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5 Myths Working Against Character Education in Our Schools

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Three young girls are standing side-by-side; the girl in the middle has her arms around the other two. They're all smiling, looking directly at the camera. Behind them are rows of purple theater seats.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) and character education make a lot of common sense. We know that students have to be prepared for college, career, and life success. We also know that families and communities are not reliably providing the kinds of experiences that all students need. So SEL and character education would seem to be essential aspects of educational practice and policy. But they are not. Marvin Berkowitz and I have identified five myths that are holding back progress in SEL and character education. These myths need to be directly identified and confronted through caring conversations with faculty, administrators, parents, and community leaders. Creating an infrastructure for moving forward in sustainable ways will be difficult while such myths predominate.

Let's identify these myths and examine why they simply aren't true.

Myth #1: Fostering social-emotional competence and character development is not the role of the school.

There is no "off" switch with character education. The truth is that all adults who interact with children will affect children's development, whether for good or for ill. All adults in the school leave their mark on children every day. Some are lasting and indelible, some are inspiring, and some are painful. Cruel or insensitive treatment by a teacher can reverberate even many years later in a person's life. Therefore, it is important for adults to be aware of the power that they wield over children, and then wield it responsibly on the children's behalf.

Myth #2: Character education competes with the true purpose of schooling.

President Theodore Roosevelt warned, "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." In the last 50 years, U.S. education has been shaped by legislative and political pressure to increase the prominence of language arts, math, and science in the curriculum in order to keep pace with the technological progress of other nations. These forces have virtually eliminated the intentional focus on social-emotional competence and good character, qualities that are the foundation of involved democratic citizenship, responsible family life, workplace success, and a lifelong love of learning. In reality, there are multiple purposes of schooling. Positive social-emotional and character development is one of them, though this age-old wisdom is often neglected.

Myth #3: Given the current pressure for higher achievement, schools cannot afford to add character education to an already overcrowded curriculum.

Research shows that an intentional effort to promote good character in students has the effect of increasing academic achievement. Educating for character and social-emotional competence in a supportive school culture and climate can transform and enhance education. It's not an add-on -- it's a value added.

Myth #4: By the time children get to school, their personalities and core values are already formed.

Some students always come to school prepared, answer politely, and get along with everyone. Other students, however, are surly, unprepared, and seem unwilling to learn. These "difficult" children are the very ones whose lives can be saved by the nurturing care of a teacher. If we see the potential in children rather than simply seeing them as they currently are, then we can educate these young people to help them become their best possible selves. The question at the forefront for superintendents, principals, teachers, and other school personnel, as well as for students in their interactions with one another, should be always be, "What can I do to help you be the best you can be, to help you become a more effective social and moral agent?" We need to help students believe that they can change and grow, so that they can be collaborators in reaching their full potential and becoming their best possible selves.

Myth #5: What I do in my own classroom matters most.

Students are affected by the many events and people that they encounter daily, both inside and outside of school. These diverse influencers often communicate contrary messages. Gone are the days when individual teachers could close their doors, be great instructors, and have their students thrive. As in a relay race, coordinated messages and skill development pertaining to character and social-emotional competencies within and across grade levels are necessary for students to cross the finish line successfully. Whole-school climate and schoolwide values matter at least as much as what teachers do in their individual classrooms.

How is the need for SEL and character education perceived in your school community? What practices do you and your colleagues use toward this end? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Editor's note: Adapted with permission from Schools of Social Emotional Competence and Character by Maurice Elias and Marvin Berkowitz, ©2016 by NPRInc.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

"There is no question schools can enhance and even make up for home."
"It is often social and emotional learning which determines their ability to execute."

Unlike, the strawman myths in the article, now there are 2 myths that people actually believe.

Alison Annis's picture

The author has never heard of KIPP schools, I'm guessing. These are charter (middle) schools founded by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg in the 1990's that teach character through each subject and through everyday school activities. Students even get a character report card. They see results and they track the successes of their students through college. That is the goal really; to develop students' grit, zest, gratitude, optimism, self-control, social-intelligence, and curiosity, so that they have the character to realize academic and life successes. I have a really hard time believing that it is not and should not be the place for schools to teach character. In some cases, it's the only place students will learn about it.

Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

Besides the fact that there is no objective way to measure grit, zest, gratitude, optimism, self-control, social-intelligence, and curiosity, there is no evidence that any of these traits can be improved because of it.

Mathematic reports that "Using KIPP's results to draw conclusions about charter schools in general is no more supportable than insisting KIPP doesn't work at all."

Matthew Smith's picture
Matthew Smith
Owner of a leadership camp for teens. Co-leader of a community of practice for camps measuring outcomes.

Hifi, interested in your perspective. If you're right I need to adjust. Links to your research? Or the research you're referring to? Thanks.

Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

Analysis of the Mathematica report here:

October 2010, the largest ever federal study found that schoolwide Character Education programs don't produce any improvements in student behavior or academic performance.
"Efficacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children" (PDF). The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. October 2010. (see page liii)

Character education gets it wrong in general
Loads of references in the footnotes

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

For some context, here's a quote from one of the authors of the 2010 IES study:

"The consistency of the findings was surprising," said Allen Ruby, the co-author of the report and the associate commissioner for policy and systems at the IES's National Center for Education Research. "This is one study, so people shouldn't just say, 'We're done, let's move on,' ... but they should be challenged to say, 'OK, let's look at this in different ways. Let's look at the data.'"

One big issue is that "character education" is not well-defined. For example, the wikipedia page identifies Cheerleading, Praise-and-reward, Define-and-drill, and Forced-formality as the 4 main in-school character education programs. Perhaps that was the case 20 years ago, but nowadays the focus is more on social and emotional learning. Here's more recent research that shows support for character education programs:

I am pretty surprised that we still use the term "character education," because it has such a mixed history. I love this article that helps highlight the issue:

Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

Didn't say that the 2010 study was definitive, only that it is the largest scientific study that has ever been done. Yes, the consistency was surprising: in all cases the programs were carried out school-wide and well-implemented, and in none of the cases were any found to be effective.

The focus hasn't changed much. The largest programs in the country are still Character Education Partnership, and Character Counts. Don't know where you live but CC! is still going strong in my school district 15 years later.

The only research cited in the first edweek article is this: "Results of a 2010 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, however, did not find social- and character-development programs improved student outcomes or teachers' perceptions of school climate."

The 2nd article cites attributes that help academics. But nowhere does it state that a school program can improve them. You might as well be talking about IQ. And really, "Prudence?"

The 3rd Atlantic article is purely wishful thinking. A couple of experimental programs with no results to speak of.

No where did I see any program identified with social/emotional learning. What program has that focus?

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

1st Edweek article cites research:
"Research on the topic is mounting. Mr. Berkowitz and Melinda Bier, also a University of Missouri research scientist, identified 69 studies of 33 different character education programs that had scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness in enhancing the academic goals of schools. A 2011 meta-analysis of school-based social and emotional learning programs published in Child Development found significant improvements in academic achievement, behavior, and attitudes compared with control groups."

2nd Edweek article suggests that non-cognitive skills "can be nurtured and developed in students":
"The study focuses on the "performance character strengths" of drive--defined as "the ability to apply oneself to a task and stick with it"-- and prudence--defined as "the ability to defer gratification and look to the future." The study's authors emphasize that the helpful non-cognitive skills they explored can be nurtured and developed in students."

I agree it's unclear exactly how schools will accomplish this, but it's a step in the right direction to at least acknowledge that non-cognitive skills make a difference.

3rd Atlantic article shows examples of large-scale programs:
"Steve Mancini, the director of public affairs at KIPP, says that its network of nearly 200 charter schools underwent a transformation after David Levin, one of the cofounders, met with some of the leading social-and-emotional-learning researchers..."
"Martin Petitjean is one of over 2,500 schools around the world using a program called "Leader in Me"..."
"Ten urban districts in California--including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest--collectively called CORE (California Office to Reform Education) districts, have designed a system to make schools answerable for improving students' social and emotional skills..."

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has an excellent guide to school-based SEL programs:

You do raise important points, though. We've contacted the post author, who hopefully can step in and help answer some of the questions that have been asked.

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

There is clearly a 6th myth, that the research evidence shows that character education is ineffective. Part of the problem has to do with past definitions of character education and with research designs. Simply, when character education is carried out, and studied, as a "program," it is unlikely to be found to be effective. As James Comer said, character is something that is "caught" from the environment around you-- society, home, and school. All play a role. In schools, that role is most powerfully expressed by the culture and climate of the whole school and the virtues that are lived by adults and children in the school. A limited instruction program that is not supported by the wider culture cannot be expected to show significant success. In schools where there is a commitment to safety, support, caring, respect, challenge, inspiration, and creating a community of learners, positive character is likely to thrive.

Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

You conclude, "In schools where there is a commitment to safety, support, caring, respect, challenge, inspiration, and creating a community of learners, positive character is likely to thrive."

To-date, there is no evidence of any such thing. To the contrary, that character education, of any bent, is ineffective is supported by all the evidence we have.

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