Teachers have many chances during the day — free play, worktime, 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 some of the 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. She 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 alot of things is a little different from that of not being able to share. Children 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 self-esteem 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.

The Parent-Teacher Connection
The first step in fostering character education for both teachers and parents is establishing a strong positive relationship and open communication with children. Keep the following suggestions in mind as you work with children,and as you help parents understand how they can make character education a part of their life at home.


  • Accept children's feelings. Young children feel strongly, and sometimes it's difficult, especially for parents, to watch children act out in anger or show deep sadness. It is possible to accept these feelings and at the same time limit the strong behavior that sometimes accompanies them.


  • Avoid labeling behavior as good or bad. Even if we only label behavior as good, children know in their heart of hearts that means it can also be bad. So be specific in descriptions, and focus instead on redirection. If you must, describe behavior as impolite or rude or hurtful as long as you point out the specific behavior you're referring to.


  • State expected behavior and show confidence that children will be able to meet the expectations. Often adults tell children what not to do or set a limit without stating ways children can live up to the desired behavior. Be clear. Make sure what you are asking and the way you are asking are developmentally on target so children understand. This will help them have the confidence to handle situations successfully.


  • Help children show what they know and what they can do. When we give children information that is too abstract, state expectations without showing children how to meet them, or expect children to do things that they are not developmentally ready for, we hamper their development of the attributes we are hoping to cultivate. Instead, provide materials that are both meaningful to their level of development and ones they can master


This article is an exerpt from the November/December 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today. The writer is Ethel Tittnich, a child development specialist and the University of Pittsburgh and a consultant to early childhood and social service agencies including the Heartwood Institute, which is an organization devoted to character education.