Building Character in Students

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Most educators agree that assisting students in building moral character is a worthwhile goal. Some of the virtues stressed in schools today include:
compassion, courtesy, cooperation, responsibility, fairness, tolerance, self-control, courage, knowledge, citizenship, perseverance, helpfulness, honesty,and respectfulness (toward self, others, authority, property and the environment)

How can educators instill these character traits in students?
  1. In your role as an educator, think about individuals who have influenced your life. Make a list of the values they possessed that inspired you. Write down any additional beliefs. Decide which core virtues guide your actions.
  2. Meet with school staff. As a group, develop a list of virtues that everyone can support. Elicit their commitment to model these character traits and to reinforce them in students. You may want to display the list and/or accentuate one value each week or month.
  3. Strive to create an impartial, accepting school community that cares for all children regardless of differences.
  4. Model the ethical beliefs you want to cultivate in your students and identify your commendable actions. For example,

      "When I do what I say I will do, I am being dependable."
      "I am being fair when I treat each of you the same."
      "When the principal asked me why I was late yesterday, I told the truth even though it was hard to admit that I had overslept.

  5. Read, discuss and act out stories that teach commendable character traits. Have the children draw pictures, make up games, songs and/or their own stories about characters who made ethical choices. As a class project, design and produce a mural which depicts character-building virtues.
  6. Challenge students to demonstrate noteworthy character traits. Reinforce the positive actions by noticing and commenting. For example,

      " John, when you welcomed the new student and offered to show him around, you were being friendly and helpful."

    Also, encourage students to notice virtuous behavior in each other. They can give verbal feedback or write down what happened and place it in a "Good Character Box" to be read later. Have a bulletin board celebrating character traits displayed by students.

  7. Provide opportunities for dramatizing situations that help students understand the perspectives of others and develop empathy. For example: A boy dropped his lunch tray, or a girl missed catching the ball. Put the students in the situation. Then help them identify the child's feeling and guide them toward responding with kindness.
  8. Study autobiographies of outstanding persons such as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Jackie Robinson, Benjamin Franklin, Johnny Appleseed, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Jane Addams, John Glenn, the Wright brothers, or others the children discover in their own communities. Ask the students what character traits each exhibited and which ones they had in common. Have them list their own strengths, or the virtues they have observed in other students.
  9. Ask each student to pretend to be a reporter and interview an older person. Together compose a list of questions to ask. For example:
    • "What was life like when you were a child?"
      "Who was the most important person in your life?"
      "What made him/her special to you?"
      "Can you tell about a special holiday memory?"
      "Where were you during the war?"
      "What values do you live by?"
      "When you think about your life, what makes you the most proud?"
      "Is there anything you would have done differently?"

    Have each student draw a picture and/or write a report about the person interviewed. Compile the papers in a book.

  10. Provide age-appropriate opportunities for children to develop decision making skills regarding moral judgments. For example:

      "You promised to help your grandma clean her apartment, but at the last minute you are invited to go to the movies with a friend."
      What would you do? (Dependable)

      "You broke your aunt's favorite vase. But since it was on a high shelf, maybe she won't notice that it is gone."
      What would you do? (Truthfulness)

      "You have an important part in a group project with three other students. You told them it would be done on time, but the night before it was due, your dad wanted you to go to a baseball game."
      What would you do? (Trustworthy)

  11. Involve children in making classroom rules. Make expectations clear and follow through with meaningful consequences.
  12. When disputes arise, help students arrive at an agreeable solution. Follow these steps:
    • Stop, cool down

    • Ask, "What is the problem?"

    • Each one answers and listens

    • Brainstorm possible solutions

    • Agree on a plan

    • Try it

    • If it does not work, agree to try something else

  13. Demonstrate communication skills. Be consistent and send clear messages. Listen respectfully to student's ideas and answer their questions.
  14. Set high but reasonable academic standards for yourself and your students. Be respectful and honest in your relationships and academic work. Be prepared to inspire learning through your knowledge and enthusiasm.
  15. Consider children's ages and abilities when you make assignments. Teach tenacity by requiring the completion of work and honesty by holding the students accountable for doing their own lessons.
  16. Show your humility by acknowledging your mistakes. Yet demonstrate perseverance.
  17. Remember what Mother Teresa said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." Share your time, talents and belongings. Encourage your students to volunteer at school and/or in their community. Facilitate altruistic projects like clothing collections, food donations, cleaning up litter, or other beneficial activities.
  18. Recruit and involve parent and community leaders as supporters in the character-building efforts through programs, newsletters, or other methods.
  19. Partner with parents to monitor children's exposure to media and materials that can undermine virtuous behavior and promote early sexual involvement, violence, drug use, and other detrimental behaviors.
  20. Remind parents that they are their children's role models. If children are to develop positive character traits, the adults in their lives must live the values they hold dear, as well as emphasize the importance of building caring relationships rather than accumulating things.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 12/2000

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