HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Character education: as imporant as academics?

No longer afraid of teaching values, many schools have added character education to their lesson plans.

By GreatSchools Staff

For years parents and teachers discussed whether or not to teach values in schools. That debate ended when two boys opened fire at Columbine High School in 1999, killing 15 students, including themselves. In the wake of that tragedy, the worst incidence of school violence in our nation's history, discussion has shifted to which values to teach and how to teach them effectively.

"In the long run, I'm not sure that it matters if a student learns algebra, but I know that it matters if a student learns right from wrong," says George Booz, former principal at South Carroll High School in Sykesville, Maryland, a school nationally recognized for its character education program. "I know that it matters if a person learns that in this world we have to help each other. I don't see how we get around that."

Character education programs have sprouted up around the country, some with astonishing, quantifiable results:

In 1993 the playground at Seattle's Gatzert Elementary School, a high-poverty school where a third of the children are homeless, resembled a battlefield at lunch recess. The only way to control the fistfighting and violent behavior was to line up the 40 to 50 troublemakers along the school wall and keep an eye on them. Today only minor problems occur on the playground, and no children are lined up against the wall.

The successful transformation took a lot of hard work on the part of staff and students, according to Judy Ginn, a third grade teacher at the school. New staff, prevention intervention specialists, paying attention to changing the climate and culture at the school, and the Giraffe Heroes Project, a hands-on character education curriculum that she and other teachers at the school have used in their classrooms since 1994, all played a part.

Through the Giraffe Project, children work with adult volunteers and learn to be like giraffes - that is, animals who stick their necks out, have big hearts, are persistent, do no harm and make the world a better place through their actions. The children come up with community-based projects, such as canned food drives or anti-litter campaigns, which they organize themselves. In the process, they learn to work together for the common good and to contribute something positive.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, at gang-plagued Garfield Middle School, Character Counts, a character education program that highlights six facets of character through a prescribed curriculum, was introduced with great success. In the first year, the number of recorded incidents of school violence declined from 91 to 26, according to Principal Louis Martinez.

After the Round Rocks School District in Austin, Texas, instituted character education as part of the curriculum, Jollyville School, an elementary school in the district with 576 students, reported a 40% percent drop in discipline referrals.

What is character education?

Character education is the teaching of core values. For example, the Character Counts program defines six teachable "pillars of character": trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

In his book, The Educated Child, William J. Bennett writes, "Good character education means cultivating virtues through formation of good habits." According to Bennett, children need to learn through actions that honesty and compassion are good, and that deceit and cruelty are bad. He believes that adults in schools and parents should strive to be models of good character.

Character education is most effective when it is spread throughout regular school courses. In science, teachers can discuss the value of honesty in data, and in math, students can learn persistence by sticking with a problem until they get the right answer. History holds valuable lessons and heroes of character, such as the honesty of Abraham Lincoln, who walked three miles to return 6 cents.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, many teachers shied away from teaching about values because they did not feel it was their place to impose their own values on their students. But now they are seeing how including character education can transform a school community. In teaching the Giraffe Heroes Project, Ginn notes, "Values is an emotionally laden term. We avoid that discussion. The way we see it, we are teaching life skills, what you need to know to live in the world. We have to do this because it's a cultural imperative that kids learn to get along."

Effective models

Not all character education programs are effective, according to Bennett. Lofty discussions about gun control, abortion and same-sex marriages don't teach children right from wrong or how to get along with others. Beware of school administrators, he writes, who simply post signs that say "Help others," or "Thanks for being kind today" and think they have done their job. Effective programs engage children in hands-on activities where good character is emphasized throughout the school environment as well as through the curriculum.

Character education includes having high standards for students' academic success, too. "When they are challenged to work up a mental sweat, they learn about virtues such as industry and persistence," writes Bennett. "When students rarely get homework, when they aren't held accountable for mistakes in spelling or grammar or arithmetic, when they can put forth little effort but still earn high grades, schools foster laziness, carelessness and irresponsibility."

The parent's role

Many teachers complain that parents are too lax and don't provide enough discipline at home. Character education works best when schools and families work together. Here is what you as a parent can do to help:

  • Ask your child's teacher or principal whether the school has a character education program. If the school has a program, find out how well it is working and what you can do at home or as a volunteer at school to support the program. If the school doesn't have a program, check the resources section below to learn about successful programs that you can help bring to your school.
  • Ask to see your child's homework. Encourage your child to establish good work habits. Be firm in your expectations that your child complete his assignments neatly, thoroughly and on time. Set limits, such as "No television until the homework is complete." Check to see that assignments get returned to your child, and that the teacher makes corrections and sets high standards.
  • Take action if your child is learning bad habits or shows a lack of discipline. Express your concerns about bad habits to your child's teacher or bring up the topic at the next parent-teacher conference.
  • Demonstrate courage, respect and compassion through your actions. Talk to your child about good character, and model the behavior you want your child to have. Talk about other people you know who are examples of good character.


Comments from readers

"The challenge is which values to teach. Our school has done away with honor roll and straight A celebrations in favor of rewarding students for coming to school on time, staying out of trouble and making at least C's "
"Character is great but not when it is used as a tool to intimidate the students. There needs to be a guidline so that the administration at a staff can do it correctly without intimidation to the point of fear. Read the comments: ns-parents-complain-about-disciplining-at-girls-prep/ "
"I believe that forcing teens to do community service to graduate is wrong. I am a 10th grade student, and have enough on my plate to boggle my own parent's minds. I make straight 'A's' because it is required of me, and have something to do after school EVERY day. If I had to do community service to graduate, I would fail because I just don't have TIME. Teenagers have lives and, though adults would like to deny it, often have just as much - or more - stress on their shoulders as their parents. That said, let us move on to the real issue at hand: Incorporating morals into the school system. We say that children - teenagers, even - need to be taught right from wrong. But I ask you: Do adults even know these morals? And, if they know, do they act on that knowledge? Don't be biased about your own age group. Admittedly, our moral structure has fallen dramatically since our parent's childhood years. You can't let a kid walk down the street alone without being afraid they'll be kidn! apped. You can't let your children trick-or-treat just anywhere, because you don't know who puts what in their candy. Our society has spiralled downward, but you can't blame it on your kids, OR give up hope. We say youth should learn right from wrong at an early age. To have it taught in the schools. There are 2 points I'd like to make about that. 1, school only lasts about 7 hours a day. Out of 24, that leaves a span of 17 hours for your kid to be corrupted before the next day begins. And, honestly, who does a 1st grader look up to more: their teacher, or their parents? If you, yourself, don't have your priorities straight, and don't live an honest life, how can you expect the same out of your children? 2, they may learn right from wrong, but they may not CHOOSE to go the right way. This is especially true for teenagers. We're at a point in our lives where we question everything going on around us. You give us an answer, we want proof. Why? Because we're trying to build ou! r own character now. We want to think for ourselves, test our ! boundari es. Say you've taught your teen all his life that he shouldn't smoke. Well, when he turns 16, he bums a ciggarette off a friend, and tries it anyways. Now, he knows it's wrong, but he's testing his boundaries anyways. Why is it wrong? Does it taste bad? Why did my parents not want me to do this? Don't hate him for it. Don't judge him for the decisions he has made - and will make - during these years of his life. If you look back, are you the same now as you were when you went to high school? I highly doubt it. You may carry some of the same traits, a bit of the same personality, but you have changed. We all do. We all will. I agree with enforcing morals in school. Lord knows, our society needs it! My point here is this: Don't judge for what has happened, and don't be angry for what will happen. Just make sure you're there when your child needs a shoulder to cry on. We all learn better from our own mistakes, anyways."
" I think that students have enough on their plate with passing the wasl requirements for graduation; developing a portfolio; having to present it to the school board prior to graduating. They don't need community service on top of that. Plus with a bill pending in washington state, they need to pass the wasl prior to getting a drivers license. If this should go through anytime in the future; it affects those for the 11th grade who want a job; who have no transportion to do the community service; or parents who care. At the last open house at Highline High School, of 42 students in a class, 4 parents showed up! Not a very committed family setting. If they don't support their children in school, do you really think they are supportive outside of school?"
"This is a great article. I'm a seventh grade science teacher and I just informed my Principal that I wanted to spearhead a character education program at my 100% minority, 95% poverty middle school. This article helped me to gain insight into the kind of success we could have by implementing a character education program."
"We've found another great program for character education call 'Learning for Life' which is a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts. They have a great K-6 curricula that is easy to use, and fits into and suppliments the core subjects. "
"It's about time we see something like this. The 'do your own thing' era is over, hopefully. I will pass this article on to some teachers, parents and students I know. Thanks for the article! "
"I am working with a school that has high suspension, low attendence rate, students are not interested in learning and low test scores I am looking for a program of interest for students and teachers. And a why to get parents involved with their child If you can shed some light, please help "
"I am currently a homeschooler; character education is the most important part of my childrens' day. I am glad to see character education being brought to the schools for the wellness of our homes, communities and nation. We definitely need well-rounded children! "
"This article is a long-time coming. It's so refreshing and on the right track to bringing our children back to the 6 basic steps you mentioned above. I wish this article could have come out 20 years ago. "
"My question to you is...will character education and the policy on No Child left behind have close ties? I think the article is great! However I feel No Child left behind is not focused on character but over reacting to education and not character. I am an educator at an elementary school! "