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11 Principles for Schools

A Guide to Cultivating a Culture of Character

Based on decades of research on effective schools, the 11 Principles serve as a guidepost for schools to plan, implement, assess, and sustain their comprehensive character development initiative.

Many schools use the 11 Principles as a school improvement process. The 11 Principles focus on all aspects of school life, including school culture and climate, social and emotional learning (SEL), student engagement, academic achievement, as well as MTSS, PBIS, RTI, restorative practices, teacher morale, and parent engagement.

We encourage you to learn more about each of the 11 Principles described below. Let us know how we can support your school’s commitment to inspiring and equipping your students to understand, care about, and practice the core values that will enable them to flourish in school, in the workplace, and as citizens.

A set of core values are selected, defined, embedded, and modeled throughout the school culture.

Schools that emphasize character development bring together all stakeholders to consider and agree on specific character strengths that will serve as the anchors and guideposts for the entire school community. These core values transcend religious and cultural differences and express our common humanity. Many schools develop an easy-to-remember touchstone that unites and binds together the school community and inspires everyone (students, staff, and parents) to be their “best self.” These core values become a distinctive feature of the school’s DNA (the core purpose of the school), with staff, students, and parents frequently using shared words or phrases that reflect the school’s core values and character strengths.

The school develops and implements an intentional, proactive, and comprehensive approach that embeds character into all aspects of school life.

Schools committed to character development look at their school through a character lens, weaving the four areas of character (moral, performance, intellectual, and civic) into every aspect of the school’s culture. These schools have put in place an intentional process to critically reflect and discuss how virtually everything that happens in school has the potential to shape and influence the school’s culture of character. Principle 2 is about fostering character by design – a process that brings the school community together to weave character into the very fabric of the school’s culture, from the curriculum and daily classroom practices to all other aspects of the school (including helping students learn and apply a set of social, emotional, and behavioral skills).

Every student understands, cares about, and practices the core values embedded into the school community.

The word “character” refers to a wide range of core values that shape a person’s highest priorities, deeply held beliefs, and most importantly, their consistent choices and actions. Simply put, a holistic approach to character development seeks to develop the habits of mind and heart to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons. Character is not only “taught” and “caught” – it’s also “sought.” Students should be active participants in their own character growth. Students need opportunities to reflect on the core values they want to improve and strengthen and how reflection is also a critical component for learning and growth. In short, Principle 3 is about school leaders creating structures and experiences that encourage and facilitate a student’s commitment to developing their character muscle.

The school creates a caring community where everyone feels they belong.

A School of Character strives to create a school community where everyone feels responsible for one another. Students can articulate the caring attachments they have with other students, teachers, and staff. There is a palpable spirit of “we” that defines the school’s culture. This feeling of caring and belonging needs to include all students, not just most students. Every student, no matter their age or identity, wants to be known by their teachers and feel they belong. Principle 4 is fully embodied when everyone – students, staff, and parents – consistently show real care and concern for each other. There is a shared pride in what the school stands for and believes in. Every person feels like “I belong.”

The school provides students with opportunities to practice and reflect on the character strengths that are shaping and forming their moral compass.

The term moral compass is often defined as a person’s ability to judge what is right and wrong and to act accordingly. The term is commonly used to explain how our core values guide our decision-making, even when no one is looking. Principle 5 is about schools providing sustained opportunities for students – whether through service learning, leadership experiences, practicing academic integrity, or standing up to peer mistreatment – to demonstrate their moral, performance, civic and intellectual character, especially during those moments when their moral compass may not point them in a clear direction, or they have been spun around and they’re unsure exactly where their “North Star” is.

The school offers a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that encourages all students to develop their character strengths.

Principle 6 is about infusing character in the academic curriculum across all subject areas. While subjects such as English and Social Studies may lend themselves more easily to the study of character, it is critically important for character to be woven into mathematics, science, health, physical education, and the arts. In addition, teachers at a School of Character recognize that for their students to excel academically they will need to apply the character strengths of self-discipline, responsibility, and perseverance. These are the positive habits and qualities of performance character. Teachers also know how important it is to develop a classroom culture that promotes the character strengths of curiosity, carefulness, intellectual autonomy, intellectual humility, open-mindedness, and critical thinking. These are the habits and qualities of intellectual character. At the heart of Principle 6 is the notion that the staff have created safe learning spaces that enable every student to reach their fullest potential.

The school fosters character development by encouraging students to “do the right thing” for intrinsic rather than extrinsic reasons.

Schools that have embedded a culture of character have put in a range of strategies that encourage students to be honest because that is the kind of person they want to be rather than being motivated by the fear of being punished for lying, stealing, or cheating. These schools have also put in place approaches that celebrate students for being kind and caring without over-emphasizing extrinsic rewards for these positive behaviors. In addition, the staff has taken the time at the beginning of the school year to explain to all students the character-centered reasons for the expectations or rules of the school. This approach is especially pertinent when a student has made a behavioral mistake. In short, Principle 7 is about schools striving to cultivate true heart change in every student rather than settling for mere compliance.

The school embraces shared leadership as a critical path to deepening its character initiative.

A School of Character has a principal or school leader who consistently communicates a vision for the school as a caring community where everyone has a shared responsibility to practice and uphold the school’s mission and core values. These school leaders establish a character committee, often composed of staff, students, parents, and community members, and they empower the committee to design, implement, and assess the school’s comprehensive character initiative. The school leader guides the committee by providing needed support and resources (including staff development time, funding for programs, staff sharing and advocating for new ideas, etc.). At the core of Principle 8 is the commitment of the school leader to empower all stakeholders to take ownership for the school’s character initiative.

All staff share the responsibility to implement and reinforce the school’s character initiative.

A School of Character is a place where everyone on the school staff has taken ownership for the success of the school’s character initiative. Not just teachers and administrators — but also counselors, paraprofessionals, resource teachers, school psychologists, social workers, nurses, secretaries, cafeteria workers, playground and classroom aides, bus drivers, custodians, and security personnel. School leaders find ways to encourage staff members each year to reflect on their commitment to reinforce and model the school’s core values with each other and all students. The animating spirit of Principle 9, inspired by Gandhi’s quote, can be summed up this way for each member of the school staff: “I want to be the change I wish to see in the school.”

Families and the community are integral partners in the school’s character initiative.

Principle 10 is all about how schools take intentional steps to involve all parents and caregivers in the school’s character initiative. Does the school communicate to families – especially families new to the school – the core values and how these values are embedded into the mission, vision statement, beliefs, and code of conduct? Does the school share with parents and caregivers the specific goals and objectives the character committee has established for the current academic year? Does the school integrate the core values and character strengths into parent conferences, family nights, and parent workshops? Most critically, have parents and caregivers taken on leadership roles and decision-making responsibility as part of the school’s character committee? At the heart of Principle 10 is the expectation that a school has formed a strong family-school-community partnership that is rooted in a common vision and shared values.

The school annually assesses the progress of its comprehensive character initiative and makes changes based on the information collected.

At a School of Character, the members of the school’s character committee are always asking each other: “How do we know that what we’re doing is working?” The school utilizes a wide range of tools – including interviews, focus groups, and surveys – to annually assess progress, consider changes or adjustments to current practices, and determine whether to introduce new structures or activities. Most critically, the school also finds creative ways to assess the extent to which the school’s core values — or the touchstone or creed that embeds their core values – have been defined, integrated, and modeled throughout the school culture. Principle 11 is all about helping schools set their own benchmarks for growth and continuous improvement.