Teaching Kids the Importance of Fairness

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 FairnessEarlier this year, we published a blog post on fairness to help our learners understand the difference between equity and equality. But that’s only part of the core value of fairness. According to the Josephson Institute of Ethics, fair people play by the rules, take turns, share, are open-minded, and listen to others. They don’t take advantage of others, and they don’t blame others carelessly.

Try these suggestions to teach and instill fairness in the children you work with.

Clapping Contest
For something to be fair, the criteria and any rules need to be set ahead of time and shared up-front. For example, if a teacher does not specify that she wants homework done in pencil, then it would be unfair of her to take off points for completing the work in pen. That’s why we set the rules before we play a game.

Try hosting a Clapping Contest, an easy-to-do fairness role-playing activity. Announce that you’re going to have a contest and ask for three contestants and two judges. The rest of your class or group will watch and make observations. Tell the contestants that they’re going to clap, one at a time, to see who can win the Clapping Contest. Tell the judges that their job is to assess the claps. Without any further instruction, ask contestant number one to clap for the judges. After the first contestant claps, ask judges to rate that clap on a scale of one to five. They might ask if they should each give a score or discuss and come to an agreement on one score, to which you can reply that it doesn’t really matter, whatever they want to do.

Next, go on to contestant number two. Before he claps, give some additional information that will help this student achieve a higher score. For example, research shows that if you clap with enthusiasm and use more than just your hands for a simple clap, then the round of applause is deemed more effective and will garner a higher score. Then ask contestant number two to clap for the judges. After the clap, tell the judges that they can now score on a ten-point scale. Have them assess the clap and assign a score.

Ignore any grumblings of “that’s not fair” and continue. Before contestant number three claps, make a point to get to know her personally. Ask her name and where she’s from and find something to connect with her about to put her at ease and build a bit of a relationship. Then, ask the judges if they would please model for her what exactly they’re looking for in a good clap. Have them clap for the third contestant prior to her turn. After the judges have modeled the clap they’re looking for, ask contestant number three to clap for them. They’ll then give a score. Expect it to be the highest score of the contest, crowning contestant number three the winner. If it’s not the highest score, you can add some points randomly to make contestant number three the winner.

This activity has many fairness issues at stake. Find out what contestants are thinking and how they’re feeling. Was the contest fair for any of them? Why or why not? Was it equally unfair for all three? How? Was the contest easy to judge? Why or why not? What, if anything, made the contest particularly unfair? Then find out what the rest of the group observed, what they thought, and what they felt.

These questions will generate an interesting discussion on setting the rules up-front, changing the grading criteria in the middle of the game, and giving some participants an unfair advantage by adding information and/or modeling for them. See where the discussion takes you, then ask the class to come up with appropriate rules that they would have set up-front if they were going to hold a legitimate—and fair—Clapping Contest.

Mixing It Up
Here’s an idea I stumbled on years ago and continue to use with great success. Using trail mix, snack-sized candy bars, granola bars, or raisins, try this interactive way to help kids understand why everyone involved in a game needs to follow the same set of rules.

Arrange students into groups of six. Before passing out the treats, give each student a slip of paper with instructions—their rules for playing this game. Tell students not to share their specific instructions with their group members. Each student’s slip will say something different. Use the following instructions:

Eat the treat.
Don’t eat the treat.
Eat the treat but discourage others from eating theirs.
Don’t eat the treat and discourage others from eating theirs.
Eat the treat and encourage others to eat theirs.
Don’t eat the treat but encourage others to eat theirs.

Students begin playing the game by reading and following their specific instructions. Give them a few minutes to play this out and watch what happens. After the laughter subsides, ask one representative from each group to tell what happened. Ask how fairness is compromised when each person gets a different set of rules or instructions for a game. Can the game be fair this way, or does everyone need to play by the same rules to make a game fair? Why or why not? How does it feel to have the treat but not be able to eat it? How does it feel to be eating the treat when people next to you can’t enjoy theirs? As a bonus, you can also discuss self-discipline and peer pressure using this activity.

Listening to Understand
Stephen Covey once said that being understood does for the heart what water does for the body. The critical components of fairness are listening to understand (rather than just to reply) and being open-minded. But what does active listening look like? How does it sound and feel? Model and teach how to really listen. To do that, we listen with our eyes as well as our ears, and we respond respectfully with a kind smile, an empathic nod, a compliment, a connection, or an inquiry. That lets others know we are truly listening to understand.

Keeping It Fair
If students get stuck trying to keep things fair, try flipping a coin or using rock-paper-scissors to help them decide. Need a movement break? Have some fun with whole-body rock-paper-scissors. Spread arms and legs out as far and wide as they’ll go for paper, get into a cannonball pose for rock, and position arms and legs to look like they’re cutting for scissors.

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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2 Responses to Teaching Kids the Importance of Fairness

  1. Tanya Kirschman says:

    Barbara, I always enjoy how you don’t just talk about WHY a character trait is important, you tell us HOW to teach it in so many ways!

    • Thank you, Tanya, for your kind feedback. I love the challenge of making these core values come alive in authentic ways so that students can understand, embrace, and live them as they journey down Character Road.

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