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How to Teach Character

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (February 11, 2016)

I was at a dinner party recently when someone asked me what I do. I told her that I teach children character values such as Responsibility, Perseverance, Respect and Compassion and part of our learning includes community service visits. She listened patiently and then after I finished, her first question was “so you teach kids to be more well behaved? My second son should come join your course because he can be quite naughty”. Before I could respond to that, the dinner party conversation was interjected and I was never able to share with this lady what I really teach.

Some people think that character values are just for the ‘naughty’ ones to teach them to be ‘good’ and ‘well-behaved’ but I disagree with that. Sure, strengthening character virtues can help a person behave better but that’s not what it’s all about. Everyone needs to grow in their character – the young, the old, children, adults, ‘naughty kids’ and ‘good kids’. Because there is always room for improvement in our character. If we’re honest, we’d all say that we could be more responsible, or to show more perseverance, have more respect for others and show more genuine compassion to those in need. So growing in character values and virtues isn’t for the select few, it’s for the masses.

Then if we agree that everyone needs to grow in character, how can it be taught? There are many character education frameworks but one that I like is the one by parenting guru, Michele Borba. She describes a 5-step model in how to teach character and I’ll describe them in my own words:

1. Show it

Borba was highlighting this step more for schools but saying that character values should be made visible to students and the school community by having posters and murals in schools to remind students about these values. In the home, I suggest to parents of our students to put up timetables and chore charts to remind children to be responsible. Or to create a character pin board of motivational phrases that promote perseverance. Another idea is to have a Compassion Jar where everyone in the family puts money in to donate to a local cause. Whatever it is, make it visible to children so they know what is valued in the home and can be reminded of it daily.

2. Explain it

In order for children to exhibit character traits, it’s important that we first explain what they are and why they are important. The term ‘Responsibility’ may be quite simple to understand for adults but it needs to be explained to children in an age-appropriate way. For example, in explaining it to young children, it may be to say that being responsible means taking care of one’s own things. Then part of the explanation requires the need to explain why the character virtue is important. For example, being responsible is important because if you don’t take care of your things, you may damage or lose them and won’t have them anymore.

3. Teach it

The third step is the practical step of teaching a person what to do to exhibit this character trait. So taking Responsibility as an example again, it could be teaching a child to be responsible for his schoolbag and to pack it himself, or to teach an older child to be responsible for her time and to manage her timetable independently. At this step, it is teaching what this character trait looks like when applied.

4. Practice it

The most important part of growing in character strengths is practicing it. Character is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more it will grow. So to grow in character, it is important to put it into practice. Equally important is that the if it is not practiced, that consequences will ensue. So if a child is practicing responsibility but ends up not being responsible and doesn’t bring his homework to school, he has to face the consequences of it. The worst thing to do is to bring him his homework and bail him out!

5. Reflect on it

And last but definitely not least is to reflect on it, meaning to reflect on how well the character trait was practiced. Is there room for improvement? How can you grow in this area? What goals and targets will you set for yourself in this area?

Building character takes time but the outcomes are worth it. And we can all grow in the character trait of patience as we slowly grow in our other character strengths.


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