Recognizing What is Still in our Control
We all recognize that we are living through turbulent times that are presenting challenges in many different areas. People across the country are simultaneously balancing the pandemic, financial insecurity, racial tensions, and unrest in many major cities. And anxiety levels continue to rise.
The underlying reason for this increased anxiety is that so much is beyond our control. This lack of control can give way to feelings of helplessness. Some of us may be asking the question, “What could I possibly do to have any meaningful impact when the problems around me are so overwhelming?”
The answer is that not everything is beyond our control. We always have the capacity to improve ourselves, more specifically our character, and begin a ripple effect. And that character improvement starts by reflecting on the Six Foundational Pillars of Character:
Embracing these six pillars can guide us through challenging times. It is in moments precisely like these that it is essential to remember the words of Edward Everett Hale. “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
And this challenge belongs not only to us but to our children. This is why it is imperative at this moment, amid such turmoil that, in addition to improving ourselves, we take a moment to focus on Character Education for our children as well.
The 3 Basic Principles of Character Education
1. Promote Core Ethical Values
Character education hinges upon finding ways to implant core ethical values such as caring, honesty, fairness, responsibility, and respect for self and others as the basis of good character.
A school committed to character development stands for these values and recognizes that they only become meaningful when they become students’ normative behaviors. To facilitate that, the school needs to devote efforts to model these values, assure they are studied and discussed, and celebrate their manifestations in the school and community.
2. Provide Meaningful Curriculum
Growing a student’s sense of competence is an art. The best way to do this is to give them opportunities to be successful. In addition to building the student’s understanding and competence, it will produce a sense of autonomy and being valued by others.
This often begins by providing a curriculum that is both meaningful and interesting. Such a meaningful character curriculum includes active teaching and learning methods such as cooperative learning, problem-solving approaches, and experience-based projects. These approaches increase student autonomy by giving students a say in decisions and plans that affect them.
3. Thinking, Feeling, and Behavior
For these values to penetrate students’ hearts and minds, much more than learning and discussion is necessary. The education about core values needs to result in developing empathy skills, forming caring relationships, helping to create community, and reflecting on life experiences.
Once these values are clearly understood, it is time for students to learn to act upon these core values by developing prosocial behaviors (e.g., communicating feelings, active listening, helping skills) and repeatedly practicing them, especially in the context of relationships. Practicing these behaviors helps the core values to penetrate the students’ hearts.
And the way to further mold students, so that acting from the core values becomes second nature, is to provide the students with real-life challenges (e.g., how to reach consensus in a class meeting or how to reduce fights on the playground). After students react to the problems, it is crucial to help them reflect on these experiences.
Implementing Remote Character Education
Psychological distancing teachers can encourage students to develop their character by helping them to stop thinking about themselves exclusively, and instead ask: “‘Well, what would I do to support my best friend who was telling me they were really worried about the coronavirus? What would I say to him/her?'” This generates thoughts of compassion for others.
Reading Books For younger students, teachers can read books aloud to their students virtually and reflect on the characters’ character-development skills in the books.
Observation and Analysis For older students, teachers can assign students to examine the character attributes they’re witnessing in leaders, how they respond to various crises and ask students if those qualities they identify are helping the country or exacerbating the problems.
Sensitivity: Since children are generally less vulnerable to the virus, being mindful and careful about washing their hands is not so much for themselves, but for others at higher risk. This is an opportunity to help them understand how their choices impact others.
Journaling about emotions and how these emotions impact character can generate insight and greater self-understanding.