Building Character in Early Childhood Settings

You help children understand the important building blocks of character and apply them in situations that are meaningful to their lives.

These days we are constantly being bombarded with crime, violence, and other upsetting events in the media. We have to wonder how this is affecting our children's sense of right and wrong and how we can raise them confidently to "do the right thing" even when no one is around. Because of these issues, more and more attention is being given to character development. Many programs are introducing character education curricula, which in most instances focuses on admirable qualities or attributes that we want our children to acquire, such as honesty and caring about others.

Some adults are wary of character education because they think it imposes values that should be taught only by parents. But if we think of character education as a process of interaction rather than the subjective teaching of specific behaviors, it will help us make the distinction between fostering character development and teaching personalized values that imply judgment - good and/or bad.

Teachers have many chances during the day - free play, work-time, routines - to help children develop the character attributes that contribute to good citizenship and a caring society. Let's look at how a teacher named Sylvia works on this in her mixed-aged group of threes and fours as she focuses on five building blocks of character development. As you read, think about how you might handle these situations and whether her responses would work for you in your setting.


Jermaine arrived at school angry and sullen. He'd had a fight with his mom over the type of shoes he was going to wear to school. He wanted to wear his sandals, and she told him he had to wear his tennis shoes. When they arrived at school, he refused to greet his teacher and barely got out a muffled "bye" as his mom left the building. Arms folded across his chest and a scowl on his face, Jermaine stood with his head lowered to the floor. Susan and her mother entered the building and greeted him: "Hey Jermaine, I heard it's the day to go to the park. Sounds like fun!" Jermaine turned his back on them and remained silent.

Sylvia, Jermaine's teacher, came over to where Jermaine was standing with Susan and her mother. Sylvia stooped to his level, put her arm around him, and tilted his face upward to make eye contact. Already aware of the shoe situation, she told him that she knew he was angry and disappointed about having to wear the tennis shoes and then added: "You know, it's not Susan and her mother's fault that you didn't get to wear your sandals. You need to answer them. It's really the polite thing to do." Gradually, Jermaine looked up at Susan and her mother, softly saying "Yeah, it will be fun." He seemed to relax as he walked with Susan into the room.

Observe: Preschool children are often caught up in a swell of emotions that can color their view of the world and interfere with their reasoning. Sometimes, especially when they are angry, children this age want to get rid of the emotion but don't always know how. So instead, they have a tendency to "give" the feeling away - by hitting or in some way making others angry in turn. When adults have positive relationships with children, they can use that connection to help children sort out emotions and reasoning and resume productive activity.

In this situation, Sylvia helped promote politeness instead of rudeness. First, she established physical contact. At the same time, she reinforced their already close social and emotional connection by showing empathy - commenting on Jermaine's feelings without scolding him for having them. She then helped Jermaine sort out the source of his feelings and differentiate between what had happened at home and the people who had nothing to do with his disappointment and anger Finally, she stated the expected behavior, almost as an invitation.

This observant teacher helped promote Jermaine's character development, using her relationship with him as the base from which to promote a desirable quality. At no time did she label his behavior bad or impolite. In this instance, Sylvia knew enough about Jermaine to feel confident about his reaction. Sometimes teachers need to be a little more direct in their request for the appropriate behavior.


Jermaine and Susan walked into the classroom where Sylvia and her assistant, Tom, had set up learning stations. They had just put out several new puzzles when four-year-old Carol came running in. She spied the puzzle that Jermaine was about to take from the holder, grabbed it, and said, "That's mine, I saw it first." Jermaine put it down and reached for another. Carol pulled that one away from him, too, and said, "No, I want this one," dropping the puzzle she had originally selected. Jermaine looked teary-- eyed, and Susan, turning to the assistant teacher, said, "That's not fair."

Tom went over to Carol and said, "I know you're excited about the new puzzles, but Jermaine was here first and I think he should be able to select the puzzle he wants to play with." Handing his original choice to Jermaine, he said, "This is the one you picked. Is it still the one you want?" Jermaine nodded and Tom gave Carol the other puzzle. Carol protested and pushed the puzzle away, so Tom said to her, "I've noticed that you often want the same toy someone else wants. I'm not sure what that means, but you can't keep grabbing toys from the other children. What do you think would happen if everyone grabbed what they wanted?" Susan quickly answered, "No one would be able to play and everybody would be fighting" Tom asked Carol, "What do you think about that?" Carol picked up the puzzle and started taking the pieces out of the foam board.

Later, during free play, Jermaine and Susan were playing with the blocks. They were using several colorful blocks to decorate the top of their building. Darryl came to their area and watched for a while. Then he went to the teacher and said that he wanted one of the colored blocks. Sylvia could see that both Jermaine and Susan were busy at play and using all the blocks Darryl wanted, so she told him, "It looks like Jermaine and Susan are using those blocks to act out an idea. You can have a turn when they're through."

Observe: Sharing is one of the most emotionally charged issues in early childhood settings. Children under four have a particularly hard time. Because of their level of development and maturation, it's difficult for younger children to take others' points of view and acknowledge their rights to toys. It's also difficult for young children to work through the value of things they possess and the relationship of those things to their self-esteem.

When children aren't confident that they will get what is coming to them, like a certain toy, they are likely to grab. These children sometimes feel deprived and act on their own to get or take what they want. Children sometimes define their sense of worth according to what they have, not who they are. In their eyes, the more toys, the more value they personally have. There are also children who want everything others have because they feel that their own possessions have less value. This is an issue of self-esteem. They see others as more esteemed than themselves and focus their attention on the person who has the toy - not on the toy itself - and so take the toy away from that person. The desire to possess a lot of things is a little different from that of not being able to share. Children's arguing over toys presents another opportunity for teachers to build on character development.

Notice that when Carol grabbed the puzzle, Tom didn't dwell on the topic of fairness or sharing. He simply stated the rule or expectation and stayed nearby, just in case the children needed him to help follow through. Because Tom understands Carol's behavior and her low self-esteem, he addresses the issue by wondering out loud about her behavior -- trying to get her in tune with her feelings. Most important, he avoids assaulting her self-esteem, accepts what she is able to do, and sets a limit. Promoting selfesteem in this way helps children build character.

In the block corner, Sylvia respected Susan and Jermaine's play. She could have asked them to give Darryl one of the blocks that he wanted, but in her judgment that would have disrupted what they were doing. The children, close enough to hear her response to Darryl, got the message that she supported their right to the blocks. That let them know that she valued what they were creating, not just the possession of the toy.

If it isn't clear whether children are using a particular toy that someone else wants, teachers can ask them to share. Under some circumstances, a teacher might suggest that they take turns, especially when the way a toy is being used isn't a part of acting out an idea or role. This kind of respect for children's ideas, creations, and competence is a vital model in teaching character development.


During lunch Sylvia engaed the children in a discussion of the upcoming school break. Jermaine said he was going to Disney World. Susan listened closely as Sylvia told Jermaine, "Your mom mentioned that. Boy, it sounds like a fun place to go. I bet you'll have a great time." Jermaine beamed and nodded while Susan interrupted to say, "I'm going to Florida. I'm going to see my grandmother, and we're going to a very, very special place. It's called Disney World." Sylvia looked puzzled. This was the first she had heard of this important news. For the rest of the day, Susan told all of the adults and children about her upcoming trip.

The children moved on to rest time, when Tom noticed Jon playing with the toy Jermaine had brought from home. Tom knew Jermaine treasured this toy and had put it in his cubbie just before he began to nap. He was now sound asleep. "Jon, it's time to rest. Could you put the toy away, please?" When Jon put the toy in his own cubbie, Tom questioned him about it. "Jermaine gave me this. He said I could have it. " When rest time was over, Jermaine went to his cubbie to get the toy and cried when he found it missing.

Tom approached Jon: "Are you sure Jermaine meant to give you that toy?" Jon insisted it was his, while Jermaine yelled, "It's mine!" At that point Tom told Jon that he had to tell the truth, saying "I know the toy is special and you would really like it to be yours. But you can't lie about it. Lying hurts other people. We don't hurt other people in this room. No one wants to be hurt." Jon thought about it, went to his cubbie and got the toy, and returned it to Jermaine. Tom quietly suggested, "Maybe both of you could play with the toy together sometime."

At the end of the day, Susan's mother came to pick her up and Sylvia casually mentioned, "I hear you're going to visit Susan's grandmother in Florida." Susan's mother said they didn't have a grandmother who lived in Florida and weren't going anywhere for the school break. Susan's mother turned to her and asked why she had told the story. Susan gave a little shrug, and her mother said, "I think you were wishing you could go to Disney World like Jermaine. I agree, that would be nice. But it's not a good time for us to go right now." She then added, "Remember when we talked about making up stories? We decided it was okay only if everybody knows it's made up. If people don't know when a story is made up and when it's real, then they won't know when to believe you. It's important that people can believe you."

Observe: Preschool children are still dealing with issues of what is real and what is pretend. Their thinking is often "magical" they sometimes believe something will come true if they wish for it hard enough. And their emotions can overtake their reasoning. So sometimes what they tell as truth is what they wish would happen, which is different from intending to deceive. This could be true in the case of Jon playing with Jermaine's toy. Jon may have thought that because he wanted it so much it should be his. However, it seems more likely that Jon knew the toy was Jermaine's.

It's important to note that in both instances shared here, the adults empathized with each child's desire to have something they held so dear. They accepted children's developmental struggles with the difference between wishes and reality but, at the same time, did not allow children to lie.


It was the end of the day. Only a few of the children were left in the center and they were all tired. Tom decided to take out some toys they hadn't used in a while. Tamara was playing at the clay table while Jermaine and Susan were in the block area, using the miniature toys to create a battle scene. They were making loud crashing noises and taking imaginary swipes at each other. Tamara looked over and yelled, "Shut up!" Then she ran up to them and hit Susan with her ball of clay.

Tom went over to comfort Susan, who was crying at the time. When Susan was settled, he turned to Tamara and asked, "Why did you hit Susan?" She shrugged and started to move away, but Tom patiently kept his arm around her. After a little while, Tamara whispered, "It was too noisy." Tom replied, "I wonder if all that noise and fighting scared you. You can tell the children if it gets too noisy, or you can tell me. I want to know if something scares you because I care about you. Remember that in this room, we try to use words to say what we feel. We don't hit." Then Tom turned to Jermaine and Susan, saying "Sometimes loud play like battles frightens other children. Please find a way to play that doesn't frighten anyone. What else could your heroes do besides fight?" When Jermaine and Susan couldn't think of anything, Tom suggested, "Maybe your heroes could rescue people. After all, heroes save and help people. They don't fight all the time."

Observe: Preschool children are impulsive at times, acting instead of speaking. Some tend to be assertive; others may be concerned that the assertive behavior will be directed toward them. This can be scary, and when it is, children can end up striking out at the perceived or fantasized aggression. Remember, developmentally, children at this age may still have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, seeing threats where there are none.

In this situation, Tom helped the children respect each other's viewpoints, never telling them they were bad or wrong. He also moved the play to a higher developmental level by helping them find ways to resolve their aggressive play and see more positive qualities in their pretend characters - moving the play and thinking to a prosocial level.

Each day offers opportunities to confront and work with issues of character development. Concerns with politeness, honesty, diversity, aggression, and sharing are only a few among many we, as early childhood educators, struggle with as we strive to promote good citizenship and build character. We can help children understand these attributes and their importance by forging meaningful connections in their lives, setting fair and clear guidelines, accepting children's feelings, never belittling, showing respect for their ideas and developing competence, and modeling respect in our interactions with colleagues, families, and every child we work with. This is where the work must begin.