Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
As students return, schools are grappling with how to address a range of needs, from social, emotional, and mental health, to equity gaps and how to accelerate learning. Many schools will address student mental health needs with targeted, and potentially disconnected, standalone programs or strategies. This would be a missed opportunity. Students’ social and emotional development must be supported as part of the fabric of the school environment. This means schools must take a broader approach by elevating character education into the daily school culture and focus on helping students develop traits such as resiliency, courage, and empathy, which support both personal and academic growth. Doing so will support students in the post-pandemic environment through a cohesive and comprehensive program.
Character education is a broader and more inclusive approach that bridges social and emotional learning and academic learning.
Character is someone’s personal traits or dispositions that produce emotions, inform motivation, guide conduct, and determine how an individual connects within the greater community in and out of school. Every school has some form of character development—either intentionally or not—and this moment creates the chance for schools to purposefully guide students in fostering the acquisition and development of positive character traits and dispositions. We will fail if we seek a short-term solution or try to fix social and academic needs exposed or exacerbated by the pandemic with a single program or strategy. For example, positive behavior intervention and support relies on rewards for certain behavior but does not empower students to become courageous, resilient, and tenacious, traits required for success across all areas of life. Instead, our strategy needs to be one focused on relationships that is developmental, formative, and embedded in the whole school culture. High-quality character education takes a broad approach that changes school culture, where adults serve as role models and students become a key part of supporting their peers to be successful inside and outside the classroom.
It’s about school culture, and adults need to go first.
When schools want to promote students’ social and emotional learning, they often focus on providing students with strategies or skills to manage their own emotions or social interactions. But it is the culture nurtured and modeled by adults in the building that creates the template for students, and students are well aware when adult relationships are poor. Rethinking school culture must include rethinking how adults model the character traits that communities strive to instill in students. These traits, as defined in a particular school, might include resiliency, empathy, courage, or perseverance. It is not enough for these traits to be included in the mission and vision of the school or merely be posted on hallway banners. They need to be taught and modeled by adults in their daily interactions, starting with leadership. Principals should make it a priority to foster positive adult relationships and lead their school community to establish character traits that faculty will model, such as courage, respect, citizenship, friendliness, and determination. Faculty should teach, model, and talk about these virtues and help students see the academic and personal benefits of developing these traits. In this way, adults create, guide, and nurture the school culture and serve as role models, creating the environment for students to sustain and bring the culture to life in everyday interactions.
Character development is not an add-on to educators’ responsibilities—it can be embedded in instruction and everyday interaction.
Another advantage of character education is that it can easily be incorporated into a variety of subject matter content. Rather than adding on SEL strategies to manage behavior, a school culture focused on character development empowers teachers with a broader perspective of social and emotional support and inspires them to find ways to integrate these skills within daily instruction for all students. For example, while identifying aspects of the symbiotic relationships among living organisms as part of their science curriculum, students could make connections to the greater impact of their own actions, whether individually or environmentally. This engages all students in thinking about what it means to show cooperation, respect, and citizenship. Intellectual traits like curiosity, reflection, and focus, as well as performance traits such as ambition, confidence, and perseverance, can be embedded in academic instruction, supporting student academic success as well as social and emotional stability.
Character education strengthens equity and enables leaders to build a culture of inclusion.
One of the hallmarks of character education is how it can bring equity, inclusion, and a celebration of diversity into school culture, where daily actions to promote such values become an expectation and commitment for every student and every adult. In addition, character education supports the development of a school culture that is focused on growth, since strong character is a constant work in progress. It sets an expectation that students and adults are always striving to improve and sends the message that it is our responsibility to live up to our own expectations in everyday interactions. It helps to make clear that all of us have a role to play in proactively fostering an environment where every student can be successful. When students who have traditionally felt alienated at school experience culture changes that create greater inclusion, empathy, and respect for them, it creates a powerful motivator for engagement—essential for academic success.
One-off programs that target specific needs are popular for a reason, but the hard work and commitment of rebuilding the school culture foundation is worth it and is uniquely possible right now. This moment offers an opportunity to step back and rethink what our own character traits and interactions as adults are modeling for our students, and then reconsider how we can create more inclusive, equitable, and supportive school environments. Character education provides a platform that can help educators build a school culture that engages and supports students as individuals, as members of a community, and as learners. Coming out of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to use character education to create more inclusive and supportive school culture that makes strong connections across academic, social, and emotional well-being and ensures one aspect is not elevated at the cost of the others. Let’s not miss the opportunity to make changes that will better support students at school and in life.