Teaching children how to respect property should begin when the child is old enough to understand that he owns a few belongings. It involves teaching the concept of privileges vs. needs, and it must be based on respect. When visiting the concept again during the elementary school years, it's imperative that these basics be spelled out clearly, as well as any consequences that might accompany the disobeying or disregarding of such concepts. The responsibility for teaching such skills should fall upon parent's shoulders long before the children are old enough to attend school.
Please and Thank You
Respecting property can be as simple as learning the polite concepts of "please" and "thank you." When you ask for an item, you must say please, and when given an item you must say thank you. However, the concept must go beyond the simple speaking of the words. It's vital that children completely grasp the meaning behind them and the responsibility that comes along with saying them. For example, if a child asks, "May I please have some new crayons?" he or she must understand that getting a new box of crayons is a privilege. Deliberately breaking those new crayons will result in a punishment. Taking someone else's crayons is wrong unless that person has been asked, using that "magic" word, please.
Practice this concept by lining up the class into two teams. The "giving" team will be the ones asked for specific items. When the word "please" is used, the givers may give. If the takers don't then reply with "thank you," the item returns to the giving team. Trade team responsibilities so children have the experience of being both a giver and a taker.
Children must be taught to assume responsibility for their own property, as well as for that which they borrow from their friends, classmates and family members. If something is accidentally destroyed, a mutual agreement must be reached between the families of both parties, with the option of replacing the item. If an item is deliberately destroyed, it must be replaced, and a punishment must be imposed for the improper behavior. If these lessons aren't taught and promptly reinforced, children will grow up with no respect for their own or anyone else's belongings.
To teach the notion of responsibility, try the following activity: Send each child in the class home with a small stuffed animal. They must be responsible for it and return it to school the next day. In addition, they must log what they did with the stuffed animal when it was at home with them. For example, did it sit at the table at dinner time? Did it sleep with the child in his or her bed?
If the stuffed animal returns torn or dirty, the child must explain exactly how such a thing happened and how they could have better handled the situation. At the end of a week of being responsible, allow the children to keep their stuffed animal. Children not earning this privilege must engage in several additional conversations with the teacher, parents and possibly even a school guidance counselor about the reasons behind their irresponsible behavior.
If a child destroys an item deliberately, part of the issue of responsibility is to teach him or her a way to earn enough money to replace that item. This requires strict diligence on behalf of the parents; sadly, teachers won't always experience full cooperation in this area. An activity to strengthen the notion and underlying values on such a concept might take place as follows:
Set up ways around the classroom for the children to "earn" play money. They might take out the classroom trash, arrange the chairs neatly, help erase the chalkboards and help another student with an assignment he or she missed. Earning the money helps them understand the concept of not simply being handed something. Allow the kids to turn in their earned money for dollar store prizes. Eventually there is bound to be an incident where an item is lost or broken. The party responsible for its breakage must then earn enough money to replace the item.