What Is Character?

By Ed DeRoche

Is it Traits, Strengths, Virtues, Values or All of Them?

I notice, in my research and correspondence, that I keep running into lists of character traits, strengths, virtues, and values.

I asked myself these three character-related questions:

  1. What is the difference between a “value” and “virtue?”  
  2. What do educators/researchers mean when they talked about character “traits and strengths.”
  3. What are some TSVV examples that would give us a “picture” of what I found and how it “shapes” character education in schools?     

In summary, I found that Values are principles or standards that are considered  important or desirable, while some others may not be desirable or have moral goodness.  Values are subjective and personal since an individual can decide what is important to him or her.    

Virtues are qualities that have high moral value and are considered to be good or desirable in a person. 

Traits, an expert noted, can be negative or positive and are personal qualities that define one’s personality.  Positive traits include compassion, empathy, kindness, and courage.  Negative traits include anger, jealousy, selfishness, and greed.      

Then there are Character Strengths: “the good qualities that people possess—a collection of positive traits that show people’s strengths.” 

Here are a few examples of TSVVs: 

2021 Schools of Character (edited) from Dr. Arthur Schwartz President, Character.org (5-13- 2021), https://www.character.org/:

This year we recognized 38 public schools, 1 public school district, 8 charter schools, and 3 private schools, plus one school is in Brazil and one in Mexico).  Our 2021 National Schools of Character highlighted a total of 275 core values.

Here are the top 10 core values cited the most:  


Altogether, 80 unique core values were cited.              

In his book, How Children Succeed–Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, author Paul Tough writes that children need to learn these seven character traits to help them achieve their goals. 

  1. Grit    
  2. Curiosity    
  3. Self-control 
  4. Social 
  5. Zest   
  6. Optimism  
  7. Gratitude

T. Lickona and M. Davidson, Smart & Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work, and Beyond, lists 8 character strengths with descriptors:

1. Lifelong learner and critical thinker 

2. Diligent and capable performer  

3. Socially and emotionally skilled person  

4. Ethical thinker  

5. Respectful and responsible moral agent

6. Self-disciplined person who pursues a healthy lifestyle

7. Contributing community member and democratic citizen

8. Spiritual person crafting a life of noble purpose

Seligman and Peterson’s book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, list 24 widely-valued character strengths, organized under six broad virtues:

Wisdom and Knowledge
creativity    curiosity    open-mindedness    love of learning    perspective

honesty    bravery    persistence    zest 

kindness    love    social intelligence

fairness    leadership    teamwork 

forgiveness    modesty   prudence    self-regulation 

appreciation of beauty and excellence    gratitude    humor

In the December 2020 posting in Parenting Hub ,author Elise Schiller noted that:  Kids tend to look up to their parents for a role model and what they want to become once they grow up. 

She lists and describes these 21 Character Traits For Kids and How to Develop Them.  


But wait, there’s more!

In the Kent City School District (OH), the plan is to have teachers focus lessons on a particular character trait each month of the school year.  Each “trait” is followed by descriptors (see September for example).

September – Work Ethic and Responsibility
Students should: Attend to task; demonstrate persistence; show best effort.
Be able to carry out a duty and be trustworthy.
Exercise sound thinking and good judgment knowing that they are personally accountable for their actions.

October – Respect for Self and Others

November – Compassion

December – Self-Control

January – Tolerance

February – Trustworthiness

March – Cooperation

April – Respect for Community/Environment

May – Commitment/Dedication

June – Fairness/Justice      

The KIPP Schools focus on these character strengths:

  • Zest—Enthusiastic and energetic participation in life
  • Grit—Perseverance and passion for long-term goals
  • Curiosity—Eagerness to explore new things with openness
  • Optimism—Confidence in a future full of positive possibilities
  • Self-Control—Capacity to regulate one’s own responses so they align with short and long-term goals
  • Gratitude—Appreciation for the benefits we receive from others, and the desire to express thanks
  • Social Intelligence—Understanding the feelings of others and adapting actions accordingly
  • Curiosity—Eagerness to explore new things with openness

Mentoring minds.com shows us  “How to Build a 36-Week Character Education Curriculum.”  They offer a list of 36 traits from which teachers and school leaders may choose to meet the needs of their students and educational programs.  For space purposes, I selected 10 of their 36-trait curriculums. 

It appears that VAMP (Value-A–Month–Program) is the most popular framework for character education programs in most school districts.  

Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center
Department of Learning & Teaching
School of Leadership & Education Sciences
University of San Diego
Help us if you can: mailto:annualgiving@sandiego.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *