George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Helping Your Students Identify Their Values

Have your students write about the principles they want to live by, using these prompts to help them get started.
Three teenage students work together, writing and smiling, while their teacher assists.
Three teenage students work together, writing and smiling, while their teacher assists.

The beginning of the school year is a good time to ask students to reflect on what gives them guiding direction in their lives. And writing their guiding principles for life is a perfect assignment for doing so.

For teachers of students fifth grade and up, ask your students to describe the laws by which they want to live their life. To help them get the idea, discuss any biographies they have read or watched (or watch clips or read excerpts together) and then discuss or list together a summary of the rules by which these individuals seemed to live their lives. Also ask students the same question about characters in novels, adults in their lives, or historical figures.

Getting Started

Question prompts will help students start thinking more deeply about their own values or principles:

  • Whom do you admire? List three of that person’s admirable qualities.
  • Describe an incident or event from which you learned a lesson “the hard way.”
  • What could you change about yourself to become a better person?
  • What three qualities do you value in a friend? A teacher? A parent?
  • Who has been most important in your life in helping you establish your values? Please explain.
  • What are the three most important values you think it will be important to encourage in your children one day?
  • What is the one rule that you believe is important to live your life by?
  • If we lived in a perfect world, how would people behave differently than they do now?

You may find it useful to have each student write their own answers to some or all of the prompts first and then ask students to share these in pairs, with a segment of a class, or in a whole-class discussion.

Teachers should follow up students’ statements with questions to help them think more deeply about their answers. For example, what makes these qualities worth admiring and worth following? How did you choose that particular incident or example or person? Why are these qualities or values so important to you?

Crafting a Reflective Essay

After students have had a chance to think about and discuss the prompts, they will be ready to start to write. A reflective essay of this sort can be linked in format to students’ appropriate grade-level language arts writing standards and objectives. Instruct them to reflect on the past year, both in and out of school, and write about what they consider to be the values or principles by which they want to live their lives, and why.

In my work with teachers who have guided students through this task, the resulting essays were moving, revealing, and inspiring. Students have often told stories about family members and important events in their lives. They have addressed such themes as love, responsibility, respect, relationships, perseverance, self-discipline, courage, honesty, and kindness—and often in combination.

One student, writing about how he and his siblings were about to be removed from their home by child protective services following the arrest of their mother, described how their mother’s friend, whom they had never met, fought for legal custody of them when no other family member appeared. His law of life was the importance of giving love even to people he does not know. Another student wrote, “I think loving others is the most important. A person must have love in his or her life. Love makes a person feel important.”

Here is part of an eighth grader’s essay about perseverance:

The key to success in my life is perseverance. My purpose is to continue to reach my goals, despite difficulties that I may face. My great grandmother was a person who struggled to make sure her family would be successful. Born in 1902, she was a maid who worked extremely hard just to make ends meet. She walked miles to get to work because she didn’t have money for transportation; after working in someone’s kitchen all day, she came home to take in laundry. Her driving desire to make life better for her children and theirs motivated her to persevere in a time when being black meant you were considered less than nothing. (Excerpted from Urban Dreams: Stories of Hope, Resilience, and Character.)

Moving from Reflection to Application

Ask students at the start of the school year to commit themselves to living by their principles or laws from the outset. Throughout the school year, you can have them reflect on what they wrote and committed to, check in with others on how they are doing on following through, and revise their laws if necessary.

About the Author
  • Maurice J. Elias Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu) @SELinSchools
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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Giving student validation through thought-provoking writing prompts sets up an important status for them in the classroom, one that will maintain their recognition as thinking, expressive participants. If I may add another writing prompt for the beginning of the year--this one allows the student to choose the three insights into themselves they wish to share with their teacher. I also received many moving responses from students from their responses. A Writing Prompt to Really Get To Know Your Students http://melanielinktaylor.mzteachuh.org/2017/07/a-writing-prompt-to-reall...

Sushruta's picture

Strengthening children's confidence in themselves and allowing them time to focus on what values they align themselves with is important as they grow older and are challenged by the world around them in their educational lives, online, and in the future. Doing this in classroom also embraces a spirit of community allowing teachers and students to get to really know one another which may help them take more ownership in their educational endeavors.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Thank you for your valuable comments and, Melanie, for providing the prompt you have used. Jim Abbott is definitely an inspiration and someone whose resilience can help inspire and focus our current students to seek their own value, as well as values.

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