Developing ethical behavior

An elementary school program called the Child Development Project (CDP) has attempted to create school communities within which children would develop positive social and ethical behaviors. The CDP is a comprehensive program that attempts to change the content and processes of classroom teaching, the ways parents are involved and the overall environment of the school. Researchers Marilyn Watson, Victor Battistich and Daniel Solomon, Developmental Studies Center, Oakland, California, report on the results of a four-year study of 12 schools in six different school districts.

Fostering children’s learning and development in the social and ethical as well as intellectual domains was the explicit goal of the CDP. Program developers assumed that a nurturing school community in which children feel valued and cared for, leads children to be committed to its values and goals. In addition, they believe that children who were allowed to exercise their own initiative as part of the learning process, would become competent and effective learners.

Sense of community in school

The program has five components, three focusing on the classroom, one on the school-wide environment and one on parent involvement. The classroom components of the program are literature-based reading and language arts, collaborative classroom learning, and developmental discipline. Parent involvement is encouraged in two ways: home activities that coordinate with the curriculum and membership on a school coordinating team. An approach to school-wide activities that promotes inclusion, non-competitiveness and school values is the fifth component of the program.

Two schools in each of six school districts implemented the program, while two matched schools served as comparisons. Data on the students’ academic performance were provided by district-administered achievement tests and a measure of writing and reading comprehension. Baseline assessments were conducted in the 12 experimental schools and the 12 comparison schools before implementation. Assessments included classroom observations as well as teacher and student questionnaires. Trained observers were not aware which classes were experimental.

Researchers also studied the extent to which schools implemented the experimental program. Classroom observations measured the promotion of student autonomy, social values and social understanding; the use of cooperative learning activities; teachers’ efforts to relate personally with individual students; the minimization of external control while emphasizing intrinsic motivation; the elicitation of student thinking and active discussions. Implementation of the experimental program appears to have been limited. Only five of the 12 experimental schools showed adequate implementation.

Inadequate implementation

The effects of the program were examined by comparing experimental with comparison classes. Five variables, including altruistic behavior and a sense of school as a caring community, showed significant effects favoring students in experimental classes. However, four variables, including concern for others and inclusiveness, showed effects favoring the comparison classes. These results led researchers to conclude that there were no consistent overall effects of the CDP program across these 12 experimental schools.

Because of the inadequate implementation in seven of the experimental schools, researchers separated the data from the five schools in which implementation was judged to be adequate. Results in these five schools showed consistently positive, statistically significant effects in favor of the experimental program.

Positive effects were found for the sense of school as a caring community, intrinsic prosocial motivation, concern for others, conflict resolution skills, democratic values, altruistic behavior, and liking for school. There were no significant differences in trust in and respect for teachers, enjoyment of helping others learn, engagement in class or prosocial behavior in class.

Studying the relationship between the variables offers evidence that a sense of school community is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes. The sense of belonging to a community with shared values appears to be a critical mediating factor in program effects.

The Child Development Project is a comprehensive and complex program. It was difficult to achieve consistent or adequate implementation in a variety of
schools. When schools did show adequate implementation, their students benefited and showed significant gains in prosocial and ethical attitudes and behavior.

Creating a strong sense of community in a school seemed to be the key factor in bringing about positive outcomes. However, it is important to note that even in a relatively long-term study (four years), less than half the schools were able to achieve adequate implementation. The problem for program developers is how to make implementation easier and more effective.

“Enhancing Students’ Social and Ethical Development in Schools: An Intervention Program and Its Effects” International Journal of Educational Research, Volume 27, Number 7, July 1998, pp. 571-587.

Published in ERN September 1998 Volume 11 Number 6

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