5 tips for making character education stick

Teaching character traits is a goal of many schools – but how can you do it well? A teacher in Denmark offers some tips
13th December 2020, 10:00am
Kevin Goggins


5 tips for making character education stick

Wellbeing In Schools: How To Develop Pupils' Character Strengths

What are we hoping for when we send children to school? This is the question Martin Luther King, Jr. posed in an essay entitled "The Purpose of Education,".

It is easy to envisage a seasoned civil rights leader compelling the world to critically think about the product of schooling. However, it was not a man but a teenager of 18 years old.

A young King offers a warning to educators who seek only to impart knowledge and thinking skills but fail to cultivate compassion and integrity. Instead, he argues: "Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education."

Getting character education right

Many of us in education know this to be true - but how can we ensure we provide this in school? Here are my top five tips:

1. Recognise that character can be taught

First, we must recognise that children can learn the skills that will help them to learn and to understand their learning process. Even geniuses need to learn discipline to focus their talents.

That is why we focus on explicitly teaching skills such as grit, optimism, and gratitude.

We want children to believe in themselves through a positive growth mindset and learn how to get along with others by developing the child's social-emotional intelligence. In short, how we run our schools, has an impact on the character of our learners.

2. It begins with your school values

If you want to really influence children's (and adult's) behaviours, attitudes and, ultimately, character, then you must first know what your school has as its core values. This should be the starting point for everything you do.

Our long-standing school values were rather idealistic and abstract to begin with, but with the addition of character traits associated with these values, it became much more tangible and relevant to the children.

For example, a school value of "belief and respect" can be observed through showing the character traits of curiosity, self-control and zest. These visible behaviours can then be acknowledged throughout the school day and recognised further at such events as assemblies or conversations with parents.

3. Reference constantly

Richard Thaler, the father of nudge theory, introduced the concept of nudging society to make changes to behaviour.

Recently, governments have relied on nudge theory to fight Covid, and in the future we could see nudging help individuals make more sustainable life choices.

So, if you want your school to influence a child's character then these values must be talked about and nudged constantly. Our character traits appear on walls, presentations, websites, newsletters, as part of lesson objectives and report cards, to name a few. In fact, one of our parents' conferences is a student-led conversation based on the child self-evaluating their character strengths and weaknesses.

4. Internalise the message

Children need time to adopt a message and enveloping the character traits must be a way of life for your school - from posters in corridors to themed assemblies, everyday interactions with staff and teaching character through your curriculum.

Indeed, when we were designing our curriculum at primary we started from the point of our values and worked backwards.

For example, gratitude led to the story The Lion and the Mouse in English and "What does the earth provide us?" in geography.

In primary it is about building the character skills whereas in secondary it is more about utilising the skills - can they show the grit they need to work through a difficult science experiment, self-control when taking part in our MUN debates or zest when promoting team spirit at a sporting event.

There must be opportunities for children to practise character as much as discussing it.

5. Appreciate there is no magic wand

Successful character development is dependent on a clear vision and a whole-school approach.

This needs to be driven forward by strong and inspiring leaders and delivered and role-modelled by staff with the appropriate skills and time to plan.

Schools already see themselves as playing a pivotal role in developing character and have always done so, even if they did not label it as such.

So, while there might not be a magic wand that can change the norm, believe that you can make that difference.

Kevin Goggins is head of Skt. Josef's International School in Denmark

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