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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Character Development: The Other Side of the Report Card

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

Both in school and after school, teachers, administrators, and staff feel as if they are working harder and harder without seeing proportional results. Frustration is mounting, especially in low-performing districts, over fleeting academic gains despite the ever-increasing efforts teachers make to improve test scores.

Along with that discontent, there's a growing backlash: We are too focused on preparing students for a life of tests rather than for the tests of life. Does anyone really want to put on a résumé that he or she provided tremendous intellectual tools to students, but did not offer strong positive moral values and a sense of human decency and civic commitment?

Research, observation, experience, and common sense have converged to suggest strongly that student success, which includes but is not limited to academic learning, depends a great deal on the other side of the report card. Students who are actively engaged in class and come prepared, who cooperate with their peers, who resolve conflicts peacefully, who complete their work, who attend school often and are not tardy, and who demonstrate initiative and leadership are more likely to succeed in school and, ultimately, in life.

An author first made the case for the other side of the report card in an article in the American School Boards Journal in 2002, but it may have been a bit premature. Now, however, the time for this topic has arrived.

The next time you lead a meeting of parents or school board members -- this activity works especially well at Back-to-School Night -- encourage people to answer the following questions honestly and to share their responses among themselves before having an overall group discussion:

  • Do you want your children to become knowledgeable?
  • Do you want them to be responsible, nonviolent, drug free, caring?
  • If I were to tell you that the curriculum is too crowded to teach them all of those qualities, which ones would you give up?

When we ask teachers and parents in New Jersey -- as well as around the United States and throughout the world -- that final question, they recognize how difficult a choice it is. Actually, it is an impossible one. We cannot prepare children to assume their adult roles and the mantle of civic leadership unless they emerge from their school years with all of these attributes.

Educators now have a few names to describe skills such as sound character and citizenship: emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning (SEL), or, as we now say in New Jersey, social-emotional and character development. SECD is truly a blend of social and emotional learning and character education, created based on educator input after a decade of implementing the two approaches separately. Teachers now recognize that successful academic performance by students depends on the following:

  • Students have social and emotional skills.
  • Students approach education with a sense of positive purpose.
  • Teachers find and nurture children's strengths.
  • Teachers offer students opportunities to develop every day.
  • Teachers allow kids to express their own unique abilities, exercise sound character, and contribute positively to the classroom, school, or community.
  • Students have a safe, supportive school climate that fosters a respectful, challenging, and engaging learning community.

So ask yourself, what are you doing to build SECD among the students in your school? Just as important, ask yourself what the teacher in the classroom next to you is doing. Do you know what teachers are doing in the grade level prior to yours? How about in the next grade level? Do you know what your school's overall plan is for building students' SECD?

If we are not systematic in building students' SECD skills, we will face the consequences of social-emotional illiteracy and lack of character proficiency just as we would face illiteracy if we failed to build reading skills systematically. What are you doing at your school to foster these skills in your students?

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Vanessa Denison (Savannah, GA)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read your blog as part of a Graduate School assignment and found myself captivated by your theory on Character Development in the classroom. For years I have used similar strategies to stimulate and develop positive character traits in my students with negative feedback from other teachers. Their point of view is just as you stated in your blog, that 'we need to spend any and all extra time focused on testing.' It's not the material or the time factor anymore that is making me despise these tests, it is the fact that the human dimension of teaching is being completely removed from the classroom.
I will ask parents those questions that you presented next school year at Open House. Hopefully that will be a tool that I can use to open dialogue between myself and parents to inform them of my desire to not only teach academic development but character development as well. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

Nicole Knutsen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a kindergarten teacher, I am very interested in the long term benefit of character development. I, too, have spent some time in class on teaching my students to become more aware of the needs of those around them, to take responsibility for how they treat people, and to take responsibility for themselves. I have seen wonderful results from this focus on creating a class community. Students are motivated, they take ownership, and they support each other. At the moment, i am wrapping up a unit about Africa. We have spent time comparing our lifestyle in southern California to the lifestyle of a group of kindergarten students in Uganda. Just today, i watched as my thirty three kinders brainstormed amazing ways we could help other children halfway around th world. Again, there are definetly those who say such activities are a waste of instructional time, but I have seen the benefit of focusing on character first hand.

Lori Puckett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The statement you make that educators "are too focused on preparing students for a life of tests rather than for the tests of life" is sadly true for many educators and school systems. However, I believe that schools have been forced into this practice by having to abide by state and federal policies that are often unrealistic and largely unattainable. These same policies having been made by legislators that are far removed from the classroom and that have little experience teaching.

I am an education graduate student and a practicing teacher. I think I am at a competent level in my teaching. I also think that I am a compassionate and empathetic teacher. Nevertheless, everyday I feel the pressure of making sure my students are prepared for their next round of testing. I find it all too easy to fall into the erroneous belief that because my students and school system have to make the grade based on insane governmental policies, I only have time to teach what my students need to know for the "test." Fortunately, through my graduate studies, I have been reminded that excellent teachers are communication specialists. Their exceptional ability in communicating with students is one of the attributes that makes it possible for students to be excellent learners. Teachers who are excellent communicators understand the necessity of helping students build their communication skills. This includes not only how to talk to another person respectfully but how to actively listen, resolve conflicts peacefully, and use good character. Excellent teachers consciously build time into their daily schedule for students to practice their social, emotional, and character skills.

If teachers work on developing their own SECD, they will become better teachers. This in turn will lead to greater SECD and academic gains in their students. The book "On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension" by Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler spends much time discussing the importance of putting the humanness back into teaching. It discusses the relationship between higher academic gains by students and a teacher's ability to connect and communicate with students. It also gives good information on ways that teachers can help develop SECD in students.

I agree that SECD needs to be systematic in schools. Making sure that it is a regular and important part of a curriculum will guarantee that students and teachers are at least exposed to the skills needed to develop strong SECD.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not agree with you more. I, too, fee the pressure of "making the grade" and this seems to have put a damper on what matters most. My school follows the "40 Assets Character Development" and continues to try to incorporate SECD in our students. I find it quite interesting that it is the teachers, staff, and administrators are the ones who know that SECD is just as, maybe even more as, important as the "Big Test". Our legislators need to listen to those who in day-to-day contact with the students and work together on making policies that affect education.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems we are at odds with what is important for the child and what is important for schools to have the appearance that improvement is being achieved. My son said that the teachers at his school talk all the time about having and showing good character. Being students that care about one another. Being part of a community of learners that can make a difference. But then, what really appears important is that students take higher level classes so the school has more students taking placement tests to make the school look good. Or teachers talking about how the students have to pass the high school tests so they don't have to take the class over. "it's all hype over test scores and appearance" he said. Is that really the message schools want to send to the next generation of thinkers, workers, and tax payers? Your safety and well being are important because we need you to do well on the tests. It's sad that that is how he sees what is important at his school.

Molly H.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we need to spend more time on character development. I teach third grade and sometimes I can see students trying to decide whether to do the right thing, or the easier, wrong thing. I think this age can be a turning point for children. They can really start developing the habit of making good choices and recognizing when their friends make good choices. They are also very interested in community issues at this age. They ask lots of questions about things they hear in the news. With all of the "academic" demands, testing, and "specials" it is hard to squeeze in time for these types of lessons, but where there is a will there is a way.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an interesting blog! When I first read your comments, I immediately recalled a conversation I had with a friend when my daughter was a baby. At that time I was a new teacher and mother, and was particularly distressed about the lack of respect that I had witnessed among students in my school. I believe my exact words were, "I don't care if my baby grows up to be as dumb as a rock...SHE WILL BE polite and respectful to others." Obviously, my statement was a bit exaggerated. I did not want my baby to grow up to be as dumb as a rock (and she isn't by the way) but I was very sincere in my feelings about how she would behave socially.

In regard to your question about what are we doing specifically to improve social and emotional learning, two particular things came to my mind. First, I try to model as many of the desired behaviors to my students. I show respect and concern for them as individuals, I ask that they not be judgmental when others are sharing opinions, and I try to work on personal etiquette (such as waiting your turn instead of interrupting another person). Secondly, I also reiterate the importance of being honest and doing your best work. It seems that cheating has become so acceptable and common place in the classroom that students are completely unabashed about how much they rely on it. I really try to encourage them to take pride in their own work and while collaboration is a wonderful tool, cheating is never acceptable.

Lori Puckett, Michigan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anonymous, It is sad that your son perceives a double standard in caring at his school. I hope that there is a climate of true caring at his school. However, I think that it is possible to have more than one thing be important at a school. Definately, teachers must truly care about students and show that to their students and colleagues. It is also extremely important, because of the federal government's No Child Left Behind, that schools make their adequate yearly progress. One of the components of that is test scores. Schools have to have students pass standardized tests in order to show this progress. I'm not exactly sure what your state's other criteria are in regards to high school. In our state, it looks as if it will become a state mandate that students have to pass a comprehensive test at the end of a course to get credit for it. There is a huge amount of pressure on schools, administrators, teachers and students to make AYP. However, even if we did not have NCLB, I strongly believe that students need to be held to high expectations both by parents and teachers. I do not mean to say that we must expect students to attain something that would be unattainable due to emotional or cognitive issues. I do, however, think that students can attain far more than we think. As a parent, I know that I often have to be careful not to let my child's reluctance and complaining about an assignment, teacher, class, etc. influence my thinking. I have to know what my child is capable of attaining, and often remind her of that. I have to make sure that she remembers that her parents have at least as high expectations for her as do her teachers. If, on the other hand, I think that she is being asked to achieve something that is not possible for her, I need to work with the school to remedy that situation.
I hope your son's experiences with his teachers and in his school can be positive. I hope he is able to make a meaningful personal connection with a teacher. His perception of what he perceives as really important at his school would be a good issue to bring up with a trusted teacher at that school. It is likely that if your son feels that way, others probably do too. Maybe change could be made for the positive. Good luck, anonymous.

Erin Gatto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree more about the importance of SECD! My very first year of teaching my school sent me to the "Don't Laugh At Me" two day workshop for a Character Education program. It was October of my first year of teaching and I immediately saw the need to fit this into the curriculum. We all feel the time crunch, but I believe this is not an option to leave out of the schedule. I plan specific lessons around SECD and find ways to sneak it into other curriculum areas.

I am at a brand new school in our district this year. It was decided to see how the first year progressed before deciding on a character education program. As part of our "Principal's Advisory Council" I brought up the program I have been using for several years. I have heard from numerous parents, students and specials teachers that my class has a different feel to it than others. They say the cooperation is different, the understanding is greater, and the awareness that they are each accountable for helping or hurting the situation is noticed. SECD is not something we can afford to leave out of our day. The thing that I have found is that it can be sprinkled into all other areas of the day!

Thank you for your insight. I look forward to sharing your thought provoking questions with my Principal's Advisory Counsil.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If every student practiced good character, we wouldn't have to worry about test scores. A responsible student and parent would be one that would go home and prepare for tests and quizzes. If the student is below level, responsible would mean coming for help after school or a parent helping at home. If more students were respectful and caring, more time would be spent on instruction in the class than discipline. Students would assist each another. But we don't live in a perfect world!! Even when we model positive behavior, students may make poor choices. At our school, we have PBS (Positive Behavioral Support). When student exhibit positive behavior, in essence good character, we reward them. We give them a raffle ticket that is selected every month. However, I don't see that it has helped. Even when we offer rewards it doesn't have a huge impact. The students that would display positive behavior without the rewards will continue to do so. Very little students, I feel, are inclined to display good character for a raffle ticket. Why should we reward them anyway for something that they should be doing all along??? Society doesn't reward us for being kind or respectful. Good character simply makes you feel good about yourself. Other people may seem you as a good person. This will in turn help you to succeed in life - that's what matters.

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