“Character education is not old-fashioned, and it’s not about bringing religion in to the classroom. Character is the ‘X factor’ that experts in parenting and education have deemed integral to success.”
Throughout history, you can find various quips and proverbs about character. “Bad company corrupts good character.” “Character is easier kept than recovered.” “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow.”
But what is character? And why is it important? And if it’s important, how do we integrate character education in school?
It comes as no surprise that character training begins at home. However, it must continue to be taught and reinforced as a part of formal education. Good moral character carries practical applications for children every day, not to mention many long-term benefits.
For instance, good character will determine how dedicated a doctor remains to his Hippocratic Oath. During his/her medical career, a doctor encounters various life and death decisions, judgment calls, and opportunities to compromise on his or her values. In stressful situations, ethical behavior must be “the default setting” for a medical professional, or they may cave under the pressure. This is true in nearly every career.
For children, character development is foundational to who they become as adults. Psychology Today defines good character as traits that “lead us to think, feel, and act in certain ways.” If we want children to learn how to “think, feel, and act” in ways that benefit them and those around them, we must integrate moral training into their everyday learning.
The U.S. Department of Education considers character education to be an essential aspect of learning:
“Character education is a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others…In school, character education must be approached comprehensively to include the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities of a person or group. It must offer multiple opportunities for students to learn about, discuss and enact positive social behaviors.”
Importance of Character Education
According to the Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, the historical precedent for character education in America is a long one. However, the popularity of teaching character in schools has ebbed and flowed over time. The Journal notes that support for character education has historically correlated with downward trends of morality in the nation’s youth. In other words, when our kids start going astray, people sit up, notice, and want to do something about it.
When education focuses on more than just the basics of academic achievement, society as a whole benefits. Education.com asserts that modern American education is strongly influenced by the long-term results of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This legislative action shifted the focus of education in American schools, and as a result, character education has dramatically declined.
Education.com comments, “The nation has spent an extraordinary amount of money on improving the academics in the classroom, and teachers have been forced to teach content, content, and more content. In the minds of many character education supporters, it’s time for a change. Disrespect, irresponsibility, and other character flaws are the bane of today’s society. Children absorb these character flaws as if through osmosis, purely by looking at those around them.”
America’s youth are America’s future. The country’s success depends on the quality of our children’s character and the depth of their moral commitment. We can’t leave this future up to chance. Parents and teachers must take deliberate action.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.ED. suggests that “we can’t expect them [children] to merely observe and adopt the character traits and maturity that we’d like them to develop. A consistent and thorough teaching of ethical behavior is critical to shaping character.”
She follows this with a list of suggested benefits of character education:
- “Character development is the basis for personal growth. As children practice skills that promote character development, they build a reservoir of strength that they can draw on throughout their lives.
- Character development is the foundation for lifelong learning. Schools that teach character education report increased academic performance and attendance. They also report decreases in disciplinary problems.
- Character is the bedrock that solid relationships are built on. Our children will be happier, more caring, more forgiving, and more responsible as they are taught to think about the needs of others.
- Character shapes us as neighbors and citizens. Our character is a holistic language we daily communicate to others … When young people have not been taught principles of character that can anchor them, they … may not be attuned to the consequences of their actions, or to the needs of others.”
Quoted from “Why Character Education Is Important for Young Children.”
Where to Start
A solid plan makes it easier to integrate character education into your students’ learning experience. However, it can be challenging to know how to begin. Graduate Programs for Educators offers some good suggestions for how to do this. Here you’ll find a condensed list of their recommendations:
- Begin with the End in Mind – Decide what the goal is and the steps required to get there. Determine what will be required of the students and make these expectations clear.
- Share Leadership – Build a team of teachers who are passionate about character education. Distribute leadership and responsibilities throughout the group.
- Emphasize Relationships – Students learn best when they are surrounded by positivity and have a positive relationship with their teachers.
- Make it a Daily Ritual – The students’ daily schedule should include character education.
- Make it Building-Wide – It’s best when all students are participating in the same character education program at the same time. This gives consistency and a logical connection throughout the school.
- Stay Flexible – Make sure it’s a good fit. No matter which program or curriculum is used, it’s okay to adjust as needed. The well-being of the students is the best guide.
Character.org is dedicated to helping schools implement character education. “Character.org certifies schools and school districts that have implemented the rigorous standards described in our 11 Principles Framework for Schools. These schools serve as an exemplary model for all schools across the United States and around the world.”
Looking for a good place to start with character education in your local school? There are many organizations like Character.org that offer resources, tools, and incentives to educators.
“Character education is as old as education itself. Down through history, education has had two great goals: to help people become smart and to help them become good.”
The big question is “How do you integrate character education into a child’s schooling?”
Historically, students found character reinforcement sprinkled throughout their regular school work. For instance, the McGuffy Readers, a staple of American education for over a century, were filled with moral ideals and principles of good character.
The Edvocate notes that “The McGuffey Readers became cornerstones in establishing America’s moral values. Although the books were not overtly religious, they did stress religious values and emphasize moral lessons intended to develop students into good citizens … the books encouraged moral values and conveyed a distinctly American cultural framework, with an emphasis on allegiance to the nation.”
Today, there are many different character education programs and curriculums available. Some, such as Accelerated Christian Education, integrate character education throughout the student’s regular schoolwork. Other curriculums, such as Positive Action, focus on character education and self-regulation.
Below is a sampling of character-based curricula, along with their particular focus points:
- “Moral Character: The qualities that help us be our best self, including trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.
- Performance Character: The qualities that help us do our best work, including self-discipline, diligence, organization, and confidence.
- Intellectual Character: The skills and traits needed to be a motivated and committed learner, critical thinker, and creative problem solver, including curiosity, intellectual autonomy, humility, and open-mindedness.
- Civic Character: The skills and traits needed to be an ethical, engaged citizen who demonstrates leadership, teamwork, civility, and creates positive change in their community.”
Quoted from Character Counts!
- “Teachers and administrators will be able to choose individual video lessons that are age appropriate for the grade levels and demographics they serve. Educators will be in control of which video they show. Each video can be picked as a stand-alone lesson that addresses immediate needs and the curriculum does not require all the videos be shown in order.”
Quoted from Character Video.org
- “Our curricula and trainings are focused on fostering the Whole Child with vertically-aligned lessons that teach SEL and character, side-by-side.
- SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision-Making
- Character Development: Patience, Kindness, Honesty, Respect, Selflessness, Forgiveness, Commitment, Humility”
Quoted from Character Strong
Character First Education
- “We offer curriculum and training that works in public, private, and home schools, mentoring programs, summer camps, and almost any educational setting.
- Our goal is to provide fun, engaging, positive, practical, and research-based lessons that will help students build the character and competence needed for success.
- Character First promotes timeless values and concepts that transcend social and cultural differences.”
Quoted from Character First Education
Character Development & Leadership
- “This top character education program for middle/high schools is well-organized and has a consistent set of 12 lesson plans to teach each of the 18 character/leadership traits.
- Schools begin by purchasing the lead curriculum for the teacher and at least a classroom set of the Role Model textbooks for the students. Together, this creates a complete character education program that includes role models textbook readings, ethical dilemmas, lectures, basic skills, writing assignments, www assignments, quote exercises, character movies, virtual leadership principles and an updated weekly blog.
- This program has enough material to be taught as a stand-alone elective course, used for four consecutive years in a homeroom without duplication, or integrated into already existing classes.”
Quoted from Character Development & Leadership
Though certainly not comprehensive, this short list offers a glance into the many character education resources available to educators who want to make a difference. No matter what curriculum or program is used, today’s youth must be encouraged and guided in the development of their moral outlook.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once pointed out, intelligence plus character is the goal of true education. The future of American society, culture, and politics rests on the next generation. The success and happiness of millions of children depend on their ability to live a fulfilling life. Good character is key to all of these.
Character education must not be neglected in the pursuit of academic achievement. It is as vital to true success as reading and writing are—and is sure to have long-lasting rewards.
Quality education must include character education.
“… it may be proper to observe that a good moral character is the first essential of man … It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.”