This article explores whether character education has an impact on preventing school violence through the virtues that it provides, and whether character education influences the achievement of children in schools. Character education has been a valuable asset in prevention-based strategies. Prevention education is key in addressing school violence (Miller, Kraus, & Veltkamp, 2008). It has been posited that there is a need to educate students about character education through curricular programs in order to create safe and effective academic learning environments (Colorado State Department of Education, Denver, 2000; Ediger, 1998; Marschall & Mckee, 2002; Robelen, 2001). In addition, researchers have identified the negative relation between violence and moral education. For instance, it has been postulated by Patricia A. Vardin that a proliferation of chicanery in government and business, degradation in media, and a dramatic increase in violent crime in schools clearly reveal serious moral decline in the United States (Vardin A. Patricia Montessori Life, spring 2003).
The brief history of character education
Character education remains a contentious form of education in America. The debate among ethical theorists over moral and character education dates back to colonial America (Glanzer & Milson, 2006). Once considered as part of religious teachings, this concept was altered as states began passing laws in the early 1800s, separating issues of church and state. As a result of this separation, the educational system developed non-sectarian public school policies (Glanzer & Milson, 2006), and character education was adopted by public schools in Massachusetts with the purpose of increasing literacy among children.
The Bible was used as part of the curriculum throughout 17th and 18th centuries, and was then preceded by texts written by William McGuffey. These texts were used to teach children to develop virtues such as honesty, courage, and kindness. During the 20th century however, there was a decline in the use of these texts in public schools in America due to pluralism and the philosophy of moral relativism. Over the past few years, American educators have been examining character education in schools and grants are being awarded to facilitate research in this field (Vardin A. Patricia Montessori Life, spring 2003). This study will illustrate some definitions of character education and its benefits as an intervention.
The definitions of character education
Character education is an umbrella term that has historically included a wide range of components such as traditional character education, the caring approach, and the developmental approach. The goal of character education is to teach children to consider and behave in ethical ways. Firstly, traditional character education has emphasized virtues and the magnitude of ethical issues. Secondly, the caring approach underscores the significance of identifying and improving caring relationships and infusing caring, relational, and social-emotional themes into school curricula (Howard, Berkowitz, & Schaeffer, 2004). Third, the developmental approach stresses that decision-making and social action are important; theorists who ascribe to this approach strongly advocate the power of student participation in creating a moral classroom and a larger moral community (Cohen, 2006). Ontario's Premier, Dalton McGuinty, defines character education as “the deliberate effort to develop virtues that are good for the individual and good for society” (McGuinty, 2003, p. 15). Character eduction is sometimes defined as an approach that is comprehensive in fostering the moral development of students (Berkowitz, Marvin, & Bier, 2005). For decades, character education was inclined to focus on the importance of good character and values such as honesty, respect, friendship, and caring (Cohen, 2006). Thomas Likona (1991), a developmental psychologist, defined the goal of character education as knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good.
What is meant by school violence?
In terms of lawful responsibility, school violence is the violence that occurs on school grounds, on school-supported transportation, and at school-sponsored events. Nevertheless, violence committed on school grounds often derives from conflicts reflected in society. This finding indicates that the lines are blurred between school and community violence and suggests that school staff should be cognizant of the community and its issues in which a school is positioned. It is also suggested that members of society should become involved in school-based violence prevention initiatives. It is more complicated and multidimensional to define what school violence is (Furlong & Morrison, 2000).
The proposals for reducing school violence
By 1997, over two-thirds of secondary schools had either implemented some form of violence prevention program or were preparing to do so (Price & Everett, 1997). These methods have included punishment, health education and random weapons searches (Farrington, 1996). Handheld metal detectors are increasingly used to carry out random or targeted weapons searches in major public school systems. In some places in America, it seemed that there had been a significant reduction in weapons related events; however, it was later discovered that students had learned the routine days when the metal detectors would not be used (Muir 1992).
One of the most significant educational programs is character education. For example, The California Department of Education supports incorporating character education into a standards-based educational system in a variety of ways such as providing resources to build and develop character in youth; supports the core values of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. The California Department of Education underscores that character education is a trait of effective schools. Effective schools seek to develop and reinforce character traits such as caring, citizenship, fairness, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness through a systematic approach that includes adult modeling, curriculum integration, a positive school climate, and access to comprehensive guidance and counseling services (Elementary Makes the Grade! CDE, 1999).
The affects of character education on academic achievement
Studies have also found that character education helps increase academic achievement (Elias, Zins, Weissberg et al., 1997). Studies have acknowledged many social and academic attitudes associated with enhanced student success (Benninga, Berkowitz, Kuehn, & Smith, 2003). Academic achievement is bond to critical thinking skills (Esquith, 2003), and according to Brooks (2002), skills such as endurance, decision-making, problem solving, and critical thinking are fundamental principles entrenched in character education. Character education asserts that non-test related academic improvements are also made due to performance of a character education program. Students attending schools exerting the Child Development Program were known to have more motivation to learn and possessed closer ties to their school compared to students who attended schools not implementing the Child Development Program (Benninga, et al., 2003). Students attending Character Counts elementary schools were shown to complete their assignments more often with increased academic sincerity than students who did not attend such schools (Benninga, et al., 2003).
In order to understand character education it is imperative to understand the characteristics of the students. The schools that are strong academically and sturdy in building accomplished students are characterized by five main characteristics indentified by Elias, Zins, Weissberg et al., (1997):
- They have a school climate articulating specific themes, character elements, and/or values.
- They have explicit instruction in social-emotional skills.
- They have explicit instruction in health promotion and problem prevention skills.
- They have systems to enhance coping skills and social support for transitions, crises, and resolving conflicts.
- They have widespread, systematic opportunities for positive, contributory service.
After considering these traits one can conclude that students attending schools performing character education programs feel respected and valued which results in reduced non-attendance (Colgan, 2003). Reduced absenteeism, produced by the increased desire to attend school, could be translated into achievement gains (Colgan, 2003). These factors together make available more classroom instructional time and an enhanced learning occasion.
Tremendous progress has been made over the past two decades in establishing effective school-based violence prevention programs. Nevertheless, programs designed to decrease violence in schools have largely focused on reducing student-to-student aggressive behavior through school-based curricular programs (SBCPs), essentially ignoring interpersonal relationships between students and adults in schools, student bonding to schools, disproportionalities in the application of student discipline, and related organizational factors that comprise the school climate.
After considering several vantage points, it is the conclusion of this study that character education is a stellar attempt to reduce school violence and for increasing academic achievement. Educators should emphasize character development, as it is a culmination of a strong union of streams of evidence about factors influencing learning. According to Nucci and Narvaez (2008), moral and character education should be considered by educators as being congruent with learning individual values and identity formation.
Character education has several positive outcomes that address the various needs of schools and communities. For example, it includes values such as tolerance, humility, modesty, and trustworthiness. Moreover, it is emphasized that cheating is a negative characteristic for every student. That is, every student should not enterprise cheating, even when they hear about it, they should not condone it. Thus, it is stressed that academic learning and performance is linked to social-emotional skill and character development, such as in recent studies aiming to understanding the functioning of the brain and its role in learning. These studies have only provided further evidence of the role of social and emotional factors in academic accomplishments (Kusche & Greenberg, 2006). These studies support the notion that every educator should take character education into account.
How could character education be applied toward prevention?
Character education may incorporate some local and state programs to help students increase achievement by developing their behaviors not just in schools, but also in contexts outside of schools. One program called “Your Environment Education Program,” is mentioned by Starr (1999). According to this program, each week, a word is chosen such as tolerance and honesty, to be discussed in the class. At least 10-15 minutes are allocated for these discussions. These discussions are meant to facilitate the comprehension of the meaning of the value by illustrating real life implications, motivational quotes, and recommending some beneficial assignments for students to complete. All of these elements enhance students' deep understanding of the word. This program also encourages parents to help their children by providing some books containing the word for that week. Parents are also encouraged to stress the meaning of the word at home by incorporating it into daily activities that families do together. Starr (1999) states that the community in Pittsburg also promotes Your Environment Education through program media outlets, local business sponsorships as well as the mayor's office to promote the importance of character education.
There are negative implications for not employing character education in schools when the opposite methods are considered. The evidence indicates that punishment or incarcerating large numbers of young people for prolonged periods is ineffective and counterproductive (Wilson, 1994). A major problem with using targeted weapons searches in schools is that they implicitly stigmatize those students who are screened as potentially dangerous. The sudden and unexpected arrival of security personnel with metal detectors is also intimidating, anxiety provoking, and disruptive to learning. Serious conflicts also have a tendency to erupt suddenly and to go up out of control before mediation efforts can be initiated, therefore, as long as guns and other weapons can be brought freely into schools, educational approaches alone cannot be expected to solve the problem.
Recommendations based on the information outlined in the study include: providing teachers, administrators and school psychologists with extensive and effective training about development; while character education program is implemented teachers should be aware of their expression toward students. For example, teachers should not give commands to students for preventing a mistake, instead it should be posed to the student as a question of morality such as why they should not engage in a certain behavior and what the consequences might be and whether or not they are willing to accept these consequences. A model should be embraced for serving students that focuses on early interventions and offers access to character education. The environment and society should be informed about character education in order to foster a place, where the students can develop their pro-social skills and improve academic quality. Last, character education curriculum should be supported with media so that while behaving, students can be easily reminded of their objectives, for example, cartoons could be used as an impactful reminder.
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