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Teaching Students to Honor The Elderly

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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In a culture that emphasizes youth, and where too many children do not spend enough time with grandparents, it is important in the coming year to include honoring the elderly as one of your teaching objectives. This need not be difficult, and it can fit into ongoing curriculum and instruction in a variety of ways.

The three essential components are to get students to think about the elderly, create interaction with the elderly, and then foster reflection about the experience.

Getting Them Started

Children in fourth grade and under benefit from seeing pictures of older adults involved in various activities as a starting point. As for the photos, ask students what they are doing, ask who they know who looks like this and does things like this, and ask them what is special about older people. In fifth grade and up, it can be effective to start with words such as "senior citizen," "grandparent," "older adult," and "elderly." Have students in groups generate lists of words in association with these words, and share them. Ideally, post them for all to see.

Next Steps

You can probably envision a number of next steps from just this start. The goal is to challenge stereotypes about older adults and to help students understand their importance. While it would be another form of stereotyping to encourage students to think that all seniors are wise, it will not hurt to introduce them to this possibility, and other positive ones. You might have students read books about senior citizens and/or grandparents. You might have them look up information about aging as part of a science or health class. Biographies of leaders, inventors, composers, writers, and others who were productive and prominent into their senior years can be used.

Creating an Interaction

Even young students can be helped to interview senior members of their families, and these can be designed with increasing complexity. Having older students work together to develop lists of questions that they share can be a powerful learning experience. Also, ask senior citizens to come into the classroom and preparatory assignments and questions can be appropriately generated. Many communities have retired seniors who can talk about their careers; many houses of worship have networks of seniors who can talk about history they have experienced. And many assisted living and senior housing facilities would be very pleased to engage some of their residents with schools and students, either at the school site or at their sites.

Depending on the subject area and one's learning goals, students can create a written product, a play, a video, an interview, a song, graphs and charts, a poster or other artistic portrayals. Ideally, these could be shared with other students, parents, community residents, etc. Be sure thank-you notes are written, where appropriate (not emailed!)


Following the direct encounter (and ideally, more than one), have students reflect on what they have learned from their preparation, their encounter, and their presentation. Use the occasion to help build their affective vocabulary. As before, the format of the reflection can be whatever would fit into your curriculum.

An unnamed source in the writings of the Apocrypha said, "Dishonor not the old; we shall be numbered among them." It's good advice. To that, I would add the old adage, Respect your elders -- and learn from them.

Photo credit: rockman13 via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Hee Won Han's picture

I think this is a very valid point. Students nowadays have to be more respectful of the elderly and I see nowadays many students being very rude to seniors. I believe that there are very many reasons for such behavior among students these days.

One of the the reasons will be the lack of time spent with elders and parent's easy going attitude in homes. In many families that put great importance on Filial Piety, parents are more strict in children's behavior. If the parents were more strict and spent more time, there might be less problems.

I think there needs to be many measures take n to solve this problem. one suggestion is as aforementioned is takinf filial piety for a solutions. What do you think are the most effective solution to this problem?

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

We live in a society where, if you watch carefully, kids on TV are often smarter than their goofy parents. And then we wonder why kids aren't as respectful to their parents anymore. Hello--We have set this brave new world up, not them.

When tweens walk in my door I always give then a rough time with humor and take no prisoners. Their parents often report back "My tween thinks you're the bomb!" and I always explain it doesn't take much to get five stars from a kid if you use this approach humorously in their face; "I am OLDER, I've been on the planet LONGER, and so I have more wisdom.Simple as that."

They eat it up. They are always amused and lean in. haha that's when it's time to plant some helpful information.

I firmly believe we need more "respectable" parents on TV and in movies, for a while at least. We need TV shows with WISE parents, not goofy parents to earn back some respect. Otherwise, forget it--we'll all be elderly enough soon and we know how that looks right now.

With mom getting botox and trying to stay young looking at any cost--what's the message? Old isn't interesting. But often nothing could be further than the truth. Older people have stories. LOTS of stories. Often very cool if anybody would just ask.

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