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Teaching Kids To Care

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Larry and Heather, two upper elementary students at Hazelwood Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., are at the age when boys and girls do not pal around together. But today, both are working busily on a Venn diagram that shows how they are alike and how they are different.

One circle is labeled "Larry,'' and the other "Heather.'' On the outer edges of each, the two classmates have scribbled a few of their individual preferences. Heather has written that she likes cats. Larry's tastes run to sports. But the space where the circles intersect is crowded with entries: swimming, rap music, hot dogs, snakes, pizza, school, and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television show. There is no more room to write.

"Hey,'' Heather says, a look of surprise spreading across her face. "Look at all the stuff we both like.''

This kind of discovery is what the Child Development Project is all about. The project--a comprehensive, 14-year-old research and development effort--is in its final year of piloting at Hazelwood and 11 other primary schools across the country. And the educators and researchers who are participating say the results so far are encouraging.

Like other school reform efforts, the aim of the project is to improve children's learning. It calls for the use of real and compelling selections of children's literature, for example, to interest pupils in reading and to spur them to think critically. It advocates teaching strategies designed to help students build their own knowledge and work cooperatively in groups.

But the Child Development Project goes one step further than most contemporary school improvement efforts: It seeks to teach children like Larry and Heather to care about one another. And it does that by creating "caring communities'' like the one at Hazelwood, a school that is arguably one of Louisville's most impoverished. There is not much research on how to teach children to care, according to Nel Noddings, a Stanford University professor who has written several books on the subject. Of the studies that do exist, some of the earliest produced dismal results. One showed, for example, that children in groups such as the Boy Scouts would demonstrate more caring behaviors when adults were present, but they behaved no differently from other children their age after the adults left.

Until the 1990s, Noddings says, the dominant strategy for teaching moral behavior in classrooms was the Kohlbergian model (named for Lawrence Kohlberg, the late Harvard psychologist), in which students were given moral dilemmas to discuss. The trouble was that no one could prove that the ability to reason morally could be linked to improved moral behavior. Other schools--if they taught values at all--sought to do it as an add-on to the regular curriculum.

In 1981, program officers at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation began looking for a better way. What they had in mind was a program that would address the whole child. That meant nurturing children's ethical and social development as well as their intellectual growth, and it meant making character education an integral part of the curriculum and climate of schools. What's more, the program had to be backed by studies to show that it could improve the learning and behavior of real children in real schools.

To put it all together, the foundation chose a California-based research organization called the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which had been developing and evaluating programs aimed at preventing delinquency and drug abuse among teenagers. The new project quickly became the major focus of the institute, which decided to recast itself as the Developmental Studies Center.

The research scientists there sifted through all the available literature on children's development to put together a program. They studied the work of developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and L.S. Vygotsky. They read research on cooperative learning. They borrowed from studies suggesting that children thrive when given a sense of having a say in their lives and of belonging to a group.

To test the program, the researchers went to three elementary schools in San Ramon, Calif., a middle-class suburb in the San Francisco Bay area. "We wanted a district that was large enough to accommodate the research well but small enough that the project wouldn't get lost,'' says Eric Schaps, president of the Developmental Studies Center. "We also wanted a district that was not experiencing declining enrollment because that causes a lot of financial and political problems, and we wanted a district where there was considerable support to do this.''

Teachers in San Ramon were given curricular materials and intensive training that took place in weeklong summer sessions, monthly workshops during the school year, and individual coaching sessions.

To gauge the program's success, the researchers tracked children at the three schools from the time they entered kindergarten until they reached 6th grade and then compared their progress with students the same age at three control schools in the district with the same demographic characteristics. Observers, who had no idea what the program was about, were sent to classrooms in all of the schools for eight two-hour periods to record what teachers and students were doing. Researchers also interviewed students annually, giving them hypothetical moral dilemmas to solve and gauging their responses.

The result: In the experimental classrooms, children behaved more considerately toward their classmates and worked better together. In interviews, they showed a better understanding of other students' perspectives and a greater ability to solve interpersonal conflicts. And, on questionnaires, they were more likely to report that they saw their classrooms as communities.

Academically, both the experimental and the control groups scored about the same on standardized achievement tests. But the program students did better on another measure designed to gauge their higher-order thinking abilities.

Two years later, after the students moved on to junior high school, they were still showing some positive effects from the program. Compared with their peers in the control group, for example, they were more involved in extracurricular activities, and their teachers rated them as more assertive and popular.

The program was tested again in much the same way in nearby Hayward, a poorer, more ethnically diverse urban district that was undergoing considerable upheaval at the time. Implementation of the program was spottier there, and although the effort produced positive results, they were somewhat weaker. One point, however, was clear: Students in classrooms that observers had judged to be "high-implementing''--that is, the ones that had followed the program closely--showed better pro-social behaviors. "It wasn't the kind of kid that made the difference,'' Schaps says. "It was whether the program happened or not that made the difference.''

Encouraged, project developers in 1991 raised more than $14 million from several foundations and expanded to six more districts. They targeted two program schools and two control schools in each. Jefferson County, Ky., where Hazelwood is located, is one of those districts. Others are in Cupertino, Salinas, and San Francisco, Calif.; Dade County, Fla.; and White Plains, N.Y.

The center has not yet released the findings from the second-year evaluation, but Schaps says the program is showing promise in those communities. "What we've seen are the kinds of changes happening that, in all our prior research, are correlated with positive student outcomes,'' he says, "so we're optimistic.''

The organization is already making plans to disseminate parts of the program more widely. After 14 years, Schaps says, "we think we're ready now.''

Of the six districts participating in the project, Jefferson County was the only one to show positive results in as little as a year. That sort of thing does not often happen at a place like Hazelwood, the school that Larry and Heather attend. Only a rusted chain-link fence separates the school from the largest housing project in Kentucky. Three-quarters of Hazelwood's 600 students go home to those projects every afternoon. A full 93 percent of the school's students come from families poor enough to qualify them for federal subsidized lunch programs.

Brenda Logan, who became the school's principal barely a year before the project started, remembers how different things were at the school back then. "I can tell you that teachers were lined up at the door trying to find other places to go,'' she says. "You're in a high-risk area, and you're dealing with poverty and difficult parents.''

Before the Child Development Project began, teachers would attempt to keep order in their classes by using assertive discipline techniques. They would, for example, put check marks on the board next to names of students who were behaving well, or they would hand out stickers and marbles. It didn't work.

"The first year I came,'' Logan says, "there were monumental numbers of students being referred to me from teachers, for everything from chewing gum to major fights.'' In situations where students had to work or play with one another, she says, "they just didn't know how to do it.''

Initially, teachers' reactions to the Child Development Project were mixed. Some thought the program was just what the school needed. Others were more skeptical.

Marcia Davis, who teaches kindergarten and 1st grade, worried about the project's emphasis on values. "Whose values?'' she wondered. "And I thought, They're from California. I wonder if I'm going to find out I lived another life or something!'' What she soon discovered, however, was that the values the program stresses--fairness, helpfulness, respect for others, and responsibility--were the same values that she wanted her students to learn.

During the project's training sessions, teachers were taught to reflect on their own practice, to ask the kinds of questions that elicit higher-order thinking, and to give students responsibility for their own learning. They learned ways to maintain order without using extrinsic rewards or punishments.

Now, in many classrooms at Hazelwood, students set their own learning goals and rules for classroom behavior early in the year. And they post them on blackboards, walls, and doors throughout the school. "How we want our classroom to be,'' begins one list. "What we want to learn this year,'' says another.

Class meetings are held to resolve problems that arise on the playground or the classroom. And cooperative-learning lessons teach students both academic content and techniques for getting along.

"Does anyone have anything to say about the activity?'' teacher Dana Shumate asks her 1st graders after one such lesson. Her class has been working in pairs, drawing pictures of things that once frightened them. They have just read Alfie Lends a Hand, a book about a young child who overcomes shyness at a birthday party. "Were there any problems?'' Shumate asks, "and what did you do to resolve them?''

"We had problems,'' says one boy. "I couldn't hear him say if he was scared of a shark or an airplane.'' He resolved the problem, he says, by asking his tablemates to talk quietly.

The character-building lessons are reinforced by the literature the students read. The center provides a list of more than 200 books chosen not only for their literary quality but also for the values they address.

The activity Larry and Heather were engaged in is what Hazelwood teachers call a "unity builder''--exercises intended to promote a sense of caring and community. The two children will be reading partners this month, taking turns reading aloud to one another and making sense of what they have read. The exercise is designed to smooth the way for that partnership.

As part of the project, some Hazelwood teachers have arranged for their younger students to have older "buddies,'' who meet with them once a week for lunch or to work on an activity. This kind of cooperativeness even carries over to the school's sports program. Hazelwood, for example, has abandoned its traditional field-day practice of handing out ribbons only to those students who jump the farthest and run the fastest. The event is now less competitive, and all students can participate in every event.

The changes have made a difference. Student referrals to principal Logan's office have dropped from roughly 50 a year to 12. Teachers have stopped asking to transfer out of the school. And Hazelwood is one of only four schools in the district that met its target achievement goals under the state's school reform law. Word of the Child Development Project's success at Hazelwood and the other Jefferson County pilot school, Auburndale Elementary, has spread. Now, district officials plan to disseminate pieces of the program to 26 other schools.

Nationwide, the Child Development Project plans to try a similar strategy. "We want to make it much more broadly useful to schools,'' Schaps says. "We want to open it up by making the work more widely available, and we want to write about the work for practitioners and policymakers. We also want to make linkages to other reform efforts.''

Project leaders are concerned that some conservative parents may see the program's emphasis on ethics as a threat to their authority over their own children--even though the values instilled through the program are presumably not much different from those the parents would want for their children. If that happens, however, the participating educators say they are ready with their defense.

"Maybe the best way is to use this example,'' says Sheila Koshewa, who coordinates the project for Jefferson County. "We would tell them: 'If your child drops a box of crayons, wouldn't you want someone to care enough to help your child pick them up and not kick them away?' People are not going to argue with that.''

--Debra Viadero

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