Character education and bullying

Is character more important than ever?

Character Education

Was it just another isolated bullying incident or a sign of a growing trend in schools today? Last June in upstate New York, four seventh-grade boys on a school bus were recorded taunting and insulting a 68-year-old school bus monitor. The woman tried to ignore her tormentors, but they carried on for more than 20 minutes, forcing her to tears.

The video went viral and unleashed a small media storm, with pundits pointing fingers and posing the usual questions: Are we raising a generation of moral mutants? Who is to blame? Parents? Schools? Hollywood? Facebook?

But perhaps the most important question is: What can be done to teach young people empathy and respect, and what is the best way to do it?

Legislating Good Behavior

According to a 2010 nationwide survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, roughly half of all high school students said that in the past year they were bullied in a manner that seriously upset them. A similar number said they had bullied someone else.

Lawmakers are passing legislation to crack down on the problem. The state of New York, for example, recently passed a bill requiring schools to establish protocols to curb cyberbullying; another new law says schools must protect students from all forms of harassment and discrimination. Across the country, schools are responding to laws like these by forming anti-bullying programs and writing new rules of their own.

But is that enough? Some experts question the effectiveness of approaches that only seek to deter bad behavior with punitive measures. They also point out that legalistic strategies put a heavy responsibility on schools or courts to prove that the conduct occurred.

Character Education and School Climate

This is where character education comes in. Programs like CHARACTER COUNTS!® work by promoting and reinforcing basic ethical values, which include empathy, compassion and respect for others. The idea is not simply to combat bullying, but to create a culture of kindness.

Meaningful and effective character development programs involve more than a lesson plan here and there. They fundamentally change school climate. That means ensuring that all teachers and staff members are sending a consistent message. How to do this? Widespread teacher/staff training is the best way to get everyone on board.

Schools using the CHARACTER COUNTS! program, for example, employ a common language of basic values known as the Six Pillars of Character®: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship. From the classroom to the lunch room to the locker room, the emphasis on these core values is pervasive throughout the school.

As the program takes hold, it often extends beyond the campus and into the community, with a consistent message about good character delivered by parents and reinforced in after-school activities, sports leagues and faith communities.

Teachers and staff at CHARACTER COUNTS! schools use the TEAM approach: teaching, enforcing, advocating and modeling good character at every turn.

All of these components are key to preventing bullying, according to Dan Olweus, a Norwegian scholar who is widely recognized as a leading authority on the subject. Dr. Olweus reports that effective programs take a broad approach. His research shows that in addition to increasing adult supervision and imposing serious consequences for bullying, schools with successful anti-bullying initiatives:

  • Address the entire school population, not just the problem students.
  • Go beyond the problem of bullying to focus on improving the overall school environment.
  • Commit to a permanent and ongoing program — not just temporary responses to specific incidents.

These findings underscore the importance of school-wide programs that promote character and seek to create a culture of kindness.

Student Leadership and the Importance of Bystanders

In a culture of kindness, students stand up for and next to one another — all for one and one for all. A character education program may start by training teachers and staff, but ultimately the students themselves take responsibility for creating and maintaining a healthy school culture.

Teachers and staff should strongly encourage students — especially those in leadership positions — to promote respect, compassion and empathy through student government, sports and other activities such as assemblies and student essay, poster and video contests.

Who better than respected and popular students to send a clear and continual message that bullying and harassment are not tolerated at their school?

Building a Better Bystander

Broadening the focus beyond bullies and their victims means highlighting the role of the bystander. One study shows that when bullying occurs, bystanders are present about 85 percent of the time. Another study reports that the bullying stops about 50 percent of the time when a bystander intervenes. Yet, for a variety of reasons, students usually remain passive, giving tacit approval to the bully.

In addition to urging schools to get student leaders involved, CHARACTER COUNTS! trains teachers and counselors to help students intervene effectively to stop bullying. Methods include:

Role play. Student role play provides a means to test out strategies in a safe space. By practicing what to say and how to act, students develop the confidence to intervene when they witness bullying.

Brainstorm strategies. Students need to think about what they would do if they witnessed or were involved in a bullying situation. This can be handled with class discussion, journaling and other exercises.

Emphasizing the power of the group. Students need to be reminded that they have power in numbers, and they should be encouraged to band together and intervene to stop bullying.

Befriending bully victims. Bystanders should let a targeted student know that they do not agree with the bully. As researcher Stan Davis writes in Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention: “Peer bystanders, more than adults, are in a unique situation to send targets the crucial messages that those who choose to bully are responsible for their actions and that targets are not to blame.” This can go a long way toward changing a targeted student’s experience at school.

Steve Nish and David Gawkowski are researchers and editors at the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, which administers the CHARACTER COUNTS! program.Free resources and more information are available at
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