What is Character?
Begin with the end in mind.
This adage captures how we think about character. Imagine you’re a 5th grade teacher at a former student’s high school graduation. Or you’re her former softball coach. Perhaps you’re her parents.
You feel proud when you see her walk across the stage and receive her diploma.
In part, you’re proud because you know she’s met the academic requirements to graduate.
But you also feel proud because of the person she’s become.
We call these qualities character strengths. Here at Character.org, our mission is to inspire every child to be a person of character. That’s the end we have in mind.
Character development is a comprehensive and holistic approach that parents, teachers and all caring adults use to help students understand, care about and consistently practice the character strengths and core values that will enable them to flourish in school, in relationships, in the workplace, and as citizens. These character strengths express our common humanity and transcend religious, cultural, or ethnic differences.
We know from recent research that there are essential “building blocks” of development, ranging from a child’s cognitive and physical growth to how teenagers learn to manage their emotions and navigate relationships. The science also tells us that a child’s development is nonlinear; no two children or teens are alike. Every young person has a different set of skills, interests and motivations that informs and shapes their unique pacing and developmental pathway. Yet researchers have identified a range of critical factors that predict and promote positive, healthy development (i.e., the mindsets and behaviors of a thriving child or teen that consistently practices the character strengths).
The developing child is also nested within a number of contexts (e.g., families, peers, schools, faith communities, after-school activities, neighborhoods). In addition, macro-contexts and structures also shape every child (e.g., economic and cultural systems). In sum, children and teens always grow and develop in context to their environment. We also know from the research that caring and supporting adults can buffer and help reduce the stress and trauma that almost every child and teen experiences.
Our role as adults -- whether in the home, school or community -- is to offer and provide a “constructive web” for every child and teen to learn and practice the character strengths.
School-aged children and especially teens are active agents in their own learning. However, research confirms that well-scaffolded, engaging and evidence-based instructional and curricular design (both in the home, classroom, and after-school activities) can impact the development of self-regulation and executive functions. More specifically, it is critical for every child to learn and practice the character strengths that encompass moral, performance, intellectual, and civic character (via what educators often call “Head, Heart, and “Hand”).
Our goal as parents and educators ought to be more than raising or graduating smart teenagers. We also want our children and students to be kind and honest whom other people trust. In sum: a person of character. Developmentally, the ultimate “home run” is raising and graduating young people with a “striving mindset” -- a lifelong conviction and active commitment to becoming their best possible selves by consistently practicing, improving, and modeling the different character strengths.
Below are the four common areas of character development,
along with specific character strengths associated with each area.
We clearly recognize the significant “crossover” between each dimension.
Moral Character Strengths
Honesty and Integrity
Caring and Compassion
Courage to take initiative
Performance Character Strengths
Intellectual Character Strengths
Civic Character Strengths
Volunteering and contributing to the common good
What did we leave out? What was not clear?
Character.org thanks Dr. Richard Lerner at Tufts University for his
comments and suggestions on the science of learning and development.
We also want to acknowledge Dr. David Light Shields for his landmark article
on the four dimensions of character.