What is Character Education?

Lindsay Rayner
Lindsay Rayner
Middle School Principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership
Female teacher sitting with smiling young student writing on paper.

What is Character Education?

According to education author Thomas Lackona, the purpose of education is to “help people become smart, and to help them become good.” As educators, we spend most of our time making students smarter. We also need to spend time making them better.

Character education is the process by which humans learn to interact with society, usually through the teaching of core virtues such as courage, justice, and wisdom. Feelings, thoughts, and actions all work together to form character. Character education is the act of teaching students how to regulate those feelings, thoughts, and actions into pro-social behaviors.

Character education can be a stand-alone curriculum, or it can be part of a larger school initiative, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Not surprisingly, it is more effective when integrated into the academic curriculum and other school initiatives.

Character Education is a Tier 1 Support, meaning it should be offered to all students, not just the ones who show a lack of character. However, further character education interventions may be necessary for some students.

The Importance of Character Education

Character education has always been important, but its relevance has varied over time. In the eighteenth century, our new nation’s leaders understood that democracy required virtuous citizens who could exercise their rights responsibly.  As the majority of our nation’s populace was Protestant Christians, the Bible was the primary source of character education. Character education was taught through the lens of religious morality.

As more immigrants arrived from predominantly Catholic countries, controversy arose over the correct source material for teaching good character. This is where secular texts such as McGuffey Readers offered values-based instruction that was applicable to a more diverse population.

As Americans began to question traditional power structures in the 1960s, character education declined in American schools. This is in part due to the rise of moral relativism, a more pluralistic society, and the misconception that teaching character means teaching religion. By the end of the 1970s, character education was reduced to teaching thinking skills, rather than instructing students in specific values.

In the 1980s, character education made a resurgence, thanks to the “war on drugs” and the desire to reduce violence. Once again, schools were encouraged to offer direct instruction in character education.

Since then, we have come full circle to educating the whole child. The Whole Child Initiative encourages wraparound education that addresses students’ need to be “healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged”.

Today’s character education curriculum emphasizes Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). According to The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is the “process of being able to identify and manage our emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

As school leaders, we must strive to offer character development as part of a social-emotional learning approach that addresses the whole child.

How to Implement Character Education Programs in Your School

Begin with the End in Mind

Start by establishing expectations for your program. Decide with your Building Leadership team (BLT) what you expect out of students and make those expectations very clear to everyone in the building.

Share Leadership

Chances are good that you have a teacher or group of teachers that is passionate about character education. Share leadership with these folks and work to establish teacher buy-in.

Emphasize Relationships

Study after study shows that students learn and behave better for people with whom they have a positive relationship. It is no different when it comes to character education.

Make it a Daily Ritual

Incorporate direct instruction in character education EVERY DAY. By all means possible, institute a homeroom or advisory period that meets daily. The daily interaction also establishes relationship building that is so important for building character. Weekly video announcements centering around character education allow you as the building leader to set the tone for the rest of the building. A daily recitation of school expectations is also a consistent reminder of school values.

Make it Building-Wide

In general, every student should be participating in the same character education program at the same time. This allows you to establish consistent language surrounding character, which makes communication easier among the building population. It also allows for more meaningful discussions with students.

Stay Flexible

Even if you pick a great character education program, sometimes you will have to veer off-plan a little. As long as it is in the best interest of students, you are on safe ground.

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