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Culture, Caring and Character – All Linked to Student Gains

While the emphasis on school transformation focuses on standards, cognitive skills, and teaching strategies, research is mounting that character, culture and social/emotional development may be just as important.

The programs described below may emphasize different qualities and have somewhat different strategies but they have strong common themes and have all been associated with increases in student progress and/or improved student behavior, perseverence, etc.

  • Character education focuses on a curriculum teaching students qualities like honesty, kindness, perseverence and responsibility.
  • Social/emotional development programs key on relationships, problem solving and caring.
  • Some efforts put the focus on increasing positive feelings and interactions.
  • Other efforts  put the focus on school culture and look to apply similar qualities into the whole school environment.


Character Education

Berkowitz and Bier of University of Missouri identified 69 studies of 33 different character education programs that had scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness in enhancing the academic goals of schools.

At the Democracy Prep schools in New York City lessons in character begin in kindergarten and evolve through 12th grade. Children start with learning to “Dream” (discipline, responsibility, enthusiasm, accountability and maturity.) By high school, it becomes “Dream Big”, with bravery, integrity, and grit added. Democracy Prep also requires that students demonstrate mastery of 13 civic values, including publishing a piece of work, fundraising for a cause, and canvassing the neighborhood before an election.

Great Heart Academies, 15 nonprofit charter schools in Arizona, is all about a classical liberal arts education where virtue is the aim. Character education is woven into all aspects of the schools, from hiring teachers who embrace its charter network’s values to asking students to set their own consequences for discipline. Honesty, kindness, friendship, perseverance, justice, and citizenship are pillars in the K-5 schools, while truth, beauty, and goodness are the focus at the 6-12 level.

In St. Charles, the Frances Howell Middle School teachers spent a year figuring out the direction they wanted to take with character education. Respect, responsibility, honesty, and compassion became the focus of the school’s character-connection classes, made up of a mix of 15 students from 6th to 8th grades. At first, they met for about 20 minutes weekly to discuss issues related to character through news stories, quotes of the day, and service learning. But as teachers and students became more comfortable with the concept, relationships grew (the same group stayed together for three years), and the class began to meet daily.

In his book, Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success Scott Seider, an assistant professor of education at Boston University, looks at three Boston public schools that stress different aspects of character education. One chooses moral characteristics that are centered on integrity and compassion. Another values a civic approach, similar to that of Democracy Prep. The third selects performance characteristics of resilience and problem-solving because they are closely linked with academic achievement.

Focusing on Positive Emotions

Looking at a some of these same qualities from the perspective of  increasing positive feelings , we find growing evidence that positive emotions can enhance students’ attention and higher-order thinking skills, as well as encourage perseverance. Increasing positive feelings in students can present schools with challenges. First, many of the negative feelings students have don’t have anything to do with school – family, friends and other outside events are often the cause.  Secondly, research has shown that negative feelings have more impact than positive ones and they last longer.  We all know that anxiety and fear can shut down learning. Our brain seems to be wired to respond more to negative events and feelings which may make sense from a evolutionary perspective.

To make use of this knowledge researchers have looked for ways to ensure a positive start and end to each day, class, event.  There has also been a lot of research lately about the impact of good teacher-student relationships. In researcher John Hattie’s recent review of factors influencing student achievement, he finds that the quality of student-teacher relationships ranks 12th—out of 138 factors.

“To help sustain a culture of positivity, we must listen carefully and ask good questions that help students to feel supported. If we learn about our students’ hopes and dreams, we can better connect instruction to students’ interests and goals.  

Obviously, we all need helpful critique in order to grow. But how can we offer constructive criticism in a way that supports the positive classroom atmosphere we are trying to sustain? For one thing, we can keep “the Losada line” in mind. Psychologist Marcial Losada found that it was necessary to have a ratio of three positive interactions for every critical interaction in order to develop and maintain a healthy team. Research also suggests that because criticism requires so much  processing time ,  it is best to give only one critical comment at a time.” Studies have shown that sharing positive events with others creates a more trusting and supportive environment, especially if people react positively to what is shared and sharing can be integrated into a number of these program strategies.

To read more about this perspective look here:

Social and Emotional Development Programs

In the first large-scale meta-analysis of school programs that enhance students’ social and emotional development, researchers reviewed 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning programs involving more than 270,000 K-12 students. (Universal programs are offered to all students rather than to select groups.)

These programs aim to promote students’ abilities in one or more areas, including recognizing and managing emotions, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, setting and achieving positive goals, making responsible decisions, and constructively handling interpersonal situations. 

The researchers found that, compared to students in the studies’ control groups, students in the programs  showed significantly improved social and emotional skills, caring attitudes, and positive social behaviors. In addition, students’ disruptive behavior and emotional distress declined. In the studies that examined academics, the researchers found that students performed better on achievement tests, tantamount to an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement. 

Programs were effective for students of all ages and from different ethnic groups, regardless of whether their schools were in urban, suburban, or rural areas. The researchers found better results in programs that followed recommended practices for training school personnel in promoting these skills.

Climate – Safety & Environment

Mounting evidence from fields like neuroscience and cognitive psychology, as well as studies on such topics as school turnaround implementation, shows that an academicallychallenging yet supportive environment boosts both children’s learning and coping abilities. By contrast, high-stress environments in which students feel chronically unsafe and uncared for make it physically and emotionally harder for them to learn and more likely for them to act out or drop out.

According to an analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey, only one factor showed up consistently as a positive indicator: more adults visible and talking to students in the hallways, a mark of a climate with better adult-student relationships.

Involving Students

In the area of school climate, far more than academics, teachers and students have the opportunity to solve problems as equals. While a student struggling in math may not be able to articulate his or her own misconceptions about algebra, teachers and particularly older students often agree on the main problems when they’re surveyed on school climate. Students are also able to help address those areas identified a problems.

Key points found in these studies/programs that were related to positive outcomes:

  • Schoosl focus on a specific set of traits, behaviors, etc.
  • A designated portion of the day is devoted to the program curriculum
  • The language of character education or program is infused into classroom lessons and all school activities to affect school culture
  • Designated traits should vary depending on the schools environment, challenges and needs
  • Students are involved in the program in a variety of ways
  • Strengthening student-teacher relationships is an important goal
  • Students share positive experiences to create a more supportive environment.
  • Programs are implemented using a collaborative implementation model

Dennis has been the Director of the the VT-HEC since it was founded in 2000. He spent 16 years at the VT-DOE as Director of teams with various names that included: special education, Title I, health and wellness and other family and education support services. Prior to that Dennis worked at the Barre Town School (VT) starting as a special educator and serving many years as the Director of Student Support Services. He also spent 6 years as a classroom teacher grades 5-8 in NJ.

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