Bringing Out Every Child’s Inner Goodness

The Virtues Project:

Bringing Out Every Child’s Inner Goodness 

by Linda Kavelin Popov

Linda Kavelin Popov is co-founder of The Virtues Project (source), author of The Virtues Project Educators’ Guide and co-author of The Family Virtues Guide.        Email:

When I was a young mother raising my two boys in rural South Carolina, I was shocked and saddened to find my children coming home with values which did not fit our family’s beliefs.  I remember when my 1st-grader, Craig, came home using racist words and making generalizations about people of color.    When I questioned him, he spoke about “catching cooties” and other phrases he had heard.   We had long talks about seeing with your own eyes and thinking with your own mind.   I didn’t hear anything more about the dangers of associating with others whose skin was a different color.

As a parent, my job of teaching respect, tolerance, and unity was made harder because these virtues were not being addressed at school.  I was also distressed by the fact that my older son was constantly overwhelmed by the noise and confusion of the “open classroom” experiment, a methodology which was launched without much understanding of the changes it required. There were no boundaries in the classroom. When I observed his class, children were running and shouting, my son among them.    The noise was deafening. My heart went out to the children and the teacher. 

The next day, I made an appointment with the principal.   He said, “I know this open classroom thing isn’t working,  but what can I do?”      I said, “Would you let me help in a small way?

” “How?” he asked. He knew that I was a psychotherapist, working with children and families.

I asked,    “What is your hardest class, the one with the most disciplinary problems?” He named the 1stgrade class.      

 I went to see the 1st-grade teacher, who had already broken into a sweat by 11 a.m.       The children were restless. One little girl continually flung herself at the teacher, who kept saying,

“Kimmy, stop it.” I said, “I’d like to help you out a couple of times a week.  Give me the five kids

who are hardest to handle.    I’ll take them out for a couple of hours twice a week.”

She almost cried.   She pointed them out, including Kimmy. A couple of days later, I arrived with drawing paper and crayons, a box of raisins, and an idea. The teacher called out the names of the five children, and they gathered apprehensively around me.  I knelt down and said, “I’m going to take you to a very special place. You have been chosen by your teacher to come with me.”    They walked, hopped, and meandered behind me to a tiny supply room in which I  had created a circle of child-sized chairs.

“Please sit down,” I said. I did a quick scan of their characteristics. Leroy, whose eyes whirled involuntarily,  appeared to have some neurological impairment. Johnny was so hyperactive, he was literally attempting to climb the wall behind his chair. Kimmy’s clothes were shabby, her hair unkempt, and her body movements agitated.  I wondered about possible abuse or neglect. Raymond was slow and obese. Timmy looked very angry.   I sat on the floor before their little circle and said, “We’re going to learn together about three very special things which everyone has inside.  They are respect, patience, and self discipline.”

I looked only at the four who were paying attention.  I ignored Johnny, who was standing on his chair.   He suddenly turned around to see if I was watching him. I said, “See how Johnny is looking at me right now and paying attention?   That’s the kind of respect I’m talking about.” Johnny looked dumbfounded and plopped down into a sitting position.   I said, “This class will be a special time just for us, and when you learn these things—respect, patience, and self discipline—   then you can teach them to the rest of your class.”

Each week, I made words of raisins and popcorn. When the children were able to master the words, their reward was to “eat my words.” They laughed and munched. We focused on

simple life skills to help them practice the three virtues. They learned that when the teacher asked for quiet, they were to “stop like a statue.” They loved playing statues and understood that it was a way to show respect  by following directions.   They learned that if they wanted

to respond in class, instead of jumping on the teacher or shouting, they were to put one hand over their mouth and the other in the air. This was a way of showing self-discipline.

While the others drew, Kimmy practiced “the magic circle of respect.”.  Previously, she had no sense of physical boundaries and would jump on people like a monkey. I showed her the invisible circle of personal space which was a way of showing respect for herself and others. When she was able to go for an entire session without jumping on me or the other children, I would hold her in my arms for a long hug.   Johnny received special acknowledgments for his self-discipline when he made the effort to pay attention.  Raymond showed enthusiasm and

excellence in recognizing words. They all began to read within a few weeks. I received reports from the teacher that when these children were back in the classroom, they showed

“miraculous” changes.

At the end of the term, with their drawings on respect,   patience, and self-discipline in hand, the children paraded proudly into class. “We are your teachers for today,”

Raymond announced. “We will teach you respect,” said Johnny, grinning from ear to ear. “We will teach you patience,”   said Kimmy. Leroy and Timmy then demonstrated the left hand up and right hand over mouth technique. We played Respect Statues with the whole class. My kids beamed with pride as the other children applauded wildly.   Based on that simple method of virtues development, the school instituted a program called  “ABC: Aiding Behavioral Change.”

Other volunteers came forward to keep it going. This early experience was the seed for The Virtues Project,  which my husband, my brother, and I founded sixteen years later, in 1991.

It has since become a program spanning the globe, spreading the philosophy of drawing out the virtues—the best qualities within our children.

Five Simple Strategies

The secret of The Virtues

Project’s success is creating a culture of character that brings out every student’s inner goodness. We teach teachers and parents five simple strategies for doing this:

Strategy 1: Speak the Language of Virtues.

Language shapes character. The words we use have great power to discourage or inspire. Replacing blaming and shaming words with virtues language changes the climate of a classroom or a home. Telling students what we do want, not what we don’t want, and using virtues language to acknowledge and correct, make children aware of the best within them. “That was a kind thing to do.” “What would have happened if you had used your kindness?” (See box for the virtues we teach.)

Strategy 2:  Recognize Teachable Moments.

Recognizing teachable moments means capitalizing on everyday events as opportunities to develop the virtues.    When normally aggressive children behave peacefully, that is a teachable moment in which to acknowledge their peacefulness.  “You were very peaceful during recess, Malcolm.”   This increases their awareness that they are growing stronger in a challenging virtue. When the same child “forgets” about peacefulness and acts aggressively, that is another teachable moment. “How can you get your friend’s attention peacefully?”

Teachers and aides working with special needs students,  even those who are severely intellectually challenged,  find that these students are very responsive to virtues language. “Sally, you really persevered in putting your sweater on today. It was hard, but you did it!” If Sally throws down the sweater in frustration, the teacher can say, “Sally, putting on that sweater is hard, isn’t it?   How can you practice perseverance?”    Academic instruction provides many teachable moments.    Even very young children can identify the virtues in a story if the teacher asks, for example, “What virtues did Peter Rabbit show?” “Which virtues does Peter need to work on?”

Strategy 3:

Create Clear Boundaries and Practice Restorative Justice.

Clear boundaries create a climate of peace and safety.   Rules should be based on the behaviors you see and on the behaviors you want to see. In order to elicit the virtues,

rules should be stated positively (“Walk in the halls”), rather than negatively (“No running”).

Consequences should be educational—restorative rather than retributive. In retributive justice, the adult is a detective, asking, What was the crime? Who did it? How should they be punished? In restorative justice, the adult is a mentor, asking:

  1.  What happened?
  2.  Who was hurt (including the perpetrator)?
  3.  What do they need?
  4.  What amends can be made?


High school counselor Ray Tufts of the Renton Alternative School in Washington, begins restorative justice by saying, “I want to hear what happened from your point of view.” Then he looks up at the virtues poster (box, p. 2)  and says, “What virtue could you have used to handle that situation better?” (“I guess I forgot peacefulness.”) Then he encourages the student to practice that virtue (“Let’s see how peaceful you can be the rest of the day”). Finally, he

asks the student how he could make restitution (“What do you need to do to make it right with John? What do you need from him?”).

Strategy 4: Honor the Spirit.

Honoring the spirit means respecting the dignity of every person and making time for reflection, reverence, and appreciation of beauty. We can honor the spirit by looking for and celebrating even a glimmer of goodness in a child.    We should also celebrate adults’ progress in the virtues. In its front hall, one middle school implementing The Virtues Project displayed photos of teachers with descriptions of their “growth virtues” (e.g., I am growing in patience. I

take a breath and choose to use tactful language”).





Strategy 5: Offer Spiritual Companioning.

Spiritual companioning means being deeply present and listening with compassion. It is a powerful process for healing grief, anger, and trauma. A Native American student once

described spiritual companioning as “walking alongside.”    Boys especially are more open when we walk with them shoulder to shoulder. Spiritual companioning also includes

listening without judgment to a child’s side of the story. Once we have listened, “what” is the magic word. “What did you feel when you picked up that rock?” “What would have helped you call on your self-discipline in that moment?”

Virtues lie within every child. It is our task, as teachers and parents, to draw them out.


Article is taken from the website of

 The Center for the 4th & 5th R’s,  Cortland, University of New York

Vol 14 Issue 1.   Winter 2008