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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Tool to Help Students Assess and Improve Their Character

A simple ledger can keep character top of mind for middle and high school students and allow them to track their improvement over time.

July 28, 2021
FangXiaNuo / iStock

The history of character assessment goes back literally thousands of years. The first prominent system for character assessment was created by Benjamin Franklin in the mid-1700s. Character assessment was seen as the best method of improving character. As with many things in education and psychology, old wisdom anticipated current insights. Let’s look at this assessment system and bring it into present-day practice.

A Framework for Modern Character Assessment

Step 1: Adjust your expectations. Before the term was invented, this system followed the philosophy of a growth mindset, that character is not a set of inborn and permanent traits but rather made up of attributes that can and should be modified and cultivated. And the way to improve character is through ongoing assessment and reflection.

Step 2: Determine the character attributes to assess and improve. Rather than believing that individuals can easily accomplish this daily inquiry, Franklin believed in the idea of literally “accounting” or determining what the “accounts” were and then creating a system for tallying so that there could be no doubt about the status of one’s character at the end of a given period of time. Franklin identified 13 key attributes. Some, like sincerity, industry, humility, and justice, feel quite current; others, like silence, cleanliness, and tranquility, were more reflective of their era.

Ideally, your list would grow out of your school’s or classroom’s core values, social and emotional learning (SEL), or character curricula. Certainly, current practice would suggest at least some participatory and contextually sensitive construction of lists. You can start with a class-wide list and refine, or individualize it at the outset. Regardless, having student input is vital to ultimate success. Whether generating the list on your own or adding to an established list, the key questions are as follows:

  • What are the most important ways to treat others in the class/school?
  • When are you at your best/your best self? In what way(s) do you want to act more often?

Be sure to provide behavioral anchors for your selected attributes that are developmentally appropriate to the students you are monitoring or will ask to self-monitor. Franklin provided detailed descriptions of the attributes he chose, focusing on adults. My book, cowritten with Joseph J. Ferrito and Dominic C. Moceri, The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development, provides developmental examples of behavioral anchors for K–12.

Note that developmentally appropriate is not the same as age appropriate. For students with developmental delays or other special education classifications, age-appropriate expectations may not provide the proper guidance. For example, the degree of patience, industry, or recognition of others’ feelings expected from a child newly identified as having ADHD might not be the same as that of a same-age peer without ADHD. Yet, patience, industry, or attending to others’ feelings still can be expected and cultivated on a positive trajectory. That trajectory will be more likely to be achieved when the benchmarks are developmentally appropriate.

Step 3: Set up the system. Franklin understood that lasting change in character takes time, over months and years, not days. This is how to adapt his method for a 40-week school year, taking into account breaks, etc.:

  • List the attributes in order of focus on the left side of a page.
  • Across the top, put the numbers 1 through 5, representing the days of the school week (1 through 7 if you ask students to continue self-ratings over the weekend).
  • Create a grid of nine by five spaces.
  • Make 10 of these grids, placing at the top of each grid the numbers 1 through 10.
  • Each day, for each attribute, a number is put into the appropriate box in the grid, noting how many times one failed to exercise that attribute when called for during that day. A blank box means that there were no “violations.”

Each week, an individual chooses one attribute on which to focus. At the start of each school day, one is asked to consider the attribute—say, sincerity—and anticipate the situations that might come up during the week when sincerity may be required. Review the results of the prior week to see if sincerity was violated, try to recall the circumstances, see what can be learned for use in the current week, and go forward from there. While all attributes are rated every day, during a given marking period, each attribute has one week of focus.

Note: Current sensibilities might prefer to track successful examples of the attributes versus tallying violations. However, like Franklin, we know that it’s the negative attributes that tend to stand out most in our minds and therefore are easier to track accurately.

As you can infer, each grid represents a week’s worth of ratings; one carries out ratings for nine weeks and uses the grid for the 10th week to tally the results. (You can adapt this for the length of your school’s marking periods.) Create a process that allows students to reflect upon the results and write down ways to maintain strengths and make more progress on areas of less growth. Then, a new set of 10 grids is created and implemented. This is carried out for all four marking periods, after which the year is reviewed; adjustments to the list of attributes are made to include new areas for self-improvement and to drop attributes that have become positive habits. Then the process is repeated for additional years. School counselors and psychologists can help teachers with these ratings and processes and can house ratings to be transferred to next year’s teachers for students.

The system is most feasible as a self-monitoring system for students in sixth grade and up; it can be individually adapted, and students tend to benefit when teacher/counselor feedback and suggestions can be integrated into the process. The key is to use this as a positive growth process for all students, not solely as a form of remediation for students with difficulty.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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