The 4 Things You Need to Cultivate Student Character

Character is caught, not taught.

How is character cultivated? Think about your answer to that question. Was the first answer that came to mind, “Students improve character through worksheets”? Was it, “Students improve character through webinars”? Seeing these answers written highlights how silly it is to think that character can be changed solely using a curriculum.

Character is caught, not taught. It is cultivated in our culture not lifted through lectures. So, if we want our students to develop strength of character, we need a holistic approach, one that is intentional, pervasive, and persistent.

How do we do it? Approach cultivating character the way we would approach cultivating a tree, giving it the right soil, the right water, the right sunlight, and the right seed to grow in even the most challenging climates. Here are the four factors affecting your fields.

1. The Soil: The emotional atmosphere

What happens when a student takes a risk and fails? How do you respond when a student makes a mistake – especially a character mistake like lying? Do you punish and push kids out of your room for poor character? Or, do you coach them to critically analyze their actions?

Without a safe, supportive emotional climate, students will not be able to learn from mistakes or take risks. We cannot get authentic growth unless students feel safe being authentic.

Your Move: Model the good, the bad, and the ugly

Be authentic and reveal your own mistakes – even in-the-moment – and model what it looks like to show integrity, grit, and ownership. Lesson didn’t go well because you didn’t spend much time planning it? Own it. Made a grading error? Own it. Acted like a fire-breathing dragon to your 5th hour? Own it.

This modeling is crucial for many reasons. First, it provides examples of character for students who may not have great role-models. Second, it establishes trust by showing that we are all human. Third, in trusting that our students will understand and forgive our mistakes, we create a culture of accountability.

2. The Seed: Macro-structures

Consider the macro-structure to be the intentional character lesson. This is where videos, curriculum, mini-lessons, and stories come into play. Lessons provide common language, common experience, and modeling. We are planting a seed each time we make character overt and clear in our classrooms. We can’t coach students be to more respectful if we haven’t clearly defined, demonstrated, and explored what “respect” looks, sounds, and feels like.

Your Move: Common Language

Develop or use a common set of character traits that your class will strengthen. Students can help design this list or you can utilize programs already researched, such as the VIA Character Strengths or the 8 Keys of Excellence.

Whatever list you use, make them overt. Hang the list in the room. Focus on a “trait of the week” and review them often. Connect them to your content by having students apply the character traits to books, famous figures, or lessons you are teaching. You wouldn’t expect your students to master the quadratic formula after one lesson – why expect character to change with one exposure?

3. The Water: Micro-structures

Whereas macro-structures are intentional lessons to plant seeds, micro-structures are in-the-moment coaching opportunities. They help students connect the “content” of a character lesson to the real-world experience of being human. They can happen whole-group or individually. The more frequent, the better.

Your Move: ACTknowledgment

Use an ACTknowledgment, a simple verbal strategy introduced to me by Mark Reardon, of The Quantum Learning Network. An ACTknowledgment consists of:

Action – Identify the objective action that has taken place

Character Trait – Identify the character trait demonstrated by the action

Target – Identify the targeted outcome of the action

Example: “Can we pause for a moment and acknowledge Kaysi for how often she contributes ideas to class discussion? (Action) This is a great example of curiousity and commitment. (Character) This is the type of curiosity and commitment that will help her not only learn this content, but the type that will become a habit and help her thrive in her career.” (Target)

ACTknowledgments can be used reflectively to coach character as well. For example:

Davis, I noticed that you’ve been late to class three days this week. (Action) What do you think people – like a future boss – might say about your character if that became a habit? (Character) [Allow student response] What character trait might you need to strengthen in order to build a habit of being punctual? (Character) [Allow student response] Tell me what you gain by making it to class on time. (Target) [Student response] Great. So let’s walk through what your plan will be to make it on time next week. (Target)”

4. The Sunlight: Positive Praise

Sadly, so much of character conversation is punitive or condemning. Students are often only reminded of character when it is found to be lacking. By doing so, students learn to hide their mistakes, blame others, or justify their behavior in order to avoid negative consequences.

We know that affirmation increases a desired behavior, so make a specific plan for praising good character. ACTknowledgment is one way. And, I’ve posted in the past about ideas and traditions for increasing a positive culture. But here are a couple more ideas:

Your Move: One-a-Day

Grab a sticky note. Once a day, write a positive affirmation to a specific student. During silent work time, testing, or another discreet moment, place the sticky note on the students desk as you walk away. By not making it a big deal, you make it more authentic. Some students have seen teachers use whole-group praise as a classroom management move rather than a genuine expression of praise, so use the power of subtlety.

Bonus Move: Pre-brief

We don’t always have great examples of character each day. So, rather than have a corrective debrief of moments when character was lacking, coach success by pre-briefing. Pull a student aside before class and give them a specific challenge.


Megan, I’ve noticed in the past couple days that you’ve been making faces across the room at Maria, which has been distracting some learning. I know you care about doing well, so today I’ll be holding you accountable to keeping your eyes on the board, your work, or whomever is speaking. We’ll talk after class and see how it went.”

A pre-brief doesn’t guarantee success, but it gives students specific success criteria so they have one thing to try to improve. It also sends the message that we believe in their ability to do well. If they succeed, praise them. If they don’t, discuss it.

So, check in on your character farm: Which component needs more attention this year? The soil? The seeds? The sunlight? Or, the water? Post your thoughts below and continue sharing your strategies.
Cultivating Student Character

Posted by Chase Mielke

Chase Mielke, author of "What Students Really Need to Hear, is a learning junkie who happens to have a love affair with teaching. His obsessions with psychology, well-being and cognition often live on his blog,, where you can download a free ebook, "G-Words: 20 Strategies for Fostering Grit and Growth Mindset" Follow him on Twitter @chasemielke.

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