By Ed DeRoche, Ph.D.

One of my favorite movies was E.T. You may recall a scene in that movie where the two brothers, after spending sometime with E.T., mount their bicycles to go to school, and the older brother asks, “Did you tell him about school yet?” The younger brother answers,  “How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?”

Not easy! But the question served as an idea for this blog. Namely, how to explain character education to parents and the public? The answer: define character, character education, and describe a framework that their school and school district might use in one form or another.

Here is what we know about character:

Character is learned—taught to the young by the entertainment industry, the media, the internet, the environment they live in, their peers and role models, and hopefully by parents, teachers, schools, youth agencies, and religious institutions.

Character is about “strengths” and virtues that guide an individual “to act in an ethical, pro-social manner.”

Character is about choices – the ones we make daily (good or bad, ethical or unethical). It is about decision-making – the circumstances, the risks, the chances, the consequences, and the rewards.

Character is about relationships and social skills—skills such as sharing, participating, following directions, and listening. It is learning how to be a friend, how to care for others, how to appreciate others, how to be polite, respectful, courteous, trusting, etc. Character is about “emotional” self-discipline and how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

Character education is “education that nurtures and promotes the ethical, intellectual, social and emotional development of individuals. It is a continuous learning process that enables young people and adults to become moral, caring, reflective, responsible individuals. Character education represents a relationship between knowledge, values and skills necessary for success in life.” (https://ethaca.com/character-education/)

For years, we have been using the umbrella as a metaphor to help our colleagues, students, educators, parents and others better understand and appreciate what character education is and why it is necessary. The metaphor provides a framework for schools and school districts.

The HANDLE of a school’s character education umbrella could represent, for example, Seligman & Peterson’s 24-character strengths listed under six broad virtues of character:

1) Strengths of Wisdom and Knowledge
2) Strengths of Courage
3) Strengths of Humanity
4) Strengths of Justice
5) Strengths of Temperance
6) Strengths of Transcendence.

Their 24 character strengths include: creativity; curiosity; judgment; love-of-learning; perspective; bravery; honesty; perseverance; zest; kindness; love; social intelligence; fairness; leadership; teamwork; forgiveness; humility; prudence; self-regulation; appreciation of beauty; gratitude; hope; humor; and spirituality.

Most umbrellas have EIGHT PANELS.  Each of the eight panels tells us how we develop, nurture, foster, teach, and promote the core virtues/strengths in the HANDLE.

Panel One: Vision, Mission, Goals, Objectives

Clear statements about each are crucial to communicating the “who, what and why” of your character education program, practices and projects.

“Good character is not formed automatically; it is developed over time through a sustained process of teaching, modeling, learning, and experience.” – Maryland State Department of Education

Panel Two: Academic Programs & Standards

Character Strengths – Emotional Intelligence – Social Skills & Relationships – Civics – Citizenship

“…Without good character, individuals may lack the desire to do the right thing. Character strengths, when exercised, not only prevent undesirable life outcomes but are important in their own right as markers and indeed causes of healthy life-long development.” (Park & Peterson)

Howard, Gardner: “Your EQ is the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.”

The distinct advantage of learning social skills are: more & better relationships, better communication, greater efficiency, advancing career opportunities, and increasing overall happiness.  Preparing students in four key areas of civic readiness: knowledge (of government, civic rights); skills (public advocacy, gathering and processing different viewpoints); actions (volunteering, voting); and dispositions (concern for others’ constitutional rights and freedoms, respect for processes and laws governing the republic). Nebraska State Board of Education

Panel Three: Classroom Climate & School Culture

Behaviors – Attitudes – Expectations – Hidden curriculum – Assemblies – Celebrations – Award events – Honoring student’s voice & ideas

Schools that are infusing character education into their curricula and cultures are seeing dramatic transformations; pro-social behaviors… are replacing negative behaviors. When you walk into a character education school… you find an atmosphere of mutual caring and respect, where students value learning and care about their teachers, classmates, communities, and themselves. (www.character.org.)

Panel Four: Curriculum

There are 3- B ways for you and others to examine before creating a character education program at your school or at the district level:

Buy It. Borrow it. Or Build it.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Check the research, find out what works, examine programs in other school districts, talk to experts. When you have the information you need create a character education program that fits the culture of your school district. t is important to remember that no two schools are alike even in the same school district. All schools have their own “personality.”  Note the list in Panel 8.

Panel Five: Extracurricular Programs

Studies have shown that students who participated in school-based extracurricular activities had higher grades, higher academic aspirations, better academic attitudes, leadership and time management skills, and social skills than those who were not involved in extracurricular activities.

The character-related values for students participating in school extracurricular activities include leadership, adaptability, social skills, grit, perseverance, responsibility, and sense of community, teamwork, and aspirations. Margo Gardner, a research scientist at Columbia University’s National Center for Children and Families (NSCF), has calculated that the odds of attending college were 97 percent higher for youngsters who took part in school- sponsored activities for two years than for those who didn’t do any school activities.

Panel Six: Assessment/Evaluation

I suggest the creation of a school or district character education assessment committee (CEAC). At some point there are six questions that should be answered.

1) What should we assess (audit)?
2) When should we start assessing the program?
3) Who should do the assessment?
4) How will we do the assessment –what instruments should we use?
5) What should be our assessment plan –a year plan?
6) What do we plan to do with assessment results?

3 Ways to Assess School Climate & Character by Character.org  One = Give students surveys about character & climate regularly Two = Incorporate character & climate into teacher/staff evaluations Three = Create an effective induction  process for new teachers.  Character.org: 11 Principles of Effective Character Education

Panel Seven: Partnerships & Community-based Programs

Character education is and has always been a community affair enhanced by strong and effective family, school, and community partnerships.  School-community partners provide resources to a school and expand the number of people participating in modeling good  character and help promote character education.

“Partnerships are essential for helping students achieve at their maximum potential. Partnerships are a shared responsibility. In effective partnership programs schools and other community agencies and organizations engage families in meaningful and culturally appropriate ways, and families take initiative to actively support their children’s development and learning.”  – National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments

Panel Eight:  Special Programs (examples)

Anger management, conflict resolution, social-emotional learning, drug & alcohol use/abuse violence prevention, peace education, anti-bullying programs, student leadership programs, mindfulness strategies, restorative justice, positive behavioral Interventions & supports (PBIS)

Three questions for you:

1) How well do you or others explain your school’s character education program (if you have one) to parents and the community

2) What’s under your school’s character education umbrella?

3) What “metaphor,” if any, would you use as framework for your school’s character education initiatives?

Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center, SOLES, June 2019

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