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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.

Lay Off, Mom

The main reason kids cheat as they get older, experts say, is pressure to get top marks. This pressure comes from both parents (“You won’t get into a good high school or college if you get C’s!”) and teachers (“We have a very important test coming up for our school!”).

“I’ve had kids who get money or some other reward from their parents for having really good grades,” says Teresa Burke, a third-grade teacher in Blacksburg, VA, and a mom of two. Such emphasis can give students the idea that getting an A—rather than earning one—is what matters. So why not cheat?

“There’s such a natural tendency for parents to say, ‘Let me see your work’ and look at the grade,” Anderman says. “My number one advice for them is, instead of saying ‘How did you do on the spelling test?’ ask ‘What did you learn?’ Or ‘What new really cool math thing did you do in class this week?” If your child does poorly on an assignment, stress your concern about whether she’s learning what she needs to know—not whether she got a C-minus. Assure her that everyone makes mistakes and that you just expect her to try her hardest. To further show kids that knowledge is the important thing, relate school lessons to the real world as much as you can, educators suggest. When you see a “25% Off” sign at a clothing store, for instance, ask your child, “How many dollars could we save on this shirt?”

Be a follower...

...of the rules, that is. If you want your kids to believe that cheating is wrong, think twice before you park in that handicapped space without a permit or order from the 10-and-under menu for your 11-year-old. And be sure to point out your honest behavior to them and connect it to being honest at school (“I could save time by parking in that space, but it wouldn’t be fair to people who really need it—just like it wouldn’t be fair to your classmates if you saved time by copying their homework”). “We send our children messages by our own behaviors, and children take in a lot more than we even realize, consciously and unconsciously,” says Gary Niels, a Pittsburgh headmaster who has studied cheating while on a fellowship at Columbia University’s Teacher's College.

Kids may be influenced by other people’s dishonesty, too—from classmates to people in the news—so be on the lookout for “teachable moments” outside your family. “Ask your child, ‘Who wants to end up like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire?’” says Lickona, recalling both ballplayers’ scandals over steroid use. “‘These guys were brought to shame and have no reason to hold their heads up anymore. Bernie Madoff not only hurt thousands of people [through his Ponzi scheme] but brought great disgrace to his family.’”

Keep it honest

Research suggests that school honor codes—which discourage cheating and other poor behaviors—work best when students have a hand in creating and enforcing them. By the same token, Lickona says, letting your kids help write and maintain a family honor code could be a great way to curb cheating. (Sample language: “In our family, we don’t lie, cheat, or steal; we take responsibility for our actions; we do our best in everything.”) Another helpful tool is Lickona’s “Ethics-in-Action Quiz”, which gives kids questions to mull over when they’re deciding whether something they want to do is unethical. Among the questions: “Would I want someone to do this to me?” “Does this go against what my conscience tells me is right?” “Would I want this made public through Facebook, YouTube, texting, etc., and seen by my teachers, parents, employers, or future spouse?”

If your child admits to cheating or is caught doing so, let her know how disappointed you are—but also encourage her to tell you why she resorted to it so you can work together to find a better way. Does your child feel strapped for time because of after-school activities? Insist she drop one or two—at least for now. Is she having trouble understanding material in class? Perhaps you can explain it or find a teacher or tutor who can. Is she feeling pressured by other kids to let them copy her work? Explain that this would be like helping them steal something—and coach her in ways to respond. The bottom line when it comes to curbing cheating, Anderman says, is never to leave kids feeling helpless. “Make them feel you’re their partner.”

When Parents Cheat

Sure, it’s important to sit down with your kids over their homework and get them excited about learning. But teachers can always tell if you go over the line. Among the practices that drive them crazy:

  • Masterminding your kids’ projects
  • Completing their homework, instead of helping them understand it
  • Fudging their reading logs
  • Typing their homework for them (unless they have physical disabilities)
  • Dictating answers to them

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