Why Character Education Is Important for Young Children

  • 12 Ways to Help Young Children Calm Down

    July 27, 2020 by

    By Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., author of the Learning About Me & You, Learning to Get Along®, and Being the Best Me!® series We live in stressful times. One of the most frequent challenges parents and teachers face is with helping children calm themselves and process strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration, and anger. These emotions, while common… Read more

  • Great Ways Children Can Help on Thanksgiving

    November 18, 2019 by

    Gathering with family and friends each November can be a time to reflect on all the good people and things in our lives. We enjoy a sense of belonging and connectedness as we celebrate together. Young children are excited to participate and help in these festivities that bring people together—whether that includes visiting with guests… Read more

  • Helping Children Join In and Play at Recess

    August 22, 2019 by

    I remember the anticipation of the first day of school when I was in first grade, and again as a first-grade teacher and as a mother of six. In every situation, I hoped that the school year would be rewarding socially as well as academically. Children can be more focused on their work, improve their… Read more

  • How to Build an EC Classroom Culture Where Children Listen

    May 9, 2019 by

    Isn’t it amazing that two-year-olds born anywhere in the world have acquired the listening skills needed to understand and speak their native languages—complete with intonation and inflection? Listening is a vital precursor to academic and social learning. As children grow, they learn to understand and interpret many different types of sounds. We can help them… Read more

  • Helping Children Develop Social Skills Through Play

    November 1, 2018 by

    Play can take on myriad of forms depending on the developmental maturity and personality of the child, the setting and resources available, and the child’s group of peers. Some might assume that if children aren’t involved in an adult-planned activity that they aren’t developing or learning anything important. Yet play isn’t just a frivolous way… Read more

  • Build a Sense of Belonging in the Early Childhood Classroom

    May 22, 2018 by

    Mr. Rogers was a strong advocate for children. In his much acclaimed and long running television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he treated children gently and warmly and made them feel that they were a part of his intimate circle of friends. Mr. Rogers understood that a sense of belonging is a basic human need and that… Read more

  • Social Stories: An Individualized Learning Tool

    January 8, 2018 by

    A friend once asked me for advice regarding her two-year-old child. She was concerned about her daughter’s biting and tantrums, so I offered to help her write a social story for her daughter. Social stories are useful behavioral tools for teachers, counselors, and parents when working with any young child, and they have particular benefits… Read more

  • Helping Children Grow Strong

    June 2, 2016 by

    Children, though young and small, have within them everything they need to grow to adulthood. As children learn to love and appreciate their amazing bodies, they will likely find motivation to develop healthy habits for building and maintaining wellness. Some of these key habits are eating healthy foods, especially those from plants; drinking clean water;… Read more

  • Helping Your Child Adjust to All-Day Kindergarten

    September 10, 2015 by

    Has your child started all-day kindergarten this fall? Most children this age, whether or not they have attended preschool, are transitioning to new challenges such as a more demanding schedule, new classwork, making new friends, and developing confidence. Let’s take a look at how you might bolster your child in four important ways: physically, academically,… Read more

  • Why Character Education Is Important for Young Children

    May 20, 2015 by

    “Character is like a tree and reputation is like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln President Lincoln is one of my all-time heroes. I respect his deeply rooted character, and that he didn’t sway or compromise his principles. According to Lincoln’s own observation, character… Read more

  • Teaching Children to Cool Down and Work Through Anger

    February 4, 2015 by

    Children, like all of us, are frequently bombarded with situations that are unexpected, frustrating, or hurtful. Anger is a natural secondary emotion when children feel out of control. They may feel threatened when their belongings or personal space is being invaded, when they are not being respected, when they can’t have something they want, or… Read more

  • Character Education: Growth of the Whole Child

    October 2, 2013 by

    A few weeks ago I watched the true story Freedom Writers with my two teenage girls. In the movie, Erin Gruwell, a young, inexperienced high school teacher in Long Beach, California, in the early 1990s, inspires and unites her diverse class of “unteachable, at-risk” high school students. Outside the classroom, these students—who were about 13–14 years old—faced… Read more

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“Character is like a tree and reputation is like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln is one of my all-time heroes. I respect his deeply rooted character, and that he didn’t sway or compromise his principles. According to Lincoln’s own observation, character is the real thing—it is the essence of who we are. His metaphor of a tree reminds us that teaching our children time-honored principles can help them stay grounded and rooted so that they can stand tall and live with integrity when winds of challenge blow. Others are also positively affected when children offer fruits of kindness, responsibility, and respect.

Character is an aggregate of all our traits and includes all of our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Our children’s character is molded by their decisions and affects every aspect of their current and future life. As parents and teachers, we’re responsible for their upbringing, and we play a vital role in helping children develop their full potential. With the many varied messages children see in the media and in their associations, we can’t expect them to merely observe and adopt the character traits and maturity that we’d like them to develop. A consistent and thorough teaching of ethical behavior is critical to shaping character. Here are some reasons why:

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1. Character development is the basis for personal growth. As children practice skills that promote character development, they build a reservoir of strength that they can draw on throughout their lives. Self-esteem, confidence, courage, resilience, integrity, and forgiveness are examples of traits that can sustain children at home, at school, and in the community.

2. Character development is the foundation for lifelong learning. Schools that teach character education report increased academic performance and attendance. They also report decreases in disciplinary problems. Children appreciate the safe environment that occurs when their peers are also learning about respect, honesty, and compassion. Teachers also find it easier to teach when children are learning to exhibit habits of patience, diligence, and self-control in the classroom.

3. Character is the bedrock that solid relationships are built on. Our children will be happier, more caring, more forgiving, and more responsible as they are taught to think about the needs of others.

Share and Take Turns copyright Free Spirit Publishing

Cooperation, tolerance, and teamwork are examples of social skills that can be experienced firsthand when children are given the tools and opportunities. Schools and homes are ideal settings for children to practice communicating, sharing, and getting along. Speaking of how relationships and character are intertwined, Woodrow Wilson said, “If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself.”

4. Character shapes us as neighbors and citizens. Our character is a holistic language we daily communicate to others. We constantly affect one another. Beyond our homes and schools, our children’s character will also affect all of us in the workplace and in our communities as they grow to be our employees, neighbors, and leaders. When young people have not been taught principles of character that can anchor them, and if they don’t feel strong ties to faith, family, or community that nurture them, they may feel adrift and hopeless. They may not be attuned to the consequences of their actions, or to the needs of others. Delinquency, gangs, and violence are sadly visible in our culture and are a reminder that we have an awesome responsibility to exhibit strong character ourselves as we raise and influence the next generation.

Developing a respectful and responsible character is a skill every child needs in order to thrive, find fulfillment, and be an influence for good in society. On the importance of character education to prepare children for learning and for life, Dr. Kevin Ryan (founder of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility) emphatically stated, “Character education is not one more thing to add to your plate. It is the plate!”

Teaching Children to Cool Down and Work Through Anger

Children, like all of us, are frequently bombarded with situations that are unexpected, frustrating, or hurtful. Anger is a natural secondary emotion when children feel out of control. They may feel threatened when their belongings or personal space is being invaded, when they are not being respected, when they can’t have something they want, or when things just aren’t going the way they would like. As teachers and parents, we can help children work through anger appropriately by teaching them to recognize, defuse, process, and resolve their angry feelings.

Help Children Recognize Anger
In quiet moments, children can be taught to become aware of the physical changes they feel when they start to feel angry. Explain that it’s normal for people to experience an increased heart rate or breathing, or an urge to speak loudly or lash out physically. Though natural, it is, of course, important for children to understand that hurting themselves or someone else or damaging property are not acceptable or tolerable displays of their anger. Talk with them about situations that might trigger their anger to help them become aware of their own natural responses.

Help Children Defuse Anger
Children can be taught ways to calm themselves and defuse their anger. When they relax physically and mentally, children can create some space between the stimulus that annoyed them and their response. Children may then process and respond to the problem logically and rationally rather than in ways they may regret later. There are many techniques you might suggest to children. Some favorites that require no materials or location are:

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  1. Count to ten.
  2. Take big breaths as if filling a balloon.
  3. Walk away until you feel calm.
  4. Sing a favorite song to yourself.
  5. Think about a happy time.
  6. Talk to an adult.

Help Children Resolve Anger
A more difficult and often overlooked part of teaching kids about anger is helping them learn to process their anger by discovering what triggered it, and helping them develop skills to work through the problem—or decide to let it go. Here are a few ideas:

1. Be an example to your child. Remain calm yourself when a child acts out. Remember your own struggles and the vulnerabilities you felt as a child. With that empathy, respect children’s feelings, and give them space to comply without forcing them. Take time to listen before disciplining. Your calm example and listening ear can strengthen the trust they feel in you, and help them feel confident in coming to you when working through their problems.

2. Teach children to accept things they can’t change. Children may be frustrated by their own limitations or rules they are asked to follow. For those things that can’t be changed, help children understand why things are as they are, and then help them find something else to focus on so they can let it go.

3. Practice good communication skills. Talking and listening to other children can also help children resolve differences. Practice these skills together through role play and discussion, such as at mealtime. Teach children how to apologize and accept apologies. Although it isn’t easy, learning to consider the viewpoints of others will help them respect others and empathize with them, which can help dissipate anger.

4. Help children view the situation in a new way. Because our emotions are tied to our thoughts, it’s possible to change the way we feel by changing the way we view a problem. Finding positive ways to look at situations is an essential skill to happiness and to getting along with others.

CoolDown_spread_sm c Free Spirit Publishing

5. Let children know that they have control over their emotions. Connected to the idea that we can change our thoughts is the understanding that we can decide to be happy by choosing our own thoughts and actions. Let children know that they are not victims of other people’s decisions and actions. Even when children are faced with situations beyond their control, they can choose how they will respond to the situation. Sometimes they may decide to accept something and move on. At other times, the child may find a way to talk with the person or do something that can make things better.

At all times, let children know that you are their advocate—that you believe in them and want them to be happy. Help them understand that having strong feelings such as anger is natural, and that they can learn to recognize, defuse, and process that energy in positive ways to address problems, understand someone else better, and feel happier.

What are some ways you help kids cope with angry feelings?

Character Education: Growth of the Whole Child

A few weeks ago I watched the true story Freedom Writers with my two teenage girls. In the movie, Erin Gruwell, a young, inexperienced high school teacher in Long Beach, California, in the early 1990s, inspires and unites her diverse class of “unteachable, at-risk” high school students. Outside the classroom, these students—who were about 13–14 years old—faced obstacles like gang fighting, shootings, drugs, family members who had died or were in prison, poverty, abuse, and homelessness. But, inside her classroom, they learned to reflect and communicate; they learned to understand, respect, and empathize with classmates of different backgrounds. They not only experienced academic growth for the first time, but transforming social and emotional growth, as well.

Gruwell’s students read the true story of Anne Frank, a girl about their age who faced the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the courage of Miep Gies who sheltered the Frank family for many months during the war. Gruwell’s freshmen students raised money themselves to fly Miep Gies from the Netherlands to speak to them. In a climactic scene, Mrs. Gies, speaking movingly of her experiences, summed up for them what it means to be a person of character:

“I am not a hero. I did what I had to do because it was the right thing to do. That is all. We are all ordinary people, but even ordinary people can, in their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”

Armed with this understanding that they could each be heroes of their own lives, students began to make bold decisions—even when (as with Miep Gies) this jeopardized their own safety. The most dramatic example was a young woman who found the courage to testify truthfully in court regarding her witness of a murder, even though she was beaten by her own extended family and forced to leave home because of it.

What did Erin Gruwell’s students learn about character that year? More importantly, what motivated them to change and build character of their own? Here are a few of her methods that stood out to me, and their effect on the students:

  • The students learned to value and read books because they were given as personalized gifts.
  • Through interactive activities, they began to notice the similarities they shared with classmates and to be more tolerant of those they felt in conflict with.
  • They studied the effects of cultures that didn’t value or respect other groups and wrestled with how these themes applied to themselves.
  • Their world became bigger as they took field trips to museums.
  • They became more hopeful as they were exposed to relevant speakers who had demonstrated perseverance and courage.
  • They became interested in the stories of other people who faced challenges, relating to their circumstances and feeling motivated by their struggles.
  • They wrote their own stories each day, which helped them reflect on their choices and decisions.

What were some of the wide-reaching effects of this type of character education on these students?

  • They knew, through the effort, money, and time lavished on them by their teacher that someone understood and cared about them.
  • Bullying decreased as inclusiveness increased. They became a tight-knit group of friends who knew they had a safe place to go.
  • Through the dedication of one person, their paradigm of life shifted from indifference to hope; from hate to trust and caring.
  • They, themselves, became catalysts for change. Many were the first in their family to graduate from high school. Some achieved advanced degrees and work, even now, to teach others these methods.

Not all of our children face these extreme circumstances. Yet, they all need our guidance and attention to them as a whole person. In a few years, today’s children will be adults. What we teach them will influence the way they see and lead their lives. As much as children need scholastic training for careers, they need character training for life.

Though we can teach about character growth through the exploration of ideas, language, and behavioral skills, my overarching goal for children would be that they independently develop the desire to become people of strong character. By definition, character consists of what we choose to do when no one is looking or influencing us. Because it must involve free will to truly exist, character growth is unlike other academic subjects that can be performed on demand. Therefore, attempting to force character development by grading it is meaningless, if not harmful. A preferable approach, as Erin Gruwell demonstrated, would be to use methods that motivate children to make character-based decisions on their own, and as its own reward. Character strength thrives on intrinsic motivation, not manipulation.

Some of the best gifts we can give to our children are those that will encourage them to develop as a whole child. These include: believing in them; helping them know their own potential; and helping them feel empowered to make wise choices, even when it is difficult—to be their very best. With caring parents, teachers like Erin Gruwell, and role models such as Miep Gies, children will thrive as they choose to honor and nurture principles of character that will affect their whole lives.

How has a teacher or mentor influenced you in your childhood to develop character? What suggestions do you have for helping children develop strength of character?

Prescription for Your Child: A Dose of Understanding Mixed with Kindness

Recently, an acquaintance shared this incident with me. His daughter had been wetting the bed at night. Frustrated that he needed to wake in the middle of the night to help her change her sheets and get situated back into bed, he was often short with her. Each night as he awoke, he felt impatient and angry. This resulted in scolding his daughter, which made the experience unpleasant for both of them.

One night as he awoke to help her, it occurred to him that he wasn’t treating his daughter with the respect or kindness she deserved. Her behavior was not in her control. She needed his help getting cleaned up, but she also needed to know of his concern for her and his understanding of how she felt as she woke up uncomfortably each night facing the prospect of being reprimanded.

He changed his entire approach. He treated his daughter respectfully and gently. His relationship with his daughter improved—not just at night, but in their interactions during the day as well. And then, suddenly, mysteriously, the bed-wetting ended.

Observe
One way to understand a child’s perspective and emotions is to observe the child’s interactions and play. Take time occasionally to just play with your child. There is probably nothing that would delight a child more. Take note of your child’s interests, abilities, and the type of activities he or she enjoys. Observe transitional times during the day such as waking, mealtime, leaving and returning home, and bedtime. Are there ways that these could be less stressful? Also note how your child is interacting, playing, and sharing with other children. It may take a week or so to really observe when your child is feeling and behaving well, and where improvements can be made.

Ask and Listen
As adults and parents, we talk a lot to our children. We monitor most of their actions, often asking or reminding them to do something we have asked. Do we take a proportionate amount of time to listen to our children? Once, when my son was about four years old, several members of my family were talking in the kitchen. My son was frustrated and said loudly to my husband, myself, and three other children, “Go on time out!” Dutifully, we all went and sat on the stairs. Suddenly his frustration seemed to lift, and he felt so affirmed that we had listened to him. For a minute, the tables were turned and he knew that we could understand what he experienced and felt at times.

(c) Orangeline | Dreamstime.com

Listening carefully to your children without minimizing their concerns is very validating and can show children that they can trust you to respect their sensitive feelings. Ask questions to invite discussion. Then take time to listen to the child’s responses, and to understand the child’s perspective. Try to remember what it felt like when you were a child. Children have little control over many situations. By showing real concern for their feelings and well-being, you help your children feel understood and better able to cope with their problems.

Here are a few examples of questions you might ask:

  • Who do you like to play with?
  • What is your favorite thing for lunch? (I still remember a time when I was in first grade and was asked what I wanted for lunch. I was so happy to open up my lunch box that day to my own quirky preferences.)
  • What is your favorite toy?
  • What is something you would like to learn to do? What do you like doing with me?
  • What would you do if you could choose what to do all day?

By listening empathically to your child, you will also be providing a valuable example for your child of how to listen to other children and family members.

Give Encouragement and Praise
While visiting a good friend when I was younger, I talked with her mother. My friend was an intelligent, beautiful, caring, and fun young lady. Her mother told me that she believed it was important never to tell a child that she was smart and pretty or praise her because it would spoil her. I felt sorry that my friend was raised with this apparent lack of attention or caring because she deserved praise and acknowledgment from her parents. Every child does. It is helpful to a child when we are specific in stating what we notice, such as, “I like the way you got dressed all by yourself.” But, our intent is probably even more important than our words. Our child will know if we are genuine in our approval. So as long as we focus on giving as much positive feedback and reinforcement as possible, we don’t have to worry too much about our precise dialogue. Unlike my friend’s mother, I believe that a parent’s love and positive attention are like water and sunshine to a blossoming plant.

Be cautious when speaking about your children to friends and relatives—or on social media. Although it is tempting to tell a friend how challenging your child’s behavior is in an effort to gain sympathy, or even advice, others may then view the child in a negative light. Sometimes the stories don’t die, and your child will hear of them later. This lack of loyalty doesn’t reflect well on you as a parent and will do nothing to strengthen your bond with your child. Make a point, instead, to focus on and share the positive actions and efforts of your child, and let these be the stories that come back to your child. My father has told me that when he was about twelve years old, his parents stood at his door one night when he appeared to be asleep. His mother said to his father, “Vic is such a good boy. He has never given us any trouble.” These kind words that were overheard by my father are a treasure to him, which firmly cemented his loyalty to his mother and motivated him to give his best efforts to making her words come true.

(c) Niderlander | Dreamstime.com

Plan Activities
Plan activities in your family schedule that will broaden your child’s horizon and allow you time to interact together. Setting aside a weekly family night is helpful so that other commitments don’t crowd in. You might include a special dessert, games that the children enjoy, trips to the park or library, reading together, or making crafts.

Traveling in the car is also an excellent time for conversation, singing, games, and special snacks. Sure, putting on a movie during a long ride can help children sit quietly, but there are lots of ways to interact and make great memories together, as well.

Mealtime can be another opportunity to connect with your children. For many years we placed each person’s name or picture into a bowl. At dinner we would each draw a name. The challenge was always a variation on giving a compliment like “Tell something this person has done for you,” “What is this person good at?” or “What is something you admire in this person?” Mealtime is also a good opportunity to ask what children enjoyed about the day, what they learned, or what they have done to help someone. You may have to resist the urge, at times, to micromanage what your children are eating and how they are eating it. Focus instead on nourishing your children’s spirits as well as their bodies, and mealtime can be one of the most pleasurable, relaxed times of your day.

Build Up Your Child
Besides giving praise and encouragement, there are other ways you can build up your child. Here are a few:

  • Laugh and tell jokes; be silly together.
  • Let your home be a safe place for your child to ask questions.
  • Let your child know that it is always okay to come to you with any problem or concern.
  • Apologize when you make a mistake.
  • Keep your promises to your child. Don’t promise things that you know you can’t deliver. Likewise, try not to cancel plans you have made with your child.
  • Support your child’s wise decisions, friendships, and accomplishments.
  • Be an advocate. Speak up for your child when needed.

When you need to correct your child, do it with kindness and gentleness. Many small, inconsequential things your child says and does can be completely ignored. Some things can be treated with humor. But, if a child’s actions may hurt something or someone, it’s time to intervene in a caring way. Once the child is engaged in something else, make sure to praise the new, appropriate behavior.

Your relationship with your child will change as the child grows, but it will always be rooted in the type of relationship that is developed now. A child’s early years will largely shape the child’s entire personality. Your relationship with your child is more important than any issue that may come between you. Now is the time to consider how you might add a dose of understanding and kindness to solidify your relationship and help your child become all that she or he can be.

How have you worked to understand your children better? How do you let your children know that you appreciate them? What do you do for family time? I would love to hear your stories in the comments below.