“The early years of life provide the foundation for what is to come in terms of social, intellectual and moral development. A child’s capacity to think out problems, built from “lived experience” is indicative of social skills, moral reasoning and intelligence” according to Darcia Narvaez’s research.

Considering this, why isn’t there more of an emphasis on character development in the current discussions and debates on early childhood education? Perhaps because academics are easier to quantify. But there is much more to preschool than learning the alphabet and recognizing numbers. It is essential that children feel cared for and that they are learning to care for others as well.

How do we develop a caring environment for our youngest children? How do we encourage the development of good character and empathy before they can even talk in full sentences? To answer these questions, I turned to one of our early childhood education experts, Gina Siebe, Director of the Clayton Early Childhood Center and former principal of NSOC Bayless Elementary.

Gina began her work at the Clayton Early Childhood Center after the abrupt closure of the local preschool left the parents confused and alarmed. She had to rebuild the families’ sense of trust in the school and sense of belonging in the community. Gina used her knowledge of the 11 Principles, and her experience leading a National School of Character, to create a caring community that parents, teachers and children are proud to be a part of.

Here are a few of the ways that Clayton Early Childhood Center creates a welcoming and caring environment.

  • Everyone is greeted by name at the front door of the school.  Children are often greeted with a personal greeting such as “Happy birthday”, or “I like your new haircut”.

  • Children are involved in class meetings as early as 18 months of age.

  • Children create classroom expectations and share their interests and curiosities when planning future thematic units and lessons with teachers.

  • Parents are welcome to school at any time.

  • Parents are given voice and choice during parent-teacher conferences where they create goals for their child.

  • Staff communicate daily face to face, through notes, emails, text, newsletters, Facebook postings, and monthly newsletters.

Gina also created a thriving teaching community in which teachers care about and collaborate with each other. She began having teachers use children’s nap time as a period for them to discuss character education. The staff participates in team-building activities and potlucks. They give encouragement cards to each other. Gina explains, “Through character education we created a focus on a healthy adult culture with both parents and teachers and created a positive, caring and welcoming school climate for all.”

Gina’s hard work has certainly paid off. The school that started with only 35 students and 12 staff has grown to 124 students and 54 staff. In just two years,, the school has already received an honorable mention from and our state affiliate in Missouri, CharacterPlus. Parents have told Gina that they chose the school because of its promotion of character.

Gina offers some words of wisdom for early childhood educators looking to incorporate character education and empathy development into their classrooms. Here are seven ways you can develop character education in your youngest students:

  1. Introduce young children to core ethical values through role playing and discuss solutions to problems during class meetings.

  1. Visuals are particularly important to young children as reminders of behavior expectations or step by step instructions to complete a task. Use photographs or model facial expressions and discuss the emotion each expression indicates.

  1. Catch children doing the right thing.  Teachers bring attention to specific positive behaviors observed which encourages others to emulate those behaviors.

  1. Have young children reflect on core ethical values through drawing. When the classroom teacher feels children have internalized the idea of the monthly trait, children depict the value by drawing on paper grocery bags. A label identifying our school and Character Education is affixed to the lower corner of the bags. Once bags are returned to a local grocery store, clerks fill the bags with groceries which are taken into area homes and businesses; reminding residents to use core ethical values and raising awareness of Character Education.

  1. Teach children to model positive behaviors for others and participate in reciprocal teaching when coaching peers on behavior expectations. At a school assembly, teachers at Clayton ECC performed a skit to demonstrate kindness. In the skit, one teacher tripped over a banana peel and the other helped her up. The next day when a substitute teacher fell down, one student began to laugh but the other told him to stop. “We have to show kindness,” they informed him and they helped the teacher. Even when it seems silly, clear and concrete examples are very effective for teaching young children.

  1. Encourage children to notice inequities as they learn about the world around them.  They have great interests in improving the quality of life for others which lends itself well to service learning.

  1. Focus on restorative justice strategies.Children are taught to talk out their issues with one another often using the teacher as a coach. When toddlers bite as a form of communication, they are given an ice pack to hold on the injured child.  This opportunity to soothe and comfort instills empathy for others and gives the toddler or “biter” the chance to restore his/her relationship with the injured child.

As Narvaez’s research demonstrates, these experiences and discussions are crucial to children’s development. Luckily, people are finally acknowledging the incredible influence the early years have on an individual’s future.  From talk of Universal Pre-K to Head Start programs aimed at closing the achievement gap, early childhood education has become a popular issue in education policy. But how can we make sure that that discussion focuses on character development and not just increasing academic skills? Educators need to work together to create a school climate that encourages children to become smart and good citizens of their communities.

Join and hundreds of experienced educators in these important discussions at the 2015 Forum on Character Education, Mapping Success: Linking Smart & Good. Registration opens on March 1.