Kindness to the Rescue


As darkness descended upon us, we made a last-minute decision on the Fourth to take in the Sounds of Freedom Fireworks Extravaganza. So we threw our chairs into the back of the truck and headed down the road to the celebration. We parked and walked a few blocks to a prime spot on a hill just outside the venue, only to find that the mosquitoes had anticipated our arrival and were waiting there for us. As I was slapping and scratching, I heard the sweetest little voice from the chairs to my right ask, “Do you want to use our spray?” A random act of kindness to the rescue! I could not thank that little bug-spray hero enough. As I enjoyed the fireworks bite-free, I couldn’t stop reflecting on how he saw a need and jumped in to help out. And since he was kindergarten-aged, it made me think about school.

This past spring, I had the good fortune of serving as a National Schools of Character (NSOC) site visitor for the Character Education Partnership and, in that capacity, I was able to read the NSOC applications of some of our exemplar Character Schools. Mockingbird Elementary in Coppell ISD, one of the schools I had the pleasure of visiting, has a vision statement that goes something like this: If it’s important to you, it matters to me. Think about that statement through a kindness lens and imagine the empathy that this sort of vision promotes; it’s no longer all about me, but all about you. Like the little boy who saw that bug spray would be important to me and did something about it, kindness works from the inside out.

So, what can you do to promote a culture of kindness in your character building? Start with the students. Find out what they’d like to do. Ask them; they’ll know and they’ll be happy to tell you! Research ways they can help. Maybe they’d like to start a Do One Nice Thing Club or an Acts of Random Kindness Club. Maybe it’ll involve animals, the elderly, or the military. If they need help with specific ideas, turn to the literature. Read a book like Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson or One Smile by Cindy McKinley. In both of those gems, it’s a child who starts a chain reaction of kindness and good will.

Or perhaps use a book like KiKi’s Hats by Warren Hanson. This colorful jewel is special to me because it was sent to me out of the blue by a teacher who attended my workshop in Wisconsin. She knew that I would connect with this book and wanted me to have a copy. Another act of kindness, though quite purposeful and intentional. Anyway, in this story, KiKi sits and knits and then shares her handiwork. But when people want to buy her colorful creations, they quickly find that they’re not for sale. Nope, they’re for giveaway. She even gives two hats to the recipients of her kindness, one to keep and another to give away. And, in true Covey fashion, KiKi creates a win-win situation because, if the children she’s passing the kindness along to continue this simple sharing strategy, she will literally have had a hand in millions of kind acts through her generous gift giving. And guess what? KiKi’s heart gets bigger, too, with every piece of it that she gives away.

For more kindness ideas for your character building, check out Building Kindness and Kindness Is A Super Power.

For more articles from Barbara Gruener, check out her blog here.

Dear CC! How can we educate parents during CC! Week?

Dear CC!

We have invited a lot of parents and community members to attend our CC! Week Celebration Assembly and are expecting a good turnout.  We will have skits, speakers, raffles, cheerleaders and the band playing. We want to make sure our families and friends not only leave with the message of how committed our school and community is to CHARACTER COUNTS! but also leave with ideas and skills to continue strengthening the Six Pillars in their homes.   Can you give us some ideas on what key messages our school can share with our parents and community?

CC! Assembly Committee


Dear CC! Assembly Committee,

I am so happy to hear that you are involving the parents and families in your school in your celebration, as well as community members.  What a grand way to enforce and advocate all you are doing!

So how do you make the most of your captive audience?  It sounds like the students are the show, and that is great, as they speak louder than any of us.  They ARE our best resource. The community and families will love it.  In addition to hearing the message from the kids that day, you may want to consider checking out some of our parents’ resources on our website. We have handouts and letters you can send home even before your event. Have you checked out our CC! Week installments?  A few of my favorites are under Week 2 of our complementary downloadable materials. There is a sample letter to parents, with ideas on how to work together to strengthen the character of their students.

You will also find a reference on ways to involve the community long after your assembly by finding ways for your citizens to maintain the health and well-being of the community in which they do business, with the influence of civic pride, and the spirit of citizenship.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Display essays and posters in your local real estate offices.  Have them help you sponsor a contest.
  • What is better than a community with character? Display banners across major thoroughfare and public places that read “We are a city where CHARACTER COUNTS!”.
  • Partner with local galleries, markets and libraries to create Six Pillar murals.
  • Help local businesses bring ethics to their workplace with CHARACTER COUNTS! and Josephson Institute risk-management seminars and other services for businesses.

Under CC! Week installments 3 and 4 you will find more resources on ways to model and teach the Six Pillars of Character after the week is over. More favorites of mine include “What’s a Parent to Do?” now available in both Spanish and English. There are also materials available for purchase from our online store.

The toughest job, and most rewarding, is being a parent – unless, of course, it’s being a teacher.  Building character takes time and effort.  We know your kids are counting on you.  We are so happy that you, your school, and your community will be some of the more than 8 million kids in 60 countries celebrating good character during CHARACTER COUNTS! Week, October 16-22, 2011. .

The CC! National Office

Image: Cheerleaders represent the pillar of Citizenship during CC! Week at West Middle School in the Downey Unified School District, Downey, Calif.

For both rich kids and poor kids: “What if the secret to success is failure?”

This morning, the “most e-mailed” article on the New York Times website is about the quest for character education at two very different New York City schools.  Dominic Randolph heads an elite private school that serves privileged children of high-achieving parents, while David Levin is superintendent of New York’s KIPP charter schools, where the students are poor and parents generally have little education. But both principals believe that character is essential to their pupils’ future success, and have collaborated to implement comprehensive character education programs.

A few highlights:

  • After the first cohort of KIPP alumni got to college, 33% of them completed a bachelor’s degree, far short of KIPP’s goal of 75%. When Levin and his colleagues analyzed who graduated and who didn’t, they found that students who “persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence.”
  • Indeed, research by psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown that “measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s.” She looked at a full-range of character traits that lead to success in populations as various as West Point cadets and New York middle-schoolers, and named the overall quality “grit,” or the combination of a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.
  • Levin and his KIPP schools use a “character report card” to rate each student on 24 different “character indicators.” (For example, indicators for good Self-Control include “Is polite to adults and peers,” “Keeps temper in check,” “Pays attention and resists distraction”)
  • The Character Education Partnership, an umbrella advocacy group of which CHARACTER COUNTS! is a member,  categorizes character education programs as focusing on either “moral character “ (including ethical values like fairness, generosity, integrity) or “performance character” (including traits that are more closely linked to achievement, like effort, diligence, and perseverance).
  • At the private school, it is unquestioned that virtually all the students will go to college, and that they have a strong support network that will ensure that they reach a certain level of achievement. Nevertheless, Headmaster Randolph sees a strong need for character education in order for these children to grow into happy and fulfilled human beings, and not just reasonably successful earners and employees. He finds parents “who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. ..What kids need more than anything is a little hardship; some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”

Poor kids may have too much hardship at times, and rich kids not enough, but both groups need to learn how to cope with the difficulties that will inevitably face them as adults. That’s where character education comes in.

Image: Stephen Doyle and Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times

Teach the preschoolers

Preschoolers, lollipopsThis month Save the Children published its 2011 State of the World’s Mothers report, and the results show that we in the U.S. have a lot of work to do.

The report examines conditions for mothers in 164 countries because “the quality of children’s lives depends on the health, security, and well-being of their mothers.” Each country is rated according to these factors: lifetime risk of maternal death, percent of women using modern contraception, female life expectancy at birth, number of years of formal female schooling,  maternity leave benefits, ratio of female to male earned income, participation of women in national government, under-5 mortality rate, gross pre-primary enrollment ratio, gross secondary enrollment ratio.

Norway and Australia top the list, and Afghanistan and Niger are on the bottom. The U.S. is ranked 31st, just after Poland and Slovakia. The report explains why:

  • The United States’ rate for maternal mortality is 1 in 2,100 – the highest of any industrialized nation. A woman in the U.S. is more than 7 times as likely as a woman in Italy or Ireland to die from pregnancy-related causes, and her risk of maternal death is 15 times that of a woman in Greece.
  • The U.S. under-5 mortality rate is ranked 40th at 8 per 1,000 births. An American child is more than twice as likely as a child in Finland, Greece, Iceland, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Singapore or Sweden to die before reaching age 5.
  • Only 58 percent of children in the United States are enrolled in preschool – making it the fifth lowest country in the developed world on this indicator.
  • The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy – both in terms of duration and percent of wages paid – of any wealthy nation.
  • Only 17 percent of congressional seats in the U.S. are held by women, compared to 45 percent in Sweden and 43 percent in Iceland.

All of those statistics are disappointing, but  as developers of curriculum, we zeroed in on the fact that only 58% of our children go to preschool.

We know early-childhood care and education helps children grow into healthy, successful adults, in addition to offering much-needed support to working parents. Preschool teaches children how to achieve goals in a structured environment, but it also teaches them how to interact with others. Preschool is where kids get their first in-depth experience of the outside world and its joys and challenges. They learn trustworthiness and fairness by learning how to share with others. They learn responsibility and good citizenship by learning how to clean up after themselves. They learn caring and respect by building friendships with their peers.

S0 why are we making early-childhood education harder to get instead of easier? Business Week reports that state funding of preschool fell by nearly $30 million last year. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has proposed to cut $1.1 billion from early-childhood education. According to The Beacon News, the cuts will eliminate early-childhood services for 218,000 children and force 16,000 Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms to shut down.

No matter what the deficit clock says, these cuts are wrong. The success of our country depends on the success of our children, and we need to work harder to give all children access to early-childhood education.

* If you want some help teaching good character to your preschoolers, download these handouts:

Six Pillars for Preschoolers

Five Things Parents Can Do to Bring the Six Pillars Home

Tips for Parents

Download the State of the World’s Mothers report here.

Bullying problem at your school? How can you tell?

The most effective way to combat bullying is to prevent it in the first place. But what if the problem has already infected a school or youth center? Have the adults at your organization ever made a concerted effort to determine how much bullying goes on?

Look for the signs

Without ever witnessing an incident, you can glean a lot from students’ behavior. For instance, if a boy has few friends and often asks to stay in during recess, he may be seeking refuge from a playground bully. Is there a shy student who complains of frequent headaches, stomach aches, insomnia, or other ailments? He may be a bullying victim.

Of course, these signs may be subtle, and teachers might not detect bullying before it escalates. But parents are on the front line. Communicate with them to find out if their child is often sad and dreads going to school. Has she experienced a loss of appetite or difficulty sleeping? Does she seem unusually anxious? These might be signs of bullying. In the extreme case, a student will come home with bruises and torn clothes. If that happens, parents must notify the school immediately.

According to the National Institutes of Health, possible signs of bullying include:

  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Temper, agitation
  • Irresponsible behavior
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Inability to enjoy activities that were once pleasurable
  • Change in appetite (usually loss but sometimes gain)
  • Change in weight (loss or gain)
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Memory loss
  • Preoccupation with self
  • Feelings of worthlessness, sadness, or self-hatred
  • Excessive or inappropriate guilt feelings
  • Acting-out behavior (missing curfews, unusual defiance)
  • Thoughts about suicide or fears or worries about death
  • Plans to commit suicide or suicide attempts

Does your school have a problem with bullies? Check out our free anti-bullying resources and lesson plans and learn more about our anti-bullying workshops for educators, coaches, and parents.

Who are the bullies?

There are many myths about bullies. For one, they don’t appear spontaneously. Individual, family, and school factors all combine to produce them.

Another myth is that they are loners. In fact, most bullies are not socially isolated and report having an easier time making friends than non-bullies. Their social network is often their key source of power over others. They usually have at least a small group of friends who support their bullying.

Still another myth is that they lack confidence. In fact, most research shows bullies have average or above-average self-esteem. Interventions that seek to boost bullies’ self-respect have little effect and could even make their bullying worse.

In Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do, Dr. Dan Olweus, a pioneer in the field, identified the following characteristics typical of bullies:

  • They have a strong need to dominate and subdue others to get their way.
  • They are impulsive and easily angered.
  • They are often defiant and aggressive toward adults, including parents and teachers.
  • They show little empathy toward their victims.
  • They are physically stronger than other boys (among boys).

Certain child-rearing practices can predict whether children will become bullies. The perfect incubator combines inattention, lack of warmth, poor supervision, and aggressive parental behavior. The latter may include physical and verbal aggression toward the child or each other.

Bullies often have issues at home. Olweus’s research shows the following general patterns:

  • Home life is characterized by emotional frigidity.
  • A greater likelihood exists of chaotic home organization.
  • The family tends to be socially isolated.
  • Parents are frequently in conflict and disharmony.
  • Child-rearing practices are largely ineffective.
  • Family order is maintained rigidly.

Does your school have a problem with bullies? Check out our free anti-bullying resources and lesson plans and learn more about our anti-bullying workshops for educators, coaches, and parents.

Dear CC!: Why do parents do their kids’ homework?

Homework ReviewDear CC!,

Teachers do not assign homework to make students stress out, push parents over the edge, or ruin precious quality family time. Teachers assign homework to reinforce concepts taught in the classroom, provide meaningful practice, and help students master newly taught skills.

Why, then, do I have so many parents doing their kid’s homework for them?

And secondly, how do I get across to my students’ parents that the homework I assign is not just busy work?

Yours truly,

Tired of Correcting Parents’ Homework


Dear Tired,

We need to understand that parents are much busier in 2011 than when you and I were growing up. More parents work outside the home, and kids have much busier schedules than ever before. There is more pressure on them to do extracurricular activities, take Advanced Placement classes, and apply to top colleges.

All these factors lead to wanting to do well but not having enough time to do well. It’s much easier for parents to do the project for their children once they have gone to bed and justify it by telling themselves it was busy work. It’s much easier for some reason to schedule soccer practice than flash card practice.

Parents need to understand that, by doing their children’s homework for them, they may be sending the message that what their teacher has asked them to do is not all that important. Parents should also think about the behaviors they’re modeling for their children. If you do their homework for them, aren’t you showing a lack of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, and fairness?

Perhaps you can send a letter home to parents in the beginning of the year that explains the purpose of homework and the need for students to do their own work. (For more on how the Six Pillars and the T.E.A.M. approach relate to parents, check out these Tips for Parents.)

Teachers also have responsibilities. They must make sure they send home meaningful work that reinforces what has been taught in class. They should also work in extra time for assignments to be due, allowing for busy schedules.

Homework can be extremely valuable if it helps a child master a skill and learn responsibility. If it’s fun, too, that’s even better.

The CC! National Office

Grade the parents?

Dad teaching son how to ride a bike

This dad gets a B- due to no helmet.

Should teachers be able to grade the parents of their students?

Florida state rep. Kelli Stargel (R) thinks so. She’s working on a bill that would give elementary school teachers that power.

“We have student accountability, we have teacher accountability, and we have administration accountability,” Stargel told CNN in January. “This was the missing link, which was, look at the parent and making sure the parents are held accountable.”

As Stargel envisions it, parents of K-3 kids would be graded on three criteria:

  • A child should be at school on time, prepared to learn after a good night’s sleep, and have eaten a meal.
  • A child should have the homework done and be prepared for examinations.
  • There should be regular communication between the parent and teacher.

Educators interviewed by CNN had mixed reactions to the idea. Sharon Francis, a first-grade teacher, didn’t think it would have any effect on the parents who need the most help. “It’s not going to faze them,” she said, “whether you put ‘unsatisfactory.'”

CNN education contributor Steve Perry pointed out another possible glitch: “There is nothing in any teacher’s training that would put them in a position to be able to effectively judge the parenting of one their student’s parents.”

But kindergarten teacher Teresa Hill likes the idea: “This is the real world. You don’t always get a superior rating if you’re not doing a superior job. That’s life…. We grade our children based on their performance. Why should the parents be any different?”

Writing in the Orange County Register, Mark Uyemura wonders how a teacher could really know what kind of meal or how much sleep a child is getting. Also, he writes, “Sometimes it goes much deeper than just a lack of parental caring. Many kids just don’t have a loving and positive support system in place to put it all together. They come from broken homes, are affected by poverty, exposed to crime, and surrounded by negative role models; how would you perform if you had one or all of these odds stacked against you as a child?”

The bill is still under revision, but what do you think?

[poll id=”2″]

Have a better idea for how to achieve the goal of alert, prepared, well-rested, and well-fed students?

Please add your comment below.

Showing kids the way

Boy with Baby

We can combat bullying by coming down hard on the bullies, but we also need to prevent kids from becoming bullies in the first place. In a recent New York Times Opinionator column, David Bornstein writes about Roots of Empathy, a Canadian program that helps children grow their empathy.

Bornstein describes the program:

Roots arranges monthly class visits by a mother and her baby (who must be between two and four months old at the beginning of the school year). Each month, for nine months, a trained instructor guides a classroom using a standard curriculum that involves three 40-minute visits – a pre-visit, a baby visit, and a post-visit. The program runs from kindergarten to seventh grade. During the baby visits, the children sit around the baby and mother (sometimes it’s a father) on a green blanket (which represents new life and nature) and they try to understand the baby’s feelings. The instructor helps by labeling them. “It’s a launch pad for them to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others,” explains Gordon. “It carries over to the rest of class.”

Bornstein visited several classes and found that kids change around babies: “tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up. In a seventh grade class, I found 12-year-olds unabashedly singing nursery rhymes.”

* Read Bornstein’s article, or visit Roots of Empathy.

* Check out CHARACTER COUNTS! lesson plans designed to help students become caring people.