Character Development Activities for the Classroom

Student high-fiving his teacher in a classroom

15 Character Building Classroom Activities for Teachers

As an educator, you are able to impact all facets of a student’s development: their intellect, their spirit, and also their character. Unfortunately, not a lot of time is spent helping teachers prepare for character development activities that enrich their classrooms and their school communities. Many educators find themselves trying to include character-centered lessons in their traditional academic curriculum, which can work, but may not be as effective.

To help, the team at USD has put together a list of easy-to-install character building classroom games and activities, broken down by grade level to help positively impact students at all stages of their development.

What is Character Building in the Classroom?

The U.S. Department of Education defines character building and character education as “a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others. Upon such core values, we form the attitudes and actions that are the hallmark of safe, healthy and informed communities that serve as the foundation of our society.”

Government experts recommend that teachers, administrators and school community leaders approach character education in a way that “offers multiple opportunities for students to learn about, discuss and enact positive social behaviors.” At its core, character building is intended to focus on emotional, intellectual and moral education.

What Benefits Can Character Building Achieve?

Teaching character education in schools has been proven to improve performance in a number of important areas. The top benefits include:

  1. Higher academic performance among students
  2. Improved overall student attendance
  3. Improved student self esteem
  4. Students and educators grow healthier relationships
  5. Everyone becomes more skilled at resolving interpersonal conflicts
  6. Reduction in school violence and disciplinary issues 
  7. Better prepares students to handle challenges and obstacles in the real world

15 Character Building Classroom Activities for Teachers

Many teachers, schools and school districts have turned to education nonprofit Character.org to help steer their character building efforts. Based on the extensive works of educators, researchers, business and civic leaders, the 11 Principles Framework for Schools: A Guide to Cultivating a Culture of Character acts as a foundation for all other school-based character education. The 11 Principles are as follows: 

  1. A set of core values are identified and embedded into the culture of the family, school, sports team or organization.
  2. Character involves understanding, caring about and practicing your culture’s core values.
  3. Your character development approach is proactive and comprehensive.
  4. Caring attachments and relationships foster a sense of belonging and connection.
  5. There are ample opportunities for everyone to live their core values, especially opportunities to serve others.
  6. Your culture of character strives to develop everyone’s “best self,” including the four areas of character (moral civic, performance and intellectual).
  7. A culture of character emphasizes intrinsic motivation rather than recognition or material rewards.
  8. Everyone shares the responsibility to model, practice and uphold the core values.
  9. All stakeholders are encouraged to take a leadership role and suggest ways to embed and practice the core values.
  10. Your character initiative engages a range of partners (family members, parents, community members, etc.).
  11. Core values are reaffirmed or revised each year to ensure that your character initiative is always improving and growing.

Using these as your guide, here is a list of specific educational activities and practices designed to enrich student character and the school as a whole.

Elementary School

  1. Create a decorative bulletin board that allows students to add things that they are grateful for. Design the board like a tree or field of flowers, and each student’s contribution can be a petal or leaf. The result will be a board full of gratitude, a trait that is key in positive character building.
  2. Working with your students, decide as a class what positive classroom behavior looks like. Things like how to handle anger, how to tackle challenges and how to work through conflict can all be included in a book. This helps students to understand what is expected of them and to reinforce good behavior. 
  3. Assign a buddy or buddies to everyone in the classroom and have each partner take turns giving positive encouragement to each other. This can be verbally or in the form of a note in their cubby. Giving peers compliments is a great way to help students build character and good social skills.
  4. Work with students to define positive character traits. These things can be thought of as “ingredients” in the recipe of what good character looks like. By taking this perspective students can both contribute and reflect on their own “ingredients” and define their own personal recipe for good character. 
  5. As a written exercise, have students identify someone that they think has good character traits. This way they can explain things in their own words, and you can work with them to make sure they understand good character qualities. 

Middle School

  1. To help middle school students who are struggling with peer pressure, try this exercise: have students brainstorm a list of “great escapes.” These are simple strategies students can use in situations they aren’t comfortable with. They can take the form of direct refusal (saying “I don’t want to do that”) to more subtle strategies that are distracting or funny.
  2. Define your classroom’s moral code by outlining the character traits and behaviors that are expected of everyone in that classroom community. Then, nominate a Citizen of (Your Class Name) to recognize students who live up to and further those positive character traits. This can be recognized by you, but better yet, can be voted on by the class.
  3. Leave good character reminders on and around the doorway heading in and out of the classroom. Things like integrity, honesty and kindness are all easy, one-word reminders and can help keep all students focused on what matters in your classroom and school community.  
  4. Use current examples from social media and pop culture to help students see and understand positive character traits in action. Talk about the words used to describe different people and the connotations that go with those characterizations. Then, have students rewrite the example posts to use positive language and make them more encouraging. 
  5. Implement the well-known practice of paying it forward in your classroom. In a school setting this can look like one student carrying the extra books for another, or helping someone who is taking a little longer on an assignment. Paying it forward helps students show positive, gracious attitudes and create a more positive environment for all. 

High School

  1. Make giving back a part of your classroom curriculum in the form of volunteer work or community service. Find service-learning opportunities or projects that students can take on for a semester or even school year. This empowers kids to use their talents and skills in a positive way and helps teach them to care for others and demonstrate empathy. 
  2. Let students practice both their debate skills in an exercise many call Talk It Out. Have your class break up into small groups and have students discuss their points of view and opinions about character traits and social issues. Let them define and defend their understanding of positive traits and how they impact communities, but in a way that is still thoughtful and polite. 
  3. Build lessons around a handful of inspirational TED Talks. Use talks that emphasize good character traits or times where the speaker faced a challenge. Using that as inspiration, have students put together their own TED Talk to present to the class that highlights a time where they persevered or demonstrated good character. 
  4. Start by having students take a personality test like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Use the test results to help students learn more about themselves and see how their personality types align with what they feel are their strengths and weaknesses. Then have students work in groups based on their results to figure out ways to improve upon their weaker abilities. 
  5. Try implementing one-minute etiquette or manners lessons into your daily routine. Not only will these skills benefit them immediately, they will prove to be valuable when students leave high school. Cover topics like how facial expressions affect professional relationships to the proper basic table manners at a business lunch.

Resources for Character Building Activities

There are also a number of free resources available to educators to help them shape their character building activities and lessons. Here are some of the most notable from reputable organizations:

  1. U.S. Department of Education
  2. Character Education and Civic Engagement Technical Assistance Center
  3. What Works Clearinghouse
  4. Character.org
  5. USD Character Education Certificate Program: Educators who are interested in a more formal opportunity to improve their character building skills should consider the online USD Character Building Certificate. Through this multi-course program, teachers and school leaders will learn how to help students develop good character habits and good citizenship and deploy best practices and instructional strategies for teaching positive social skills.

FAQs About Character Building for Students

What is character education?

Character education is “a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others. Upon such core values, we form the attitudes and actions that are the hallmark of safe, healthy and informed communities that serve as the foundation of our society.”

Why are the benefits of character building for students?

Research shows that character building, or character education, can have the following positive results on students and school communities: 

  • Higher academic performance amongst students
  • Improved overall student attendance
  • Improved student self esteem
  • Reduction in school violence and disciplinary issues 
  • Better prepares students to handle challenges and obstacles in the real world

What are some free character building resources?

Try any one of these free resources to help you get started teaching character education in your classroom: 

  1. U.S. Department of Education
  2. Character Education and Civic Engagement Technical Assistance Center
  3. What Works Clearinghouse
  4. Character.org

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