This Month’s Character Trait: Hope
Returning from spring vacation to a new month I am reminded that as a schoolteacher the beginning of a new month means more than simply flipping the calendar. It signals the time to erect another pillar of our growing character.
Elementary school children around the nation are gathering in their schools’ gymnasiums for the monthly ritual of introducing a new character trait from Character Counts. In many schools one of the Six Pillars of Character (respect, responsibility, honesty, caring, citizenship, trustworthiness and fairness) will be introduced with a video or skit. Students will then in some cases make posters or banners to adorn the school walls and advertise the value of the trait. Teachers will give token attention to the character trait in the classroom by reading a picture book or doing some other isolated activity to highlight the trait of the month. At the end of the month the same school children will reconvene in the gymnasium to see who was selected as best demonstrating the character trait of the month.
Sadly, that is the state of character education, or social emotional learning, in many schools today. In fact, this article explains these two approaches among others. Even sadder, when presented with the idea of beginning to infuse a comprehensive social and emotional learning program into the existing curriculum many teachers at those same schools will reply, “No thanks, we are already doing that.”
Now let me be clear about one thing: I am in no position and have no motives to neither endorse nor reject Character Counts as an effective character education program. It is simply that Character Counts seems to be ubiquitous in schools, including mine. What I do reject, however, is the method by which many schools use Character Counts as their best attempt at teaching social and emotional skills. We can (and must) do better than simply mentioning and celebrating these virtuous traits once a month.
In a landmark meta-analysis of social and emotional learning (SEL) programs published in 2011 the authors found that effective SEL programs include “processing, integrating, and selectively applying social and emotional skills in developmentally, contextually and culturally appropriate ways.” Furthermore, “Through systematic instruction, SEL skills may be taught, modeled, practiced, and applied to diverse situations so that students use them as part of their daily repertoire of behaviors.” The four practices recommended in the study create the acronym SAFE. From the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) summary of the findings:
Effective programs and approaches are typically sequenced, active, focused, and explicit (S.A.F.E.), meaning they:
- S: use a Sequenced set of activities to achieve skill objectives
- A: use Active forms of learning
- F: include at least one program component Focused on developing personal or social skills
- E: Explicitly target particular personal or social skills for development
Clearly, there is a stark contrast between a comprehensive SEL program as described in the meta-analysis and the manner in which many schools today are using Character Counts for teaching students the social skills necessary for a productive life inside and outside of school. We as teachers must drop our “we’re-already-doing-it” attitude and start doing what students and the rest of society needs us to do—put forth a wholehearted effort in teaching social and emotional skills in our schools. That will be cause for real celebration.