Teaching Kids the Importance of Responsibility

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Teaching Kids the Importance of ResponsibilityThe third core value in our special character development series is the virtue of responsibility. Responsible students do what they’re supposed to do and accept the consequences—both positive and negative—of their choices. One way to help guide students toward strong decision making is talking about stakeholders—anyone who might have a stake in the outcome of students’ decisions. So I ask students this simple question: Who will care? Try asking your students these questions and see where the discussion goes.

  • Who will care if you don’t let your dog in at night?
  • Who will care if you accept a ride from a driver who has been drinking alcohol?
  • Who will care if you choose never to recycle anything?
  • Who will care if you don’t do your homework?
  • Who will care if you don’t pick up after yourself at home? In the classroom?
  • Who will care if you promise to give a friend a ride to Skate Night and you forget?

An engaging activity to try is “What’s At Stake?” Give your students a simple scenario and ask them to stand after they think of someone who might be a stakeholder in the decision. For example: Who are the stakeholders if you show up late to pitch a baseball game? Expect students’ answers to include the catcher, backup pitcher, teammates, umpire, coaches, parents, fans, other team, concession manager, and so forth.

Once students see this visual representation of how many people have a stake in their decisions, they start to understand the importance of thinking things through and not making decisions haphazardly. One of my all-time favorite memories is the day a second-grader approached me with urgency saying, “Mrs. Gruener, you have got to hear this story and you will not believe how many stakeholders it involves.” Touchdown!

To help our students make informed and responsible choices, we use a four-step decision-making model: Stop to give yourself time to think. Look at all your options. Think about the consequences of each option. Decide what’s best for the most people involved.

Chores are also an important part of being responsible. The best way for children to get better at taking responsibility for their actions is by giving them responsibilities and then getting out of their way. At home, chores are daily tasks that need to be done like folding laundry, setting the table, or making a bed. At school, chores can be helping with classroom management or simply completing homework and projects. Consider these reflection questions with your students:

  • Which chores/jobs are your students willing to do?
  • How will your students keep track of chores/jobs?
  • How often should chores/jobs be done?
  • What are some rewards for doing the chores/jobs?
  • What are some consequences for not completing the chores/jobs?

I’ve heard it said that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Make a “Chore Chain” to test that adage. Have students write down one or more of their chores on a skinny strip of paper and staple those strips together, end to end, to create the links for the chain. Ask students to imagine how strong this class chain is when everybody shows responsibility by giving their best effort and doing what they’re supposed to do. Pair up students to talk about how this ideal makes their classroom work better. Then tear out one of the middle links from the chain and read it aloud: Uh oh, looks like Jimmy forgot to feed his hamster. As the two halves of the chain fall to the ground, encourage students to reflect on how the strength of the chain was compromised when one of the chores was forgotten.

Break the chain a few more times to represent other forgotten chores, then have students brainstorm ways to help each other remember to take their responsibilities seriously and get their chores done. Finally, institute class jobs so students can practice taking responsibility. Here are some suggestions for jobs that students generally love to do: serve as a cafeteria monitor, be a peer tutor, be a line leader, be the caboose, be a watt watcher and turn off the lights in an empty room, help with recycling, be the paparazzi and take pictures, be the technology engineer, shadow the custodian, read to a younger student, be in charge of recess equipment, feed the class pet, water classroom plants, be the messenger, choose the story, read to another class.

Pursuing excellence is another facet of responsibility. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” Ask students what they think Lombardi meant by this. What would it look like, sound like, feel like to pursue perfection? Catching excellence would be the upside. What could be a downside? Then, talk about keeping a growth mindset, adapting well, staying open to mistakes, and giving our personal best without needing to be the best. Share Penelope Perfect by Shannon Anderson or The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires to reinforce the idea that there is no such thing as perfection and process trumps product every time.

The ultimate goal of the virtue of responsibility is to raise young people who show self-control, self-discipline, self-management, and self-regulation. Paul Solarz, a fifth-grade teacher and the author of Learn Like a Pirate, hosts what I consider to be the ultimate test of responsibility at the end of every year: Quiet Day. This is a day set aside for students to take total ownership of their learning because their teacher has to be quiet. All day long. This ownership also includes feelings management, a must for Quiet Day to be a success, so make sure to carve out time to talk, write, and draw about emotions daily to develop and increase students’ emotional literacy. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Solarz’s class last year via Skype, and those young leaders were rocking responsibility. What a gift it is for Mr. Solarz to experience the fruits of his labor as he watches his students’ responsibility take wing and fly.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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