By Judy Molland
"When all else fails … cheat," reads the promotional advertising for Slackers, a film that features college students. A well-known author admits copying several passages for her best-selling book. Corporate executives amass fortunes while their employees lose their retirement income. The news is full of examples suggesting that cheating does, in fact, help one find success.
Surprisingly, such examples of dishonesty in society at large appear to have little direct impact on school-age children. According to high school principal Cliff Moore, who conducted an informal survey of his students, not many kids perceive the outside world as a model. They may be receiving our culture's subtle messages, but they don't articulate them as influences on their own behavior.
Fifth-grade teacher Barbara Forster is even more emphatic: "My students don't make those connections to the bigger society beyond the classroom. Kids are very caught up in their own immediate world, and that's really all that exists for them."
So why do children cheat?
Experts agree that the reasons vary, depending on the age of the child. Younger children may look over another child's paper, but don't see this behavior as dishonest, explains Darrell Rud, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Rud sees such behavior emerging in first or second grade, when students are given increasing numbers of worksheets and the level of difficulty can cause them to feel overwhelmed. The intention is not to cheat, but to keep up.
Conscious cheating starts around the age of 8 or 9, when children can conceive that they are taking responsibility for a piece of work, according to Joe di Prisco, co-author of Right from Wrong: Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child. This coincides with the introduction of letter grades in many American schools, which may cause students to feel greater pressure to succeed.
As one fifth-grader put it, "your parents tell you not to cheat, and you know you shouldn't cheat, but you feel pressured because you also know that your parents feel that the grade is the most important thing."
As students move up through middle and high school, the pressure to succeed grows, coming not just from parents, but also from peers, from teachers and school administrators, and from the need to get into a good college. The general consensus after Moore's survey of his high school students was that "everybody does it at least once," and that made it OK.
Children may also cheat to help their buddies (by giving a paper to a friend who is going to be suspended from the football team, for example) or they may behave in dishonest ways because they believe the school doesn't care.
How Students Cheat
Just as the reasons for cheating vary, so do the methods. With younger children, cheating mostly takes the shape of copying another student's work. As kids get older and tests and homework build up, youngsters may be tempted to take shortcuts. Two students may agree to do half the assignment each and share their answers, for example.
When groups of students take the same test at different times, the group that has taken it first can tell the second group what to expect.
"Even though you know that you shouldn't listen, how do you ignore information that is being directly told to you?" says one fifth-grader.
This example underlines both the temptation to and the ease with which kids can share this kind of information.
Several middle- and high-school teachers we interviewed brought up the issue of writing. As Barbara Forster explains, children have to learn reporting and writing skills. Before her students begin a research project, Forster always talks with them about how to paraphrase an idea using their own words. In the lower grades, while young children are learning these skills, plagiarism may be inadvertent. In the upper grades, it is frequently intentional.
Internet plagiarism in particular appears to be a widespread and growing problem. High school teacher Christine Pelton recently found that 28 of her 118 sophomore students had stolen sections of their botany project off the Internet.
Educators around the country agree that technology has improved a student's ability to cheat. There are currently more than 20 so-called "cheat sites" on the Internet, where students can download an entire paper on their chosen topic.
In a 1999 study carried out by the Center for Academic Integrity in North Carolina, 75 percent of college students surveyed on 21 U.S. campuses admitted to some Internet cheating. Programmable calculators are another example of how technology is making cheating accessible to more students.
Teachers should respond swiftly and frankly to cheating, according to Karen E. Bohlin, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, and co-author of Building Character in Schools. "They should call a spade a spade," she emphasizes. "This is dishonest; this is taking someone else's work."
Teachers need to be more than "plagiarism police," she adds, they also need to discuss the importance of respecting other people's ideas, and help children aspire to honesty, taking pride in their own work, and experiencing the joys of learning.
When it is so easy to download a paper from the Internet, there has to be a compelling reason for students not to do these things. Educational experts agree that the real goal should be to help children develop the dispositions of mind and character that will stay with them for a lifetime, not just as practices for the classroom.
To help students understand what cheating is, elementary and middle schools often post specific lists: "You may call and ask a friend what the homework is, but you may not have a friend do that homework" or "Your parents can go with you to help buy materials for a project, or help you if there is something dangerous about the project, but your parents should not do the project."
In most schools, the consequences for cheating are fairly standard: the first time a student is caught cheating, he receives a zero on that assignment and must have a conference with the teacher. In addition, there is a referral to the administration resulting in a meeting with all the parties involved. For a second offense in the same school year, the penalties get much more serious - the student may be removed from the class, receive a grade of "F" or become ineligible for extracurricular activities.
If your child is caught cheating, you should consider yourself lucky, di Prisco says. "Now you have an opportunity to address the issue directly," he explains.
Rud agrees: "If your child is caught cheating, my first piece of advice is to be open-minded and go and hear both sides of the story. Once you do, you may indeed find clear evidence that your child was cheating."
Parents tend to be very embarrassed, and denial tends to be one of the first reactions, Rud explains.
Educational psychologists agree that it's important for parents to recognize that the world will not end if their child cheats, but that it does get more serious if cheating becomes a pattern. They urge parents to try to discover and address the root causes of their child's cheating.
Di Prisco notes that there are many reasons to cheat, but ultimately only one reason not to cheat: integrity. "It's a good starting point to acknowledge with your child that it's hard to have integrity and that people make mistakes," he says, adding that children need to have these limits made explicit for them.
"They know that cheating is wrong," di Prisco says. "Every healthy conversation around plagiarism and academic dishonesty is really about focusing on the kid's strengths. Kids want to do the right thing, but you need to connect the dots for them. Kids don't want to misrepresent themselves, so you need them to see that this is exactly what they are doing when they pass off someone else's work as their own."
Judy Molland is an education writer and frequent contributpr to Dominion Parenting Media. Her most recent book is Straight Talk about Schools Today. Listen to her Straight Talk About Schools podcasts.