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MAKING A DIFFERENCE : One Organization's Approach: Educate to Build Character

March 14, 1994

Agreeing on shared values, ethical conduct and how to teach them to children remains a challenge in a diverse society, even though sizable numbers of American youths admit to stealing, lying and cheating at school, work and home. Since 1963, the Pasadena-based Jefferson Center for Character Education has focused on ways to systematically teach children common values and ethical decision-making skills that cut across ethnic, cultural and religious lines by integrating them into everyday school lessons and activities. The center's educational materials promote as character-building values those espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution--especially the Bill of Rights. These values include honesty, respect, responsibility, courage, tolerance, justice and politeness. Educators, students and parents work together and depend upon each other to create a schoolwide climate that reinforces these shared values. Administrators report that the center's programs improve student attendance and conduct and enrich the educational environment. Nearly 1.5 million students at 4,000 schools in the United States and Canada have used materials developed by the Jefferson Center.

CHARACTER EDUCATION STEPS:

TEACH CONTENT DIRECTLY

Use direct teaching to connect specific, desirable values like "responsibility" and "respect" with explicit behaviors like being on time, completing homework or listening to someone talking. For example, students and teacher may discuss the meaning of "courage" and list the ways they can demonstrate the concept in the classroom. Showing courage to one group of students meant "being nice to kids that other kids tease."

EMPHASIZE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS

Promote a decision-making method to help students develop and use skills needed to make ethical choices. One approach employs the acronym "STAR" to remind students of the program's goal--Success Through Accepting Responsibility--and a four step process they are expected to consider when confronted with a conflict or problem--Stop, Think, Act, and Review. Provide opportunities for students to establish a specific goal and to practice choosing alternatives and understanding the consequences of choices in pursuit of the goal.

EXTEND SHARED CULTURE

Keep the concepts and behaviors promoted in class at the forefront of students' attention and bring them to the playground, cafeteria, bus and into the home and neighborhood. Use visual reinforcement like banners, murals and signs and parent support through regular assemblies and volunteer opportunities to create a wide environment of approval for conduct consistent with desired values and ethical decision-making and to generate positive peer approval. At some schools teachers use "caught being good certificates" that name students involved in desirable conduct and tape them wherever the incidents occur.

QUOTE

"Character education programs help teach children that no matter where you come from, no matter what country you may come from, to be successful here there are certain steps to that success like 'be responsible,' 'be healthy,' 'be a listener and a doer,' and those steps go hand in hand with academic learning in a school community."

--Ronni Ephraim, principal of Limerick Elementary School in Canoga Park where materials from the Jefferson Center for Character Education have been used for four years

RESULTS

Reports from 25 Los Angeles Unified School District elementary and middle schools participating in a recent yearlong pilot program that integrated Jefferson Center character education materials indicated:

Major disciplinary incidents like fighting, drug activity and weapons possesion decreased by 25%.

Minor disciplinary incidents like class disruptions and outbursts decreased by 39%.

Suspensions fell by 16%.

Tardiness dropped by 40%.

Unexcused absences declined by 18%.

Source: Jefferson Center for Character Education and Los Angeles Unified School District

TO GET INVOLVED

For information about curricula, programs and publications from the Jefferson Center for Character Education call (818) 792-8130.

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