Educating for Moral Development

This piece was written by Marvin W Berkowitz, PhD, Inaugural Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education, Co-Director of the Center for Character and Citizenship, University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Developing Morals in School

While parenting is the primary influence on developing morals in childhood and adolescence, it is not the only influence. The cultures surrounding us, the media that bombards us, peers who become more central as teens move through adolescence, and biological influences like genetics all impact development. This also includes moral development — a young persons’ growing sense of what’s right and wrong. And schools play a critical role in the kinds of adults our young people become.

Consider what schools do to support moral development. You may be surprised that the way school impacts moral development are highly similar to the ways that families impact it. There is an amazing similarity, largely because kids are still who they are whether at home or in school. So, the same major forces influence their development at home and in school.

By looking at the research on how school affects children’s development of values, a model for schools — called PRIMED — was created. It essentially says schools should emphasize six major factors, each one representing one of the letters in the acronym PRIMED.

The PRIMED Model

  • P – Priority:

First, schools need to make the moral development of students a real priority. It has to be important to the school and present all over the school. This can be done in many ways, but it must be genuine. Examples include assigning the school leader as the main champion of the focus on moral development, having clear, shared language about developing morals, and offering resources (time, money, space, etc.) to moral development activities.

  • R – Relationships:

Schools need to intentionally build and support the development of healthy relationships. And these relationships should be for all students, and far more than that. They must be among all members of the school community (non-professional staff, administration, parents, and broader community members). This should not be left to chance, good intentions, or the general kindness of staff. There needs to be strategic and  intentional ways of making sure everyone has healthy relationships in the school. For example, they may use structures like buddy classrooms or other cross-age/grade groupings that continue more than one school year. They may have classes adopt non-professional staff as honorary class members. They could pair students whose environment puts them at risk with nurturing adults, or simply invest at the beginning of the year in students and staff learning more about each other.

  • I – Internalize:  

Schools have to get kids to internalize moral (and other targeted) values. That means they can’t just focus on what kids know, or even just on what kids do. They must  become about who kids are — wherever they might be in life. This means that schools have to move away from external motivators like rewards or public recognition for good behavior. Instead, they must provide the kinds of processes that lead young people to absorb the values and make them their own. This includes role models of morality, fostering emotional bonding to school and staff, opportunities to apply the school values to real life situations, and individual, private praise.

  • M – Model:

Just like parents have to do, schools need to model the moral character they want to see students develop. This means all the adults and the school itself has to show good character. Schools and the adults who populate them have to be the character they want to see in children. Our youth learn much more from who we are and what we do than from what we preach. So it’s important to create an adult culture of openness, humility and self-reflection. The school leader must model for the staff, so the staff can model for the students.

  • E – Empower:

Also as is true for parents and families, schools need to empower all members of the school community to be partners in creating a great school environment. Everyone’s voice must really matter. It’s not uncommon for schools to care deeply about kids, but to give them very little control over what happens while they are in school. Instead, they can have authentic student government that has real power. They can use class meetings to make decisions and solve problems, use behavioral management strategies that empower students to give meaningful input, and give staff more voice in school policy and practices.

  • D – Developmental:

Schools need to take a long term developmental perspective by recognizing that kids develop slowly. All character, including moral character, does not happen quickly. And kids don’t develop in straight lines either. We have to be patient with their uneven journeys to become good adults. So we need approaches that have some patience, flexibility, and are built around the long-term end game. Too often, we simply want results right now, when that is not supportive of long-term positive growth. Examples include letting students grapple, struggle and discover for themselves in both academics and social/moral issues. Or teaching students to set goals and monitor their long-term progress. Or to use behavior management approaches that view stumbles as opportunities for long-term positive growth and that are designed around the goal of helping students be the kinds of people we all hope they will become.

All character, including moral character, does not happen quickly. And kids don’t develop in straight lines either. We have to be patient with their uneven journeys to become good adults.

Schools and Parents Must Invest in Developing Morals

If schools embrace these six pillars of educating for moral development, we will be investing in the most precious resource we can have: responsible, moral adult citizens of our society. And schools should not be asked to do this alone. They need parents to join them in this critical endeavor both by partnering with the school and by parenting for moral development at home.

About Center for Parent and Teen Communication

CPTC is fortunate to receive editorial contributions from a range of multi-disciplinary experts, journalists, youth, and more.

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