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Keep Kids from Cheating in School

Jon Whittle

You’re a typical fourth-grader. You’ve got soccer three afternoons this week, two birthday parties, piano, chess club, recycling club, and making-stuff-from-duct- tape club. On top of all that, you’re supposed to write a big report about tornadoes—and you know Mom and Dad will freak if you bring home a bad grade. Would you be tempted to save time with a little cutting and pasting from the web?

If you're like plenty of students, you would. It’s a perfect storm out there for cheating: jam-packed after-school schedules, high expectations from parents and teachers, and technology just waiting to help kids make an end run around the rules. Studies show that by the time they graduate from high school, 80 to 85 percent of kids have cheated at least once, says Eric M. Anderman, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University in Columbus.

From kindergarten through about second grade, cheating remains old-school, teachers say: copying a classmate’s homework, peeking over someone’s shoulder during a spelling test. By third grade, kids might add Internet plagiarism to their repertoires. Middleschoolers—and, to a greater extent, high-schoolers—have invented sneaky tricks their parents never dreamed of. Kids might text each other answers during an exam, share electronic files, or even snap secret cell-phone pictures of a test for pals who haven’t taken it yet.

The best way to keep your child from joining in? Start now—in the elementary years before cheating becomes truly widespread. “You want to get good behavioral habits established while moral reasoning is developing and deepening,” says Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., author of Raising Good Children and Character Matters—How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues. “There’s research to suggest that even young children are more sophisticated and morally observant than we might give them credit for.” In other words: It’s the perfect time to turn CHEAT into TEACH.

Help Them Get It

Younger children often don’t understand why cheating makes grown-ups upset. “It’s not devious when they cheat,” says Carrie Saffady, who has taught first and second grades in Brooklyn, NY. “It’s almost like they don’t know that they shouldn’t do it.” Older kids realize cheating is wrong but may not think that some practices--copying classmates' homework, for instance--"count" as cheating.. Either way, you need to make it clear to your kid that passing off someone else’s words or ideas as his own is never acceptable.

“Use all the reasons you can think of,” Lickona says— and tell them to your child often. For instance, you might say, Everyone knows that cheating is synonymous with stealing and lying, but do you realize how unfair it is to those who don’t do it, or how it will affect your relationships with friends, teachers, parents? Ask your child how she’d feel if she’d worked really hard on a paper and another kid got the same grade by cheating. Above all, Lickona advises, tell your child that cheating breaches and damages trust—his teacher’s, his classmates’, and yours. “The most powerful deterrent for kids is feeling that they’ve violated a relationship,” he says.

Explain, too, that a cheater also hurts himself. When you cheat, you don’t learn. Since lessons build on each other, cheating now means you won’t understand later material, either. And, of course, if you're caught, you might receive a zero on paper, say, or have to answer to the principal.