Teaching Values to Elementary Students

Effective classroom management strategies often rely on “foundational” concepts… and it’s hard to get more foundational than values.

Effectively teaching values to children demands that we first narrow our scope of what we expect of students and focus our efforts there. This is because values are a slippery concept – a concept that changes from one generation, one culture, and one person to another.

There are fundamental values that are linked closely to schools and education, including:

  • honesty
  • fairness

You might identify others, or put different names on these (e.g. integrity vs. honesty), but I think that two is a good number to focus upon and these two fill the bill.

Don’t make the mistake of pursuing a laundry list of ideal character traits when teaching values. Really… who can remember ten things that are supposed to be applied every day? As with classroom rules, boil it down to the essentials and teach them well.

Here’s my approach…

Teaching Honesty

In a classroom, honesty is really linked to cheating. Cheating includes sneaking peeks at a partner’s paper or not pulling one’s own weight in a group project. Recognize the potential for cheating and cut if off before it gets started.

At the elementary level, cheating on tests is a “crime of opportunity,” meaning sneaky looks will be taken if the opportunity arises. To ensure valid test results, it is often best to remove the opportunity. If separation of desks is not an option, purchase some inexpensive cardboard “offices” like these:

Cardboard offices help students learn values of honesty

Working hard at the “office”

These are not used every day, but my students have always liked getting these out for big tests, such as unit assessments.

Much more common than cheating on tests is sneaking peeks and outright copying on daily worksheets and other assignments. We can’t get out the cardboard offices for every handout, so the best approach when you see or suspect copying is a generalized statement to the whole class about doing our own thinking rather than borrowing our neighbor’s thinking.

If it continues, a more pointed comment is in order:

“I’d like to see what you are thinking, not what Liam is thinking.”

If habitual cheating arises with a student, it is best to pull that child aside for a one-on-one. It may be a lack of confidence on the content, or a lack of understanding where re-teaching is needed.

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Betsy Weigle

Everything you need to know to survive and thrive as a new elementary school teacher. This is the book that I wish had existed when I was taking over my first classroom… so I wrote it! Achieving Classroom Confidence on Amazon

Achieving Classroom Confidence book cover

Handling theft

When it comes to teaching values, the other honesty area which can be huge in elementary schools is theft. There will always be those kids who simply can’t keep their hands off of things that don’t belong to them.

As for your teacher stuff, student’s generally won’t steal from an adult they respect and care about. A gentle reminder with humor helps:

No touchy my stuffy!

… is my favorite phrase and makes the point well enough.

I don’t like to flat out accuse a student of theft unless I’ve seen it with my own eyes. If a student reports something missing, I ask the whole class:

“Hey guys, Dennis is missing his pencil sharpener. If you borrowed it, could you return it when you are done in a minute?”

Now for the chronic sticky fingers…

I had a student, Molly, who somehow managed to be able to “find” all of the things that went missing from other student’s desks. I had overheard grumblings that Molly was stealing. I pulled her aside and said:

“You seem to be the finder of all lost things and I’m concerned that some might think you are the one taking them. We wouldn’t want anyone to think that because, of course, you know that stealing is very wrong.”

Nothing went missing in the classroom after that and Molly’s status among her peers was kept intact.

Teaching fairness

We can accept almost any level of hardship if we feel the conditions are at least fair – or equally unfair. Lack of fairness will undermine any attempt at effective classroom management.

And fairness, more than nearly any other value, must be taught by modeling on the part of the teacher.

You may like one student more than another, but under no circumstances can you favor that student. Properly teaching values demands that your attention must be spread evenly across boys, girls, high-academic, low-academic, etc. without exception.

And it should be actively spread. By this I mean ensuring that each student gets a little of your time at least once a week at a minimum, as I outline in greater depth on this classroom team building page.

Favoritism is not confined to individual students. I have known some teachers who like/dislike an entire genders and who are not afraid to show favoritism.

Others may disfavor academically-challenged kids, who are often the kids with IEP’s. Examples of such broad-brush favoritism often show up in seating arrangements, where teachers may isolate the kids with whom they would rather not associate.

Teacher fairness is the foundation of teaching fairness

The next level is being a champion for kids caught in unfair situations, such as being swept up in group punishment for a playground incident for which they have no connection other than unlucky timing and location.

This is not to say that you should always believe every tale of woe; rather, if after an investigation you can see that one of your kids is being treated unfairly, you have an obligation to intercede if possible or – at a minimum – give the aggrieved child a chance to be heard by listening attentively.

As with most humans, that’s all we really want anyway – not justice, not retribution… just to be heard.

The final step in teaching values of fairness is to expect it without exception in your kids dealing with each other. Help them make the best choices when choosing and working with partners.