Character Matters

David Brooks, NY Times columnist and 2013 Forum keynote speaker, wrote in a recent column that “Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.” As he went on to stress the importance of character and noted the social research that shows its importance, I was cheering him on. I was still with him as he described research that shows that proper experiences can improve performance values such as resilience and self-control.

But then he added, “The superficial ‘character education’ programs implanted into some schools of late haven’t done much either” and I was dismayed. Statements like this add to impressions that character education doesn’t work, but we have evidence that it does. [Link to Marvin’s What Works in Character Education?] Of course, there are superficial attempts out there, but what schools do when they implement CEP’s framework, the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education, is not superficial. It is complex and challenging, and it does make a difference.

Take the example of Smith Street School, a nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School located in Uniondale, New York, and a 2014 National School of Character. IMG_0914Despite numerous challenges (a high poverty rate with 67% of Smith Street students eligible for free or reduced lunch), Smith Street School (SSS) is flourishing. The school consistently outperforms the district and state on test scores. In 2013, passing rates were 13% higher than the district and 9% higher than state averages.

SSS’s character journey began in 2005 and continuously evolved to meet the needs of a diverse community. “We work hard to include parents in our efforts,” says social worker Colleen Parris, “We know that the messages we give here will stick better if they are reinforced at home.”

Parents, teachers and staff developed the touchstone of the “3 R’s: Respect, Responsibility, and Reflection,” and are highly involved in driving initiatives.

Despite significant challenges, Smith Street School is a shining beacon for what can happen on a campus when students, faculty, staff, and the broader community are collectively committed to character education, not only in school, but in life.

Community of Peace schoolAnother great example of effective character education is Community of Peace Academy (CPA), in St. Paul, Minnesota, a K-12 school with a rich history of accomplishments. In 2003 and 2014, they were named a CEP National School of Character; in 2005, a National Peacebuilders Model Site by Peace Partners, Inc.; and in 2007, a National Charter School of the Year by the Center for Educational Reform. The school believes that people will “more likely make moral decisions and choices if they are members of a moral community.”

With a highly diverse student population predominantly comprised of Asian, Hispanic and African-Americans, 86% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, CPA has developed a school community that best exemplifies the concept of rigor and compassion. CPA’s graduation rate is 86.9% and of the graduates, 93% go on to 2- or 4 year-colleges.

As clearly articulated by students, staff and parents, CPA is a school whose founding in 1995 was based on a desire to link academics and character and is the paragon of what schools can accomplish when they foster the “right and the good.”

See more examples of successful schools who have implemented effective character education.

While we typically showcase the total school climate, the power of character education is most important for the difference it makes for students. While we don’t always know what happens to students when the leave Schools of Character, we have this powerful testimony in our files.

As a 7th grade student, Mandy had been failing every class at her last school, her attendance was terrible, she had been hospitalized with suicidal tendencies and she absolutely hated school. As a new student at a School of Character, she was cared for and connected to programs that would help Mandy turned her life around. Over the next two years, she blossomed into a beautiful and healthy young lady. At the end of her 8th grade year, Mandy learned that she and her mother were moving. In the middle of her first year in high school, she sent this e-mail to her principal:

Hey … It’s Mandy from last year. I just wanted you to know that I really do miss your school and the help you provided me. I hope you know that your school has helped me better myself emotionally and physically. I always do my homework, I have A’s and B’s in every class… I’m running for secretary and I’m going to be on the basketball team. Your character education program has inspired not just me but many other students and i just wanted to let you know the character education your school taught me I have passed it on. Jefferson elementary has asked me to help them develop a character education program for the elementary students to help better them as people. I just wanted to say thank you.

Brooks ends his column with this paragraph: “Character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process. But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.” Yes, we do need to get all stakeholders together, but calling character development “idiosyncratic” and “mysterious” doesn’t help. Character education works best when it is intentional and permeates the entire school culture and curriculum. That’s what we see in our Schools of Character, and we hope to keep growing the program so that more schools can be like Smith Street and Community of Peace Academy and more students like Mandy can turnaround.



Why Kids Bully

Why Kids Bully

Is a bully, a bystander, a victim or some combination?

Contributed by Michele Borba, CEP board member


It’s not easy to know that your child is bullying.

It’s hard to admit that your kid is using aggression.

But to allow bullying behaviors to continue will be disastrous to your child’s character, conscience, reputation, well-being and mental health.

No matter the age, gender, religion, or ethnicity, any child resorting to bullying needs an immediate behavior intervention.

Please do not make the mistake of thinking that bullying just “a phase” or a “rite of passage.” Behaviors and attitudes turn into habits and can easily be entrenched and much harder to change. Now is the time to help your child.

A key to changing bullying is to uncover what is motivating the child’s behavior. Each child is different and multiple factors may play into bullying so a “one-size fits all” remedy will not work.

Best intervention plans are based on the “medical model approach.” Doctors don’t give the same medication to every patient. They first identify the symptoms, and then diagnose the reason so they can use the right treatment. The wrong diagnosis means the wrong treatment, and that means your child won’t improve.

The good news is because bullying is a learned behavior it can also be unlearned. The sooner you begin, the greater your success!

Figuring Out Why a Child Bullies

Jot down your ideas helps you see a pattern in your child’s behavior you may overlook.

Roll up your sleeves and let’s get started! I’ll give you solutions, but your first step is to figure out the “why.”

Get a notebook to jot down your thoughts as I help you figure out how to help your child.

You may not need to go through all of these steps. Use those tips that help you most.

Do not expect overnight turnarounds, but know this is doable!

Also, please know that there is no one reason why a child bullies.

Each child is different, and there is no one behavior intervention plan that will work for all kids.

What’s key is to figure out what might be triggering your child’s aggressive behavior. Only then will you be able to develop a specific plan to turn the behavior around.

This may take time. You probably need others to help you develop a plan, but hang in there!

Identify the Reason

Your first step is to determine why your child is using this behavior. What might be triggering your child’s behavior?

Here are a few of the top reasons why kids bully. Could any apply to your child? Think through each item carefully. What is your best guess as to why your child is using aggressive behaviors? There may be another reason beyond this list which you can add to the end.

Your child has been allowed to get away with bullying. Adults are turning a blind eye to the behavior. Or have bullying or aggressive behaviors been rewarded or encouraged? Does your child need firmer limits and monitoring?

Your child has been handed too harsh discipline, too rigid or strict, “conditional” love. Is your child using bullying is as exaggerated need for attention or respect? Does your child need a warm, loving parent?

Your child uses aggression to gain rank, attention, power or show “toughness.” Perhaps she lacks social skills, feels rejected or isolated by peers, and is trying to fit in. Research also finds the urge for popularity — especially for kids on the second tier of the social rung – is a bully motivator. Might this be your child? Does she need to learn social skills or find ways to make and keep friends appropriately?

Your child’s empathy – or feeling for others capacity – has not been encouraged or nurtured at home. Did he have an early trauma or depression, which may inhibit the development of empathy and need counseling? Might your family need to tune up compassion? Is empathy not expected?

Your child is hanging with a group who believes it’s “cool to be cruel.” Could he be mimicking other kids? A child’s social network can inhibit or encourage bullying behaviors. Does he need a new group of pals?

Your child has been bullied and is seeking protection. Could he be serving as henchman for another bully out of fear of being victimized himself? Does he need to learn appropriate assertive skills?

Your child lacks coping skills and is impulsive, unable to control anger, and has a natural tendency to “act out.” Does he need anger management skills?

Your child has adopted the view that aggression is acceptable. Could he be watching television shows, movies and video or computer games that glamorize aggression and cruelty and the exposure affects his behavior and attitude? Has his aggression been reinforced or even encouraged by others? Is he watching others who are aggressive?

Your child… What other reasons could your child be bullying?

Uncover the Cause

Watch your child closer. I know it’s hard to be objective about your child, but try to keep an open mind so you can uncover what’s really going on.

Ask others who care about your child and see him or her in other social situations for their input.

Watch your child in different social settings. Bullying does not happen in all situations and with all kids, so check into each situation. Then answer these next questions:

  • Where is this behavior happening most often?
  • Where is the behavior not happening? Why? What’s different in those spots?
  • Are there certain adults or peers involved in situations where bullying is more frequent?
  • What about the time of days?
  • How frequently does this happen?

Do the questions help you see any pattern? It sometimes helps if you keep a journal to jot down notes to review.

What is your best guess as to what is triggering the bullying?  Don’t worry if you still don’t know. Just move on to the next step.

Get Your Child’s Take

Now get your child’s take on the situation.

Your role is to try and discover what might be bothering your child or triggering this behavior so you can help, so listen carefully and try to gather facts.

For instance:

  • Was he falsely accused?
  • Could he be the victim of bullying himself?
  • Was he trying to protect himself?
  • Is this the only way he can figure out how to find a friend?

Ask: “What do the other kids think about your behavior?”

Ask: “What would your teacher say is the reason you are doing this?”

Ask: “What help do you need to stop?”

Be calm and nonjudgmental as you try to uncover your child’s real motivation. Listen twice as much as you talk.

Keep in mind that your child probably won’t be able to put in words what’s triggering the behavior.

Also, keep in mind that bullies often deny their actions or blame the other kid. You may need to call witnesses to help you get the most accurate picture.

You will need to be the detective.

Dig Deeper

Still unclear? These details will help you piece together what is going on to help prevent a reoccurrence. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where and when did the bullying first happen? Think back…way back.
  • What started it? What was going on in your child’s life at the time? Is there anything that might have triggered the behavior?
  • Which kids were involved? Which adults were present in your child’s life?
  • Were there any adult witnesses that might be able to provide clues?

Create a Plan to Turn Bullying Around

Once you determine what preempted the offense (he uses aggression to make friends, to protect himself, for revenge, to try to look cool), your next step is to work together to try and create an immediate first solution. The objective isn’t to let your child off the hook, but to develop alternatives it won’t happen again. For example:

Problem: He bullies for protection.

Solution: Avoid the spot your child is most likely to be bullied by others; find an older child who can look out for your kid. (See Bully-Proofing Strategies for Kids)

Problem: She bullies to seek power to find friends.

Solution: Find other social avenues where your child can make a new friend; teach her friendship-making skills to boost her social competence. For instance: How to start a conversation, lose gracefully, ask permission or solve problems peacefully. Then target and teach one new skill at a time by showing your child the new strategy and then practicing it until your child can use it alone. (See Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me, by yours truly and Helping Kids Find, Make and Keep Friends).

Problem: He bullies due to inability to control anger.

Solution: Teach specific anger management strategies (See Anger Management for Kids and Helping Kids Cool Hot Tempers).

Problem: She bullies because she is mimicking other children.

Solution: Watch with whom your kid pals around. Also, check out the day care center, sports teams or other after-school programs your child is enrolled in. Ask teachers for recommendations for a peer group who won’t feed into the behavior.

Problem: He bullies because he doesn’t recognize or care that his behavior is causing his victim distress.

Solution: Boost empathy by asking him to “Switch Places” and pretend to be the victim. Then ask: “How would you feel if someone said that about you?” Tell or read a story in the about a child who is victimized. Consider doing community service as a family. Food drives, picking up trash in the park, painting battered women’s shelters, serving meals at homeless shelters or delivering meals to sick and elderly folks who are housebound are just a few options.

Problem: He bullies because he has a surplus of energy that often is acted out.

Solution: Offer positive alternatives to channel her aggression such as karate, boxing, swimming, jazzercise, weight lifting, soccer, football, or the marching band. But find a physical outlet for your kid to direct his strength and be also praised for his effort.  Also, make sure you teach strategies to help control his anger. (See Helping Kids Cool Hot Tempers).

Once you think you have an idea about the motivation behind your child’s behavior, refer to the specific chapter in my book for solutions in: The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries or on my website: Michele Borba and refer to the articles in the Bullying section.

Don’t be frustrated! This will take time. Keep a diary of your notes. Keep talking to others who know and care about your child.

Above all, don’t give up!


Character Education: “Not a quick fix, but well worth the effort”

Katie Hood

Katie Hood, Web Content Coordinator for CEP

Being a relatively new CEP staff member (I started in Sept.), I’m still learning a lot about character education. I know the basics now – start small, get leadership on board, engage your out-of-school community – but I am still amazed when I hear the National Schools of Character stories. True learning happens in these schools because students want to learn, teachers want to teach, and parents and community members support them.

I recently listened to a radio show that discusses issues in American education. This day’s particular show focused on character education, and featured CEP’s National Schools of Character director Lara Maupin, and Crestwood Elementary School (MO) principal Scott Taylor.

The most striking thing I realized while listening to the show was that the most common issues in education: bullying, poor academic performance, pressure for students to reach test scores rather than truly learn just aren’t issues at NSOCs.

Scott talked about how his school earned the “Nobel Prize of Education,” according to his superintendent. His school was the only school in 2011 to be distinguished as a Blue Ribbon School and also a National School of Character. He said in the show, “It’s a tremendous honor –really the highest honor you can achieve in education – and certainly we would not have accomplished that without the character program that we have in place.”

That struck a chord with me because the correlation is really becoming clear about how character education relates to students doing better and being better. They said that teachers have more time to teach when they use character education as the foundation of their pedagogy. Students hold themselves and each other accountable to the virtues and values that they establish as important in their school. These values are typically respect, responsibility, honesty, doing your best – standards that most agree are positive. That way, teachers can spend their time teaching instead of disciplining students’ bad behavior.

It is important, they say, for the school community (students, parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders) to all discuss and reach consensus about the values taught. There is no one-size-fits-all character education program that works for everyone, but there are principles that can help guide all schools in providing quality character education. And these principles work for all types of schools – urban, rural, suburban, rich, poor, middle-income, minority, homogeneous, you name it.

Character education is not an add-on. It’s the foundation. And “when parents, staff, and students come together – great things happen,” says Principal Taylor. The proof is in the 170 NSOCs. Lara says, “In all of our NSOCs, we’ve seen the metrics go in the right direction, for both academic and discipline and behavior.”

Listening to this show really helped me understand how effective, comprehensive character education can be a part of the reform so obviously needed in American schools.


You Got A Case

Marvin Berkowitz

Marvin Berkowitz, of the University of Missouri's Center for Character & Citizenship

I was recently asked how to convince people that character education actually works.  The cynicism, skepticism, and conservativism out there often astounds me.  Amy Johnston, the award-winning principal of 2008 National School of Character Francis Howell Middle School (St. Charles, MO), expresses the same frustration.

As the character education pioneer in her district, she often presents a comparison of her school’s academic and character data as compared with the other four middle schools in her district.  Even early in her character education journey, she started to see her school pull away from the other four in both areas.

When other educators noticed the results she was getting, they began to ask for her secrets.  She answered “character education.” To which they typically replied “No. Really.  What did it?”  So she would explain how she used character education to rethink and reform her school and would describe the specific initiatives she enacted, like looped, multi-aged “homerooms” and a collaboratively-generated set of four core values with a corresponding rubric crafted in part by students.  And they would shake their heads and walk away seemingly disappointed.  So she laments “they see the data, I tell them what we did, and they don’t believe it.  What more can I do?”

Amy’s frustration mirrors the frustration of many educators who believe in character education and base their beliefs on hard data.  I hear all too often that “there is no research on character education.”  Well that is patently inaccurate.

In 2005, in collaboration with the Character Education Partnership and the support of the John Templeton Foundation, Mindy Bier and I published What Works in Character Education.  It was a result of our attempt to find the holes in the literature; i.e., to generate an agenda for needed future research by mapping what little was known and then prescribing new research.

We were stunned by how much research existed.  We found over 200 recent studies.  We reviewed them, especially 69 scientifically rigorous studies showing the effectiveness of quite a wide range of character education initiatives, and drew conclusions from them about effective practice.  While the newest studies in that report are now 8 years old, it still has legs and is cited frequently (yesterday I received a Google alert that it had just been cited in Malaysia).

And WWCE is not the only such source of evidence.  The US Department of Education included character education in its What Works Clearinghouse and found many effective programs.  In addition, other related areas have similar sets of convincing data.  The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning published both a program review of 80 social-emotional learning programs and more recent meta-analysis of 213 such programs.

In parallel there are reviews of service learning, positive psychology, and various prevention curricula, many of which are also included in the WWCE, WWC, and CASEL reviews.  Separately or together, they point to the same conclusions:

  • Character education can and does work
  • The effects are broad ranging
  • What you do and how well you do it matter

One of the most persistent push-backs we get is the assumption that time on character education (or social emotional learning etc.) is time away from academics.  In other words, many educators seem to assume that this is a zero-sum game; more character education means less learning.  This is about inaccurate as could be.  I will make two points about this:

  • Good character education is good education.  The basic  tenets of effective character education, as delineated in the CEP Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education, but also throughout the effective practices literature in education, focuses on school climate, relationships, and a purpose- and value-driven school.  They are the same principles advocated in effective schools and in character education.In a recent study of nations that are particularly successful in academic education outcomes (and the US is not one of them), it was concluded that “Although all these countries are concerned about developing the unprecedented levels of cognitive and noncognitive skills required by the global economy, they are no less concerned about social cohesion, fairness, decency, tolerance, personal fulfillment, and transmission of values that they feel define them as a nation.  In many cases, these discussions of national goals have laid the base for profound changes in the design of national education systems” (Tucker, 2011, p. 173).

    Clearly the US has much to learn about education from this, for it is concluded that the research on these high success countries includes no evidence that any of them have gotten there “by implementing any of the major agenda items that dominate the education reform agenda in the United States, with the exception of the Common Core State Standards” (p, 209).

  • Research shows that character education promotes academic achievement.  This makes sense because of the overlap in methods with effective schools and because common sense tells us that when students like school, feel a valued member of the school community, and feel that they are co-owners and co-authors of their educational experiences, they are more motivated and self-managed, and hence perform better, both academically and behaviorally.In a study of 120 California elementary schools, Jack Benninga and I and our colleagues found a strong association between character education and state test scores.   CASEL’s meta-analysis shows the same finding, as have many other studies and reviews.  And case studies abound.  One merely needs to look at the CEP website’s thumbnails of National Schools of Character to see example after example.

    Perhaps no case is more compelling than that of Ridgewood Middle School (Arnold, MO), which Charles Haynes and I reported in USA Today on February 20, 2007.  Simply by transforming the horribly negative school culture of a failing school by using character education principles, they moved from state test scores with only 30% success in communication arts and 7% success in mathematics in 2000 to 68% in communication arts and 71% in mathematics.

So can we make a case for the effectiveness of character education?  I think I just did.  And there is so much more evidence that I don’t have room to present here.  Character education is good education as such it promotes healthy schools, the positive development of students, and academic excellence.  And the data support it.  If your doctor presented this kind of evidence of effectiveness of a treatment for you, you would not hesitate.  Character education is what this doctor prescribes for our youth, our schools, our nation, and our world.


Veterans Day – A Teachable Moment

 by Joseph W. Mazzola President & CEO

I had the great fortune of being raised by a loving family. They instilled in me certain values that shaped me into the person I am today. None of the adults in my family had much of a formal education though. My grandfather, for example, came to our country at the age of 10 with about a fifth grade education. He was a water boy on the railroad and later became a shoemaker.

My father never graduated from high school either. He fixed wrecked cars for a living and eventually owned his own shop–“Mazzola’s Body Shop.” It never had running water or central heat. During the winter, he burned coal in a pot-belly stove to warm the place up. I loved hanging out at his shop, and I learned a lot, too. Most people don’t know it, but I’ve painted cars, changed engines, installed transmissions, and I still service my own vehicles. In fact, I’m doing a brake job on my son’s car this weekend.

Oh. I forgot to mention why my dad never graduated from high school. He quit at the start of his senior year to go fight in World War II with his older brothers. You see, service to the nation was just one of the values stressed in our family. Since that was the case, it was an easy decision for me to enlist in the Air Force when I got older, even though it was very unpopular at the time.

Although I planned on doing my hitch and then moving on, I ended up spending more than 25 years in uniform. I did so because I loved being part of something meaningful, I loved working with honorable men and women, and I loved the fact that my organization stressed many of the same values I learned at home: Integrity, Service and Excellence.

Every year in November we celebrate Veterans Day. This year, encourage your students to reach out to veterans in your community. Besides having them thank the vets for their service, have them ask about the core values the vets lived by and how those values impacted their personal character. And, after Veterans Day, have the students share what they learned. I think you’ll find this can be a powerful character-building experience…and that’s what all good character educators look for!

Thanks for all you do to develop young men and women of good character for our world.