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When Character Education Programs Do Not Work: Creating “Awareness” Does NOT CHANGE “Behavior”

TEACHING Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills Requires Behavioral Instruction

The marketing of “Character Education” curricula, programs, and materials is a big business in this country—netting millions of dollars per year. Moreover, one of the largest purchasers are our schools. Our schools not only buy these materials (often by “word of mouth”). . . but they spend an incredible amount of time implementing these programs, having weekly “competitions,” using them in middle and high school “advisory” periods, and then having monthly “pep rallies” and “character celebrations.”

And then, many of these same schools say that they do not have time for professional development, team and school-level committee meetings, and to provide intervention time for academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students.

At face value, “character education” is “as American as apple pie.” Who can argue against the belief that students need to have good characters? And yet, it is critical for schools to decide what the goals of their character education time is.

* If the goal is to make students more aware of how to behave. . . interpersonally, socially, and ethically, then a character education program might be satisfactory.

* However, if the goal is for students to demonstrate effective interpersonal, social, and ethical behaviors, then most character education programs at NOT worth the money and time invested. . . they do not have the science-to-practice components needed to teach behavior.

As proof: simply look at the amount of teasing, taunting, bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression that still goes on in our schools (most recently, after the recent Presidential election).

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The simple fact is: The vast majority of character education programs used in this country are not evidence-based and do not teach or change student behavior.

Oh yes. . . some of their authors may have done some “research.” But often, that “research” was done (a) by convenience; (b) with small, non-representative, and non-random samples; (c) without comparisons to matched “control groups;” and (d) in scientifically unsound ways. Moreover, many times, the authors’ research was not blindly reviewed (as when someone publishes their work in a professional journal) by three or more independent experts in the field.

PLEASE NOTE: Anyone can do their own research, pay $50.00 to establish a website, and begin to market their products. To determine if the research is sound, the program produces the results it says it does, and the same results will meaningfully transfer into your school, agency, or setting, YOU need to do your own investigation, analysis, and due diligence.

Too many programs (as noted above), are purchased because of someone else’s personal experience and testimony, their “popularity” and marketing, due to a “celebrity” endorsement, or because they are “easy” to implement.

Once again, these programs need to be Evidence-based. And, the newly reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, explicitly defines this term.

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This Blog message compares and contrasts “character education” programs with social, emotional, and behavioral skill instruction programs.

The primary conclusion will be: Schools need to choose programs that (a) are evidence-based; (b) teach social, emotional, and behavioral skills with instruction that uses social learning theory components; (c) have been successfully field-tested—reporting positive and sustained results with students who are similar to their own students; and that (d) use classroom teachers as the primary instructors, and mental health staff as the multi-tiered layer of support for students who need adapted, smaller group, or more strategic or intensive instruction.

All of this will be accomplished, using four “mantras” that capture important, scientifically-sound implementation principles. These Mantras are:

Mantra 1: Behavioral Awareness vs. Behavioral Skill

The First Mantra is“Behavioral Awareness does not necessarily translate into Behavioral Skill.”

Social, emotional, and behavioral skills need to be explicitly taught. And yet, most character education programs (that are not social skills programs) do not use behavioral instruction. Instead, they often use stories or narratives, teacher-led presentations or lectures, or group activities or discussions as their primary “instruction.”

While discussion-oriented character education programs may increase students’ awareness, understanding, or even knowledge of what they should do, there is no guarantee that their students can perform the required behaviors.

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Mantra 2: What Does “Behavioral Instruction” Entail?

The Second Mantra is“Talk doesn’t change behavior; Behavioral Instruction does.”

The goals of Behavioral Instruction, quite simply, are to teach students—at their developmental level—the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills that they need for school, home, peer, and community success.

To do this, they need to (a) learn and memorize the skills and their specific steps (or “scripts”); (b) practice these skills and scripts so that they become automatic; (c) learn how to apply, adjust, and adapt these skills to different social situations; and (d) learn how to self-monitor, self-evaluate, self-correct (as needed), and self-reinforce so that they become effective self-managers.

Thus, the components of Behavioral Instruction, based on Social Learning Theory are: Teach, Model, Roleplay, Performance Feedback, and Transfer of Training.

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Mantra 3: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management

The Third Mantra is“Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skill Instruction is Part of Classroom Management.”

It is important to know that literally hundreds of well-designed research studies investigating school-based social skills programs revealed that classroom time spent on addressing the social, emotional, and behavioral skills and needs of students helped (a) to significantly increase their academic performance as well as their social and emotional skills, and that the students involved (b) were better behaved, (c) more socially successful, (d) less anxious, (e) more emotionally well-adjusted, and (f) earned higher grades and test scores (Durlak, et al., 2011; January, Casey, & Paulson, 2011; Payton, et al., 2008).

Given these results, it is clear that social, emotional, and behavioral skill instruction programs significantly contribute to effective school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management processes.

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Mantra 4: Management versus Self-Management

The Fourth Mantra is“The absence of behavioral problems, does not represent the presence of social skills.”

The essence of this Mantra is that there is a difference between “behavior management” and “behavioral self-management.”

Relative to the former, some teachers (and parents) attempt to completely manage students’ behavior. Sometimes this occurs through coercive management where students are afraid to misbehave because they will receive a harsh or severe punishment. At other times, this occurs through excessive supervision.

Either way, when students are behaviorally over-managed, they do often demonstrate fewer inappropriate behaviors. . . but they also tend to stop demonstrating appropriatebehaviors. In essence, they are stuck in “neutral”—avoiding antisocial behavior in fear being punished, but also avoiding prosocial behavior in fear of calling undue attention to themselves.

The Point? While we need to provide some structure, supervision, and “management” with all students, if we don’t simultaneously teach and help them develop social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills, they will never learn to be confident, capable, independent, productive, self-sufficient, and successful individuals.

And when they become passive and non-responsive in the classroom, we have no idea whether they have social skills or not. . . all we know is that they are not demonstrating any “problems.”

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The Bottom Line, once again, is that we need to behaviorally teach all students social, emotional, and behavioral skills from preschool through high school, giving students the opportunity to practice their skills to a level of developmental self-management. This is all part of an effective school’s discipline, classroom management, and student engagement/self-management process.

And the process needs to go well beyond the awareness that typically results from character education programs. It needs to involve the instruction embedded in social skills training programs.

What do you think?



Knoff07Howard M. Knoff, Ph.D. is the creator and Director of Project ACHIEVE.  After 22 years as a university professor and over 12 years as a federal grant director for a state department of education, he continues his national work as a full-time national consultant, author, and presenter.

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