We think of responsibility as something mostly for adults — and kind of a drag: deadlines, appointments, bills, to-do lists. But children, including very young children, can and should learn responsibility in a developmentally appropriate — and enjoyable — way.
“Even babies and toddlers can learn about responsible behavior,” says Dr. Maria Shaheen, executive director of early childhood education for Primrose Schools®. “They’re always watching what others are doing, and they see when the adults in their lives are accountable for their actions. Young children learn about responsibility long before you put a name to that concept.”
At Primrose, we believe who children become is as important as what they know, which is why lessons in character development permeate our Balanced Learning® curriculum. The Primrose Friends puppets help children understand and embrace positive character traits. The embodiment of responsibility is AllySM the bunny, a puppet who teaches children that they have the power to create a happier classroom, home and world.
“Ally’s all about doing the right thing,” says Dr. Lauren Starnes, vice president of early childhood education, research and development. “It’s about taking a novel, nonthreatening approach to the lesson of accountability. An adult can repeat over and over that it’s important to clean up toys for safety reasons, but when a puppet speaks, it captures attention differently.”
How Primrose Teaches Responsibility to Children
Teaching the value of responsibility has a place in every part of the day at Primrose schools. Each child will get the chance to have a job on the classroom helper chart, such as being line leader or passing out napkins before snack time. (Research has shown that children gravitate toward the identity of being a “helper.”) Teachers frequently refer to the posted “Rules of the Roost,” which guide children in responsible behavior (for example: Be kind to yourself and others).
Puppets grab attention and impart lessons because children develop relationships with them. For example, Ally helps remind children to hang up their jackets and clean up when transitioning from one activity to another.
“When children aren’t listening or doing what we want them to do, we can ask, ‘What would Ally want us to do?’ We put it back on the Friend that children have come to love and embody,” Starnes says.
“In addition to teaching personal responsibility, young children at Primrose schools get an introduction to social responsibility, too,” Shaheen says.
“We know from the research that very young children learn about social responsibility as early as age 2,” she says. “This is the age when you have to start teaching children how to treat others. As a citizen in a democratic society, how do you care for other citizens?”
“Of course,” Shaheen adds, “teachers do this in a way that is appropriate for the child’s age and development. For example, toddlers learn about soft touches and the importance of not hurting others. Primrose schools host an annual Caring and Giving Food Drive that includes even the smallest children in collecting food for people in need.”
“Our focus is on giving to others without expecting anything in return,” Shaheen says.
As children grow, teachers help them make connections between individual responsibility and how that impacts others. For example, a teacher might explain that we need everyone to do their jobs on the helper chart to have a classroom that is clean, safe and fun.
Tips for Raising Responsible Children
Children learn the most when the lessons they experience at school are also taught at home in everyday ways. Shaheen and Starnes recommend these research-backed strategies for raising responsible children:
- Model responsible behavior. That might mean saying sorry when you’ve made a mistake or returning your cart at the grocery store. “As a parent, it’s important to think about what kind of person you want your child to be in the world,” Shaheen says. “Every moment of every day, you’re modeling something.”
- Enforce consistent rules. “Have a few set rules and expectations, and be consistent in how they’re verbalized and enforced,” Starnes says. Use Ally’s books and video to reinforce the language used in the Primrose classroom so that children realize “what my teachers want me to do in my classroom is the same as what my parents want me to do at home.”
- Keep it positive. The “Rules of the Roost” posted in every Primrose classroom focus on things we do, not things we don’t do, which is more motivating and clear for children. Parents can do the same with rules at home: “Put your plate in the sink after dinner to help keep the house clean,” rather than “Don’t leave your mess on the kitchen table.”
- Introduce the term “responsibility.” You can say “Let’s clean this together, because that’s what we do when we’re responsible” or “Thank you for being responsible” to help children make the connection between their behavior and the concept.
- Assign age-appropriate chores. It’s usually easier and faster to just do things for small children, but it’s important they learn ways to contribute to the household. Even a 2-year-old can help put away a toy. Preschool-age children can help pick out their clothes and care for pets (supervised, of course).
- Appeal to their innate sense of pride. Parents can help children realize that acting responsibly creates a sense of satisfaction and pride: When I help feed the dog, I can see that I made him happy, and that makes me feel good. I want that feeling again.
“Children need the experience of what it is to give to the greater good and what it does for them emotionally,” Starnes says. “When children start to internalize that motivation, they’re more likely to do the right thing with or without a reminder from Mom, Dad or Ally.”
For more on building character in young children, check out:
- The Power of Puppet Play in Child Development
- Primrose Classroom Helpers Learn Responsibility
- Developing Positive Character Traits with Primrose Friends
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