Character Educational Interventions: Benefits for Character Traits, Behavioral, and Academic Outcomes
Topic Area Focus
Character education is an inclusive concept regarding all aspects of how families, schools, and related social institutions support the positive character development of children and adults. Character in this context refers to the moral and ethical qualities of persons as well as the demonstration of those qualities in their emotional responses, reasoning, and behavior. Character is associated with such virtues as respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Character education programs are activities and experiences organized by a provider for the purpose of fostering positive character development and the associated core ethical values (also described as moral values, virtues, character traits, or principles).
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) review of this topic focuses on character education programs designed for use in elementary, middle, or high schools with attention to student outcomes related to positive character development, prosocial behavior, and academic performance. Closely related program areas, such as social-emotional learning, conflict resolution, violence prevention, social skills training, service learning, and the like, may be addressed in future WWC reviews but are not intended to be covered by this one.
A systematic review of evidence in this topic area addresses the following questions:
- Which character education programs have proven effective for improving student outcomes related to positive character development, prosocial behavior, and academic performance?
- Are different character education programs effective for improving different outcomes, particularly academic performance?
Character education. Broadly, character education encompasses all aspects of the influence that families, schools, and other social institutions have on the positive character development of children and adults.
School-based character education programs. These are programs implemented in elementary, middle, or high schools that involve deliberate, proactive attempts to foster positive character development. Character education programs are distinguished by a predominant emphasis in their program materials and implementation on instilling, teaching, or promoting a range of core values (described also as ethical values, moral values, virtues, character traits, or principles). Character education programs have features that overlap with those of such other program areas as social-emotional development, conflict resolution, violence prevention, social skills training, and service learning but are differentiated from them by having both the following characteristics:
- Character education programs are primarily designed to promote values that may be generalized across contexts rather than focused on a single domain (e.g., conflict resolution, drug use, unsafe sexual behavior).
- Character education programs dedicate most or all of their lesson units or prescribed activities and events to teaching core values directly or indirectly (e.g., through role models, literary examples, etc.).
Values. The value domains on which character education programs generally focus are the following:
- Intrapersonal values—those characterizing the individual's behavior and attitudes in a wide range of situations and activities (e.g., honesty, courage, perseverance, self-discipline, responsibility, integrity).
- Interpersonal values—those characterizing the individual's behavior and attitudes toward others, especially as expressed in relation to family, peers, teachers, and persons in the student's immediate social environment (e.g., caring, respect, empathy, trustworthiness, fairness, tolerance of diversity).
- Civic virtues—those characterizing the individual's behavior and attitudes toward the community and society (e.g., good citizenship, patriotism, justice).
Comprehensive and "modular" character education programs. School-based character education programs can be divided into two broad categories differing in the nature and scope of their implementation as follows:
- Comprehensive programs are those aimed at affecting the school as a community by integrating character education into the full spectrum of school activities and school life through such means as (a) involvement across curricular topics, discipline practices, after-school activities, and other such school functions; (b) participation by teachers, principals, school staff, parents, and especially students in program design and implementation; and (c) multiple approaches to teaching character (e.g., instruction, modeling, special events, community service, experiential learning).
- Modular programs are those designed to be used in a single classroom or group of classrooms (e.g., a set of character education lessons) or involve a particular type of event or activity, such as an inspirational speaker. Modular programs can be schoolwide without necessarily being comprehensive (e.g., lessons taught to all students in at least one class, such as social studies, or with all students exposed to one or more special events).
Character development and behavioral outcomes. Within the field of character education, core values are typically understood as having cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dimensions. That is, students are expected to understand what the values mean (e.g., be able to reason about them), care about them (e.g., internalize them as enduring dispositions), and enact them in their behavior. Examples of relevant outcomes include:
- Understanding values. Students' ability to recognize values and how they may affect people and actions in different situations, their understanding of ethical dilemmas, and their ability to make critical judgments about their own and other people's behavior in different situations. This category encompasses all outcome variables that center on knowledge or reasoning about any relevant aspect of character or the values and behavior associated with it.
- Caring about values. The perceived importance of core values and students' opinions about how they should behave in different situations. This category encompasses all outcome variables that center on attitudes, feelings, self-perceptions, character or personality traits, and the like that are related to character or the values and behaviors associated with it.
- Enacting values. Behavior that displays core values (e.g., participation in community service), prosocial behavior (e.g., supporting peers), or decreased problem behavior (e.g., substance use, fighting, disciplinary referrals). This category encompasses all outcome variables that center on the actual enacted behavior of students that relates to character or the values associated with it.
Academic outcomes. Measures of academic achievement, such as grades or test scores, and measures of academic persistence or participation, such as attendance, retention, or graduation.