How to Apply Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development in Early Childhood

Everybody hopes their children will grow up to be people with integrity and high moral standards. Hope alone will not instill morality, however, so parents and people who work with young children can turn to the moral development theories of scholars such as Lawrence Kohlberg -- who developed the six stages of moral development -- and teachers who have devised ways to help children develop according to these stages.

Using Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development with Young Children

Understand Kohlberg's work. Kohlberg believed there were three levels and six stages of moral development. The first, the Preconventional Level, is the level at which young children operate. Morality is seen as outside the self, a set of rules imposed upon children by adults. Stage 1 is Obedience and Punishment Orientation. This stage is extremely rule-oriented; anything that leads to punishment from the grownups is seen as inherently bad, and anything the grownups reward is automatically good. Stage 2 is Individualism and Exchange. The rules are no longer seen as a one-size-fits-all application, and children understand different people can have different viewpoints of right and wrong. The standard is self-interest. What is best for the individual is what's right. The child also begins to recognize the need for mutual benefit; they are beginning to see morality in terms of treating others well so they will treat you well. According to "Early Childhood News," young children are generally in the preconventional stage of morality. The goal, however, is to encourage children to reach for the next level. Level 2, Conventional Morality, consists of Stage 3, Good Interpersonal Relationships, and Stage 4, Maintaining the Social Order. In Stage 3, people value unselfishness and empathy; in Stage 4, they are concerned with behaving in a way that helps society run smoothly.

Teach morality through discussion and stories. "Early Childhood News" offered several ideas. It recommends talking to children when a moral infraction has been committed, asking them to think of how it affected other people and how to make amends. It also suggests allowing children to experience moral conflicts during free play and giving them practice in working democratically to solve the conflicts. Another recommendation is to let the children help make some rules, instructing them to think of what's best for the group. This lays the groundwork for Stage 4 morality. Many stories open the door for discussion about morality, including "The Little Red Hen," "The Cat in the Hat" and "The Little Engine That Could."

Teach children morality using games and activities. Mauritis University offers ideas for games to promote moral development. One requires a board with a red check mark at the top of one column and a green mark at the top of another and a set of cards depicting good actions, such as placing garbage in a container, and bad actions, like throwing it on the ground. Children take turns choosing a card and putting it in the correct column, explaining the reasons for their choice. Parents help children stretch to the next level by pointing out picking up garbage helps keep the community clean for everyone.

Activities that build empathy help children move into Stage 3 thinking. Caring for a plant or a pet, visiting elderly people in a nursing home and making cards for sick friends or family members offer opportunities to teach children to think of the needs of others.


Praise moral behavior, such as being kind and putting the needs of others first. Encourage role-playing and games of pretend so children can learn to think from other people's point of view.