George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Boy at his locker outside hallway

As we seek to prepare young people with skills for career success, Warren Buffett reminds us what makes great employees:

In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you.

We live in an age where "the end justifies the means" has become the mantra of far too many adults who are role models for children. Nowhere have the circumstances and fallout been more disheartening than in the recent Atlanta school cheating scandal. Admittedly, the underlying issues that lead to dishonesty are often complex and multidimensional. People rationalize their actions with seemingly valid reasons. But as Buffett suggests, a lack of integrity comes with a high price tag.

How do children learn to be honest, respect societal norms, and act in ways consistent with the values, beliefs, and moral principles they claim to hold? How do teachers instill and reinforce a code of ethics in their classrooms when evidence suggests that high-stakes testing fosters a culture of dishonesty? These are tough questions.

The Basis of Social Harmony and Action

Children are not born with integrity or the behaviors we associate with it, like honesty, honor, respect, authenticity, social responsibility, and the courage to stand up for what they believe is right. It is derived through a process of cultural socialization -- influences from all spheres of a child's life. In their school environments, students acquire these values and behaviors from adult role models and peers, and in particular, through an understanding of the principles of academic integrity. When students learn integrity in classroom settings, it helps them apply similar principles to other aspects of their lives.

Most K-12 educators recognize that the students they teach today will become the leaders of tomorrow. Academic curriculum is constantly updated to meet the increasing demands of a changing knowledge society. Yet we pay far less attention to the habits that build ethical leaders -- habits that develop during childhood and adolescence. A recent study noted that 40 percent of U.S. faculty members have ignored cases of cheating in their courses, an indication that teachers don't want to rock the boat or deal with angry parents. Research compiled by the Educational Testing Service suggests troubling issues related to the development of K-12 student integrity, including:

  • In past decades, it was the struggling student who was more likely to cheat. Today, more above-average students are cheating as pressure mounts to be accepted to competitive colleges.
  • Students who cheat feel justified in their behavior and unfairly disadvantaged if they approach their studies with integrity.
  • Cheating begins in elementary school where children learn to bend rules to win competitive games against classmates. Young children believe cheating is wrong, but could be acceptable under certain circumstances.
  • Middle school students feel increased pressure to be dishonest because there is more emphasis on grades.
  • Cheating peaks in high school when 75 percent of students admit to some sort of academic misconduct.

Integrity is part of the Compass Advantage (a model designed for engaging families, schools, and communities in the principles of positive youth development) because integrity is the basis of social harmony and action. Despite societal forces that test integrity, children deserve a world that values truth, honesty, and justice. Linked by research to self-awareness, sociability, and the five other abilities on the compass, integrity is one of the 8 pathways to every student's success.

The Compass Advantage: Integrity, Resourcefulness, Creativity, Empathy, Curiosity, Sociability, Resilience, and Self-Awareness

5 Ways to Increase Student Integrity

1. Infuse integrity into the classroom culture.

Teachers make integrity the norm in their classrooms in several important ways. They clearly articulate expectations about academic integrity and the consequences of cheating. But they go beyond the issue of cheating to create a culture that rewards success beyond grades. If students have only grades to measure themselves, then cheating is often a justifiable strategy to beat the system. If students are also rewarded for their courage, hard work, determination, and respect for classmates, they see and understand that the process of learning comes first. This kind of culture fosters integrity.

2. Develop a moral vocabulary.

According to the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI), the five fundamental values of academic integrity are:

  • Responsibility
  • Respect
  • Fairness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Honesty

Incorporate the teaching of these five values into the curriculum and help students use the vocabulary to discuss a variety of historical topics and current events. While dishonesty and disrespect flourish in civil society, ask students to find examples of how individuals stood up for their beliefs and values in ways that made a difference for themselves or for the world.

3. Respond appropriately when cheating occurs.

While teachers cannot control student behavior, they can respond with consistency when enforcing school and classroom policies. In a classroom culture that places learning first, dishonest behavior is a teachable moment. To help internalize learning, ensure that students reflect on and glean meaning from their behavior. Listen and show respect for their thinking, and then restate your expectations that dishonesty is never acceptable in your classroom.

4. Use quotes to ignite meaningful conversations.

Famous quotes can be used as conversation starters, prompting students to reflect on topics related to integrity, moral development, and other attitudes that help them develop positive work habits and respectful relationships. Elementary school teacher Steve Reifman uses a "quote of the day" as a positive morning exercise in his third and fourth grade classes. In his book Changing Kids' Lives One Quote at a Time, Reifman provides helpful facilitation tips and prompts for teachers to engage students in reflective conversations.

Quotes can be used with students at almost any age. For older students, they are often used as starters for journal or essay-writing projects. See a superb collection of quotes related to the five values of academic integrity (PDF) written by students at American University in Dubai. Also view famous quotes on the same five values, compiled by the ICAI.

5. Help students believe in themselves.

Students who stand up for principles in which they believe have high degrees of self-efficacy. In my study of students who developed integrity and a desire to become civically engaged, young people reported that their teachers helped them believe in themselves through their:

  • Passion for teaching and giving back to the next generation
  • Modeling a clear set of values and acting in ways that supported those values
  • Commitment to giving freely of their time and talents
  • Selflessness and acceptance of people different from themselves
  • Ability to overcome obstacles and show students that success is possible

When young people learn to believe in themselves, dishonesty and disrespect no longer make much sense. Living with integrity becomes a way of life.

How have you developed a culture of integrity in your classroom?

Was this useful? (2)
The Internal Compass
8 Principles of Positive Youth Development and How to Apply Them

Comments (8) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (8) Sign in or register to comment

K Denico's picture

I believe it is very important for our children to be taught integrity. I try to teach integrity throughout the school year. I wish my school would have character education built into the curriculum. Also teacher in service days could be spent learning how to teach character education. If more schools taught character education, then immoral behavior in school children would decrease.

teacher@heart's picture

It was refreshing to read your blog, because I have witnessed the devastating effects of children coming into your classroom without integrity. To see that I am not the only teacher who has seen this in their classroom is reassuring that it's not just me. On the occasions that I have caught my students cheating on tests or stealing from classmates or even stealing classroom material, I have made it very clear that I disapprove of what they are doing and they are punished accordingly. However, the tips you have here for teaching about integrity will be helpful. The first tip that you have about uplifting students for more than just academic scores, made me reevaluate whether I am guilty of doing that. So much pressure is placed on teachers to ensure that students pass benchmarks, that I tend to be very data driven. I need to check whether I am praising students for their good character, which is just as important. Who wants a society full of people who only care about words and calculations? As teachers we have to not only reach their brains, but the core of our students. Will our students be kind, honest, and caring human beings? I want to be able to answer yes to that question. Thanks for sharing.

davidoff's picture
Graphic Design Teacher

This is wonderful! I may learn a lot from this post. It's really helpful to find out effective ways to increase student integrity.

Nicole's picture

I truly appreciate this post. Increasing integrity in the classroom is pertinent to the development of strong moral character. I love the integrity compass model. I would like to display that in my classroom.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture
Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD
Developmental Psychologist, Researcher, Writer

Thanks, Nicole. I've had a lot of teachers ask for the compass model to display in their classrooms and am working on making this available. If you go to my website at and add your name to the newsletter list, you'll be the first to hear when it is available.

Nikki's picture

Thank you for this post! Teaching 5th grade students is challenging when they are on the cusp of the teenage years and are torn between wanting to be 'cool' and wanting to still please their teacher. I try to teach integrity whenever I possibly can. I think it is important to help students develop as young adults and I feel it is my duty as a teacher to instill morals and integrity into their development. I love the integrity compass model! I think this would be great to share with students and parents at the beginning of the year and set goals for each point.

Rebeca Palacios García de la Rosa's picture

First of all, many thanks for your post. And yes, I firmly believe that it is possible to educate in integrity at school. I work with adolescences with social problems for more than 17 years and my experience shows that if we teach social abilites, the Teachers act like models and we also teach to our pupils' families, our pupils will improve their personal and social abilites. Thank you.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.