Helping Kids–And Adults–Take Responsibility For Their Own Character

Helping Kids–And Adults–Take Responsibility For Their Own Character

By Tom Lickona, Director, Center for the 4th and 5th Rs

This is an article that was printed in The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility, Volume 10, Issue 2, Winter 2004. (Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, School of Education, Cortland, NY  13045

To ensure continual growth in the moral life, we must first know ourselves. We gain this self-knowledge by regularly examining our behavior and reflecting on the kind of person we are and would like to be. We must also sincerely want to become a better person-more patient, more sensitive to the needs of others, quicker to forgive, more willing to admit when we’re wrong. Finally, we must ask, are we carrying out our good intentions?

Here are four ways we can challenge students-and ourselves-to strengthen our character.

1.  Keep a Character Record Book
Goal-setting and self-assessment are a necessary part of self-improvement.  At Benjamin Franklin Classical Charter School (Franklin, Massachusetts), every student keeps a Character Record Book.  At the end of the day, students take out these books and write responses to three questions regarding that week’s virtue.  If the virtue of the week were courtesy, the questions would be:

  • How have I shown courtesy today?
  • How have I not shown courtesy today?
  • How will I show courtesy tomorrow?


2.  Make Goal Strips
“Goal strips” can help us set specific goals we want to accomplish within a specific period of time.  Michele Borba, author of Building Moral Intelligence, explains:

Cut a 3″x12″ colored paper strip for each goal.  Fold the strip into three even sections.  On the first section, boldly print the words I will.  In the middle section print what you will do, and in the final section print when you will do it.  Now set a goal using this will+ what + when formula.  For example: “I will clean my room in 45 minutes.”

Other examples: “I will get my homework done every night next week.”  I will do my chores without being asked for three days in a row.”


3.  Do a Goal-Setting Bulletin Board

A San Diego teacher gives this assignment; “Find newspaper or magazine articles about individuals who set and pursued a goal.”  Students briefly share their articles with the whole class and then post them on the bulletin board.  “This activity,” the teacher says, “convinces students that goal-setting helps people succeed in life.”  During the following week, he teaches students how to set their own goals-for his class, other subjects, extracurricular activities, and life outside school.


4.  Set 100 Goals

History teacher Hal Urban, author of Life’s Greatest Lessons, gave his high school students an assignment he called “100 Goals”:

  • Write at least 100 goals, more if you wish.
  • Divide them into categories.  You can choose your own categories based on your interests.  Here are some you might want to consider:
  • Career
  • Family
  • Things you’d like to own
  • Fun/adventure
  • Self-improvement
  • Major accomplishments
  • U.S. travel
  • Foreign travel
  • Reading
  • Learning
  • Spiritual growth
  • Creating/making/building
  • Service to others


5.  Select the 10 goals that are the most important to you. Then write a paragraph on your #1 goal.

Urban comments: “I’ve had students write to me 10 or 15 years after graduation, sending me their list of 100 goals with the ones checked off that they’ve already achieved.  They say, If you didn’t make us do this assignment, I never would have even dreamed of most of these goals, let alone achieved them.”

If we want to nurture young people’s growth in character, we must also see ourselves as engaged in the same humble process of trying to become a better person.  New research on adult development indicates that adults’ character qualities are not static.  Some adults become wiser, more patient, more giving over time; others become more selfish.  The challenge for all of us, at every stage of life, is to stay on the moral journey, keeping in mind the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Character-building begins in infancy and continues until death.”