Defining Integrity

How do you define integrity? Would your definition include honesty? Morality? Fairness? Take a moment and really reflect on what integrity means to you.

Okay, now how do you define integrity for a young child? Would you use the same words and examples as in your reflection? Or would you need to come up with a different version?

As a young teacher and mom, I’m honestly not sure that I had ever pondered the definition of integrity, and it would have never entered my mind to discuss integrity with preschoolers. Have you noticed, though, that life tends to give you lessons you’re not always prepared for? Let me share with you a little story about the way I stumbled upon a definition of integrity. It is simple enough to use with a young child and profound enough to change the way I think about integrity to this day.

Defining Integrity

Walking past a classroom one spring day, I witnessed a lead teacher deep in conversation with her five-year-old students.

Upon turning her back to help a younger friend, the noise level had escalated quickly, and the typically normalized classroom became one of chaos within moments. Loud voices, running feet and disorder quickly took over the typically peaceful environment. Unable to work through the commotion, the teacher turned back to her older students, who, without a word, stopped their antics and looked at her with guilt-ridden faces.

She invited the children to gather around her, to speak with them about their actions. It was these words I overheard that stopped me as I walked by: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.” The words that she spoke stopped me in my tracks and resonate with me still.

Now, that teacher could have easily given a simple reminder, or re-engaged with her students to guide them into refocusing on their schoolwork. Instead, she chose to turn that moment into a teachable moment.

She saw the children looking for boundaries and realized she could help them become more aware. She could teach them to create their own limits on their behavior. They didn’t need her to tell them to stop or how to behave. The looks on their faces when she stopped their horseplay made it evident that they knew they could be making better choices. They needed her to teach them how to be more fully in charge of managing their choices going forward.

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.” A simple and all-encompassing definition. The children understood it. Once they understood the meaning behind integrity, they realized that they could make the decision to do the right thing for themselves! They didn’t need someone to give them an approving nod or a head-shake reminder to check their actions. Integrity became approachable, real, and internal. Going forward, it became easy for them (and me!) to define whether or not they maintained their integrity both in and out of the classroom.

Teaching Integrity

“...a child’s foundation should be built so strongly that he can continue to function with honor and with love even when those around him do not." Trevor Eissler

Maria Montessori believed that children are capable of understanding and using proper words, even if they were “big.” In a Montessori classroom, children as young as 2 1/2 learn the correct names of shapes like “hexagon,” “curvilinear triangle,” and “quatrefoil,” because their brains are ready to absorb this information. There is no reason to oversimplify language or concepts. Children rise to the challenge of learning the information that is given to them.

This ability to understand and use words also works with emotions and behaviors! A solid definition of integrity, along with the opportunity to observe others living by its values, improves the likelihood that the child will live a life of integrity themselves.

Once children have been given an understanding of what integrity is, it is important for them to see and hear integrity too. Perfection isn’t the goal here. In fact, there are endless alternative lessons in our imperfections. The goal is allowing children to see and hear how integrity can be manifested in ordinary, daily life.

There are two very easy ways to consistently immerse a child in integrity. Maria Montessori combined them and termed them “graces and courtesies.”

  • Speak with Integrity
  • Act with Integrity

Each of these (seemingly) simple ideas could very well become independent blog posts of their own, but for now, take them at face value with a handful of examples:

5 Ways to Speak with Integrity

  • Say, “please,” and “thank you.”
  • If someone cuts you off in the carpool lane, refrain from disrespectful discourse (even under your breath).
  • Speak up for the underdog.
  • Don’t verbally undermine a co-worker, even confidentially.
  • Ask, “how can I help?”

5 Ways to Act with Integrity

  • Hold the door open for others before you enter
  • Wave at a neighbor as you pass
  • Make your home a welcoming place for your children’s friends
  • Show up early (or at least on time)
  • Offer a helping hand


The ten examples above are simple, everyday ways we can show integrity, and the list of possibilities is endless. Not each one needs to be done every day, nor will you always feel successful in their completion.  The goal is to make a genuine attempt. Make your own lists of ideas that work for you and the children in your life, and try them out! The more integrity is practiced, the more it is internalized and the easier it becomes.

By practicing and intentionally talking about integrity with children, we are helping to guide their lives positively. From an early age, children are determining what their cultural and familial values are and they start experimenting with their own moral compasses. It is wise to take the time to explain why we believe individual situations to be right or wrong and help to point them in an honest direction from the beginning.

While adults are well on the path of defining who they are and what they believe in, children are just embarking on that same path. Each individual will ultimately make decisions about who they become, based on a lifetime of experiences. Imagine a world where everyone was filled with a little more integrity. Our world would be changed for the better person by person.

New Understanding

Before happening upon the conversation in that classroom, it had never entered my mind to define integrity for preschoolers. The definition I overheard is one that I have since used with many young children, but also with my own children, and as a reminder to keep myself in check.

A happenstance occurrence defined integrity for me. It also reminded me that it is important that we allow moral development to be a process for everyone—filled both with mistakes and simple victories. It is our job as caregivers to provide an optimal learning environment. We must also let the children make the ultimate discoveries for themselves. Then, when it comes time for us to turn our backs and leave them to choose their own way, imagine what an overwhelmingly incredible feeling we will experience when we catch them doing the right thing even though no one else is looking. 

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