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11 Principles in Schools

The 11 Principles Framework is a guide to cultivating a culture of character in a school.

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

Many school leaders also 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 and academic achievement, as well as MTSS, PBIS, RTI, restorative practices, teacher morale, and parent engagement.

We encourage you to learn more about our 11 Principles Framework. Let us know how we can support your school’s commitment to character development.

Core values are defined, implemented, and embedded into school culture.

Schools that effectively emphasize character development bring together all stakeholders to consider and agree on specific character strengths that will serve as the school’s core values. These basic values transcend religious and cultural differences and express our common humanity. Ideally, a balance of moral, performance, intellectual, and civic character strengths, these “shared values” represent the school’s highest priorities and deeply held beliefs. A school committed to its students’ character development uses a common language to teach, model and integrate their core values into all aspects of school life. When Principle 1 is fully integrated, all staff, students, and parents can explain how their “shared values” are a distinctive feature of their school.

The school defines “character” comprehensively to include thinking, feeling, and doing.

The “core values” of a school serve as touchstones that guide and shape a student’s thinking, feelings, and actions. Principle 2 focuses on how a school helps its students understand, care about, and consistently practice the core values that will enable them to flourish in school, in relationships, in the workplace, and as citizens. Students need opportunities to study and discuss each core value, to connect their social and emotional skills to the patterns of behaviors associated with each core value, and ultimately to internalize and express in their own words why they want to consistently practice these character strengths.

The school uses a comprehensive, intentional, and proactive approach to develop character.

Schools committed to character development look at all they are doing through a character lens. They weave character into every aspect of the school culture. Teachers embed the core values into their curriculum, instructional practices, and classroom activities. All sports and school club programs emphasize the core values as well as other areas of school life (the cafeteria, halls, playground, library, and buses). The school also intentionally integrates the core values into the adult culture of the school. Schools that have developed a comprehensive approach to character development have put in place intentional opportunities for students to identify, understand, and effectively manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

The school creates a caring community.

A school committed to character development has developed an “ethic of caring” that permeates the entire school. What begins as respectful relationships become caring attachments between all members of the school community. All members of a caring community are expected to model responsibility and a commitment to excellence. Caring relationships also foster the desire to learn and the desire to be a good person. Students in a caring community feel safe and therefore more likely to internalize the school’s core values. In a caring school community, the staff has made it a priority to help students form caring attachments to each other; these connections lead students to feel that their school is one big family.

The school provides students with opportunities for moral action.

Through meaningful experiences and reflection opportunities, schools with a culture of character help students develop their commitment to being honest and trustworthy, to volunteer their time and talents to the common good, and when necessary, to show the courage to stand up for what is right. In particular, volunteering and community service offer students the opportunity to put into action a school’s core values. Teachers at these schools see service learning as moral action that addresses “real world” issues. They integrate service learning into their curriculum and classroom activities as a teaching strategy, working together to find creative ways to encourage their students to become constructive learners (“learning by doing”). Students are also given a voice in key decisions related to their service. In addition, schools of character offer students ample opportunities to take on leadership responsibilities related to restorative practices, bully resistance, conflict resolution, academic integrity, and sportsmanship.

The school offers a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that respects all learners, develops their character, and helps them succeed.

Because students come to school with diverse skills, interests, backgrounds, and learning needs, an academic program that helps all students succeed will be one in which the content and pedagogy engage all learners and meet their individual needs. This means providing a curriculum that is inherently interesting and meaningful to students and teaching in a manner that respects and cares for students as individuals. Principle 6 starts with school leaders supporting and encouraging teachers as they strive to differentiate instruction, employ a variety of active teaching and learning strategies, and look for ways to integrate the “shared values” of the school into their everyday teaching. When teachers bring to the fore the “character dimension” of their subject matter and content area, they tap into each students’ natural interests and curiosity, and in the process increase student engagement and achievement. When teachers integrate social-emotional learning into their classrooms — the skills and competencies of self-awareness, self-management, and ethical decision-making — students are more equipped to do their best work and gain greater autonomy, competence, and confidence. Of course, students also learn about the shared values of the school by watching how their teachers model persistence, responsibility, and caring.

The school fosters students’ self-motivation.

This principle emphasizes intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation. Character means doing the right thing and doing your best work even when no one is looking. The best reason to be honest or to try your best is not to avoid punishment or to receive a good grade; rather, the best reason is being able to look at yourself in the mirror and know you did the right thing because that’s the kind of person you want to be. That’s character. Schools that emphasize character development encourage their students to internalize the importance of being honest, diligent, and caring. The ultimate goal, from the lens of character, is to ensure that every student has a moral compass as they graduate from high school and enter college or the workplace. This principle explores how a school can emphasize character-as-identity (intrinsic motivation) over compliance and reward (extrinsic motivation). One particular area that helps schools pivot away from an emphasis on extrinsic rewards is providing opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes in ways that align with the core values of the school and address specific areas of character growth (more patience, effort, empathy, etc).

All staff share the responsibility for developing, implementing, and modeling ethical character.

All school staff—teachers, administrators, counselors, paraprofessionals, resource teachers, school psychologists, social workers, nurses, coaches, secretaries, cafeteria workers, playground and classroom aides, bus drivers—share the responsibility to ensure that every young person is practicing and developing the character strengths that will enable them to flourish in school, in relationships, in the workplace, and as citizens. All staff members need to model the core values they want their students to understand and live by. Staff members also need to be involved in designing and implementing the school’s comprehensive character development approach. School leaders need to provide substantial staff development opportunities for colleagues to observe and discuss different strategies that help students understand, care about and consistently practice the core values of the school. These reflection opportunities should also focus on specific student behaviors the school may not be responding to or addressing through the lens of character. Finally, the staff needs to hold each other accountable to ensure that the common language and core values of the school community are being integrated into the adult culture of the school.

The school’s character initiative has shared leadership and long-range support for continuous improvement.

Schools of character have leaders who visibly champion the belief expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. that “intelligence plus character — that is the goal of a true education.” These school leaders establish a Character Committee—often composed of staff, parents, community members and students — and gives the Committee the responsibility to design, plan, implement, and assess the school’s comprehensive character development initiative. Over time, this leadership team is also empowered to identify new “stretch goals” to enhance the initiative, including recommending new staff development and funding opportunities. In addition, these schools identify ways for students to take on leadership roles through class meetings, student government, peer mediation, cross-age tutoring, service clubs, and new student-led initiatives. Principal 9 has been achieved when all stakeholders report that while their school leaders are vocal champions for character, they also share their leadership by valuing and trusting input and new strategies that aim to create a character-inspired culture where all stakeholders can express and articulate what the school stands for.

The school engages families and community as partners in the character initiative.

Schools of character involve families. Parents are encouraged to reinforce the school’s core values at home. School leaders regularly update families about character-inspired goals and activities (via newsletters, emails, family nights, parent workshops, the school website, and parent conferences). To build greater trust between home and school, school leaders reach out and encourage parents and family members to be involved in the work of the school’s Character Committee. In addition, schools and families vigorously recruit stakeholders from the wider community to be involved (i.e., local businesses, youth organizations, religious institutions, government agencies, the media). These connections and partnerships impact and enhance the school’s comprehensive approach to character development.

The school assesses its implementation of character education, its culture and climate, and the character growth of students on a regular basis.

Schools of character use a variety of approaches to assess the character development of their students, including student behavior data and surveys. Schools also assess the culture and climate of the school, focusing particular attention on the extent to which the school’s core values are being emphasized, modeled, and reinforced. They develop ways to measure the degree to which students understand, care about and consistently practice the core values of the school community. School leaders also assess whether the core values of the school community are being integrated into the adult culture of the school. The gold standard for Principle 11 is when all stakeholders, anyone who has a vested interest in the school community, have been surveyed or interviewed and the schools use this data to determine next steps and new priorities.