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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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Comments (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a first grade teacher, I agree that we need to spend time developing character in children at an early age. I believe that early character development is vital, if a student is going to be successful in or out of the classroom. To ensure character development in students, I also believe that educators must model character development in their personal lives if it is going to be successful in the classroom. As teachers model character development traits, students are able to build relationships with teachers. Children learn by example.

I teach in a school where character development is a priority. We use the Pillars of Character to teach students. Each month the school focuses on a pillar. For example, during the month that we focus on Citizenship, the students are encouraged to perform acts of good citizenship at school, at home, and in the community. Some teachers implement class projects for monthly character pillars. My school works diligently to instill character development in students so that they will be productive citizens.

In my opinion, integrity is the foundation of character development. Integrity is personal honesty. If individuals cannot be honest with themselves, it will be difficult to be honest with others. As teachers model a life of integrity, hopefully students will follow by example and they will have a brighter future.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not agree more with your article, Maurice. I am currently a graduate student as many others mentioned and a first grade teacher. It seems teachers are feeling the pressure of "teaching to the test" at even the youngest of grades now.

Similar to a few other posters, I spend a good bit of time on character development in my classroom, especially at the beginning of school. We do many activities to model how we should treat others, being a good friend, making the right choices, and many other important life skills or character traits. I believe it is very important to model and show the young students in my class how to build and use good character choices.

As a school, our school also works to build good character in our students. Each week we have a life skill or character trait that we focus on. They announce the trait in the morning announcements and give an example of it. After the announcements we are able to discuss the trait together and give other examples that show good use of the trait. We also have a student of the week in each grade level. This student is recognized not only for academic success but for showing good character. Our students of the week do not have to be limited to just those that do well on a test.

Through my graduate studies, it has been confirmed that having these good character traits leads to being more effective as a teacher. The first few chapters of the book, On Being a Teacher the Human Dimension, discusses how important it is for teachers to have the character traits of honesty, compassion, patience, sense of humor and more. It states in order to be effective we must have more than book knowledge (Kottler, J., Zehm, Kottler, E., 2005). I believe as you stated above this also applies to our students. Our students need to gain more than just book knowledge from us as educators.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Joan Boniello's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lori: How sad is the statement that educators" are too focused on preparing students for a life of tests rather than for the tests of life." It is sad that many school systems spend little time on SECD however, I am fortunate to work in a district that is passionate about Character Development. Students participate in Character Education Classes every other marking period. This certainly is not enough, therefore I reinforce social, emotional, and character skills in my class through literature. Students, especially young students, love to be read to--having a captive audience allows me the opportunity to discuss many of the lessons learned through carefully selected books. I agree that as educators it is our responsibility to teach character development as well as teaching the skills needed to pass the next round of testing. Excellent educators make the time to help students communicate, peacefully problem solve,learn compassion, and understand the differences in all.
Until SECD becomes systematic in all schools it is up to us, the educators ,to find a way to incorporate it into our daily lessons .

Maurice Eliasrut's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many who embark on character education/SEL/SECD are pioneers in their schools. But you are not alone! If you are uncomfortable posting your location, please feel free to go to www.teachSECD.com or email at dsacs.admin@gmail.com and let me know where you are located. There may be some other pioneers nearby with whom you can join and have collaboration and support.

Sophia Coxson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so thrilled that I stumbled upon this blog. In my classroom I spend a great deal of my time building character. I want to equip my students with morals, values, responsibility and independence. Isn't it our jobs to supply our students with the necessary tools to being successful in life? So many of our students are not getting those values, morals and responsibilities that they desperately need, at home. That's why they come to school unprepared and without the knowledge of conflict resolution. I believe SECD is one of the most important things our students need. When I think about some of the questions raised about whether it is being taught all over the school I currently work at I am truly sadden. Like so many of my peers and colleagues I spend a tremendous amount of time preparing my students for the tests. I believe if we as a whole exert as much energy into preparing our students for life as opposed to just preparing them for promotion, we will have a better student success rate.

Rob B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree more with this article. I find that teaching has become almost entirely focused on standardized testing. As a second grade teacher, you would expect to have time to touch upon basic character development. I recently had to have a long conversation with a student regarding his anger. The student became angry and decided to break his pencil. He was completely unaware that breaking things is an unacceptable way to deal with anger. It blew me away that he would not have this knowledge. Now reading this article, it makes me wonder if the reason for his lack of knowledge has to do with no one actually taking the time to teach him. I am assuming he is seeing this type of destructive behavior at home, and would probably not learn the appropriate ways to deal with anger in any other setting outside of school. This saddens and worries me in regards to the future of our society.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Good for you, Joan. I think when people say there isn't enough time for character development it is just an excuse. Teachers need to be flexible and creative, and there are tons of ways to integrate character development into the school day. Through literature, book studies, and writing prompts we can discuss and share these moral lessons with our students.

Brittany Y.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this article. I think that it is important that people recognize that it is not just about grade your child brings home on a report card, but what type of person are they becoming? Are they being molded for a successful life? Will they be a good, productive citizen? These are so much more important than a standardized test score! Excellent blog!

Mishima's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to translate what it REALLY is saying (in parentheses):

"Teachers now recognize that successful academic performance by students depends on the following" (Teachers are now responsible for what parents used to be):

"Students have social and emotional skills." (Forget academics and build self-esteem; do not fail anyone; spend time on touchy-feely activities)

"Students approach education with a sense of positive purpose." (Reward students for any work, no matter what the quality.)

"Teachers find and nurture children's strengths." (More touchy-feely, no-failure, non-competitive and meaningless actitivies)

"Teachers offer students opportunities to develop every day."" (Teachers must be entertainers. If a student is not motivated, it is the teacher's fault.)

"Teachers allow kids to express their own unique abilities, exercise sound character, and contribute positively to the classroom, school, or community." (Accept anything and everything from the students, no matter how outrageous or disorderly or vulgar)

"Students have a safe, supportive school climate that fosters a respectful, challenging, and engaging learning community." (Spend more class time on socializing students and less on academics)


"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,"


The students are out of control. We can no longer teach them basic academics but must think of something to reduce chaos in the schools. We have lost the will to hold students to standards and have given up on trying to be competitive in the world.

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