Kids With Character

By Tamsen J. Boyd, Teaching PreK-8

First graders become experts at monitoring and managing their own behavior with these fun, yet reflective activities.

I looked up from my first grade reading lessons and cringed as I heard the familiar words: “I’m telling!” They were followed by the two words I hear even in my sleep: “Mrs. Boyyyd…”

I had reviewed “good character” and behavior expectations with my students since the start of the school year through role-playing, parent letters and class discussions, but nothing seemed to be working. Somehow I needed to make character education more meaningful. I decided to enhance character development lessons with the following activities and self-assessment.

1. Ask an expert.

Students learned about cooperation and responsibility by becoming a class of “experts.” Each child had a “pocket” on a bulletin board. The children then brainstormed problems that classmates could help them solve: “finding things,” “taking turns,” “figuring out tricky words,” etc. Each child listed his or her areas of expertise, then put the list in his or her pocket. This project led the children to respect one another. They studied our “Expert Board” to find the experts they needed to solve their problems – and never interrupted my lessons.

2. Making a difference.

To illustrate the meaning of assertion, I asked the children to create a plan we could put into action to make a difference in the lives of the people around us. One child suggested that we greet the adults we meet. After discussing the best way to do this, the children decided to create a class wave.

Immediately, the students’ feelings about walking in the hall changed. They became a group of comrades on the lookout for unsmiling adults. They were too focused to bother with the talking and silliness that I had tried to eliminate through practice, corrections and re-direction.

The children beamed with pride the first time they synchronized a class wave and received a huge smile from a teacher. When the teacher came to my classroom later, to tell the children what a difference they had made in her day, they were sold. Now they look forward to walking quietly through the halls.

3. No more hurtful words.

The children frequently complained of hurt feelings, so we listed hurtful words the children had heard at school, such as, “You can’t read,” “This is easy” and “You aren’t my friend.” As the list grew, everyone saw words that hit home.

Next, I asked the children to picture a friend who had hurt their feelings. They remembered how that felt, then “listened” to the friend apologize. Then I asked them to picture a friend whose feelings they had hurt, to try to imagine how that friend felt and then to “apologize” to that friend.

At this point, the children helped to tear up the chart and throw it into the trash as I explained that these words were no longer permitted in our classroom. If the children heard any of the words, they could remind the speaker that those words were hurtful. This activity gave the children a common language, as well as the confidence to stand up to unkind words.

4. A game of concentration.

First graders generally are not developmentally ready for self-control. Knowing I wouldn’t find a magical way to improve their self-control, I chose a game called “Zoom” to show them what it’s all about.

The rules are simple: the children sit in a circle. One child begins by saying “Zoom,” “Schwartz” or “Bonfigliano.” “Zoom” means that the child to the first child’s right goes next. “Schwartz” means the child on the left goes next. If the first child says “Bonfigliano,” he or she must make clear eye contact with any other child in the circle as the word is spoken. It then becomes that child’s turn.

The children were amazed at the self-control that was needed in order to play. They had to watch and listen carefully and wait their turns patiently. The restraint it took to keep from laughing as their friends stumbled over saying “Schwartz” and “Bonfigliano” was a challenge as well. At first, my students could play the game for 5-7 minutes, but they quickly built up their playing time to 10-15 minutes.

5. Self-assessment.

At the end of each week, we held a meeting during which the children talked about the difficulties and successes they experienced with each character trait. They used a chart to count negative interactions and score themselves. Zero to two negative interactions earned an “Almost Always,” three to seven negative interactions received the score “Sometimes” and eight or more meant “Needs Work.” The children discussed changes, took pride in improvements and reflected on backslides.

Students then reflected privately on their behavior with individual versions of the chart. The first time they did this, one student frowned as she marked a low score for cooperation. Another student cried. Honesty continued throughout the unit, though the “heaviness” lifted. We never discussed the private reflections because they were meant for the students’ use.

Wrapping it up. As is the case with learning math or reading, having the chance to practice good character in real-life situations made a big difference to my students, as did reflecting upon progress and discussing strategies.

Developing strong character traits puts children on track for becoming problem-solving citizens in school and society. For this reason, I think finding extra time for providing these opportunities is worth the effort.

Courtesy of © 2007, YellowBrix, Inc.

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