Search form

Reading, Writing...
And Moral Intelligence


Disturbed by what she sees as a growing indifference to right and wrong among young people, educational consultant and author Michele Borba writes and lectures about the need to teach youngsters the seven virtues of "moral intelligence." A few minutes of daily re-enforcement, Borba says, can help build children's moral skills. Included: Strategies for teaching essential virtues to children.

Michele Borba, author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thingy
Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educator, consultant, lecturer, and author, has presented workshops to more than half a million people worldwide. A former classroom teacher and partner in a private practice for troubled youths, Borba is a recipient of the National Educator Award and the author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing.

Education World: What prompted you to write your book?

Dr. Michele Borba: As a teacher and an educational consultant, I've worked with hundreds of troubled kids for more than two decades. I'm concerned with the marked increase I see in kids' aggression and cruelty. In my research into violent and anti-social youth, I found that many kids lack moral intelligence traits, especially empathy and self-control, and that the consequences can be tragic.

Most aggressive or violent kids know that their horrific deeds are wrong, but they can't feel for their victims or stop their cruel actions -- too often because they never learned critical moral behaviors that would have helped them do the right thing. That's what moral intelligence provides.

I wrote Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing to provide adults with practical ways to build kids' moral capacities; to help them act right, treat others with respect, and turn away from risky behaviors and violence. Moral intelligence protects our kids' lives.

EW: What is the most important way teachers can help children develop moral intelligence?

Dr. Borba: The reality is that schools may well be the last bastions of hope for many of our students. Where else will they have a chance to understand the value of the seven essential virtues of moral intelligence: empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance, and fairness? Where else will they have the opportunity to watch someone model the habits and skills of these virtues? Where else will many of our students be able to learn the core traits that form their reputations as human beings ... traits they will need to succeed in every area of their lives?

The simple but profound truth is this: Who, but a caring, committed teacher, can give today's students the chance to expand their moral potential? The power of educators is extraordinary. Teachers can make a difference in our children's lives because the seven essential virtues that build moral intelligence are learned -- and that means teachers can teach them. There are dozens of opportunities throughout the day for teachers to weave these ideas into their existing content. Deliberately teaching the seven virtues is the best assurance we have that our kids will lead decent, moral lives.

EW: What concern is most frequently raised by audience members who hear you speak?

Dr. Borba: I suppose the biggest concern is "How can I possibly find the time, with everything else I'm doing, to teach moral intelligence?" Time constraints always are a real concern, especially in a society that exists on such a treadmill. So here's what I suggest to parents and teachers: Take any strategy in the book (and there are literally dozens to choose from, including bully-proofing, standing up to pressure, calming down, fighting fair, solving problems, compromising, and so on), and reinforce the same skill for one to five minutes a day for three weeks. That's the way students learn best.

The techniques in Building Moral Intelligence were field-tested for a year with 1,040 elementary students at three "at-risk" schools. The staff chose one moral habit a month and addressed that moral habit for a minute a day for 21 days. New behaviors take a minimum of 21days of repetition to learn. In fact, one of the things we may be doing wrong is trying to teach our kids too much, too fast; presented with too many strategies or too much content, kids may never learn a new habit.

The 21-day concept, however, works. Wright State University analyzed the results of that study and found a marked improvement in students' moral behaviors. The activities resulted in a 39 percent reduction in student physical and verbal aggression, and 93 percent of teachers said their students were more courteous, kind, respectful, and cooperative. The activities are proven, simple to use, and if they are consistently taught, will make a difference to our kids' moral lives. We don't have a moment to waste!

EW: Do you think there is a "crisis of character" among children today?

Dr. Borba: There are a number of troubling signs that all is not well with our children's moral intelligence. The United States has the highest youth homicide rate among the 26 wealthiest nations in the world; peer cruelty is steadily increasing; alcohol and drug use is expanding, even among younger kids. In two decades, the number of children diagnosed with hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder has risen 700 percent. In the last four decades, adolescent suicide has increased 400 percent and depression has risen 1,000 percent. There's a growing disrespect for authority figures, a rise in incivility, an increase in vulgarity, and widespread dishonesty and cheating. Kids are clearly troubled, and one big reason is that we've neglected to build their moral intelligence.

EW: Why is it apparently more difficult to raise children with moral intelligence these days?

Dr. Borba: I think the moral atmosphere in which today's kids are being raised is toxic to moral intelligence for two major reasons. First, a number of critical social factors that nurture moral character are slowly disintegrating: adult supervision, models of moral behavior, spiritual or religious training, meaningful adult relationships, personalized schools, clear national values, community support, stability, and adequate parenting. Second, our kids are being steadily bombarded with outside messages that go against the very values we are trying to instill.

Both factors contribute greatly to our kids' moral demise, as well as to their loss of innocence. Our challenge is even tougher because those incessant toxic messages come from sources our kids have easy access to. Television, movies, video games, popular music, and advertising are among the worst moral offenders; they flaunt cynicism, disrespect, materialism, casual sex, vulgarity, and the glorification of violence. The amount of bad stuff -- pornography, stalkers, Satanism, pedophiles, and hate sites -- in cyberspace is staggering. Even the best filters can't screen them all. Of course, the popular media isn't the only toxic influence. Anyone or anything that counters a family's moral convictions, including other kids, adults, even the evening news, is a potential threat.

The truth is that toxic influences are so entrenched in our culture that shielding our kids from them is almost impossible. Even if we could bar them from our homes, outside, they lurk at every corner. That's why it's crucial for us to build our kids' moral intelligence: so they have a deeply developed sense of right and wrong and can use it to stand up to outside influences. Moral intelligence is the muscle kids need to counter negative pressures and act right -- with or without our guidance.

This e-interview with Michele Borba is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.