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Mister Rogers Showed Me How to Teach Civics (Opinion)

As an educator and a parent, it feels like I field a hundred questions from my children and students some days. Often, these questions are ones I can easily answer or we can investigate together. But other questions stop me in my tracks, reminding me that children are keenly aware of the emotions and conversations of the adults around them.

Our youngest learners have deep questions about honesty, emotions, and the behaviors of adults: “Why do people get treated differently because of their skin color?” “Why do grown-ups lie?” “Why can’t I get to see my grandma anymore?” “Who are you voting for to be president?”

When faced with these challenging questions, I turn to the teachings of beloved television host Fred Rogers.

Despite my initial desire to change the subject, I remind myself of Mister Rogers’ wisdom: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” His gentle demeanor and emphasis on emotional literacy have equipped generations with the tools to navigate loss, conflict, and the complexities of human relationships. These lessons made us better neighbors, community members, and citizens.

Fifty-six years after the first episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” aired, the show’s messages of kindness, love, and acceptance remain as relevant as ever. Mister Rogers knew children must repeatedly be told they are good and worthy of love. He realized that children must be allowed to experience all their feelings and be taught safe and healthy ways to manage them.

Just as we teach foundational academic skills at an early age, children need to be taught about accepting differences, navigating challenging situations, and accepting failure without giving up. We wouldn’t wait until middle school to help a child learn to read or do simple addition and we cannot wait until there is an issue with bullying, intolerance, or insensitivity to help our children become kind, socially aware, and responsible citizens.

Should we have our 1st graders debating the merits of political candidates? Certainly not. But we can equip them with skills like feeling and showing respect and empathy toward others, making responsible decisions, and managing their emotions. As Mister Rogers said, “Childhood lies at the very heart of who we are and who we become.”

Learning about civics can begin in kindergarten with the simple understanding that everyone is part of a community and that every single person, for better or for worse, has a role in shaping that community. The goal of civics education is to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to be responsible citizens who contribute positively to their communities and the broader society.

This goal can be achieved in many ways, including through schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports programming that creates a sense of identity and belonging based on shared norms, values, and school culture. When properly executed, these programs promote positive behavior and enhance social-emotional skills.

I have seen the power of PBIS in my own school. We spend time teaching the students how to value self-control, thoughtfulness, accountability, and respect in all parts of our school, from the hallway to the classroom to the bus. Since we began this program several years ago, I have seen an increase in the overall positivity of our school culture, as well as improved engagement, behavior, and participation from our students. These values are now so ingrained in our school identity that students will remind each other about demonstrating expected behaviors.

Developing a classroom democracy is another excellent way to teach students about voting, decisionmaking, and respecting differing opinions.

There are several simple ways to begin to sow the seeds of democracy in the elementary classroom, such as assigning classroom jobs. This demonstrates to the students how everyone must do their part to make sure the classroom functions properly. As the students get older, they can apply for jobs in the classroom or the school. The applicants could ultimately give speeches, and the process could end with elections.

Student voice is another important element of a classroom democracy. Allowing students to help shape classroom rules and procedures demonstrates that their thoughts are important. It also creates a sense of ownership and, again, supports the power of a group of people working toward a common goal.

Other activities that promote civic engagement at the elementary level include community service projects like organizing food drives or performing for older people.

In my school district, we host an annual 143 Day of Kindness, which references Mister Roger’s code for “I love you”: 1-4-3. During this one-day celebration of kindness, our community honors Mister Rogers’ legacy by coming together to foster a culture of compassion. In partnership with Remake Learning—a network of educators, local businesses, and libraries in the greater Pittsburgh region—we bring hundreds of children and families together to engage in activities like painting kindness rocks and making music together.

In addition, the event brings together community partners, from Cub Scout troops to first responders, to promote Mister Rogers’ advice that children “look for the helpers” when processing scary news. Since its launch in 2022, the event has had such a positive impact on our school district that it has inspired other districts to create similar programs.

While these ideas provide a wonderful entry point, civics education should be more than just activities implemented by some teachers, some of the time. As we enter into the summer break, I urge educators and parents alike to reflect on ways to cultivate civic-mindedness in the next generation.

In an era marked by political polarization and social upheaval, civics education is more important than ever. We must take meaningful action by incorporating civics education into the curriculum and sowing the seeds of a more compassionate and inclusive world for future generations.

After all, this is what Mister Rogers would have wanted us to do.

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