Are young kids developmentally ready to operate on Level D?


As a first grade teacher, I totally agree with DWS being the best way to go.  However, I have some concerns about the developmental readiness of young children to operate on the level of Democracy on the Hierarchy.  I seem to recall from my Ed. Psych. class that this level of behavior was ‘normally’ expected around the teenage years––if at all.


I’ve heard this concern raised before and although I haven’t taken psychology courses for many years now, I’m happy to give an opinion based purely on personal experience in the classroom. I teach Grade One too!

Firstly, I feel it’s important to review the definition of what it means to be operating on Level D.  I want to be sure we’re working from the same understanding.

A person operating on Level D is someone who does the right thing (or kind thing, or generous thing, or caring thing, or expected thing or responsible thing  etc. etc. etc.,) simply because he sees it as the right thing to do.  The main point is that a person on Level D is operating from internal motivation.  A person operating on Level D does the “right thing” regardless of the presence of an authority figure.   On Level D, people don’t look to someone else to suggest that they do the right thing, they aren’t concerned about impressing or pleasing another person, and they aren’t worried about avoiding the disapproval of another person.

Secondly, I want to make it clear that the Hierarchy is a self-assessment tool for judging individual actions.  Therefore, when I want to assign a level to something I have done in my own life, I’m evaluating one event at a time.  I’m not thinking about a whole day, or an entire morning, or one hour, or even five minutes of my life.  I’m just thinking about each action taken separately, on its own merit.  Each time people make a choice or a decision, or take an action, they are choosing from one particular level of operation.

So, from this frame of reference, I now think about my class.  Do they ever operate on Level D?  Are they even capable of doing that?  My observations over the years tell me that absolutely they are able to operate on Level D, even though they are only six years old.  Notice this isn’t the same as asking, “Did I ever meet a child who operated on Level D every minute of their life?”   The answer to that question would be “No.”  It would be like asking, “Did I ever meet an adult who operated on Level D every minute of their life?”   So far I haven’t met one who even came close!

My experience tells me that Grade One kids act on Level D many, many times a day.  Even my most difficult student operates on Level D at some points throughout each day.

When I think back over today, I can quickly give you lots of examples of kids in my class operating from internal motivation:

I saw Christopher, one of my special needs kids, give a hug to another boy who was crying.  The boy had hurt himself by falling.  Christopher saw someone who needed a reassuring hug and he simply gave it.  He didn’t look to see if I noticed.  He didn’t wait for a suggestion before he gave a hug.  He just knew a hug would help and so he kindly gave it.  That’s Level D.

I saw Derek, who has the job of handing out the “math stickers” this week (at calendar time,) bring the container of math stickers to his desk when we came back inside after recess.  He knew that the math stickers would be needed soon and he wanted to be ready and responsible.  I didn’t suggest it or remind him.  He simply took it upon himself to be ready.  That’s taking responsibility––Level D.

After recess, I noticed that Richie came right back in, sat down at his desk and started correcting some math errors from previous lessons in his math notebook.  Everyone else in the class was chatting and waiting for me to get the math lesson underway.  Richie, on the other hand, chose to get started on something that he knew he would be expected to do later in the day.  He was motivated to get those corrections out of the way.  When he saw a spare moment he chose to get started.  He didn’t wait for me to remind him or suggest that he use his time wisely.  Doing the expected thing simply because you know that it is expected of you is operating at Level D.

I had Lena ask me if she could take a classroom reader home tonight so that she could do some extra reading practice.  She’s pleased with herself these days because she has discovered that if she reads and rereads many books over and over, she has great control over how quickly she can make progress through the reading levels.   She’s internally motivated to put in extra effort in order to become a better reader––that’s Level D.

At snack time, Brent had some gummy bears.  Out of the goodness of his heart he offered some to his desk partner ––Level D.   He wasn’t responding to a request from his friend. No adult had suggested he share; it was his idea.  He simply and happily offered some treats to a friend.

We’re studying bees at the moment and the kids are fascinated by them.  Today at lunch time, five kids decided to capture bees so that they could observe them more closely!   They wanted to see if the stinger really remains hidden until the bee is ready to sting!  (Yikes!)  Although it wasn’t a very safe idea, they were showing initiative in their own learning.  Taking initiative is Level D.

I’m sure if you think about the children in your own class, you can remember dozens of similar situations in which children were operating on a very high level––they were internally motivated to do the right (or kind, or generous or responsible etc.) thing.  Although these examples may not fit the moral developmental milestones discussed in a typical psychology course, they do represent Level D on the DWS Hierarchy.  Hope this helps to clarify your thinking on the subject!