Character-building guide for parents (and educators) to work through with kids

A study carried out in Singapore showed that schools that stressed character education were also the top ranking schools in terms of academics.

Paul Tough in an interview with “This American Life” and his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character says that cognitive learning directed toward the more academic may be a poor predictor of success, and that non-cognitive yardsticks are the key to success in schooling and requires a different approach to teaching that has already been proven to work and will save the masses of kids who normally fall through the cracks.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Following the footsteps of Jonathan Kozol, Paul Tough employs his significant storytelling abilities to help readers see and feel the plight of children, families and communities trapped in cycles of failure and poverty. How Children Succeed challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success. As a former NYC Teaching Fellow who has lived and worked in multiple communities of cyclical poverty, I’m convinced that Tough has nailed some critical pieces of breaking those cycles.

Here is the argument in brief:
There exists in our society a troubling and growing achievement gap between the have and the have-nots. The cause of that gap is neither merely poverty nor IQ, but a specific set of non-cognitive skills including executive function and conscientiousness, which Tough calls “character.” Children who acquire these skills can break historic cyclical patterns of failure.

Malleability of Character and Intelligence
Whereas IQ is hardly malleable, executive function and character strengths – specifically grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity and conscientiousness – are far more malleable. These skills are better predictors of academic performance and educational achievement than IQ and therefore ought to be the direct target of interventions.

Attachment and Lifelong Health
Tough sees two key areas of influence for those who care for those trapped in cycles of poverty. The first is secure early attachment to parents. “The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical” (28). Specifically, children who experience high levels of stress but NOT responsive and nurturing parents suffer from a range of lifelong health and mental health issues. However, “When mothers scored high on measures of responsiveness, the impact of those environmental factors on their children seemed to almost disappear” (32). Tough cites one study in which “early parental care predicted which students would graduate even more reliably than IQ or achievement test scores” (36). Importantly, interventions that focus on promoting stronger parent-child relationships in high risk groups (including one in which just 1 of 137 infants studied demonstrated secure attachment at the outset) have shown promising impact. Of the 137 children in the study, 61% of those in the treatment group formed secure attachment by age 2, compared with only 2% of the control group.

Adolescent Character Formation
Paul Tough highlights the work of school and support programs that intentionally focus on forming the character strength habits that enable children to learn well in schools, form healthy relationships, and avoid the destructive decisions and behavior patterns modeled in their communities. Here, too, Tough sees a ray of hope. Just as early intervention with parents and young children yields wide ranging benefits for families in poverty, so character interventions in adolescence can and do enable young adults surrounded by cycles of poverty to learn self-control, perseverance and focus that are critical for escaping the gravitational pull of their communities.

Why You Should Read This Book
Paul Tough is tackling one of the most challenging – and contentious – issues of our time. His analysis will offend those who tend to blame poverty predominantly on the irresponsible choices of the poor by showing just how powerful the cyclical, environmental pressures are on children raised in these communities. His work is just as challenging to those who think that those trapped in cycles of poverty are mere victims of their environment who bear no responsibility for their decisions. Tough shows compellingly that parents and children in poverty can and do overcome the powerful environmental forces of their communities – and that this is a beautiful and essential component of breaking cyclical poverty. His call is for those with education and influence – the kinds of people who read books like his – to demonstrate motivation and volition (two components of character formation he extols) to recognize, celebrate, and nurture the character of children and families in poverty.

— Graham Scharf
Author, The Apprenticeship of Being Human: Why Early Childhood Parenting Matters to Everyone

On non-cognitive measures/skills goals for teaching:

There are many “character curriculums” put out by Christians for homeschoolers or church groups and schools, but far fewer secular ones are available. It used to be that child parenting books read like manuals … dos and don’ts, 1, 2, 3 pointers or how to fix this and that. But today’s new-generation parenting books have transcended those “manuals”, they are now often thought-provoking experience-laden gems, filled with soulful ideas, insightful stories, and each book with unique ideas for a great very many different situation. One thing I thought was interesting is that nobody really talks about raising “good” kids anymore, we’d rather talk about raising “emotionally intelligent” kids. When it comes to building “character” and “values”, one can also quibble over which values should be considered desirable since the choice of values can be controversial depending on the individual adult parent’s religious/non-religious persuasion or political leanings. In any event,  it is possible to read and enjoy the lot of parenting books,  and find lots to ponder over.   Below are a few suggestions for good reads:

What Do You Stand For? For Kids: A Guide to Building Character by Barbara Lewis is a really good place or way to start in having those heart to heart talks  with your kids on character. Not too overwhelming or preachy, it is easy enough to work your way through it but it is probably only suitable for the elementary school set of kids. Buy the book or read it online.

Teaching Your Children Values by Linda and Richard Eyre

I love this one, it’s got really practical tips and ideas for dealing with all sorts of themes and situations for kids from preschoolers to teenaged youths, and suggests stories, poems and games to help kids learn to discern what constitutes courage, peaceability, to modesty, fidelity and chastity and service-spiritedness and other many values and qualities. Also interesting in that it’s actually a “curriculum” guide meant to be put into practice over a 12 month period.

Children learn What They Live; Parenting to Inspire Values by Dorothy Law Nolte and Rachel Harris – Regarded as one of the most inspirational of parenting books ever written, it deals with the most difficult part about parenting, how to be the role model around kids.

Raising a Happy Unspoiled Child by Burton L. White

Children are from Heaven by John Gray (Subtitled Positive Parenting Skills for Raising Cooperative, Confident and Compassionate Children)

The Heart of Parenting by John Gottman and Joan Claire

The book gets the nod from the guru who coined the word EQ or Emotional Intelligence Daniel Coleman, and according to the Publishers’ Weekly review is a manual meant “for parents to whom nurturing doesn’t come easily”. Written by a psychology professor,  in tackling the issue of how to raise “emotionally intelligent” kids, Gottman defines the five steps of “emotion coaching”: being aware of the child’s emotions; recognizing the presence of emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching; listening empathically and validating the child’s feelings; helping the child to verbally label emotions; setting limits and problem-solving. He says that his studies demonstrate that children who are “emotion-coached” learn better, get along well with others and are physically healthier and socially better adapted than children who have not had such “coaching.

Aside from the above books, you might be also be interested in character curriculum designed for schools. For further resources on character education for schools, see below:

Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Respnsibility by Thomas Lickona

Character Education Curriculum for High Schools
Character Education Curriculum for Middle Schools
Character Education Curriculum for Alternative Schools

At each of these educational levels, this character education curriculum provides students with the necessary skills to be successful in all facets of their lives. This research-based curriculum is designed to improve the character and leadership traits among high school, middle school and alternative school students. The curriculum resource provides consistent weekly lesson plans of ethical dilemmas, lectures, character movie segments, current events, core readings from The Role Models textbook, basic skills and expository writing assignments. According to the website, “approximately 60% of the schools currently using this curriculum teach this as a stand-alone course, using it as an elective leadership course or as mandatory class for their freshmen academy. Others target specific populations in their school, such as at-risk populations, upperclassmen showing leadership potential or student government members. The other 40% of schools choose to integrate this curriculum into other core classes, such as social studies, business, career development, JROTC, health, English or P.E. Homeroom and advisory concepts are also a popular way to use this curriculum over three or four years.”

One Character Education Program that Works Education World reports on a new character education curriculum developed in Pittsburgh called Your Environment Character Education

Free Character Educational Curriculum Resources by Boston U’s School of Education here including lists of books for kids for developing character.

The Essential 55: An Award-Winning Educator’s Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child by Ron Clark This is the NY Times Bestseller written by an award-winning educator. The winner of the 2001 Disney Teacher of the Year Award presents some revolutionary ideas for the classroom: manners, industriousness and accountability.

The Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics’ website offers FREE teaching tools (curriculum lesson plans, handouts, printouts and other resources) that focus on building the 6 Pillars of Character(Trustworthiness. Respect. Responsibility. Fairness. Caring. Citizenship) and developing ethical children which in turns requires strong critical thinking skills.

– A. Kawagoe

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