5 Steps That Build Character In Our Youth


Help your students recognize and practice desirable character traits.

By Michele Borba, ED.D.

The teacher read Alfred’s misbehavior report and shook her head. It was his third playground citation this week and, like the others, it was about his derogatory comments.

“Alfred, you can’t keep saying negative things to people,” she explained. “You’ve got to start acting more respectfully.”

“I’ll try,” he sadly responded. “The problem is just that I don’t know what ‘respectfully’ means.”

Teachers everywhere are voicing a concern: Far too many of their students do not know the meaning of critical character traits. As a result, a growing number of students are failing in a core subject needed for successful living: solid character. Psychologists tell us one way students learn character traits is by watching others do things right. Just recalling even a few incidents children have recently seen on television is enough to make you shudder. Super Bowl Sunday events now require airing delays because who knows what an entertainer will reveal to the kiddies. Add to that the litany of national scandals involving everyone from politicians to priests to corporate officials and even to teachers. Now ask yourself, “To whom are your students looking to learn character traits?” The answer is troubling.

The breakdown of appropriate role models is certainly not the only reason for the decline in character development. Dr. Thomas Lickona, author of Character Matters, cites an increase in ten troubling youth trends in our society that point to an overall moral decline. Those include violence and vandalism, stealing, cheating, disrespect for authority, peer cruelty, bigotry, bad language, sexual precocity and abuse, increasing self-centeredness and declining civil responsibility, and self-destruction. It’s yet another reason why so many of today’s youth lack solid character.

Last Beacon of Hope

The fact is that school may very well be the last beacon of hope for many students. Where else will they have a chance to understand the value of a trait called “responsibility” or “caring” or “respect” or “cooperation”? Where else but from a caring, committed teacher will many of today’s students have a chance to learn the traits of solid character?

How do we help children develop strong character? The answer is found in this premise: Character traits are learned; therefore we can teach them. It means that adults have tremendous power because they can teach youth critical character traits.

First Steps to Teaching Any Character Trait

No matter what character trait you choose to enhance — perseverance, determination, empathy, responsibility, respect, caring, or any other — there are five basic steps to teaching it. The steps can easily be integrated into your lesson plans, and each is equally important in ensuring that your students develop stronger character. There are five teaching steps.

Step 1. Accentuate a Character Trait

The first step to teaching any new character trait is simply to accentuate it to students. Many schools have found emphasizing a different character trait each month can be a successful, practical approach. When everyone at your site is reinforcing and modeling the same trait, students are more likely to learn the new character trait. As each new character trait is introduced, a student campaign committee can start a blitz creating banners, signs, and posters to hang up around the school convincing (or at least advertising) the rest of the students of the trait’s merit. Here are four of the simplest ways to accentuate a character trait:

  • Character posters. Ask students to make posters about the trait. Be sure to hang them everywhere for at least a month. An example might be “Responsibility: It means I’m doing what is right for me and others and that I can be counted on.”
  • Character assembly. Many sites introduce the trait at a school-wide assembly. The staff may describe the value of the trait and perhaps present a short skit about it.
  • Screen savers. Each day a staff or student writes a brief sentence describing the trait’s benefits on the central screen saver. Anytime anyone in the school uses the computer, the first thing seen is the screen-saver message accentuating the trait: “It’s perseverance month. Remember to work your hardest and not give up!”
  • PA announcements. Many teachers (and schools!) use the beginning of each day to describe over the loudspeaker ways students can demonstrate the selected trait. Names of students “caught” demonstrating the trait can also be announced.

Step 2. Tell the Value and Meaning of the Trait

The second step to teaching a character trait is to convey to students exactly what the trait means and why it is important to learn. Explain the trait to your students within their realm of experiences, never assuming they’ve been exposed to trait. Many have not. Here are a few ways to define new traits to students:

  • Character literature. Choose an appropriate selection that embodies the trait and as you read it, ask: “How did the characters demonstrate the character trait? How did the other characters feel then the character acted (name the trait)?”
  • News articles. Ask students to collect current news articles which show real people demonstrating the trait. You might begin each day with a brief review of a real event in which the trait was displayed to confirm the trait’s value.
  • Label traits. Whenever you see or hear a student displaying the targeted trait, take a moment to point out specifically what the student did that demonstrated the trait. “Alex, that was respectful because you waited until I was finished talking before you spoke.”
  • Share your belief. Students need to hear why you feel the trait is important. If you are targeting respect, you might tell students how adamant you feel about not talking negatively about yourself or others.
  • Student reporters. Ask students to look for demonstrations of the trait at school. Their job is to report to the class who demonstrated the trait, what the student did, and the effect the student’s actions had on other individuals.

Step 3. Teach What the Trait Looks Like

There is no perfect way to teach a trait, but research on teaching new skills says telling students how to do the behavior is not nearly as important as showing them the behavior. You can make a significant difference by modeling the trait and making your character education lessons as concrete as possible. Here are three ways:

  • Trait role-plays. Some teachers find it helpful to use another student or colleague to role-play what the trait looks like to their students. It’s a simple way to show students exactly what the trait looks and sounds like.
  • Character skits. Students can create quick skits about a character trait and perform it either at a school-wide assembly or in the classroom to show other students the value of the trait as well as what the trait as well as what the trait looks and sounds like.
  • Virtue photographs. Photograph students demonstrating the character trait. Print the pictures, enlarge them on a copier, and paste them on a chart so they are reminded of what the skills looks like.

Step 4. Provide Opportunities to Practice the Trait

Generally students must be provided with frequent opportunities to practice the new behaviors. Learning theory tells us it generally takes 21 days of practice before a new behavior is acquired. This is an important rule to keep in mind as you try these activities with your students. Here are three ways to help students review their progress:

  • Character videotapes. Students can see their progress by videotaping each other demonstrating the trait. The tape is played and analyzed for all to see.
  • Write reflection logs. Students can keep an ongoing log of their trait progress by writing each day what one thing they did that day to demonstrate the trait.
  • Assign character homework. Ask students to practice the skill at home and record their efforts and results in a notebook.

Step 5. Provide Effective Feedback

The final step to teaching any character trait is to reinforce to students appropriate or incorrect trait behavior as soon as convenient. Doing so helps clarify to the student: “You’re on the right track; keep it up,” or “Almost, but this is what to do instead.” Catching students doing something negative before it before it becomes a bad habit increases the student’s chances of acquiring more positive character traits. Here are a few reminders about giving effective feedback:

  • Use constructive criticism. If the student’s behavior was correct, immediately tell him: “This is what you did right.” If the behavior was wrong, tell him what to do to make it right: “What you did was not right, but this is what you can do next time.”
  • Correct on the spot. Students benefit from immediate behavior correction.
  • Catch positive behaviors. Look for opportunities to catch them doing the trait. When you reinforce character traits done correctly, students are more likely to repeat the behavior.

We Can Make a Difference

With the growing number of today’s students lacking solid character development, it is imperative that schools incorporate ongoing character education. Keep in mind, the best character lessons are ones that blend naturally into your existing plans. There are endless ways to use literature, videos, music, quotations, news articles, and historical figures that embody the themes of strong character.

Perhaps the simplest way to enhance your students’ character development is to accentuate a character trait each month. Doing so optimizes students’ chances of developing solid character they’ll not only use now but for the rest of their lives. Above all, never forget your own impact on your students’ character development. You do make a difference!

Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an educational consultant on character education and author of 22 books including Building Moral Intelligence and The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Dr. Borba is a contributor to NBC’s Today show and regularly serves as a guest expert on Dr. Phil and CNN as well as many others. Follow her on her blog at micheleborba.com.

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2 thoughts on “5 Steps That Build Character In Our Youth

  1. Very comprehensive, helpful, and useful. I plan to integrate these concepts into my lesson. Thank you very much for sharing.

  2. Thank you for your reply! We’re glad the article will be helpful to you in your classroom.

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