Classroom Management & Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

I read Rafe Esquith’s There Are No Shortcuts and, after getting over my feelings of crushing inadequacy, came away compelled with the need to teach character in my classroom. Rafe uses Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development to help children self-identify their current behavioral standards and then seek to grow from that point.

This blew my mind. We differentiate for things like reading levels, learning differences, and the ability to speak English – why not differentiate for students’ level of moral development? I began teaching these stages to my students through content lessons (ex. read historical sources and identify the level of Kohlbergs for each author) and posting them in my class along with the question “Are you moving up?”

This was so helpful for having discipline discussions with students: “So what level were you operating on when you foraged your parents signature on this grade report?” Below are the more student-friendly stage names I used in my classroom (in descending, rather than ascending order like the chart above):

I found it helpful to actually go through my lists of students after about the third or fourth week of school and identify where I though each student was operating. This was really helpful in knowing how to respond to students in terms of motivating them not only to behave but to do their homework, participate and achieve all-around in my classroom. A student who is operating at the Premoral Level (punishments and rewards) is simply not going to be compelled by my Don’t-You-Just-LOVE-History-And-Isn’t-It-Fascinating-And-Great tactics. I need to provide them with various, tangible incentives and, when those don’t work, consequences because that is what they need. It is what is appropriate for them at that moment.

The chart below describes a persons view of others as well as perspective on society at each level:

A word of caution: it is not enough to simply diagnose students’ moral development levels but we also need to help them grow. Key ways to do this are to help students self-identify, to frequently provide them with examples (historical, living and fictional) of people operating at various levels, and to show them the benefits of operating at higher levels (both personally and to our communities). Try bringing the language of Kohlberg in to your classroom and see how your students begin to conceptualize and think holistically about their behavior.

Anyone else use Kohlberg’s Level and have tips for helping students grow?


2 thoughts on “Classroom Management & Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

  1. Courtney says:

    I love this so much! I have my students rate themselves on a character rubric based on our class values a few times last year to see how they grew and I think it was helpful for them — this really goes deeper though I think, I definitely want to incorporate it into what I do!

  2. Cam says:

    I use this theory in my classroom, and it’s been working fantastaic! The link below gives you a freebie of all of the stages so you can print it and hang it up in your room!


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