By Virginia Smith
Lucy bends down on the ground and holds the football upright with her finger. She sweetly invites Charlie Brown to kick the ball into the air. Having been burned before, Charlie declines, stating that he knows that Lucy is going to jerk the ball away at the last minute and cause him to fly into the air and land flat on his back. Lucy smiles and promises that this time she will hold the ball steady so that Charlie can kick it as far as he can. Charlie thinks for a moment, backs up, and runs as fast as he can toward the football. As he swings his right leg back for the kick, Lucy jerks the football away. Charlie goes flying into the air and lands flat on his back, much to Lucy’s amusement.
Growing up with the Peanuts comic strip, we all enjoyed the foibles of that group of neighborhood friends. There are things we can learn from Charlie, Lucy, and the gang about human relationships, getting along with others, and bullying.
Bullying is an ugly reality in our schools, workplaces, community organizations, and even families. Bullying is harmful to the victim, the bully, and the culture of the environment in which the bullying takes place. These environments should be safe places that promote learning, cooperation, and acceptance. As educators, we all know that without a feeling of safety and security, students are unable to develop a healthy self-image, confidence, respect, morality, spontaneity, creativity, and problem-solving skills. In other words, a student who is concerned for personal safety cannot learn.
Bullying is a symptom. It is the result of something deeper. More than 3.2 million students are bullied each year. One in seven K–12 students has been involved in a bullying incident—either as the victim or the aggressor. Outward actions flow from inward attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, and values. In order to achieve long-term results, we educators must address the inward person instead of just establishing more disciplinary rules. By addressing the inward person—that is, helping students develop good character—we can create a culture of respect in the classroom, the school, and the community.
Character can be taught. From an early age, students look to parents and teachers for examples of how to build healthy relationships. In addition to modeling social skills and appropriate ways to interact with others, it is important to talk about how to make good choices based on character and principles.
We have all read and studied about self-fulfilling prophecies. If we educators believe students to be incapable, silly, or stupid, they will begin to think of themselves that way and eventually that is what they will become. On the other hand, if we learn to recognize when they make good choices and demonstrate good character, and we verbalize to them what we see, they will begin to think of themselves as individuals of character. They will visualize themselves based on our positive, encouraging language and more consistently demonstrate these virtues.
Develop a vocabulary to use with your students to teach and discuss character. Use terms such as initiative, compassion, sincerity, tolerance, respect, responsibility, sensitivity, self-control, alertness, and courage. Teach your students what these terms mean and then when you catch them demonstrating one of them, tell them. Specifically mention what it is you saw them do and praise them for their character. Use phrases such as “I saw you demonstrate self-control when Jason said something you disagreed with. You didn’t lose your temper or say something mean. You controlled your reaction in what must have been a difficult situation—I’m very proud of you!” Pretty soon, the student you recognized will start to visualize himself as a person with self-control and he will begin to act that way.
With effort and intentionality on our part, we can help students learn to make good choices based on principles of compassion, kindness, and treating others with respect.
To learn more about teaching character and bully prevention, visit Character First Education. Character First Education offers an elementary curriculum to teach character as well as a newly developed, research-based program for grades 5–12 to identify, prevent, and respond to bullying. ENGAGE: An Active Response to Bullying is filled with more than 90 real-life scenarios to help students and educators address the current bullying crisis. Many of the games, activities, songs, poems, and stories are available free of charge.
Virginia Smith holds a doctorate in higher education from Oklahoma State University. Prior to teaching at the university level, she taught elementary and secondary grades in public, private, inner-city, and suburban schools in Texas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. Smith served on various school committees including textbook and curricula review, student support services, IEP review, and campus culture improvement. In 2012, she became the editor of Character Core Magazine. She now serves as the vice president of research and design for Strata Leadership and as the executive director of Character First Education.