other suggestions as to how they can show respect for the environment, such as an outdoor clean-up walk.

3. Make a mural. Ask children to go through old magazines and cut out pictures of people's faces. Use mural paper to create a collage, adding photographs of children, staff, and families. Talk about ways people are alike and ways they are different.

Suggested stories:

Miss Tizzy by Libba Moore Gray (Simon and Schuster, 1993)

Two Eyes A Nose and a Mouth by Roberta Grobel Intrater (Scholastic Inc.)


Preschoolers' tendency toward magical thinking often interferes with their ability to get facts straight. The line between fantasy and reality is often fuzzy, so children may think that if they want something badly enough, it will happen. This isn't being dishonest. Children may just bend reality to fit the way they think events should be or the way they wish things were. However, preschoolers are also beginning to develop a conscience and identify with the standards adults set for them. When their behavior varies from these expectations, children can begin to feel a little uncomfortable.


1. Talk about truthfulness. Share this definition with children: When you tell the truth, you do not hide anything. You tell all the facts. Ask children to share what it means to them to tell the truth. Do they like this definition? Would anyone like to change it?

2. Make a list. Using chart paper, ask children to help you list situations where it was difficult to tell the truth. Start the discussion by sharing a few situations of your own.

3. Use Illustration. Invite children to draw a picture of someone telling the truth about something. Add their dictation to the drawings. Later, ask children to share their drawings.

Sugested Stories:

The Empty Pot by Demi (Henry Hot, 1990)

Jamaica's Find by Juani Havill (Scholastic Inc.)


Although preschoolers are struggling to become more independent, they are still dependent in many ways. Relationships with adults, especiallly family members, are important. However, earlier needs for adults are called to mind when children are confronted with new and unfamiliar events, especially the arrival of a new baby. Seeing parents with younger siblings evokes pleasant memories of earlier experiences, and children struggle to realize that a special place for them continues to exist regardless of the changing environmental events.


1. Have a "Care Share." Ask children what they think it means to care about someone or something. Then share this definition: If you are caring, you show this by being helpful and kind. When you care about another person, you are not rough, but gentle. If you care about someone, you are very interested in how that person feels because it's important to you.

2. Show you care. Invite children to make a Caring Card for anyone they care about. Provide paper, magazines, collage materials, tape, and glue. Be available to take dictation so those children who choose to can express their feelings in words as well as pictures.

3. Take action. Talk about ways people show they care every day. Then make a list together of things your group can do, such as watering plants, feeding a bird or fish, taking time to listen to a friend, and so on. Throughout the week, help children put these thoughts into action.

Suggested stories:

Mom and Me by John Kaplan (Cartwheel, 1996)

The Leaving Morning by Angela Johnson (Orchard Books, 1996)


1. Use puppets. Ask children, or groups of children, to pick one particular story from the resource list that you've enjoyed together. Then invite everyone to make puppets (stick puppets, paper bag or sock puppets) to represent the story characters. Tape record the stories or create your own group-story synopsis that includes the main events. Encourage children to dramatize the story.

2. Make a mural. Hang a long section of mural paper well within children's reach. Write down the titles of books you read together that exemplify any or all of the attributes you are trying to cultivate (friendship, sharing, respectfulness, truthfulness, and caring). Leave space to record children's feelings and thoughts about the story and add illustrations of parts of the book that were important to them.

3. Videotape! Make an ongoing tape that includes children's discussions about each attribute. When it's completed, share it with children and also invite parents and other family members to come in and watch and talk.

4. Photograph children Take photos or slides of children engaging in pro-social behaviors all through the day, arriving in the morning, during snack time, at group time, and so on. Display these where children can see them and make labels together

5. Design your own activity. Ask children how they would like to celebrate and demonstrate all they've learned about friendship, sharing, respectfulness, truthfulness, and caring.

As children define and clarify their own values, they need to learn about the values of other cultures to see that all cultures share basic moral concepts. Through that process, children will begin to develop global awareness and responsibility ... and from that seed of understanding, they can work toward a peace that will protect and rebuild the earth we all share.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart The Stages of Moral Reasoning (PDF)

Permission to reprint excerpts from the Hearwood Ethics Curriculum for Children was granted by the Heartwood Institute, 425 N. Craig St., Pittsburg, PA 15213. The Institute may be reached by calling 1-800-HEART-10, e-mail: hrtwood@aol.com, or visiting http://www.heartwoodethics.org/.


This article originally appeared in the April, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.