Spiritual Development - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Spiritual Development


Children’s spiritual development has rarely been a topic of study or investigation in the fields of child development and early childhood education in the United States. Given the increasing numbers of children from homes with diverse religious beliefs amid the strong resistance to public discussion of religious beliefs and values, many adults believe that questions of spirituality are better left to children’s families, religious leaders, and institutions (Banks and Banks, 2001). However, this omission from knowledge about child development limits practitioners’ ability to develop fully integrated interventions with children and families. Furthermore, the lack of study of children’s early experiences in religious and spiritual development may impact children’s comprehensive development.

Although there is a lack of consensus on issues pertaining to spiritual development, key distinctions can help frame the issues and help develop practical approaches to working with children and families.



People of various religious faiths share the belief that spiritual development is central for the positive development of the individual and of society. Spiritual development may contribute to a moral system that promotes charity, compassion, and justice. Spiritual development may also help individuals and groups of individuals adjust positively to life circumstances, as indicated by studies of adolescents that report positive correlations between spirituality and adolescent thriving indices such as school engagement and the possessing of what researchers refer to as a moral compass (Dowling et al., 2004).

Spiritual development may prove important for addressing global issues having to do with religious differences. Sociopolitical events around the globe are often fueled by religious differences. Meanwhile, increased immigration and changes in religious experiences in families over time have made nations, and sometimes inhabitants in the same home, increasingly diverse in terms of religious traditions and spiritual values. Statistics about the number of adherents to particular faith traditions are controversial due to the interests and capacity of any authorizing group to measure religious behavior, particularly given the multiple criteria for determining religious group membership. Eileen Linder, the editor of the 2000 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, suggests that comparing statistics is not the best way to understand our increased religious pluralism: “We now have a critical mass of people from different religious traditions. Whether we have the numbers or not... we need to learn ways to engage with them” (Pluralism Project, 2006).

Early childhood educators are challenged to become familiar with a wide variety of religious and spiritual traditions. Competence around diverse religions and diverse approaches to spirituality can equip educators to serve children and families in more comprehensive and adequate ways, and such competence may generate support for scholarship.


The Distinction between Faith and Belief

There are general and historical distinctions between faith and belief. Wilfred Cantwell Smith describes faith as neither rare nor automatic, but rather as a ubiquitously prodigious hallmark of being human; faith is “the human potentiality for being human” (Smith, 1998, p. 142). As such, faith is sufficiently broad to encompass any symbol system, be it religious or secular. Faith refers to the actual involvement and interaction with dogma, beliefs, and symbols, whereas belief refers only to tenets and dogmas. In this way the concept of belief is too narrow to encompass all that is spiritual.

When faith and belief are conflated, both are relegated to a lower level of existence characterized by a type of mysticism that is the product of some irrational feeling or exercise of the mind. Attention to human potential and social action shifts instead to private contemplations in the mind. The likelihood that a person’s faith manifests itself in action that transforms the world is, then, lessened considerably.

The distinction between faith and belief has important implications for whether and how they are topics of discussion in public spheres. When thinking about faith as belief, educators may be hesitant to inquire about a family’s faith, for fear of generating disagreement. However, the distinction between faith and belief facilitates public conversation, because faith is a dialectical relationship between self and widely held norms of compassion, generosity, and justice. No matter what the specific beliefs may be, then, there is apt to be considerable common ground between educator and family.


Organizing Frameworks for Understanding Development

The dominant framework for understanding religious and spiritual development has been the stage theory of development, which, with respect to spirituality, argues that humans follow a fixed trajectory of stages that develop toward an ideal type or universal endpoint. The stage theories of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg are prime examples. Stage theories, then, share the idea that development is linear and normative.

Alternatives to stage theories view development as multidirectional movement toward many possible endpoints. The possibility of there being a range of endpoints shifts attention from the individual to the individual’s interacting with his or her faith tradition or culture. The individual, positioned within complex social and cultural systems, develops both spiritually and otherwise as a composite of transactions and experiences. Using this frame, the individual develops spiritually to the extent that there is a good match between individual, faith tradition, and culture. This developmental-cultural approach allows for development to take on different meanings depending on faith tradition and culture.

Alternatives to stage theories also emphasize quantitative rather than qualitative changes in a person’s faith. For instance, Kwilecki (1999) focuses on the role the supernatural has for the individual and how, with development, the supernatural becomes functional in multiple ways. What matter are how important the supernatural becomes in a person’s life and the strength of a person’s convictions, not qualitative changes in how a person thinks. Although spiritual development can be charted as qualitative change over time (from immature to mature), spiritual development also means a deepening and strengthening of faith and an approximating to ideals that are both culturally situated and universal.

An increasing amount of scholarship is expanding to include the religious and spiritual life of young children. An exploration of children’s God concepts based on the social learning and projection theories finds that children’s beliefs are highly influenced by the beliefs of the mother (De Roos et al., 2004). A longitudinal study of mother-child dyads, with children entering at 14 months, finds positive links between committed compliance and internalization (Kochanska, 2002). Further collaboration between practitioners and researchers may help provide a deeper understanding of religion in the lives of young children, particularly because young children may not conform to the boundaries that adults erect between sacred and secular settings (Myers, 1997).

Further Readings: Banks, J., and C. McGee Banks (2001). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; De Roos, S., Iedema, J. and S., Miedema (2004). Influence of maternal denomination, God concepts, and child-rearing practices on young children’s god concepts. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43(4), 519-535; Dowling, E., S. Gestsdottir, P. Anderson, A. von eye, J. Almerigi, and R. Lerner (2004). Structural relations among spirituality, religiosity, and thriving in adolescence. Applied Developmental Science 9(1), 7-16; Kwilecki, S. (1999). Becoming religious. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press; Myers, B. K. (1997). Young children and spirituality. New York: Routledge. Pluralism Project, Harvard University, www.pluralism.org (2006) Scarlett, W. G. (2006); Toward a developmental analysis of religious and spiritual development. In E. C. Roehlkepartain, P. E. King, L. M. Wagener, and P. L. Benson, eds., The handbook of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 21-34; Smith, William C. (1998). Faith and belief: The difference between them. Oxford, UK: Oneword Publications.

Mona M. Abo-Zena and W. George Scarlett