Character Makes a Comeback
Guns, drugs, gangs, bullies. Can we save our students? Three outstanding programs say yes.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
The learning of good old-fashioned values, once a homegrown, natural skill for many, seems to have fallen out of vogue in recent years. When kids lack respect, bully others, and give in to violent outbursts, it's clear that our society is not doing its job. But across the country, the teaching of character and values is making an unprecedented comeback in at least one place—the schools. Many school districts have instituted programs that do two things: provide students with a grounding in such values as courage and caring, and teach them how to solve disputes peacefully. Highly encouraging accounts of three such districts—urban, suburban, and rural—follow here. All have found that their programs create environments in which learning more easily takes place and young participants become more respectful, empathetic human beings. The hope for years to come: not only lives better lived but lives lived longer.
The troublemaker was a seventh grader who kept beating up another boy on the playground. In many schools it would fall upon teachers and administrators to separate them, sort out the stories, and administer discipline that had no guarantee of working, especially after the kids left school property. But at Carl F. Shuler Middle School, in Cleveland, Ohio, a teacher gave the boys another option: peer mediation.
Sitting across from each other, assisted by two mediators their own age, the boys told their stories. Each related how the incident made him feel. In the safe, quiet space of the mediation room, the child who had been picked on started crying. The other child, who was intellectually low-functioning, was shocked. He reached over to hold his victim's hand. "I'll play nice with you," he promised. "No, don't play with me!" the other boy cried. Guided by the mediators, the pair brainstormed alternatives and agreed not to talk to each other for two weeks. A month later, they were playing together again-peacefully.
To Alanna Meyers, the eighth-grade language arts teacher who runs Carl F. Shuler's mediation program, the session illustrates why peer mediation works: "Just by sitting through the process of listening to someone else tell his or her story, they learn. Because they come up with the solution themselves and agree to it, they have to keep their word. They then take that process outside the mediation."
This program, Winning Against Violent Environments (WAVE), is currently used in every one of Cleveland's 118 schools. Teachers select two students, starting in third grade, for mediation training: one a "positive" leader with good grades and attendance, one a "negative" leader of a disruptive group. "Sometimes people are leery about choosing the negative leaders, but if you reach them, you can reach the group," says Meyers.
From third grade up, these students are trained in groups of 25 to 30 using such hands-on activities as drawing and role play. Then these trained students work as conflict managers, acting informally to settle disputes on the playgrounds, in cafeterias and classrooms. By high school, skilled WAVE mediators are training younger students, as well as teachers, parents, and community groups.
A 1994 University of Minnesota study found that principals of schools with peer-mediation programs reported that conflicts referred to them decreased by 80 percent. At Carl F. Shuler, Meyers has supervised 44 of the 1,712 mediations conducted last year in Cleveland schools-disputes ranging from malicious gossip to sports-related fights. One boy went to mediation six times before it dawned on Meyers that the child was picking fights because he was actually listened to in mediation. "We're going to make him a mediator this year," she says with a chuckle. "That's going to save the lunch-activities supervisors lots of headaches!"
Although Justin is short for his age, the fourth grader has never been bullied at Highline Community School, in the Cherry Creek school district of Colorado. "Kids have gotten the message not to bully one another because they won't get away with it," he says.
Kathy Castleberry, his teacher, can attest to that. She has seen children on the schoolyard stop a newcomer who was taunting another kid, to admonish, "We don't do that at this school." Another time, students asked a child who was stealing to stop, then included her in their games so that she wouldn't seek attention in destructive ways. And during sports games, students won't let classmates use abusive language, obscenities, or the words "shut up."
Just what has Highline Community School done? It has "bully-proofed" its institution, directly addressing a problem that was to bring tragedy to nearby Columbine High School, in Jefferson County. In 1993, five professionals on Cherry Creek's counseling staff wrote Bully-Proofing Your School (Sopris West, 1993), a manual that lays out a strategy for curbing aggressive student behavior. Highline Community School was the first site nationwide to implement the program throughout an entire school district, with dramatic results:
- A 50 percent decrease in verbal and physical harassment maintained over a four-year period;
- A 30 percent decrease in behavioral reports;
- A 20 percentile-point increase in standardized achievement test scores.
More than 300 schools throughout the country have since been trained in the program, which uses a no-nonsense response to bullying behavior. The teacher calmly discusses the bully's actions with him or her. "You don't accuse or threaten or get in a power play with the child," says Castleberry. "You ask him to reflect on what made him do what he did." She has the bully write a reflective letter to his parents and an apology to the victim. Typically, the child is excluded from recess, and if the bullying continues, other children won't play with him. "Bullies hate being ignored—they want your attention," says Castleberry. The child may have to discuss the way he acts with the rest of the class—who nevertheless treat him with respect.
Students are taught how not to be bullied, on the theory that the way to stop the behavior is to deprive offenders of targets. Kids learn an acronym that lays out a variety of effective ways to respond, HA HA SO: help (seek help from a teacher or other students); assert (stand up for yourself but do not fight back); humor (make a joke of the situation); avoid (walk away); self-talk (tell yourself things that make you feel better); and "own it" (agree with what the bully says, in order to defuse the situation).
Children who are neither bullies nor victims—85 percent of them, according to the school—are trained to be a "caring majority." They are encouraged to look out for one another and to include all peers in activities. Every day, Castleberry has a "caring majority time," when children gather in a circle and talk about their concerns and such concepts as respect, caring, and courage.
As Castleberry puts it: "Bully-proofing hits the nail on the head because it encourages children to say nice things, to be helpful, and to include others. When children know they have a safe, caring environment, they'll come to school ready to learn."
Sarah Katherine has just turned seven, but she knows what honesty is: "It means you tell the truth about your brother getting in a fight, even if your mama doesn't believe you." And responsibility: "If you have chores, you do them." And respect: "When your mama is on the phone and you want to tell her something really bad, you have to show her respect and wait."
This child's understanding is exactly what the Marion, South Carolina, school district had in mind when it adopted a five-year strategic plan that made a commitment to character education. In 1994, more than 250 teachers, administrators, secretaries, custodians, students, ministers, board members, parents, and businesspeople agreed on six core values to teach—respect, responsibility, justice, kindness, honesty, and loyalty.
Administrators selected three programs with which to integrate those values into the curriculum:
- The Heartwood Program is a literature-based curriculum from the Heartwood Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that uses multicultural children's stories to present seven universal values: courage, loyalty, justice, respect, hope, honesty, and love. Its materials include award-winning books, activity cards, and a teacher's guide.
- The Second Step Youth Violence Prevention Program, developed by the Committee for Children, in Seattle, Washington, teaches empathy and problem-solving through the use of picture cards, puppets, and books.
- The Kovalik Lifeskills Program, conceived by educational consultant Susan Kovalik, of Kent, Washington, stresses 17 skills, among them organization, effort, common sense, curiosity, and flexibility.
The results of utilizing these programs in Marion have been tangible: Zandra Cook, M.Ed., the principal of Easterling Primary School, which Sarah Katherine attends, reports that the number of students sent to her for discipline has dropped by two-thirds. Those who do arrive at her door "have the vocabulary to sit down and talk with me about the things they've done" and are less likely to repeat offenses. Furthermore, although Marion County is one of the poorest in South Carolina, Easterling Primary School's test scores have risen more than 20 percentile points since 1994, when the program began. The scores now match the national average. "A peaceful, caring environment is a better learning environment," asserts Cook.
How are the three programs integrated? Seamlessly. Teresa Smith, Sarah Katherine's first-grade teacher, might teach courage by reading a Heartwood-selected fiction story to the children, such as Abiyioyo, by Pete Seeger, about a young boy, his father, and their battle with a monster. Afterward, Smith will ask the students for examples of courage. "I know a little boy who tried to save his dog from a ditch, and he was scared to do that," says one girl. "I stayed in the house by myself before Mom got back," says another. "I'm brave in the dark," proclaims a third.
Smith might then use picture cards from the Second Step Youth Violence Prevention curriculum. A card might show a girl with an angry-looking face. "She looks mad," the students say. "What makes you think that?" Smith asks. "Her eyebrows are slanted down." "Her face is wrinkled up." She asks them to demonstrate their own angry looks for one another. "What do you do when you see that look on someone's face?" she asks, which leads to a discussion of bravery. Games and role-playing suggested by the Kovalik Lifeskills Program reinforce those lessons.
This South Carolina school district's teaching of six core values has given teachers a powerful language to reach children in new ways. Smith says: "Back when, I might have told a child, 'This is the right way to do something' or 'That is not acceptable.' But as far as first graders using big words such as responsibility and courage, we didn't use them as we do now." At first, she says, speaking in this sophisticated vocabulary felt awkward, but "the more comfortable we became, the more comfortable they became."
Smith is often surprised and moved by the depth of understanding her first graders have shown about feelings. Recently, a little girl wrote about a death in her family and concluded that her mother had been "brave." Remarks Smith: "I thought that was pretty deep thinking for a first grader."
Not only do these students have the vocabulary to express their comprehension of values, but they are also able to share their personal thoughts and emotions, positive and negative, with teachers and with peers. This, fundamentally, seems to be the key to sound character education. Before children can act from the heart, they must first learn the words that come from the heart. And, with hope and patience, they will be heard.
Winning Character-Education Programs
Winning Against Violent Environments. Contact Carole L. Close, M.Ed., 216-432-4605, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Bully-Proofing Your School. Contact William Porter, Ph.D., 303-486-4228, or e-mail email@example.com
The Heartwood Program. The Heartwood Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, 1-800-HEART-10. To order materials, distributed by Scholastic Inc., visit www.scholastic.com or call 1-800-scholastic.
Second Step Youth Violence Prevention Program. The Committee for Children, Seattle, WA, 1-800-634-4449 or 206-343-1223. Web site: www.cfchildren.org
The Kovalik Lifeskills Program. Susan Kovalik and Associates, 253-631-4400. Web site: www.kovalik.com
Winning Books, Video, and Web Sites
I Feel Angry, by Brian Moses, illustrated by Mike Gordon. Part of the Kids Corner Kid-to-Kid series, which includes I Feel Worried and I Feel Shy (Sundance, 1999).
Books That Build Character, by William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe (Touchstone, 1994).
Spread Your Wings: The Lifelong Guidelines, a 19-minute video produced by Jeff Pedersen (Books for Educators, 888-777-9827).
Character Education Partnership
Meg Lundstrom is a journalist who writes about education, business, and health.