Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development offers a framework to help your students reflect upon and evaluate their own behavior and motivations.

Kohlberg's stages of moral developmentTeachers work really hard to manage their students’ behavior and create a respectful, constructive classroom environment. Survey any group of new teachers, and you will likely find that classroom management is their greatest concern as they enter this noble profession. Most teachers are proactive and establish a code of conduct for their class before the first day of school and review it with their students often at the beginning of the year. Some teachers dig deeper and actually have the students help to create the classroom rules so they develop a sense of ownership over their conduct. Few teachers, however, discuss the psychology of human behavior with their students to help them understand what motivates us and drives us in our daily lives. There isn’t much time to discuss psychology in most classrooms, but sharing Kohlberg’s stages of moral development with your students will prove to be time well spent as students begin to take responsibility for their own behavior and strive to reach the higher levels.

The Six Stages of Development

Harvard professor and psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed his theory after presenting a group of white middle school boys a moral dilemma in 1958. Based on their responses, he crafted the following six stages to track how children develop morally.

Stage 1: Punishment

Stage 2: Self-Interest

Stage 3: Good intentions

Stage 4: Obedience to Authority

Stage 5: Social Contract

Stage 6: Individual Principle of Conscience

Kohlberg’s stages of moral development can be grouped in pairs. Pre-conventional morality contains the stages of punishment and self-interest. Conventional morality is the second level and includes good intentions and obedience to authority. Finally, the third level, post-conventional morality, includes the fifth and sixth stages: social contract and individual principle of conscience. Each stage tracks the individual’s motivation behind taking action.

Children begin by thinking primarily of themselves – from avoiding trouble to pleasing themselves to seeking approval from others – to hopefully moving toward consideration of others and social awareness.

6 Stages in the Classroom

Rafe Esquith, renowned elementary school teacher, believes in the importance of applying Kohlberg’s stages of moral development in the classroom. In a video on the topic, he said he begins by asking his students, “Why do you do what you do?” For most students, the answer is to stay out of trouble, which means they’re at stage one. For Esquith, pizza parties and similar bribes are fine, but don’t encourage student to have sustainable motivation.  He thinks getting to level five – doing things to be considerate of others – is “fantastic.” Level six, though, is the goal:

“Now the highest level of thinking is level six. I have a personal code of behavior I follow. I’m nice because I am. I work hard because I do. And all through the year with literature and film and real life, I show my class examples of level six thinking….Young teachers, this is a long journey. It’s going to take them a lifetime to get to level six. I’m just providing them a framework to start examining.”

Achieve Level Six Thinking

While pushing students to move forward in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development take time, try some of these ideas to incorporate the six stages in your classroom.

Talk about it.

Have a conversation with your students on the first day of school and explain each stage. Make your students aware of your expectations of them in this area and stay consistent throughout the year on how you will treat them.

Remove fear and bribes.

Kohlberg's stages of moral developmentTry removing bribes from your teaching. While it might be easy to promise a movie day or threaten your students with consequences for bad behavior, begin removing this type of language from your teaching. Expect your students to do well because they want to do well, not because of what they will receive in return. Intrinsic motivation takes time, but staying consistent with your expectations will begin to re-mold the way your students think.

Connect it to real life.

Present your students with real-life dilemmas to determine what level of thinking they currently use. One blog post on Education Week suggests using examples in history like the holocaust to examine motivation and morality. Have students reflect on their own response and evaluate what level they think it shows. Repeat this exercise at various times throughout the year so students can see growth and track their progress.


For more innovative classroom methods, check out our free lesson plans.

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