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Five Steps to Teaching Any Character Trait

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."

About the Author

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an educational consultant, recipient of the National Educator Award, and award-winning author of over 20 books including Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, Don't Give Me That Attitude!, No More Misbehavin', and Parents Do Make A Difference. Her latest book is 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids. She has presented keynotes and workshops to more than one million teachers and parents. For more about her work or to schedule a seminar for your teachers see her Web site Proven Tools to Raise Strong Caring Kids.

For more information, see Reading, Writing...and Moral Intelligence, an Education World interview with Michele Borba.

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:

  • Character posters: Ask students to make posters about the trait. Be sure to hang the posters everywhere and anywhere for at least a month: "Responsibility means I'm doing what is right for myself and others, and that I can be counted on."
  • Character assembly: Many sites introduce the trait at a school-wide assembly. The staff might describe the value of the trait and perhaps present a short skit about it.
  • Screen savers: Each day a staff member or student writes on the central screen saver a brief sentence describing the trait's benefits. Anytime anyone in the school uses the computer, the first thing seen is the screen-saver message accentuating the trait: "It's perseverance month. Remember to work your hardest and not give up!"
  • PA announcements: Many teachers (and schools!) use the beginning of each day to describe over the loudspeaker ways students can demonstrate the selected trait. Names of students "caught demonstrating the trait" also can be announced.

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:

    Character literature: Choose an appropriate selection that embodies the trait and as you read it, ask: "How did the characters demonstrate the character trait? How did the other characters feel when the character acted (name the trait)."
  • New articles: Ask students to collect current news articles about real people demonstrating the trait. You might begin each day with a brief review of a real event in which the trait was displayed to confirm its value.
  • Label traits: Whenever you see or hear a student displaying the targeted trait, take a moment to point out specifically what the student did that demonstrated the trait. "Alex, that was respectful because you waited until I was finished talking before you spoke."
  • Share your belief: Students need to hear why you feel the trait is important. If you are targeting respect, you might tell students how adamant you feel about not talking negatively about yourself or others.
  • Student reporters: Ask students to look for demonstrations of the trait by others at the school. Their job is to report to the class who demonstrated the trait, what the student did, and the effect the students' actions had on other individuals.

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:

  • Trait role plays: Some teachers find it helpful to use another student or colleague to role-play what the trait looks like to their students. It's a simple way to show students exactly what the trait looks and sounds like.
  • Character skits: Students can create quick skits about a character trait and perform it either at a school-wide assembly or in each classroom to show other students the value of the trait, as well as what the trait looks and sounds like.
  • Trait photographs: Photograph students actually demonstrating the character trait. Develop the pictures, enlarge them on a copying machine, and paste them on a chart so students are reminded of what the skills looks like.

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:

  • Character videotapes: Students can see their progress by videotaping one another demonstrating the trait. The tape is played and analyzed for all to see.
  • Write reflection logs: Students can keep an ongoing log of their trait progress by writing each day one thing they did that day to demonstrate the trait.
  • Assign character homework: Ask students to practice the skill at home and record their efforts and results in a notebook.

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:

  • Use constructive criticism: If the student's behavior was correct, immediately tell him "This is what you did right." If the behavior was wrong, tell him what to do to make it right: "What you did was not right, but this is what you can do next time."
  • Do on-the-spot correction: Students benefit from immediate behavior correction.
  • Catch positive behaviors: Look for opportunities to "Catch them doing the trait right." When you reinforce character traits that are done correctly, students are more likely to repeat the behavior.


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!