Why Implement CHARACTER COUNTS! Into a School or School System?

From Dr. Gary SmitSuperintendent, (retired), Lombard School District 44 (IL)

As a former school superintendent who successfully implemented CHARACTER COUNTS!, I fail to understand how an administrator can talk about school improvement without considering a hard-core commitment to character education. In my leadership role, I witnessed what an effective CHARACTER COUNTS! initiative can mean to a child’s emotional, moral, and intellectual growth and development. For our schools, implementing CHARACTER COUNTS! resulted in higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer student disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism.

At a time when parents and educators are concerned about school violence, it is worth noting that students reported in CHARACTER COUNTS! schools that they felt safer because they knew their fellow students valued trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and good citizenship. From a classroom perspective, it was simply easier to teach children who put the Six Pillars of Character into practice by their choices.

The results provide credence to the selection of CHARACTER COUNTS! as the framework for integrating values and desired life skills into the life of a school. Even though CHARACTER COUNTS! is not a program with an established curriculum, an administrator must accept the fact that values and life skills implementation requires a change in the attitudes of staff and behaviors of students.  Anyone who has spent time working as a teacher has come to know that CHARACTER COUNTS! has the potential to change the climate for learning and caring in schools.

Years of research have confirmed that the Six Pillars of Character and non–cognitive skills are all learned. Studies in psychology, economics, education, and neuroscience have coalesced toward one important conclusion: the non-cognitive qualities of perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, curiosity, and self-discipline (all of which can be included under the general category of `character’) are more likely to produce success than a high IQ and highly developed cognitive skills.  Character is the decisive ingredient of success. This means we can teach core values and desired character traits to students, and in doing so, we can nurture the qualities that enhance their moral growth and development.  Educators cannot just sit back and hope our children and young people will grow up to become caring, respectful, responsible, and decent human beings.  A school must deliberately and passionately teach and model key beliefs so that our students really can become the best they can be!

CHARACTER COUNTS! is a unique and distinctive framework that sets itself apart from other programs that are designed and structured to teach character.  In our intensive efforts to work directly with schools, meaningful and substantial emphasis is placed on establishing a positive school climate.  This is accomplished by intentionally and explicitly instilling critical academic, social, and emotional skills, as well as core character traits as identified the Model Standards for Academic, Social, Emotional, and Character Development.  These Model Standards, integrating critical outcomes from each of these domains, draws heavily upon the most current research and theories concerning social, emotional and character development:

  • Creation of a positive school climate
  • Behavior change theory
  • The ‘growth versus fixed’ mindset and research-based instructional strategies to teach high-level learning skills
  • Hands-on experience of thousands of educators involved in our student development improvement efforts.

Third, this fully integrated student development framework will greatly assist a school by instilling academic, social, emotional and values, mindsets and character traits that will guide students to:

  • Reach their academic potential and have the ability to succeed in school
  • Succeed in the workplace and their careers
  • Live happy, worthy and fulfilling personal lives
  • Become engaged, responsible and productive citizens

Having this understanding of the potential impact should be the driving force for an administrator to consider what it takes to genuinely promote school improvement efforts. Inspirational leaders should have the mindset of continuing the growth of students academically and in terms of preparing students with the necessary life skills to be successful.  This will mean investigating a framework that decisively and purposefully provides the necessary skills for educators to craft a meaningful, measurable, and sustainable character education program.

One should seek evidence of where a character program has been effective in addressing identified needs.  With more than 7 million students being impacted by CHARACTER COUNTS!, the administrator can contact other schools or districts that have successfully implemented CHARACTER COUNTS! to obtain data that clearly demonstrates changes in attitudes and behaviors.  Moreover, an administrator should seek evidence of an effective character education initiative that:

  • Explicitly and intentionally plans for the values and beliefs that students will need to acquire to be ready for college, careers, and the real world, while grappling with the greater performance demands of 21st-century learning standards
  • Intentionally and deliberately designs a framework that works towards a pervasive sense of community for every student, and the caring relationships that foster optimal human development across all domains – academic, social/emotional, and ethical.
  • Provides teaching practices to encourage students to learn the skills of collaboration, critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, questioning, analysis, decision–making, planning, researching, building arguments, and reading/writing
  • Advocates for a greater demand from students to develop the cognitive rigor and stamina to do more and better work
  • Creates an ethical learning community based on clearly determined and identified norms as espoused in the key beliefs valued by the school
  • Weaves values and desired character traits through every aspect of school life, including the academic curriculum, co-curricular activities, staff modeling, and all human relationships
  • Collaborates to create a school and classroom culture rooted in the values and beliefs that allow for a positive learning environment

A comprehensive CHARACTER COUNTS! initiative will effectively address many tough issues that are present in schools and the greater community while developing or enhancing a positive school climate.  It can be effective in any school setting. From the perspective of an administrator, CHARACTER COUNTS! brings about results by transforming a school culture into a place where students want to learn and teachers desire to teach.