Darcia Narvaez - IV. Pedagogy, 30

From Human Education in the 3rd Millennium

University of Notre Dame

Moral Education in a Time of Human Devastation of Earth Ecology


An accurate deep history view of homo sapiens shows us that we have wandered off the species-normal pathway of raising good, virtuous human beings. Industrialized child raising practices break the continuum of bondedness to the living web, establishing a sense of disconnection deep within the psyche. As a result, we raise humans poorly and then try to fix them with all sorts of sanctions and methods. And the way humans are biosocially constructed has only worsened with the development of media that interferes with brain and social development among children.

When we observe societies around the world outside of the industrialized nations, especially those who have no established hierarchies, we notice an approach to moral education that is not top-down, sanctioned by adults and society, but one that is bottom-up. This occurs in small-band hunter-gatherer societies (SBHG), the kind of society in which our genus is presumed to have spent 99% of its history, which still exist all over the world. These societies are fiercely egalitarian, highly communal with highly autonomous individuals. The adults have cooperative, calm and generous personalities, missing many of the characteristics we think are normal human nature such as self-centeredness, aggression, alienation and disconnection to the natural world.

Among First Nation communities of the Americas, the goals of adult life involve being in balance: learning to listen to your unique inner spirit, developing your gifts for community benefit. In every moment, you seek to maintain respectful and responsible relationships with "all our relations" (humans, the more than human, ancestors and future generations), aware of the dynamic and mysterious nature of Life and trying to live intelligently within Life’s many realms. The !Kung of southern Africa prevent ego inflation in self and others with particular practices (e.g., “insulting the meat” of a successful hunter), thereby avoiding the wetiko virus (cannibalizing/exploiting the lives of others; Forbes), and use community music making, rituals and trance to routinely let go of grudges, stress and grief (not grasping).

Industrialized nations of today, like the USA, pretty much expect and endorse/enforce the opposite of all of this. They have pervasive atmospheres of anxiety and alienation that start from the beginning of life. Here is a worse-case scenario, which illustrates the features of what happens in the USA today. The mother becomes pregnant unwillingly, setting up biochemistries in her body that indicate unwelcomeness or “danger” to the child’s developing system. During pregnancy, mother puts herself or is forced into stressful situations that continue an unwelcoming biochemistry for fetal development. Birth experience is also unwelcoming as when babies are forced out of the womb before they signal they are ready to be born, labor pharmaceuticals drug their bodies (for weeks afterward); they are treated harshly by medical routines, separated from mother and denied immediate and/or long term breastfeeding. Then, parents are encouraged to make babies “independent” with physical isolation in various contraptions, sleep training and ignoring need signaling (even the late signal of crying because “babies cry for no reason”). As a result, instead of being in a biochemically supportive state to grow what is scheduled to grow, the child spends energy trying to stay alive within a distressing atmosphere. The child learns not to trust their own body/emotion signals, suppressing their own spirits. They learn not to feel safe in the world, establishing a deep unconscious anxiety and heightened stress response. Neurobiologically these experiences shape the brain to focus on self concern (never safe, never trusting). So the whole development of self and self-in-community goes off track. The child doesn’t learn egalitarian flexible responsiveness bottom up but downshifts to more biologically primitive neurobiological systems of dominance-submission relations—if you are not the one “up” you are the one “down.” Receptive intelligence to other humans and more than humans does not develop properly. Life becomes primarily a fear-based bracing against others instead of relational, creative openness. Such traumatized individuals do not live intelligently but reactively, easily downshifting to primitive survival orientations. With adequate support, such individuals may succeed in schools that emphasize intellect (which doesn’t require much socioemotional or moral intelligence) but can become sociopathic, driven individuals who run the world.

What happened? Why are modern societies pushing humanity in the opposite direction of virtuous lives and sustainable living?

One of the key components for proper, species-typical development is what my lab calls the evolved nest, the developmental system our species evolved to optimize normal development. SBHG provide the evolved nest, which appears to be a cultural commons for the development of a cooperative human nature. See Table 1 for the components of the nest which are by and large 30-40 million years old, having emerged with social mammals, forming the normal way of raising human children too. Lack of these experiences represent undercare.


Table 1. Human Evolved Nest for Young Children Provisioned by a Community

1. Soothing Perinatal Experiences: no separation or induced pain 2. Touch: Held or kept near others constantly 3. Responsivity: Prompt response to keep baby in optimal arousal 4. Breastfeeding: on request (2-3 times/hr initially) for 2-5 yrs 5. Play: Self-directed free play in natural world with multiage playmates 6. Alloparents: Frequently cared for by individuals other than mothers (fathers and grandmothers, in particular) 7. Positive Social Support: High social embeddedness and positive climate Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner, 2010; Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013) ___________________________________________________________________________

Caregivers who provide the nest yield to the needs of the baby without delay or reluctance. Caregiving is empathic, resonant with the emotional and neurobiological state of the child, maintaining optimal arousal (usually calmness). Such humble, responsive caregiving brings about a cooperative personality. As converging neurobiological research studies demonstrate, the evolved nest supports the development of a healthy neurobiology which undergirds social and moral capacities.

The evolved nest has been degraded from the beginning of settled agricultural cultures and may have worsened in the last century. Unnested parents make poor parents themselves, and without healing interventions, they pass on primal wounds to their children. With a degraded nest, many children arrive at school under- or mis-developed, exhibiting developmental delays, behaviors that look like disobedience but represent malformed stress response like aggression or withdrawal. Children arrive with primal wounds that misdirect their sociality toward social self-protection, bracing against others, in part because so many social subskills were not learned in babyhood, and in part because they are highly threat reactive, preventing the growth of such skills.

Moral education is initially neuroeducation, from conception on, guided by parent attitudes and behaviors as well as the support of the community (the village). When children reach school age, the foundations for morality and sociality have been laid. Teachers face students who already have a subconscious set of filters for social life and for learning. With so many children unnested today, teachers have their work cut out for them.

So what is an educator to do? Understand that most misbehavior is stress-related behavior. When students act out or withdraw, they are using ways they have learned to regulate themselves, to get back to their homeostasis. Saying a snide remark or pushing a classmate, or emotionally withdrawing helps them rebalance their sense of safety. Of course, these are not healthy ways to self-regulate. So the first thing to do is to help students learn to self-calm in healthy ways. Belly breathing, meditation and other forms of body relaxation can be practiced that help students center themselves in more appropriate ways.

Calmness is not enough however for moral or virtuous behavior. A person must feel connected to others, like they belong and are appreciated and feel the same feelings in return. Many students now are arriving at school with limited social experience and even preferences for doing things alone, as a result of a history of limited family and community care. Too often students don’t know how to relate to others in smooth, skilled ways and so become frustrated easily and socially discouraged. Thus, social remediation is needed that includes multiple ways to practice social cooperation and, particularly, social joy in order to grow cooperative capacities. These can be folk song games and other forms of whole-body social play, which promote growth in emotional presence and self-regulation. Such play fosters right brain hemisphere development, which is often underdeveloped from early life undercare.

Students may also have limited imaginations, focusing daily or life goals on primitive interests like hoarding (wealth) or “winning” (power). Educators can help expand imagination to perceive being part of the web of life with immersion in the natural world, evidence from science and guidance from native stories about the interconnections of living things. Teachers can emphasize communal imagination, a sense of “us and us” instead of “us-against-them.” Overall, it is important to help students develop not just the intellect but their “heartmind,” which involves self-actualization through educating intuition through immersion and coaching about relationships, connections and self-understanding.

Classroom Moral Character Education

Based on a review of research and developed in collaboration with schoolteachers in the USA, the RAVES model gives a step by step approach to helping teachers set up the conditions for an Ethical Classroom and the shaping of students’ lifelong pathways toward virtue. How do children grow into morally agile adults? The RAVES model emphasizes the development of moral virtue capacities through five steps. See Table 2.


Table 2. The RAVES Model for Classroom Moral Character Development

Relationships (relational realms: classroom, wider community, nature)

Apprenticeship (modeling, guidance)

Virtuous Village and Stories

Ethical skills (sensitivity, judgment, focus, action)

Self authorship ___________________________________________________________________________


For most students, a warmly secure relationship with the teacher facilitates attention and achievement. In such relationships, children’s relational (instead of self-protective) emotions (and biochemistry) are engaged, allowing the teacher to influence the child’s development towards positive growth. Some students, based on past trauma or neglect, may take longer to “warm up” and relax into the student-teacher relationship and the accompanying learning mode. Setting up and maintaining secure relationships with students requires good social skills and knowhow for building rapport with diverse students from different backgrounds.

The second aspect of RAVES’ relational focus is the climate of the classroom. A supportive community is needed for optimal growth. Experiencing a supportive community through face-to-face relational engagement keeps members calm and in social moods. In caring classrooms, basic needs are met for belonging, autonomy, self-enhancement, trust, and meaningfulness. Educators can emphasize each student’s positive potential and an orientation to group citizenship with activities that promote self-understanding, group cohesion and prosocial narratives.

The third aspect of RAVES’ relational focus is ecological. Each individual lives within an active ecological context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) in which, ideally, the entire community builds ethical skills together. The purpose of ethical behavior is to live a good life in the community. But what community? In many societies, community refers only to human beings. But in indigenous sustainable communities, relationships include animals, plants and other entities in the cosmos and in the local landscape. Educators can help students develop their understanding of being a member of complex earth ecologies. Educators help student develop a sense of ecological attachment through activities that immerse students in the natural world. Earth-based wisdom is apparent in Aldo Leopold’s observation: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold, 2013, p. 188). Educators can present the indigenous worldview with stories from native traditions, emphasizing a Sacred Life and Living Earth story instead of the Sacred Money and Markets story (Korten, 2015) that is destroying biocultural diversity and causing irreversible planetary damage from human feverish obsession with exploitation.


Human beings learn most things in life without effort but through immersed experiences of interest to the individual. In school, learning is mostly focused on book learning about topics that do not necessarily interest the students. Social, emotional and moral learning are of interest to students and also come about from immersed experience in the workings of the classroom community. However, it is important to not let this happen accidentally or unintentionally. Educators can make deliberate choices about classroom structures and activities, model appropriate behavior, think aloud when solving social and moral problems, and coach students on particular skills (below) that foster moral agility. The educator can use an accelerated apprenticeship model where the mentor coaches the learner during immersed authentic experience, explaining the reasoning and meaning of practices. And the learner’s practice of skills is focused and extensive.

Virtuous Village

The classroom teacher does not and cannot influence the moral agility of her students by herself. The village of adults within the community also assists. Experiencing and observing the kindness, generosity, respect, compassion, forgiveness, humility, and courage of community members inspire students to walk the same path. The village provides multiple examples of virtue in action, the mentoring needed by students to develop such virtues, and multiple opportunities to imitate and practice virtue under the guidance of those village members.

Ideally, the village also provides a positive social climate where community members experience more positive than negative emotions--more joy, serenity, expansiveness rather than sadness, anger, fear, humiliation. Our human heritage is to spend daily time in ongoing social engagement that includes singing and dancing, laughing and teasing, telling stories and jokes. Adults tell their stories about the experiences of ancestors and legends as a means to educate the young about how one’s character is shaped by one’s choices and to expand children’s imaginations about their connections to ancestors and the community. Stories shape what students believe about themselves and the world, suggesting what and whom they can become, guiding action. These all promote neurobiological mindsets that enhance physiological and social health (oxytocin, prolactin, serotonin). Ideally, each student feels loved, cherished, and appreciated by community members and is able to creates positive reactions in others and develop deep friendships. Our lab finds that adults who report more positive emotion in childhood are more secure, mentally healthier, less distressed and less likely to have a self-protective morality.

Ethical skills

If we examine what morally virtuous persons know, we can identify the kinds of skills they coordinate in every situation. We can call this ethical expertise. Those with ethical expertise show more ethical sensitivity (perceptive, imaginative, deeply feeling), better ethical judgment (reasoning, reflection), are more ethically focused (attentive, motivated, personal identity) and are better at completing ethical action (effectivities, steadfastness). In ancestral conditions where children were immersed in the community’s social life, such skills would have developed holistically—bottom up and top down—and in culturally appropriate ways. But in the modern world, much of children’s experience rides against ethical skills and towards vice. And so educators best intentionally design their instruction to include ethical skill development within academic instruction. See Table 3 for a sampling of possible skills and subskills to incorporate.


Table 3. Four Ethical Processes with Suggested Skills and Subskills

Ethical Sensitivity

• Connect to Others (be civil and courteous, show friendship and care, working with diversity, manage aggression) • Communicate Well (Expressing emotion, speaking and listening, monitoring communication) • Take the Perspectives of Others (take different perspectives: justice, mercy, cultural; determine what is happening; perceive moral issues) • Control Social Bias (diagnose and overcome personal bias, nurture tolerance)

Ethical Judgment

• Solve Ethical Problems (gathering information, predicting consequences) • Critical Reasoning (using sound reasoning, monitor reasoning, making right choices) • Develop Codes and Code Shifting (Determining appropriate codes, choosing environments and activities, making good choices) • Coping and Resiliency (apply positive thinking, develop resiliency)

Ethical Focus

• Value Community Traditions and Institutions (understand social structures, practice democracy, cooperate) • Cultivate Conscience (self command, be honorable, good stewardship, good citizenship) • Respect Others (cultivate wisdom, show reverence) • Develop Ethical Identity & Integrity (reaching your potential, finding purpose, cultivate commitment)

Ethical Action

• Resolve Conflicts and Problems (negotiate, make amends, stand up under pressure) • Take Ethical Action (think strategically, get help, respond creatively) • Take Initiative as a Leader (attend to human needs, assert respectfully, mentor others) • Work Hard (set reachable goals, manage time, be steadfast, develop competence, take charge of your life) ___________________________________________________________________________


Humans have long maturational schedule (three decades), so we need mentors and guidance to practice self-development all along the way. Little by little children learn to monitor their behavior and choices. Virtuous individuals must be autonomous enough to monitor themselves through the selection of appropriate friends, activities and environments (Aristotle, 1988). Educators can help students develop the tools for self-authorship that students will be able to employ after they move on. Here are some suggestions aimed at practices that grow socioemotional intelligence.

• Learning to know the self in terms of likes and dislikes, feelings and reactions, what builds one’s positive energy, one’s strengths and weaknesses. How to not overuse strengths and compensate for weaknesses. • Avoiding ego inflation by learning self-calming strategies, mind shifting strategies, and action skills to avoid self- or other-harming. • Learning to stay feeling relationally connected to others rather than detached or superior or inferior. • Establish practices that keep ecological attachment alive (e.g., walking in parks without headset, acknowledging other than humans as living companions). • Learning to attend to consequences, short and long term, of personal and group decisions, always with the web of life in mind. • Learning to play spontaneously with others in prosocial ways (to grow social pleasure, empathy, self-control, receptivity and presence)

All these are forms of self and community self-actualization and are necessary to return to living sustainably within the web of life on earth.


Most children today are undercared for in light of our species-normal developmental system. Instead, they are often exposed to vicious role models and antisocial pressures, and even immersed in traumatizing families and communities (USA). As a result, many children come to school psychically wounded and physiologically under- or mis-developed (perhaps 2/3 of children in USA classrooms). To help children heal, reconnect and grow in moral virtue, educators need to be intentional about moral character education. The RAVES model offers a set of practices to frame moral character educational practice. A key component of the RAVES model today, often missing in moral educational approaches, is inclusion of the other than human in one’s community of concern. We can call this by many names—land ethic, nature connection, or earth ethics. Developing the heartmind to include one’s care and responsibility for one’s local landscape and the earth community generally is fundamental to moral character education today.


Annas, J., Narvaez, D., & Snow, N. (Eds.). (2016). Developing the virtues: Integrating perspectives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle. (1988). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.). London: Oxford.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Deloria, V. (2006). The world we used to live in. Golden, Co: Fulcrum Publishing.

Four Arrows, & Narvaez, D. (2016). Reclaiming our indigenous worldview: A more authentic baseline for social/ecological justice work in education. In N. McCrary & W. Ross (Eds.), Working for social justice inside and outside the classroom: A community of teachers, researchers, and activists (pp. 93-112). In series, Social justice across contexts in education (S.J. Miller & L.D. Burns, Eds.). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Ingold, T. (2005). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R.B. Lee, R.B. & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 399-410). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, R. B., & Daly, R. (Eds.). (2005). The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Leopold, A. (1949/2013). A Sand County Almanac and other writings (C. Meine, ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Liedloff, J. (1977). The Continuum concept. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Narvaez, D. (2006). Integrative ethical education. In M. Killen & J. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of Moral Development (pp. 703-733). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Narvaez, D. (2008). Human flourishing and moral development: Cognitive science and neurobiological perspectives on virtue development. In L. Nucci & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Handbook of Moral and Character Education (pp. 310-327). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Narvaez, D. (2008). Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities. New Ideas in Psychology, 26, 95-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.newideapsych.2007.07.008

Narvaez, D. (2009). Nurturing character in the classroom, EthEx Series, Book 4: Ethical Action. Notre Dame, IN: ACE Press.

Narvaez, D. (2010). Building a sustaining classroom climate for purposeful ethical citizenship. In T. Lovat and R. Toomey (Eds.), International Research Handbook of Values Education and Student Wellbeing (pp. 659-674). New York: Springer Publishing Co.

Narvaez, D. (2010). Moral complexity: The fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 163-181. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691610362351

Narvaez, D. (2012). Moral neuroeducation from early life through the lifespan. Neuroethics, 5(2), 145-157. doi:10.1007/s12152-011-9117-5

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99%--Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. (2016). Embodied morality: Protectionism, engagement and imagination. New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Narvaez, D. (Ed.) (2018). Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Narvaez, D. & Bock, T. (2009). Nurturing character in the classroom, EthEx Series, Book 2: Ethical Judgment. Notre Dame, IN: ACE Press.

Narvaez, D., & Bock, T. (2014). Developing ethical expertise and moral personalities. In L. Nucci & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Handbook of Moral and Character Education (2nd ed.) (pp. 140-158). New York, NY: Routledge.

Narvaez, D., Bock, T., & Endicott, L. (2003). Who should I become? Citizenship, goodness, human flourishing, and ethical expertise. In W. Veugelers & F. K. Oser (Eds.), Teaching in Moral and Democratic Education (pp. 43-63). Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Publishers.

Narvaez, D., Bock, T., Endicott, L., & Lies, J. (2004). Minnesota’s Community Voices and Character Education Project. Journal of Research in Character Education, 2, 89-112.

Narvaez, D., Braungart-Rieker, J., Miller, L., Gettler, L., & Hastings, P. (Eds.). (2016). Contexts for young child flourishing: Evolution, family and society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., & Endicott, L. (2009). Nurturing character in the classroom, EthEx Series, Book 1: Ethical Sensitivity. Notre Dame, IN: ACE Press.

Narvaez, D., Four Arrows, Halton, E., Collier, B., Enderle, G. (Eds.) (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing. New York: Peter Lang.

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal effects of caregiving practices on early childhood psychosocial development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D. & Lies, J. (2009). Nurturing character in the classroom, EthEx Series, Book 3: Ethical Motivation. Notre Dame, IN: ACE Press.

Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013). Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., Valentino, K., McKenna, J., Fuentes, A., & Gray, P. (Eds.) (2014). Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, childrearing and social wellbeing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Narvaez, D., & Witherington, D. (2018). Getting to baselines for human nature, development and wellbeing. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 6 (1), 205-213. DOI: 10.1037/arc0000053

Narvaez, D., Woodbury, R., Gleason, T., Kurth, A., Cheng, A., Wang, L., Deng, L., Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E., Christen, M., & Näpflin, C. (2019). Evolved Development Niche Provision: Moral socialization, social maladaptation and social thriving in three countries. Sage Open, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019840123

Nucci, L. P., & Narvaez, D. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook of moral and character education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nucci, L., Narvaez, D., & Krettenauer, T. (Eds.) (2014). Handbook of moral and character education (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sahlins, M. (1968). Notes on the Original Affluent Society. In R.B. Lee and I. DeVore (Ed.s), Man the Hunter (pp. 85-89). New York: Aldine Publishing Company.

Schore, A. N. (2015). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Routledge.

Schore, A.N. (2019). The development of the unconscious mind. New York: W.W. Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2013). Bowlby's "Environment of evolutionary adaptedness": Recent studies on the interpersonal neurobiology of attachment and emotional development. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. Schore & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy (pp. 31-67). New York: Oxford University Press.

Shanker, S. (2016). Self-Reg: How to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life. New York: Penguin.Shanker

Small, D.L. (2008). On deep history and the brain. Berkeley: University of California Press.