Character Building

Anyone who works with children can tell you first hand there is a growing rise in disrespect for parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Young children are increasingly becoming crueler with each other. Youth violence is on an upward swing and dishonesty, like lying, cheating, and stealing, is prevalent like never before.

Until recently, calls for school reform have focused on academic achievement. Educators, from preschool on up, now realize that along with the three Rs, children need courses in character development. Daycares, schools, parents and community, all have an important role to play in helping children develop good manners, moral and ethical behavior.

What is Character Education?

Dr. Thomas Lickona, Director of The Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs, defines character education as "the deliberate effort to develop virtues that are good for the individual and good for society. The objective goodness of virtues" Lickona says, "is based on the fact that they:

    * Affirm our human dignity
    * Promote the well-being and happiness of the individual
    * Serve the common good
    * Define our rights and obligations
    * Meet the classical ethical tests of reversibility (Would you want to be treated this way?) and universality (Would you want all persons to act this way in a similar situation?)."

Character education programs provide positive changes in children’s behavior, specifically in helping each other, being truthful, and not blaming others. And while no one thing is going to have much of an impact on a child's character development, talking about virtues and vices as situations happen at home, at the daycare or at school, plus modeling virtuous behavior ourselves, can help to create a sense of a moral world for children.

More than that, it just makes sense to teach young people right from wrong. After all, isn't child-rearing and teaching all about helping our children to become good people who can live healthy, happy lives of purpose?

"Six Pillars of Character"

Most of the character development programs available to parents and teachers center around the "Six Pillars of Character":

    * Trustworthiness
    * Respect
    * Responsibility
    * Fairness
    * Caring
    * Citizenship

Who Developed the "Six Pillars of Character"?

The language itself came out of a summit conference on character education convened by the Josephson Institute in 1992 in Aspen, Colorado. The diverse group of educators, youth leaders and ethicists who gathered there to investigate ways of working together agreed unanimously that these six values are clearly central to ethical people’s lives, regardless of their differences. Whose values? Some 40 states and almost 1,000 cities, counties, school districts and chambers of commerce (plus the President, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives) have endorsed CHARACTER COUNTS! and its “Six Pillars” approach to community-wide character education. 1

Teaching Children About the "Six Pillars of Character"

The most important thing that children should take away from character development training is that:

    * Their character counts and their success and happiness will depend on who they are inside
    * That people of character know the difference between right and wrong and that these people use the ""Six Pillars of Character"" as a guide to their thoughts and their actions.

The teacher's role in character education is to introduce a lesson/topic of the "Six Pillars" one at a time. Dr. Borba, author of Character Builders, says there are five steps to building these character traits. The first is to target the desired behavior for 21 days. The second is to define the needs and values of the trait. The third step is to teach what the trait looks like and sounds like. The fourth is to provide structured practice for 21 days. The fifth is to reinforce the trait through immediate feedback and encourage uses for the trait in life.

Building character in children can also be reinforced through the use of visual and activity tools throughout the day. Posters, activity books and other small, creative and fun ideas can make this a project in which kids want to participate!

Once the process of character building has begun, the Josephson Institute, on their Web site, suggests teachers and parents:

    * Be Consistent. The moral messages you send must be clear, consistent and repetitive. Thus, everything you say and do, and all that you allow to be said and done in your presence, either reinforces or undermines the credibility of your messages about the importance of good character. Be as firm and consistent as you can be about teaching, advocating, modeling and enforcing these “"Six Pillars of Character".” The intention is to foster the virtues of good behaviour via constant “teachable moments”

    * Be Concrete. Building character and teaching ethics is not an academic undertaking, it must be relevant to the lives and experiences of your children. Talk about character and choices in situations that your children have been in.

    * Be Creative. Effective character development should be creative. It should be active and involve the child in real decision-making that has real consequences. Games and role-playing are also effective. Look for “teaching moments,” using good and bad examples from TV, books, movies, and the news.

We only need to look at programs such as "Kindness Is Contagious: Catch It," which began in a single Kansas City, Mo., school and has since spread to more than 400 public schools in the area, to see the success creative character building programs can achieve. This particular program is sponsored by the Stop Violence Coalition.

Among the activities the program encourages is one in which children are asked to fill up two jars with beans. One jar contains a bean for every time a child receives a put-down, insult, or injury; another jar contains a bean for every time a child receives a "put-up" or an act of kindness. This activity provides children with a visual image of what they are doing to each other. The goal: to increase the put-ups and decrease the put-downs.

A second activity is called "Pass It On." A teacher provides an overview of what kindness is (i.e. the 21 days of learning), and then when the teacher witnesses an act of kindness amongst her students, she or he gives the kind child an object such as a red apple, and tells the child that he or she is now a witness and must pass the apple on to whomever he or she sees is performing an act of kindness.

A copy of the guidebooks describing the program and its activities are available for $20, by writing to: Stop Violence Coalition, 301 East Armour, Suite 440, Kansas City, MO 64111.

Summing It Up

Dr. Kevin Ryan outlines the teaching of character development education best in his article, The Six E's Of Character Education:

    * Example. Example is probably the most obvious way to model character education. Another method for moral modeling is to teach the moral truths embedded in literature and history.

    * Explanation. We need to practice moral education by means of explanation - not simply stuffing students' heads with rules and regulations, but engaging them in great moral conversations about the human race.

    * Exhortation. Used sparingly and with explanations, helps children and employees understand that a a good student or worker is someone who makes class contributions, does homework and assists other students."

    * Ethos. Providing an ethical environment - climate within a classroom promotes a steady and strong influence in the formation of character and the student's sense of what's right and wrong.

    * Experience. Providing students both in-and out-of-school opportunities to serve.

    * Expectation of Excellence. Excellence in school work and behavior will encourage students to develop qualities like perseverance and determination, and those virtues will affect every aspect of the children's lives as they mature.

The end result of character development education: Children who, as adults, will contribute to the community, and whose moral leadership, values and citizenship will make the world a better place.