Every generation faces challenges. For youth today, racial inequities, temptations from social media, and pressures to perform in school despite COVID-19 learning disruptions are just a few challenges that define their development.
Schools can meet the moment by cultivating the skills youth need to act with integrity in the midst of these challenges. Integrity, by definition, means doing the right thing and acting in ways that are aligned with your values. For youth, that means being honest in academic situations despite pressures to succeed, listening to their own inner voice about what is right, and behaving in ways that earn the trust of people around them, as well as standing up for themselves and for others in social situations.
It takes moral courage for students to stand up against injustices and take action in the interest of fairness and justice. Standing up against discrimination based on race, gender, sexual identity, or religion may involve risk-taking, inconvenience, or disapproval from others—like telling someone that their racist joke was unacceptable or speaking up in class when someone makes an offensive comment about another student.
Before making recommendations, we need to be frank about what makes cultivating integrity so difficult. At its most basic level, integrity involves “doing the right thing.” But, of course, what is considered “the right thing” for one person is not necessarily “the right thing” for another. Doing the right thing reflects students’ values and prior experiences, which can vary tremendously. Wading into the sea of challenging issues related to contradictory values means that educators need to be brave and allow conflicting values to emerge and be discussed openly. But you also must step in when students hold values or opinions that are harmful to themselves or others. It is not enough to allow different values to coexist; integrity means preventing harm to others, taking a stand against injustice, and supporting equal human rights.
With this in mind, we offer four recommendations for educators striving to cultivate integrity in children and youth.
1. Integrity begins with us—the adults!
Modeling is a best practice in education—that means educators have to “walk the walk,” not only “talk the talk.” Demonstrating respect for others who hold different views and resolving conflict in responsible ways are behaviors that students learn by watching the adults around them. Educators need to act with integrity because children and youth are watching us all the time, and they are excellent at detecting our shortcomings!
Acting with integrity becomes especially complicated when doing the right thing as educators, such as introducing critical perspectives about society and delving into the untold stories of race in America, can put people’s jobs at risk. We recognize the debate about integrity and what is right to teach in schools goes beyond the scope of this article, but we can offer our “north star”—the goal is to create equitable opportunities for all students. That requires moral courage from educators so that schools become inclusive places where students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities can connect in meaningful ways to opportunities to learn and succeed.
Another reason educators need to model integrity relates to power. Whether we are aware of it or not, adults have more social and political power than youth in school settings. Adults are gatekeepers in decisions about discipline, academic tracking, and enrichment opportunities.
With that in mind, one first step is for adults to understand their own values and implicit biases. A second step involves detecting the injustices around them and being willing to take a deep dive to understand why and how those injustices are occurring. And a third step is for adults to realize the important role they play in advocating for change. By virtue of being alive in American society, adults in schools are part of an inequitable system with the responsibility to create more equitable experiences for youth.
2. Expose the complexities underlying challenging decisions
Situations of right and wrong are rarely simple, and educators can use this reality to cultivate integrity. To do so, teachers need to acknowledge complex issues, and introduce a variety of perspectives on those issues. Teachers can shed light on difficult decision-making by transparently talking about weighing pros and cons and balancing competing ideas or values. These conversations need to address inequity openly and prioritize our shared humanity.
What does this look like in the classroom? Research suggests that students at all ages and developmental levels can engage in conversations about complex social issues. For example, discussing dilemmas in books that highlight competing moral values helps students develop capacity to negotiate difficult social situations and collaborate across differences. Discussing fictional characters and historical figures in ways that expose complex choices helps youth understand integrity.
Educators can give elementary school students opportunities to wrestle with ambiguous situations—situations with trade-offs and more than one right answer. Middle school students can understand complex social issues and grow from discussing them. They are primed to learn from lessons that highlight different perspectives and trade-offs. For example, one middle school teacher in Maine taught about the challenges and opportunities following an influx of refugees from Afghanistan into their town. They discussed the moral dilemmas faced in the community as resources were shifted from one community in need to another.
Look for opportunities to connect students’ lives to current events, as fraught as that may be. Conversations about these complex ideas may bring up strong emotions for students. Students may take sides quickly, especially if they feel the issue threatens some aspect of their identity. Before broaching such topics, make sure that you’ve established norms for your class. For instance, norms may include using “I” statements, speaking for yourself rather than others, drawing on background experience or evidence from literature, focusing on the problem not the person, and asking for clarity before responding defensively. Revisit these norms periodically and call attention to them on the days when the class will be engaging in one of those tough-topic conversations. An inclusive and open-minded climate can turn uncomfortable conversations into rich learning experiences.
3. Create opportunities for students to work together and take a stand on issues they find important
Issues like the environment, immigration, and civil rights history lend themselves to service-learning activities. Service learning is a type of project-based learning in which students work with each other to take action to address an important problem, ideally one that they identify themselves. Youth-led activities give students an opportunity to practice integrity, or act in line with their values.
Typically, service learning allows students to apply their academic content knowledge in one of three ways: taking direct action, changing policy, or educating others about a problem. As students collaborate with others and engage in activities to improve their community, they practice not just “talking the talk,” but also “walking the walk.” The research on service learning shows that projects like these improve social skills, give students a sense of agency to create change, and deepen student learning.
We’ve seen great examples of service learning. After learning about renewable and non-renewable resources, elementary school students in Tennessee motivated their peers to switch from disposable plastic to reusable bottles. At one Vermont high school, students petitioned Apple to get rid of an app called After School that was leading to online bullying.
Service learning is just one of a variety of approaches in schools that can help young people make a difference in the world, alongside youth activism, Youth Participatory Action Research, and democratic structures in schools.
4. Cultivate social-emotional skills to help students notice and respond to injustice
Many educators are already familiar with the importance of self-awareness and social awareness. In simplest form, self-awareness refers to our ability to recognize our emotions and corresponding behaviors. Social awareness refers to our ability to see different perspectives and empathize with others. Acting with integrity, especially in situations requiring moral courage, demands a wider range of self- and social awareness skills.
Youth need to understand ethnic, cultural, racial, gender, and sexual orientation identities in themselves and others and be able to identify the privileges, challenges, values, and biases that those identities bring. They need to understand how these identities show up in different social situations. This requires a historically rooted understanding of their own and others’ identities, including studying the history of systemic injustices. We all hold bias as a product of growing up and living in a society where that is the norm. Honesty about different people’s lived experiences and transparency about the history of unjust treatment can help us understand how our identities fit into the world around us.
As educators, we can support self-awareness by encouraging students to explore their personal and cultural strengths, define their values, connect values to action, and understand how those actions impact others. As youth begin to understand their own identities, they can benefit from sharing a collective identity with others with shared identities. Peers from the same racial, ethnic, and religious groups can normalize the challenges they face and help youth understand the connection and contrasts between various aspects of their identities and see their identities as assets.
Social awareness skills that help youth practice integrity include perspective-taking, identifying strengths in others, discussing differences within groups and similarities between groups of people, and having empathy toward people who are different from them. Using texts from the perspective of historically marginalized people, like this lesson on Esperanza Rising, can help students understand that people differ in their access to opportunities, raising awareness about universal human rights. Embedding equity-promoting practices into existing social and emotional learning efforts can expand students’ social awareness.
In a society that rewards individualism, yet another social and emotional skill is crucial to moral courage: communal thinking. That means that youth need to understand that our collective well-being requires us to make decisions based on the impact on others, not just ourselves. Mask-wearing to promote collective good health is a great example.
Communal thinking entails empathy and compassion. Today’s political climate illuminates this challenge and need. It takes intentional time and effort to develop empathy and compassion. Community-building in school, such as regular advisories focused on relationship-building and restorative practices, can help cultivate communal thinking and social-emotional skills.
Perhaps this all sounds too ambitious. Not all acts of integrity take months to enact, make the news, or create impact on the world for generations to come. Thinking small works, too. Encourage students to notice issues of inequity and situations that demand integrity. Model small acts of integrity, teach ways of standing up for others, and create opportunities to use and practice these skills in day-to-day life. As Desmond Tutu stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
The world we live in brings surprising challenges. Understanding youths’ perspective on these challenges and creating supportive environments for students to practice integrity and exercise moral courage produces good people. In doing so, we build our future.
The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305B200005 to the University of Virginia. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.