author of 22 books
||Five Steps to Teaching Solid Character in Students
Reprinted from Today's Catholic Teacher April 1999
by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
Author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing
The teacher read Alfred’s misbehavior report and shook her head. It was his third playground citation this week and it was always 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 one way students learn character traits is by watching others do them right. Recall just a few incidents children have recently seen on national television: a professional baseball player spitting in an umpire’s face and is not held accountable, a champion boxer biting a chunk off his opponent’s ear, the Speaker of the House admitting to an adulterous relationship, the Olympic Committee accused of bribery, and the President of the United States impeached for perjury. Ask yourself, just who are your students looking to to learn sound character traits? The answer is troubling.
The breakdown of appropriate role models is certainly not the only reason for the decline in character development. Dr. Thomas Lickona, author of Educating for Character, 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.
Schools Are the Last Beacon of Hope
The fact is that school may 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 these traits appropriately? The simple truth is, where else but from a caring, committed teacher will many of today’s students have a chance to learn the traits of solid character?
So the question is: 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. And how to build students’ character involves just a few steps.
Five Steps to Teaching Any Character Trait
No matter what character trait you choose to enhance--perseverance, determination, empathy, responsibility, respect, caring or any other--there are five steps to teaching it. The steps can easily be integrated into your lesson plans and each is equally important in ensuring your students develop stronger character. Here are the five teaching steps to teaching any character trait:
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 emphasizing a different character trait each month can be a successful as well as practical strategy. When everyone at the site is reinforcing and modeling the same trait, students are more likely to learn the new 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 convincing the rest of the students of the trait’s merit. Here are four of the simplest ways to accentuate a character trait:
- Character posters. An easy way to begin your lesson is to ask students to make posters about the trait. Be sure to hang them everywhere and anywhere for at least a month: Responsibility: It means I’m doing what is right to myself and others and I can be counted on.
- Character assembly. Many sites introduce the trait at a school-wide assembly. This is the time the staff describes the trait’s value, and even presents a short skit about what the trait looks like.
- Screen savers. Each day, a staff or student writes a brief sentence describing the trait’s benefits on the central screen saver. Anytime anyone anywhere in the school uses the computer, the first thing they see 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 loud speaker ways students can demonstrate the selected trait. Names of students caught demonstrating the trait can also be announced.
Step 2. Tell the Value and Meaning of the Trait
The second step to 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 your students’ within their realm of experiences never assuming they’ve been exposed to the trait. Many have not. Here are a few ways to define new traits to students:
- 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.)
- News articles. Ask students to collect current news articles of real people demonstrating the trait. You might begin each day with a brief review of a real event in the world in which the trait was displayed to confirm the trait’s 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. Suppose 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 begin looking for others demonstrating the trait at the school. Their job is to now report back to the class who demonstrated the trait, what the student did and the effect the student’s actions had on the other individual.
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 how to do the behavior is no where near 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. Here are three ways:
- 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 at either a school-wide assembly or in each classroom to show other students the value of the trait and 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 they are reminded of what the skill looks like.
Step 4. Provide Opportunities to Practice the Trait
Generally students must be provided with frequent opportunities to practice the new behaviors. In fact, 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. Here’s three ways to help students review their character progress:
- Character videotapes. One of the most unique ways to help students see their progress is by having students videotape students demonstrating the trait. The tape is then played and analyzed for all to see.
- Write reflection logs. Students can keep ongoing log of their trait progress by writing each day what one thing they did that day to demonstrate the trait.
- Assign character homework. Character ?homework? can be assigned by asking students to practice the skill at home with their family. Home attempts can then be recorded in a notebook.
Step 5. Provide Effective Feedback
The final step to 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 character traits. Here are a few reminders about giving effective feedback:
- Use ‘constructive criticism. If the students’ behavior was correct immediately tell him: This is what you did right. If the behavior was wrong tell him what to do 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. So redo any incorrect behavior with the student on the spot.
- Catch positive behaviors. Look for opportunities to catch them doing the trait right. When you reinforce character behaviors done correctly, students are more likely to repeat the behavior.
Educators Can Make A Difference
With the growing number of today’s students lacking solid character development, it is imperative that schools incorporate ongoing character education. Keep in 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!
Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an internationally-recognized consultant and author of eighteen books including Character Builders and Esteem Builders, by Jalmar Press, Parents Do Make a Difference: How to Raise Kids with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts by Jossey Bass and Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing (Jossey Bass Publishers). Information on her publications and seminars can be accessed through her Web site, www.moralintelligence.com.
© 2001 by Michele Borba. Please contact for permission to reprint.