George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

5 Myths Working Against Character Education in Our Schools

Because character education and SEL are misunderstood, they are often ignored as an integral part of the learning for which our schools are responsible.

April 6, 2016

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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  • Student Wellness

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