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  • Writer's pictureErin Mckenzie

Honesty & 3 Tricks for Building Character in the Classroom

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

How Do You Teach Honesty Anyways? Building Character by setting an Honesty Trend in your classroom

When I first started as a School Counselor, It seemed to me a strange thing to “teach” character traits in the classroom. Building character seems like a great thing for students to learn, but...

How do you teach honesty anyways?

I’m a mom and it was something I worked on with my own children consistently, but to work on it with students I only see 30 minutes per week or less seemed challenging. You can only threaten to "check the video" (my go-to line as a mom) so many times in school.

Meanwhile, in my office…

I didn't bite her!
Teachers saw you bite her.
I didn't bite her!
She has toothmarks on her arm.
It was Jason!
She has YOUR toothmarks on her arm.
It was Jason pretending to be me!

Is this just the normal and expected phase of development OR do we have a true LLPOF (liar, liar, pants on fire) on our hands?

While dishonesty is a normal and healthy stage of development it’s still important to teach honesty as a character trait so that they can successfully outgrow it and learn from it.


Ever dated that person you knew was lying cause their lips were movin? That’s why we need to teach honesty in the classroom, the lunchroom, the bathroom, the hallways, recess, the bus and in our offices.

Okay how? Let's apply the miracle question and see what happens...

If I believed it were possible to teach my students to value honesty as much as I do, what would have to be true?

1. They would have to believe it was they would need to truly understand what "honesty" means.

So what is honesty and when is it okay to lie? To young children, honesty means telling the truth. As we grow, we learn it’s not so black and white, it’s so much more. It’s being true to your values, it’s being authentic and showing integrity in your actions.

That’s a freakin’ mouthful for the classroom. Zzzzzz. Nope can’t tell ‘em all that. Let’s try to show them.

PRAISE HONESTY. Every. Single. Time. No matter how small. Pointing out honesty consistently and with repetition, will help them understand the concept.

In my Google Slides lesson Character Traits: Honesty praise is actually built into the lesson.

Here’s an easy way to start. We all have those kids in the classroom who often do the right thing. Might actually be hard to catch them doing something wrong. Maybe they’re talking when you’re talking one time. So you say…

"Sammy…were you talking?" Of course Sammy says “Yes Ma’am” and you say “Awww you’re awesome! That takes courage for telling the truth. Thanks Sammy!”

It doesn't HAVE to be a "Sammy" but it can be any student who owns up to ANYTHING. Just make sure to be prepared for what happens next. It’s like throwing a dog a bone…with 16 other dogs drooling over it. They will ALL want to share their dirty little secrets just to get your praise.

Stay strong! Even if it gets out of hand…praise the honesty every single time.

So, when is it okay to lie? This is a tricky business to teach little ones because they are so black & white. There's a bit of a gray area here. Are you honest 100% of the time? Are you a Santa supporter? So you know what I mean.

The best way to handle this in the classroom is to simply ask students:

Do you think it's EVER okay to lie?

They'll probably say "NOOOOOO!", secretly hoping for your praise.

Then have a little fun. If you can get another teacher in the room to play along that would be amazing. It might look like this:

"I'm just gonna be honest Mrs. M, no offense but it looks like you didn't comb your hair today. Also, I'm not sure that color looks good on you.

You might see some jaws drop or some students falling on the floor with uncontained laughter. Then you can ask...

Is it sometimes okay to keep the truth your mind? Can you imagine what would happen if you didn't???

Then brainstorm other times it might be OK to either lie or keep some of the truth to yourself. Some examples might be about good manners and some might be about personal safety and they could include:

  • When you receive a gift that you really don't like

  • When you're having dinner at a friends house and the chicken is just too dry

  • When a stranger asks you if you're at home all by yourself (this opens a new conversation)

You get the picture. It's important that students don't take this honesty trait and run with it to the point that they're using poor manners or putting themselves in unsafe situations.

2. They would need to be engaged in the lesson so that they would feel like they were getting something out of it.

To be engaged, students need to contribute and actually be a part of the lesson. This would mean that they would need to feel safe sharing with their classmates and teacher. They would also need to be able to give themselves grace for sometimes making mistakes. They would need to know that even their teachers aren’t perfect but are always striving to be better.

In my classroom guidance lesson on honesty, students are each given a chance to be a leader and they are all participating in the lesson by sharing stories. Also, I participate in the lesson! Have I ever snuck a cookie??? Heck Yah! Although I might not say it quite in that might be more like...

Yeah, I used to sneak cookies. I didn't feel good about it later when my mom was looking for one of the amazing chocolate chip cookies she made. I was scared to tell the truth, but when I did, she actually seemed very happy that I did. Sometimes it's hard to tell the truth, but it definitely made it easier for my mom to trust me.

When teachers disclose information like that, students respond! They see that you are authentic and real with them. It helps create a safe, judgment free culture.

3. They would need to be recognized and feel proud for making choices that require honesty, even the easy ones.

We might often tell our own children "As long as you're honest about what you did, I will not be angry". That's a great statement to make, as long as it's true. If you say that and can back it up no matter what, honesty will not be a problem with your children or with your students.

I mentioned this in #1 and I'm not afraid to say it again...any honesty needs to be praised and verbally rewarded. When I mentioned this is #1, the purpose is so that students will help understand the concept. Not only will acknowledging the honesty help them understand it, but it will also lead to feelings of pride and the behavior is more likely to be repeated.

Often a teacher might feel frustrated that a student lied to him or her and take it personally, so when they finally tell the truth, the honesty is not rewarded but punished. This could also be happening at home with their parents. A student might know that if they tell the truth, they will be punished. This means you might have to wrangle the truth out of them...even so, praise it when it comes. Surrender to the fact that they held onto the false story and instead of correcting, focus on connecting. This will create a relationship based on safety and trust.

Connection over Correction...if you are able to focus on the connection with students, the correction is often not needed. Praise, praise, praise...even the smallest of truths.

To do you teach honesty in a classroom setting?

  1. Make sure they understand what honesty means

  2. Make the lesson fun so that students are engaged and WANT to contribute (also make sure you participate and overshare (I mean share) about your mistakes of the past)

  3. Praise all honesty in your classroom, no matter how small

Snag my Google Slides lesson Character Traits: Honesty on Teachers Pay Teachers if you need a no-prep lesson!


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