Teaching your kids life lessons

How character education strives to reach kids' hearts as well as their minds

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Remember when school was all about the 3 R’s? These days, kids are just as likely to learn 2 R’s and C: respect, responsibility and compassion. These buzzwords are typical of character education, an increasingly popular Canadian initiative now on the curriculum in many provinces.

Here’s a glimpse into how kids are learning about character:

What it is

“Character development came about when teachers recognized that the best education engages the heart as well as the mind,” says Jan Kielven, whose job title, “positive climates for learning specialist,” points to the new thinking at the York Region District School Board in Ontario. Besides teaching kids essentials, schools now have a responsibility to treat kids as social beings who need to be taught empathy and respect for others, she says.

Sounds ideal, but some parents worry that character education imposes an arbitrary set of moral standards on their children. Not so, Kielven says. In Ontario, teachers, parents and other members of the school community first come together to agree on the values they share. Then schools create their own programs to help students acquire those values.

How it works

So how does a school teach eight-year-olds about empathy? One way is to show them how to react to bullying or racism. But many school boards go one step further, creating projects to get kids thinking about being the best person they can be.

Through the York board’s Giving Grows Character project, kids share stories about acts of “heroism” at school — from a grade three kid who tied a grade one child’s shoes, to the eighth grader who raised money for cancer. At other boards, kids write songs or shoot film clips about character traits.

But character education isn’t just something that goes on in the classroom. Some schools hold assemblies to address issues, such as anti-bullying or respect for diversity. At others, kids are urged to join committees where they learn to be leaders by volunteering for social justice causes or organizing peer activities.

“One school board has a regional team of students going into schools as pay-it-forward role models,” says Kielven’s colleague Steve Rensick. They find kids who are alone, invite them to be part of a group, and ask those kids to do the same for someone else.

Why it works

Do these programs succeed? There’s no real way to measure, but educators like Kielven and Rensick are convinced the impact is positive. Why? In part because schools and parents all want kids to grow up to be part of a safe, caring community. In the end, it’s about learning. And research shows that when kids feel empowered, they learn better. “Students are very powerful in creating a culture among themselves, so it might as well be one of respect,” says Kielven. “The fact is, it feels good to do the right thing.”

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