When 10-year-old Jason was starting fifth grade, his mother sat down with him to talk about cheating and was surprised--and concerned--by what she heard. "He told me about a friend who tried to ace a test by writing the answers on his hands with a highlighter," says the mom from Raleigh, North Carolina. "Jason thought it was very funny." If her son took the subject of cheating so lightly, she wondered, would he be more likely to cheat if the opportunity arose?
To the parent of a preteen, that's more than an idle question. Research indicates that academic cheating is on the rise--and not just among older students. "Some cheating goes on in elementary school," says Mark Hyatt, president of the Duke University Center for Academic Integrity. "But the middle-school years are the real turning point. That's when the stakes get ratcheted up."
Many parents assume only struggling students will be tempted to break the rules, but experts say that's not the case. "There's a lot of emphasis on getting good grades, from teachers as well as parents," says Don McCabe, Ph.D., an education researcher at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, in New Jersey. "So it's often the highest-achieving students who are under the greatest pressure to cut corners." What's more, starting around fifth grade, the course load intensifies, providing an even stronger incentive to come up with shortcuts.
Peer pressure is another motivating force. "Kids this age are easily lured into doing something wrong if they think everyone else is doing it and they think it's the cool thing to do," says Gene Bedley, author of Character Lessons for Life. And not just in school: Our society often seems to value getting ahead over ethics. "We've had so many breaches of integrity--in popular culture, in athletics, among political leaders and CEOs," says Hyatt. That fact isn't lost on media-savvy 9- to 12-year-olds.
But if this is an age when students are more tempted to start cheating, it's also an ideal time for parents to discourage unethical behavior in the classroom. Here are some simple steps you can take to head off cheating before it starts.
Talk it out
If you haven't done so already, sit down and discuss cheating--what it is and why it's wrong--with your child. Although most kids know they shouldn't plagiarize a paper or copy another student's answers on a test, many are less certain about gray areas like sharing answers with friends via the Internet or during a study session or having an older sibling help with a project. Don't wait until you've got a crisis on your hands to bring up the subject. Hyatt suggests finding a newspaper article that details a breach of ethics and using it to kick off a discussion with your child.
Reduce the pressure
Of course, you shouldn't lower your standards completely. After all, it's important that your child knows that you expect her to succeed in school. But you can shift your focus from grades to actual learning. "It's important to praise kids for their best effort, for being good listeners, for learning from their mistakes--not just for getting an A," says Buffy Smith, Ph.D., school psychologist at New York City's Bank Street School for Children.
Teach long-term planning
When students don't have enough time to complete assignments, the temptation to cheat is stronger. Help your child schedule long-term projects so all the work isn't left until the last minute. In addition, regularly check in with your child during the school year to see whether he needs help organizing his time and to gauge if he's keeping up with his assignments.
Practice what you preach
If you take ethical shortcuts--fighting a parking ticket you actually deserved or lying about your child's age to save money at the movies--he'll pick up the message that it's okay to cheat. "Ethical behavior is contagious," says Hyatt. "Kids learn it from the adults in their lives: teachers, coaches, and--most important--parents."