The only chance many of today's students have to learn the traits of solid character is from a caring, committed teacher. But do you know how to teach them? Included: Five steps to teaching character traits.
The teacher read Alfred's misbehavior report and shook her head. It was his third playground citation this week and like the others, it was about his derogatory comments. "Alfred, you can't keep saying negative things to people," she explained. "You've got to start acting more respectfully." "I'll try," he sadly responded. "It's just that I don't know what respectfully means."
Teachers everywhere are voicing a concern: far too many of their students do not know the meaning of critical character traits. As a result, a growing number of students are failing in a core subject needed for successful living: solid character. Psychologists tell us that one way students learn character traits is by watching others do things right. Recall just a few incidents children have seen recently on national television -- professional baseball players spitting in umpire's faces, a champion boxer biting a chunk off his opponent's ear, Super Bowl Sunday events requiring airing delays because of what an entertainer might reveal to the kiddies. Then there is the litany of national scandals involving everyone from politicians to priests to corporate officials to teachers. Now ask yourself, "To whom are your students looking to learn sound character traits?" The answer is troubling.
The breakdown of appropriate role models certainly is not the only reason for the decline in character development. Dr. Thomas Lickona, author of Character Matters, cites an increase in ten troubling youth trends in our society that point to an overall moral decline: violence and vandalism, stealing, cheating, disrespect for authority, peer cruelty, bigotry, bad language, sexual precocity and abuse, increasing self-centeredness and declining civic responsibility, and self-destruction. It's yet another reason why so many of today's students lack solid character.
The fact is that school might very well be the last beacon of hope for many students. Where else will they have a chance to understand the value of a trait called "responsibility" or "caring" or "respect" or "cooperation?" Where else will they have the opportunity to watch someone model those traits appropriately? Where else but from a caring, committed teacher will many of today's students have a chance to learn the traits of solid character?
How do we help students develop strong character? The answer is found in this premise: Character traits are learned; therefore we can teach them. It means that educators have tremendous power because they can teach students critical character traits. But building students' character involves a few steps.
No matter what character trait you choose to enhance -- perseverance, determination, empathy, responsibility, respect, caring, or another -- there are five minimum steps to teaching it. The steps can be integrated easily into your lesson plans, but each is equally important to ensure that your students develop stronger character.
The five teaching steps are:
Step 1. Accentuate a Character Trait
The first step to teaching any new character trait is simply to accentuate it to students. Many schools have found that emphasizing a different character trait each month can be a successful, practical first step approach. When everyone at your site is reinforcing and modeling the same trait, students are more likely to learn that character trait. As each new character trait is introduced, a student campaign committee can start a blitz, creating banners, signs, and posters to hang up around the school to convince other students of the trait's merit. Four of the simplest ways to accentuate a character trait are:
Step 2. Tell the Value and Meaning of the Trait
The second step in teaching a character trait is to convey to students exactly what the trait means and why it is important to learn. Explain the trait to students within their realm of experiences; never assuming they've been exposed to the trait. Many have not. Ways to define new traits to students include:
Step 3. Teach What the Trait Looks and Sounds Like
There is no perfect way to teach the trait, but research on teaching new skills says telling students hw to do the behavior is not nearly as important as showing them the behavior. You can make a significant difference by modeling the trait and making your character education lessons as concrete as possible. Three ways you can do that are:
Step 4. Provide Opportunities to Practice the Trait
Generally students must be provided with frequent opportunities to practice the new behaviors. Learning theory tell us it generally takes 21 days of practice before a new behavior is acquired. This is an important rule to keep in mind as you try these activities with your students. Three ways you can help students review their character progress are:
Step 5. Provide Effective Feedback,
The final step in teaching any character trait is to reinforce to students appropriate or incorrect trait behavior as soon as convenient. Doing so helps clarify to the student: "You're on the right track; keep it up," or "Almost, but this is what to do instead." Catching students doing a behavior wrong before it becomes a bad habit increases the student's chances of acquiring more positive character traits. Here are a few reminders about giving effective feedback:
With the growing number of today's students lacking solid character development, it is imperative that schools incorporate ongoing character education. Keep in the mind, the best character lessons are ones that blend naturally into your existing plans. There are endless ways to use literature, videos, music, quotations, news articles, and historical figures that embody the themes of strong character. Perhaps the simplest way to enhance your students' character development is to accentuate a character trait each month. Doing so optimizes students' chances of developing solid character they'll use not only now, but for the rest of their lives. Above all, never forget your own impact on your students' character development. You do make a difference!