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Ted’s Talk: Building Character

We adults often think that the best way to build character in a young person is by occasionally exposing him or her to some minor hardship. Yard work comes to mind. So does a tough loss on the little league field. These are children’s versions of “First World problems.” Small inconveniences in the life of otherwise healthy and happy children can, I suppose, remind them that life has its challenges. It’s not all trophies and birthday parties.

Everyone agrees that character is important. Many would say that a strong character is even more essential than a high IQ. Count me as one that believes that to be true. Not only are character skills – attentiveness, impulse control, persistence and teamwork – critical in relationships and job success, but they are essential for academic success. Intelligence does not guarantee that a child will be successful in school and in life. Take high school graduation, for example.

High school graduation is often used as a benchmark of success. When a student graduates from high school, all kinds of good things happen (statistically, anyway). It is important to note that high school graduation is not just a measure of intelligence; it is also a measure of character. Graduates must pass a number of tests of character to earn that diploma. By contrast, kids that drop out and get a GED are not as prosperous. They demonstrate the same level of intelligence, but too often lack the character to be successful in post-secondary education and in the workforce.

So, how do we best build character in our children. It begins in the home, of course, with positive parents that set good examples for their kids and give them the kind of experiences that help them develop as a whole person. There is another proven method to build character: high-quality early childhood education.

High-quality early childhood programs create environments and use teaching practices that develop cognitive and character skills. Children learn and practice these skills together in the context of teacher-supported play and projects in the classroom and beyond. Great classrooms have opportunities for dramatic play, collaborative art, group projects and child-driven activities that encourage social interaction. Children get to test out and practice their emerging social competence under the safe and caring guidance of a trained teacher. They learn to persist at tasks, control their impulses and work as part of a team. They learn to be good students and citizens.

Being in a preschool program is not enough. It has to be the right kind. Not one dimensional. What good is learning letters if you don’t have the patience required to be part of a large group? How important is it to count to 100 if you can’t follow basic instructions? Talk to any kindergarten teacher. They will tell you social skills are far more important than “academics” when it comes to kindergarten readiness. A good preschool teacher will both plan what children learn and how they learn it.

The next time you visit an early childhood classroom, look beyond the academics and look for relationships. Look for supportive interactions between teachers and children. Look for lessons in socialization and not just literacy. A good teacher gives children both, but it begins with building character.
Note: This blog was supported by two working papers on early childhood development. The first was “Building the Brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ System” from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (www.developingchild.harvard.edu). The second paper was “Hard Evidence on Soft Skills” by Heckman and Kautz for the National Bureau of Economic Research (www.nber.org).

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