How to Teach Character Education
David H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet Ph.D.

This article first appeared in an issue of Today’s School under the title: “You Are A Character Educator.”

et’s get one thing perfectly clear – you are a character educator. Whether you are a teacher, administrator, custodian, or school bus driver, you are helping to shape the character of the kids you come in contact with. It’s in the way you talk, the behaviors you model, the conduct you tolerate, the deeds you encourage, the expectations you transmit. Yes, for better or for worse, you already are doing character education. The real question is what kind? Are you doing it well or poorly? By design or by default? And what kinds of values are you actually teaching?

What is Character Education?

Simply put, character education (CE) is everything you do that influences the character of the kids you teach. But to put it in a more focused light, we like Dr. Thomas Lickona’s definition, that “character education is the deliberate effort to help people understand, care about, and act upon core ethical values.” In his landmark book, Educating for Character,1 Dr. Lickona asserts that “When we think about the kind of character we want for our children, it’s clear that we want them to be able to judge what is right, care deeply about what is right, and then do what they believe to be right—even in the face of pressure from without and temptation from within.”

What’s especially useful about Dr. Lickona’s model is that it describes a developmental process that involves knowledge, feelings, and action, and thereby provides an integrated foundation on which to structure a coherent and comprehensive CE effort. It tells us that we need to engage our kids in activities that make them think critically about moral and ethical questions, inspire them to become committed to moral and ethical actions, and give them ample opportunities to practice moral and ethical behavior.

How to teach Character Education & What does Character Education look like?

This is a highly controversial issue, and depends largely on your desired outcome. Many people believe that simply getting kids to do what they’re told is character education. This idea often leads to an imposed set of rules and a system of rewards and punishments that produce temporary and limited behavioral changes, but they do little or nothing to affect the underlying character of the children. There are others who argue that our aim should be to develop independent thinkers who are committed to moral principles in their lives, and who are likely to do the right thing even under challenging circumstances. That requires a somewhat different approach, and is the bias of this article.

CE initiatives can be very modest, like one good teacher doing a few things right, or they can be very elaborate, involving everybody and everything in the school. What you do will probably depend on your circumstances. Here are some options.

The Holistic Approach

“Effective character education is not adding a program or set of programs to a school. Rather it is a transformation of the culture and life of the school.” 2
-—Dr. Marvin Berkowitz

Popular wisdom holds that the best way to implement character education is through a holistic approach that integrates character development into every aspect of school life. This approach is also known as whole school reform, and it’s a biggie. Here are some of the distinguishing features of the holistic model:

• Everything in the school is organized around the development of relationships between and among students, staff, and community.

• The school is a caring community of learners in which there is a palpable bond connecting the students, the staff, and the school. (see Build a Caring Community, below)

• Social emotional learning is emphasized as much as academic learning.

• Cooperation and collaboration among students are emphasized over competition.

• Values such as fairness, respect, and honesty are part of everyday lessons in and out of the classroom.

• Students are given ample opportunities to practice moral behavior through activities such as service learning (see below).

• Discipline and classroom management concentrate on problem-solving rather than rewards and punishments.

• The old model of the teacher-centered classroom is abandoned in favor of democratic classrooms where teachers and students hold class meetings to build unity, establish norms, and solve problems.

Obviously, this is a best-of-all-possible-worlds approach and requires a significant commitment from the administration and teaching staff. Also, it is usually a multi-year process involving consultants, staff development, and a serious budget.

But, what if you can’t do all the things listed above? Not to worry. CE is not an all-or-nothing enterprise. Even if you can’t restructure the whole school there is still a lot you can do to provide meaningful character-building experiences for your students. The rest of this article lays out a smorgasbord of activities that have been shown to produce positive effects. We invite you to window-shop and pick out whatever you think will work well for you. Done right, it’s all good stuff.

The Smorgasbord Approach

Build a Caring Community

By “caring community” we mean that everybody in the school—students, staff, administration—treats everyone else with kindness and respect. To accomplish such a lofty goal, your students will need to play an active role in shaping the culture and environment of the classroom, as well as of the school at large. Here are some ways to make that happen.

•  Hold class meetings in which students establish group goals, decide on rules of conduct, plan activities, and solve problems.

•  Have your students collaborate on academic tasks by working in cooperative learning groups. Give them regular opportunities to plan and reflect on the ways they work together.

•  Organize a Buddies program in which younger and older students get together to work one-on-one on academic tasks and other kinds of activities.

•  Teach conflict resolution and other social skills so that students become skilled at resolving conflicts fairly and peacefully.

These strategies help students learn to establish and maintain positive relationships with others. They also turn the school into a laboratory where students practice the kinds of roles, and cope with the kinds of challenges, they will face in later life.3

How to Integrate Character Education Into The Curriculum? — Teach Values Through the Curriculum

The curriculum you are currently teaching is undoubtedly filled with opportunities to engage your students in thinking about character and values. For instance, when studying a novel, why not have the kids scrutinize the character of the characters? In the novel Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s nagging dilemma was whether it was right or wrong to help a runaway slave escape from his “rightful owner.” Why not ask: What kind of a person was Huck Finn? What were his strengths and weaknesses? How did Huck process his dilemma? What do you think of his choices? What things do you admire about Huck and why? What things bother you about Huck and why? What do you think you would have done if you were in his shoes? What do your responses say about you? Have you ever had to deal with a very difficult conflict in your life?

In history classes students should not only learn what happened, they should be given an opportunity to make ethical judgments about it. After all, history isn’t just a timeline of events; it’s about people making choices that affected other people. Those choices had ethical and moral dimensions, and often produced profound consequences. Take, for instance, a unit on the Spanish inquisition, Nazi Germany, or the American civil rights movement. You might ask: Who were the people making those choices and what do you think about their actions? Did they do right, or did they do wrong? What kinds of values did these societies demonstrate? What do you think of these values? What would you do as a citizen of such a society?

Ah, you ask, but what about science? Are we to pass ethical judgment on the laws of physics? Well, no, not unless we are writing comedy. But we can explore the ethical issues of things like genetic testing or the use of animals in research. And we can learn about scientists who have refused to conduct research to be used for purposes they didn’t approve of – like biological weapons. And if we are really bold we can look at what happens when scientific findings conflict with religious beliefs or lead to politically dangerous conclusions.

Apply this same lens to current events, movies, and television programs, etc., and you have a lot of fertile ground to plow. According to the Character Education Partnership, “When teachers bring to the fore the character dimension of the curriculum, they enhance the relevance of subject matter to students’ natural interests and questions, and in the process, increase student engagement and achievement.” How can you beat that?

Class Discussions

“The best forms of character education also involve students in honest, thoughtful discussion and reflection regarding the moral implications of what they see around them, what they are told, and what they personally do and experience.” 4

It is difficult to overstate the benefits of a meaty, morally challenging classroom discussion. Properly facilitated, discussions like these develop students’ critical thinking skills, provide a group bonding experience, and engage the students in deep, meaningful reflection about the kinds of people they are and want to be.

The fact is that kids hunger for opportunities to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. We’ve seen this time and again in our 20 years of producing character education videos for grades K-12. In shooting our videos, we have employed two main discussion techniques: 1) the use of hypothetical situations, and 2) the Socratic method. These two techniques have resulted in amazingly candid and wonderfully productive discussions in which students not only exercised moral reasoning (sometimes for the first time), they often came face to face with their own contradictions as well.

Classic hypothetical questions include: What would you do if you found a lost wallet, or suppose your best friend begged you to help him/her cheat on a test? When a student’s ethical sense is in conflict with his/her desires, the discussion can really take off.

One sentiment we heard frequently after taping these discussions was, “I wish we could have discussions like this all the time in school. I feel so much closer to these people now.” We think that kind of says it all.

For further guidance in conducting productive classroom discussions (including the Socratic method), go to and click on “discussion techniques.”

What is Service Learning?

Service-learning is a powerful approach to teaching in which academic goals are accomplished through community service. Service-learning takes the kids well past merely performing the service—they also select it, plan it, and then reflect on their entire experience. In addition to academic content, students practice valuable practical skills like organizing, collaborating, and problem-solving. And they exercise such important character virtues as showing respect, taking responsibility, empathy, cooperation, citizenship, and persistence. Service-learning is, in a word, transformative.

There are many different kinds of service-learning projects for all age levels. A lot of them deal with community needs related to health, poverty, social issues, or the environment. Other good service-learning activities involve students helping other students through mentoring and peer or cross-age tutoring. Here are some exemplary service-learning projects:

• Fourth graders at Strawberry Point School (Mill Valley, CA) collected $1,000 from Halloween donations and mall shoppers for a UNICEF polio eradication program. This year-long effort was tied in with science, health education, and geography.

• Students at Marley Middle School (Glen Burnie, MD) learn how to determine acceptable water quality of the environment using surveys, observations, and test kits. They then test, analyze, and observe wildlife at Marley Creek to create a plan of action to improve the creek’s water quality and wildlife habitat.

• West Roxbury High School students (Boston, MA) do cross-school tutoring with elementary school Book Buddies. Working with young children, older students raise their own learning standards and learn by teaching. Reflection Journals help them understand the mentoring experience. A Literacy Poster Contest, and a Teacher Shadowship Day open doors to literacy competencies and teaching as a career.

Please note—it is only when you involve the kids in planning and, especially, reflecting on their service, that you provide a complete service-learning experience.

For detailed instructions on how to implement service-learning in your school (as well as a mile-long list of project examples) visit and click on “service learning.”

Explicit Instruction in Character and Values.

Up to this point we’ve been talking about ways of educating for character through indirect means, i.e., by weaving CE into the structure of the school or by drawing it out through the existing curriculum. The direct approach is to teach it as a subject in itself, by creating specific character education lesson plans. This approach is often organized around a list of specifically named virtues like respect, responsibility, integrity, etc., and typically involves the kids in reading, writing, discussing, role playing, and other kinds of activities that help them understand and apply these values.

If you’d like help in designing lesson plans for character education, visit and click on “teaching guides”.

Also, there are many commercially available CE programs that you can use right out of the box. Most of these are flexible enough to be implemented in a variety of ways depending on your particular needs. You can find these programs, along with a good deal of other useful material, on the internet by Googling the search phrase “character education.”

Program Evaluation

Regardless of the scale of your character education initiative, it’s a good idea to establish some means of evaluating it so you know whether you are achieving your goals. According to Dr. B. David Brooks, a CE consultant and former school teacher and principal, implementation of a character education program must include a pre-assessment of goals and a post-assessment of results.5 Such an assessment may be as rigorous as a full-blown longitudinal study, or it can be as informal as counting disciplinary referrals or gathering anecdotal teacher impressions. Assessments can be designed to measure changes in the students, changes in the school climate, and/or how well the staff is implementing the program. The Character Education Partnership has some very helpful publications on assessment and evaluation available as free downloads on their website. You’ll find links to these files at

Helpful Resources

You are not alone. Whether your CE program is cruising or just starting up, there are many excellent resources to help you do the job. We don’t have the space in this article to list them all, but you can find them on the web. Just type in the desired search phrase and start following the links. Also, we encourage you to pick up your phone and talk with these people—they are a friendly, helpful bunch. Here are the broad categories:

CE organizations that provide information, consulting services, and training seminars. Many of these organizations will work with your school to develop a comprehensive program. You’ll find a brief list at

CE conferences, which are excellent for networking and professional development. For a list of conferences visit

Commercially available CE curriculums and support materials. (Live Wire Media, a company owned by the authors of this article, has some great stuff available. We invite you to check it out.)

Informational websites, newsletters, and how-to publications.

Also, there are a good many schools that already are successfully implementing CE and which can serve as models for you. To learn about some of these successful models visit

Why Are We Doing This?

Eventually, somebody less enlightened than you are is going to ask you why you are wasting your time teaching character instead of quantum mechanics. Wouldn’t you just love to come up with the perfect response? Well, here’s a zinger we found on the Utah State Office of Education Character Education Homepage:

Quality character education helps schools create a safe, caring and inclusive learning environment for every student and supports academic development. It fosters qualities that will help students be successful as citizens, in the workplace, and with the academic curriculum. It lays the foundation to help students be successful in all of the goals we have for our public schools. It is the common denominator that will help schools reach all of their goals! CHARACTER EDUCATION IS NOT ONE MORE THING ON YOUR PLATE!  IT IS THE PLATE!!!” 6

‘Nuff said.


1 Thomas Lickona, Educating For Character (New York: Bantam, 1991)

2 Marvin Berkowitz, as quoted in the Character Education Informational Handbook & Guide, North Carolina Dept. of Public Instruction (Raleigh, NC:

3 Several of the points made in this section are taken from the article “What’s Right and Wrong In Character Education Today” by Eric Schaps, Esther F. Schaeffer, and Sanford N. McDonnell (Education Week On The Web, Sept. 12, 2001)

4 Eric Schaps, Esther F. Schaeffer, and Sanford N. McDonnell, op.cit.

5 B. David Brooks and Mark E. Kann, “What Makes Character Education Programs Work?” Educational Leadership (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Nov. 1993)


Copyright (c) by David H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet. All rights are reserved.

David Elkind and Freddy Sweet Ph.D. are co-Presidents of Live Wire Media, producers and publishers of videos and other media for character education, guidance, and life skills.
Free Character Education, Mindfulness, and SEL Resources for K-12 teachers. Click here.

Live Wire Media
Publishers of quality videos, lesson plans, and curriculum modules including the materials listed below:
Click here.

In Search of Character

10 DVDs
for Grades 7-12


The Character Chronicles

6 DVDs
for Grades 4-8

The Trust Connection
The Respect Connection
The Responsibility Connection
The Fairness Connection
The Caring Connection
The Citizenship Connection

You Can Choose!

10 DVDs
for Grades K-5

Being Responsible
Dealing with Feelings
Saying No
Doing the Right Thing
Dealing with Disappointment
Appreciating Yourself
Asking for Help
Being Friends
Resolving Conflicts

Big Changes,
Big Choices

12 DVDs
for Grades 5-9

The 3 R’s of Growing Up
You and Your Values
Enhancing Self Esteem
Setting & Achieving Goals
Dealing with Pressures
Handling Emotions
Preventing Conflicts & Violence
Saying No to Alcohol/Drugs
Speaking of Sex
Getting Along with Parents
Respecting Others

Getting Along
with Groark

5 DVDs
for Grades K-5

Controlling Anger
Working Out Conflicts
Being Good Listeners
Bullying & Teasing
Prejudice & Respect

The Six Pillars
of Character

6 DVDs
for Grades K-5


Character Journal

6 Interactive CD-ROMs
for Grades 7-12


Not For Sale:
Ethics In The Workplace

School-To-Work Curriculum for grades 9-12

2 DVDs
and Leader’s Guide

Personal Responsibility
Getting Ahead
Customer Relations
Community Service
Sexual Harassment