Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching Character: The Choices We Make

June 10, 2014 Updated May 22, 2014
Photo credit: Thinkstock

Character is a misused and misunderstood concept. People who display honesty, integrity, and a strong work ethic, among other values, are often described as "high-character individuals." While there is no doubt that we should work hard to emulate these individuals, possessing those dispositions does not necessarily mean that they have crossed the threshold of demonstrating character.

Conversely, you rarely hear the term "high-character individual" used to describe people in prison, those who have failed in business and filed for bankruptcy, drug addicts, and individuals whose actions have landed them in trying circumstances. Our actions certainly have consequences, and those who make poor decisions should be held accountable. However, a history of poor behavior does not necessarily disqualify a person from demonstrating character.

Character is Not Always Doing the Right Thing

To fully grasp the concept, one must first understand what character is and what it is not. It isn't always doing the right thing. No person always does the right thing. We all fail and fall short of others' expectations, and even our own. Character is not how we act when everything is going well -- it is how we react to failure.

Being nice when life is comfortable and humble after receiving a promotion is easy. But when life hits you in the mouth, all those dispositions become much more difficult to manifest. Nevertheless, there is beauty in hard times, and those moments are precisely when character is revealed.

Character is a Decision

Character is a voluntary response, a decision. Too many societally recognized "individuals of high character" wilt miserably when the real opportunity to show character presents itself. While Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinski was scandalous, it was his response that revealed an even more fundamental character flaw. Had President Clinton showed contrition and humility, he would have demonstrated character. Unfortunately, his opportunity to enlighten and inspire others was missed. In order to demonstrate character, we must be totally honest with ourselves and then with others.

I have personally encountered people who, while labeled as losers by society, demonstrate remarkable character. A man I'll call "Ted" works in my field. When he first started, Ted was living in a homeless shelter, the consequence of drug abuse and alcoholism. After a stint in jail, DUIs, and living in a state of abject loss and poverty, Ted became a common laborer making $7 an hour. Today he is married, a salaried manager, a father, and has proudly repaid every dollar of every fine. Seeing an opportunity to work hard and forge a life for himself, Ted made a decision to look honestly at his life and change it. As long as there is air in your lungs, it is never too late to change.

Tough Times Don't Build Character

Fundamentally, dozens of tenets should be followed in order to lead a fulfilled and meaningful life. Character, however, is in a class of its own. Regardless of how well we prepare, we will always make mistakes. The tough times created by these mistakes, contrary to popular belief, don't build character. They reveal it -- or not -- depending on our choices.


Here is an activity that you can use in your classroom to help students reflect on character and choices.

  1. Have the kids in your charge list the five greatest challenges they have faced. Next, have them consider what they might have done that contributed to those challenges. Or they might think about contributing occurrences that were difficult to deal with.

  2. The next day, have students identify one or two people that they believe possess great character. This individual can be someone they know personally or someone famous. Ask students to describe in writing how they believe their person of high character would have handled each of the five challenges that they identified from the day before.

  3. Create a master list of all the kids' challenges and ideal responses (keep the information anonymous), distribute copies, and then facilitate a whole-class discussion. After talking about how they would handle the list of difficult circumstances, have your kids determine if the hypothesized responses from the respected figures properly demonstrate character. Finally, ask if there are even better ways to respond to the challenging situations.

No one will know who faced which tough situation, yet all will identify with the challenges and responses. If proposed responses to the challenges are less than ideal, that's fine. The important takeaway from the activity is this: demonstrating character involves making a choice, and it's never too late.

How do you teach your students about character?

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