By: Laura Encalade, Co-President, NIET
Student and staff well-being is a top concern we hear from school leaders every day as we support educators nationwide. While academic acceleration is a major priority, the last two years have caused and revealed social and emotional struggles for both teachers and students that cannot be ignored. These needs further compound the academic challenges districts and schools have seen. So how can leaders support the emotional needs of their school community and build a resilient and positive culture right now?
Character education can be an important first step, and it's a strategy that is often overlooked to address both school environment and academic needs. Schools should be safe places where students and staff develop strong relationships, feel empowered, and have a sense of belonging. Intentionally implementing a school-wide character education program permeates every element of the school. Here are a few ways to get started.
1. Set core values as a community to provide a common foundation for when challenges arise.
Every school community is unique, and it’s imperative for leaders to choose and promote the character traits that best represent their principles. For instance, a school that chooses to focus on empathy, integrity, compassion, and perseverance can always return to those core values in times of tension or uncertainty. If all school stakeholders – teachers, students, leaders, families – are involved in the process of choosing these character traits, they are connected by these values when tough issues arise. Does everyone agree that honesty is important? What about respect or responsibility? With these common principles as an anchor, staff and students can weather the difficult times, using their core values to help guide decisions and connect everyone involved.
Dr. Phil Vincent, author of Developing Character in Students, argues that schools must first define their core values so when challenges occur, students and staff can use restorative practices to ground their school culture. School leaders may never be able to solve every problem, but they and their school teams can stay rooted in their core values.
If you do not have these common values established, consider starting this process by collaborating with your leadership team and other staff members to intentionally revisit the school's mission and vision to identify the values embedded in those statements. You can also brainstorm ways to get students involved in setting school character intentions or core values. This way, the entire school understands that character and resiliency are a team effort that will ultimately benefit everyone on a daily basis, and especially when hardships arise. If you do have a strong foundation with your mission and vision, intentionally point to the values they establish for the school community in everyday communications and during key moments, whether challenges or celebrations.
2. Focus on building strong relationships which lead to a strong school community.
Character development can also support the well-being of students and staff through strengthening relationships. Research-based character education places heavy emphasis on positive relationships. Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, McDonnell Professor of Character Education and Co-Director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, includes relationships as one of the six "Design Principles for School Improvement" that make up his framework. He says, "Relationships are the foundational and critical building blocks of effective schools, character education, and character development. They comprise one of the three fundamental human needs."
With the added stressors and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, relationships among students, staff, and parents must be an intentional focus moving forward. Without functional relationships, human beings can't thrive – and school culture will suffer without them as well. Prioritizing relationships through the lens of character development can help principals intentionally build a positive environment in which students and staff enjoy interacting and working together, which will have a powerful impact on the well-being of the entire school community. Consider how to model strong relationships for students, as well as how to thread relationship-building into classroom and other school activities. How can you acknowledge and model in your own relationships the core values you have established as a school? How can you prioritize relationship-building with team members you may not interact with much or with whom interaction is not as natural? Consider how you can utilize school assemblies, morning announcements, leadership team meetings, and extra-curricular events to bring your school's focus on relationships and character to the forefront.
Implementing an effective character education program takes time and is a continual journey. School leaders that make character a central focus will have an anchor and a common language to center the school community around what is important and avoid distractions outside of their control. By grounding a school in commonly set core values, and leading intentional efforts to build positive relationships among both students and staff, school leaders can support the well-being of their students, staff, and larger community – something we all know deserves our attention right now.
For information on how NIET can support your school in this work at no cost, visit our Accelerating Character Education Development (ACED) webpage.
Berkowitz, Marvin W. Primed for Character Education: Six Design Principles for School Improvement. Routledge, 2021.
Vincent, Philip Fitch. Developing Character in Students: A Primer: For Teachers, Parents, and Communities. Character Development Pub., 1999.