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Virtues Need a Place in Early Education

Why we teach ABC’s +Vs.

The most recent high school shooting in Texas comes only weeks after a school shooting in Virginia. The FBI recently reported a rise in school violence, though some crime rates continue to decline.

The revelations of the effects of Facebook and Instagram on the mental health of youth by Frances Haugen testifying before Congress recently demonstrate the real and present dangers of bullying and cyberbullying.

To curb this trend long-term, elementary schools need to prioritize systematic virtue education in young children.

As part of an intervention science team working to promote positive school environments, in 2018, the group provided individualized reports to over 122 schools in Southern Brazil. When the data collection teams arrived, they were typically met by administrators and teachers who said that bullying was an important topic, but thankfully their school had it under control.

Invariably, children often told a different story. Student responses revealed tremendous amounts of pain, fear, and broken relationships, many of which were outside of the purview of the teachers and administrators.

The failure to see the evidence of bullying is perhaps because adults struggle to see how students yield power and weaponize their words and actions. It is imperative not to rely on adults’ abilities to see bullying directly. Nor is it sufficient to rely on surveillance systems that rarely act as deterrents to youth’s impulsivity.

Interpersonal conflict and victimization issues will always arise in school settings as children learn to socialize and work together. But the prevalence rates vary across countries based on national levels of inequality, government education spending, and long-standing national prevention programs.

It is possible to curb bullying by strengthening the social fabric in schools and prioritizing virtue development. This is not paternalistic, nor is it anti-intellectual or about religion. It is just a good idea.

Thankfully it is becoming more common today to talk about socio-emotional learning, or the practice of actively teaching children to manage their emotions, and to be aware of others’ feelings. States legislature trends show increased research, funding, and regulations around socio-emotional learning.

However, what is less discussed is that virtue development is the other side of the same coin. When a child learns to curb their anger, they are learning patience and respect. When a student learns to ask for help, they can move away from a scarcity-mindset and move towards generosity and advocacy. When an adolescent acquires tools to cope with anxious thoughts, they learn perseverance. These are virtues, and they can be taught.

Virtues and socio-emotional learning are intertwined and must be prioritized together.

The Sanford Harmony program is a relationship-building intervention in California that targeted prosocial behaviors and ethical values and was found to decrease fifth-graders perceived aggression.

The WITS program emerged in British Columbia and expanded across Canada to teach elementary students healthy conflict resolution strategies. This program longitudinally reduced peer victimization by increasing the virtue of social responsibility: a character strength that seeks to help others and abide by common rules.

I am working on a cultural adaptation of the WITS program in 60 Brazilian schools (DIGA program) and one of our main goals is to nurture virtue development. This recent paper revealed that increasing social responsibility can be a mechanism for how schools can reduce aggressive behaviors.

In all these interventions, virtues served as a protective factor against school victimization. It is only logical then to assume it is possible to reduce violence by teaching virtues.

Teachers don’t need new theoretical frameworks for virtue development or socio-emotional learning. Decades of character education research in the U.S. reveal how to best implement character education. Harvard University offers a site to compare and contrast socio-emotional frameworks and a report breaking down 33 evidence-based programs by the values they promote.

In the classic prioritization example, the only way to get everything in the jar is to put the large rocks first, followed by the small rocks, then fill it with the sand. A preschooler who can wait their turn and talk about their feelings will be a better student, even if they start behind on their letters and numbers.

Unbridled emotions, early stressors, and poor relationships are the biggest threats to learning. It is urgent to realize that teaching virtues and emotion regulation are the large rocks because they are precursors to the ability to focus and enjoy learning. These also help inoculate classrooms from the spread of toxic peer relationships that devolve into bullying.

This is especially true in early childhood, a known sensitive time for moral development and emotional development. Yet, their importance still rings true to many of my college students, who struggle to focus due to the lack of healthy relationships and self-regulation they could have learned faster had it been a priority earlier in their education. Early emotional and moral development are likely why high-quality preschools have a sleeper effect and are related to more long-term successes like high school graduation rates and lower incarceration rates.

At home, I have a toddler and a preschooler. We work on our ABCs and counting, we sing and memorize picture books by sheer repetition, but, out of all the academic “pony tricks” my children can do, nothing makes me prouder than to see them spontaneously share or apologize. The rest will fall more easily into place. I’m an educational psychologist, and this is what I want my children to be when they grow up: Good people.