Moral and Ethical Development of Children

Topic: Developmental Psychology
Words: 1534 Pages: 6

Introduction to Moral Development

Kohlberg’s Theory

Moral and ethical development is a highly significant part of children’s growth, especially during the period from birth through adolescence. Knowledge of moral development’s critical elements is essential for teachers to implement in the classroom for the purposes of effective education. It is one of the teachers’ responsibilities to ensure that children develop appropriately at all levels, including their moral behavior. This paper explores children’s birth-through-adolescence ethical and moral development based on the corresponding theory of Lawrence Kohlberg, who is widely considered the essential theorist within the corresponding field of education. Therefore, the primary goal of this paper is to provide a summary of the theory’s implications, followed by an explanation of how moral development influences childhood. The paper contains a general overview of Kohlberg’s theory, information on children’s moral development stages, and examples of programs oriented toward resolving common behavioral issues.

Key Terms Related to Moral Development

As a phenomenon, moral development is grounded on several key terms that define the results of the developmental process. The first term is moral reasoning, which stands for the ability to apply one’s morality to their way of thinking and evaluate own and others’ words, actions, and behavior from the moral viewpoint. According to Cherry (2021), moral reasoning is the primary developmental aspect leading to the establishment of moral behavior. It is, in turn, the ability to apply moral reasoning to one’s actions, implement morality into the decision-making process, and act according to the established moral and ethical principles. Moral behavior can further develop into prosocial behavior, which is associated with the intention or desire to bring benefit to other people or the entire society. Finally, emotional attribution determines what emotional response one can receive from their consciousness if they take action in accordance with or against their moral reasoning. In many respects, these four core principles of more development are strongly correlated, which is why they develop simultaneously during childhood.

Kohlberg’s Theory: General Overview

Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist of the 20th century, and he created a major theory on moral development based on several study subjects who had to give their decisions and reasoning for it in a series of moral dilemmas. For example, one of Kohlberg’s scenarios was called “Heinz steals the drug,” which related to a husband of a dying wife who broke into a pharmacy to save her by stealing a drug that he could not afford to buy. After interviewing multiple study subjects, Kohlberg made several significant conclusions. Firstly, the psychologist suggested that the process of moral development occurs on three different levels, divided into six consistent stages. The theory argues that not everyone can progress to the last developmental stage, meaning that moral development does not always finish: some people reach a particular stage and remain at it. Secondly, Kohlberg was able to conclude that the principles of justice are the primary influencing mechanisms that form people’s morality and guide the developmental process. In other words, children learn to justify their own and others’ actions and build their morality according to that justification.

Stages of Moral Development

The first level: Preconventional Morality

The first level of moral development – pre-conventional morality – approximately lasts until the age of 9. This level involves two primary factors that affect and shape children’s decisions: adults’ expectations and actions’ consequences, especially related to breaking the rules. The first stage at this level is obedience and punishment, which implies that young children see rules as a fixed, absolute phenomenon (Cherry, 2021). Children believe that they have to obey the rules as they do not want to be punished, meaning that they do not yet understand why the rules exist and their purpose. The second stage is individualism and exchange, which implies that children examine individual viewpoints, judging actions based on how they contribute to serving individual needs (Cherry, 2021). However, children at this stage can only analyze their own needs as they do not have an understanding of other people’s interests.

The second level: Conventional morality

The second level of moral development in Kohlberg’s theory is conventional morality: children start to accept social rules, internalizing the moral standards learned from society and their role models. The first stage of this level and the third stage of moral development relate to developing positive interpersonal relationships (Cherry, 2021). At the previous level, children learned to follow their parents’ expectations, and now they learn to follow social expectations and their roles in society. The next stage refers to maintaining social order: children begin to make judgments viewing society not as many individual members but as a whole (Cherry, 2021). This stage implies the recognition of law and order, laws, duties, and the necessity to respect authority. These stages are highly significant in the moral development process as children learn to live as a part of society, realizing that they should consider other people’s interests when making decisions and taking actions.

The third level: Postconventional morality

The final level of moral development is post-conventional morality, which is associated with understanding morality’s abstract principles. The first stage at this level and the fifth stage in the overall process refer to the social contract and individual rights (Cherry, 2021). People begin to consider others’ values, beliefs and opinions, paying attention to the fact that they may differ from their own mindsets. Rules are necessary, but they can only be effective if the members of the same society must agree upon those rules. Finally, the last stage of moral development is correlated with universal principles (Cherry, 2021). People learn to recognize absolute principles of justice and place them above laws and rules. In other words, people will not obey a particular rule and may even break it if it contradicts their vision of universal justice.

The Most Influential Stage of Moral Development

The most influential stage during childhood is the third stage at the conventional morality level – developing positive interpersonal relationships – as children begin to view themselves as a part of society. Although they cannot perceive and recognize the difference in people’s values, beliefs, and opinions, they start putting effort into becoming equal members of society. This stage is essential as it determines the child’s ability to communicate with people and identify their interests, which is highly important for further stages of moral development and the overall process. During this stage, children can seek their peers’ approval to be accepted in the community, adjust to specific rules, and agree with a majority of people even if their own opinion is different.

Implications of Kohlberg’s Theory

Teachers can implicate Kohlberg’s theory in the classroom to help children develop morally and ethically. For example, K-3 teachers can explain rules to their students, why they are important, and why adults often punish children for disobeying them. It is essential to teach children not to obey the rules blindly but to understand them. K-3 teachers can utilize various interactions occurring in the classroom between children to demonstrate that each of them has their individual interests, and others should learn to keep that in mind constantly.

Supporting Students

It is common for pre-K-3 children to struggle with moral and ethical behaviors or choices, which is why teachers’ duty is to support them, help them find a path to follow, and guide them through it. First of all, a teacher must help students listen to their own feelings as, otherwise, young children will not be able to understand how their actions affect other people. Then, a teacher must provide an appropriate moral example since children need a role model to follow. For example, a teacher should always be frank with children to teach them the importance of telling the truth.

Programs for Common Behavioral Issues

The First Program: Protective Factors

Moral development is not always a stable process, meaning that not all children can quickly identify a morally appropriate way to behave, which may lead to various behavioral issues such as bullying. Many researched programs address such issues; for example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) experts suggest the active implementation of protective factors at schools (Hallas, 2018). Those factors include characteristics and conditions of the environment that have the potential to reduce the adverse effects of stressful life events.

The Second Program: Recognition of Signs

Furthermore, experts suggest that it is crucial to monitor children and recognize signs of behavior that can be viewed as immoral. According to Hallas (2018), those signs include skipping lessons, academic struggles, anxiety, and similar health problems. The corresponding program for schools implies the active involvement of school psychologists and social workers to determine why children engage in bullying or prevent bullying from ever occurring.


Moral development is a highly significant part of the process of a person’s growth. That process begins in early childhood, meaning that parents and teachers have to put much effort into helping children and adolescents to develop morally, showing them the right path, and teaching them fundamental moral principles. Children with all the necessary support and assistance from adults have a high chance of embracing the conventional moral code, which is essential for any person who wishes to be accepted as a member of human society.


Cherry, K. (2021). Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Verywellmind.

Hallas, D. (Ed.). (2018). Behavioral pediatric healthcare for nurse practitioners: A growth and developmental approach to intercepting abnormal behaviors. Springer.

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