Kindergartens now emphasize not only hard-core academics but “character education.” An expert on early childhood education takes a look at this recent trend.
by Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D.
Today's kindergarten isn't your mother's kindergarten. It's not even your kindergarten. Besides the increased emphasis on academics, one of the main differences is "character education."
To get a better handle on this trend, we'll start by taking a look into kindergartens' past.
Kindergarten—a German term meaning “children’s garden”—started in the 19th century as a way to help young children transition from home to a more formal school program. The early kindergartens in Germany included actual gardens where children could play, explore, and experiment.
The garden setting was designed to foster the holistic development of children while also helping them grow in harmony with nature. There was no set curriculum, as such, or body of knowledge to be attained. The focus was primarily on social and emotional development.
Kindergarten looks quite different today, especially in the United States where an academic curriculum is now the norm. In most states, the kindergarten program is planned around a set of “content standards” established by state departments of education. These standards usually address the academic areas of math, science, social studies, and language arts.
For example, here are two kindergarten language arts content standards for the state of California: 1) Students know about letters, words, and sounds. They apply this knowledge to read simple sentences. 2) Students write words and brief sentences that are legible.
Such standards are clearly academic in nature and go beyond the kind of learning expected of children in the early days of kindergarten.
Today, we’re beginning to see another area of curriculum being introduced—not only in kindergarten but in other levels of education as well. This additional area is sometimes referred to as “character education” and includes efforts to foster such attributes as kindness, honesty, generosity, and caring.
Character education can take different forms, but generally includes both modeling by adults and direct teaching of universal ethical values such as respect, responsibility, and integrity.
While many teachers—especially teachers in kindergarten and the primary grades—have always worked to promote these values in their students, once a school adopts a character education program the entire school gets involved. Efforts promoting character development become more intentional and organized.
Another interesting aspect of character education is that it focuses on more than “being good”—as in following the rules and doing what is “right” in relation to what a particular community or culture expects. Character education, especially for young children, is also designed to foster students’ emotional development and, as such, addresses such personal characteristics as self-esteem and confidence.
Many character education programs include some form of civic engagement and service learning, even at the kindergarten level. This aspect of character education is designed to help children care about and get involved in their local community. Civic engagement and service learning for young children may take the form of growing flowers for a nursing home or planting vegetables for a food bank.
Why are schools getting involved?
The movement to include character education in the schools is in response—at least to some degree—to increasing concerns about serious behavioral problems, including bullying and other expressions of violence.
Some parents may question the school’s involvement in “developing character,” thinking that schools should focus on academic learning while leaving character development to parents.
Separating what we want children to learn into two different arenas (that of school and home), however, isn’t the most effective way to foster overall growth and development. Children’s learning—whether focusing on academic, social, or personal development—occurs more readily if messages from home and school support and reinforce each other.
A character education program has the best chance of success when it integrates positive values into every aspect of the school and includes parent involvement and support.
Both “smart” and “good”
With kindness and other attributes of a good moral character once again a recognized part of the classroom, you might think that the current curriculum is a return to the early days of kindergarten. The difference, however, between then and now is that, at the present time, both academic learning and character development are recognized as important to the young child. It doesn’t have to be an “either-or” choice.
Education in the fullest sense of the term focuses on helping children develop both intellectually and socially—helping them learn how the world works and how to live “rightly” and generously in this world. We sometimes say that education is about helping children become both smart and good.
According to Stephen R. Covey, Ph.D., this two-pronged approach to education also helps children be happy.
Dr. Covey is the founder of The Institute for Principle Centered Leadership, a non-profit research group dedicated to transforming education and improving the quality of community life. One of Dr. Covey’s books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is sometimes used as a framework for developing character education programs in the schools. A related book, The 7 Habits of Happy Kids (authored by Sean Covey and Stacey Curtis) is also used. More information about the “7 Habits” is available on Dr. Covey’s website.
To help your children gain maximum benefit from the character education program in place at their school, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with what is being done and then talk with your child about what the program is trying to accomplish.
For more information:
You can learn more about character development and what you, as a parent, can do within your own child rearing style to foster strength of character in your child by reading these other books by Dr. Covey:
These are some other character education programs used in schools throughout the United States:
Dr. Ruth Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer. Her primary areas of expertise are early childhood environmental education and peace education.