When Character Education Programs Do Not Work: The Difference between “Being Aware” and “Behaving”

TEACHING Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills Requires Behavioral Instruction

Dear Colleagues,

The marketing of “Character Education” curricula, programs, and materials is a big business in this country—netting millions of dollars per year. Moreover, one of the largest purchasers are our schools. Our schools not only buy these materials (often by “word of mouth”). . . but they spend an incredible amount of time implementing these programs, having weekly “competitions,” using them in middle and high school “advisory” periods, and then having monthly “pep rallies” and “character celebrations.”

And then, many of these same schools say that they do not have time for professional development, team and school-level committee meetings, and to provide intervention time for academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students.

At face value, “character education” is “as American as apple pie.” Who can argue against the belief that students need to have good characters? And yet, it is critical for schools to decide what the goals of their character education time is.

  • If the goal is to make students more aware of how to behave. . . interpersonally, socially, and ethically, then a character education program might be satisfactory.
  • However, if the goal is for students to demonstrate effective interpersonal, social, and ethical behaviors, then most character education programs at NOT worth the money and time invested. . . they do not have the science-to-practice components needed to teach behavior.

As proof: simply look at the amount of teasing, taunting, bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression that still goes on in our schools (most recently, after the recent Presidential election).

The simple fact is: The vast majority of character education programs used in this country are not evidence-based and do not teach or change student behavior.

Oh yes. . . some of their authors may have done some “research.” But often, that “research” was done (a) by convenience; (b) with small, non-representative, and non-random samples; (c) without comparisons to matched “control groups;” and (d) in scientifically unsound ways. Moreover, many times, the authors’ research was not blindly reviewed (as when someone publishes their work in a professional journal) by three or more independent experts in the field.

PLEASE NOTE: Anyone can do their own research, pay $50.00 to establish a website, and begin to market their products. To determine if the research is sound, the program produces the results it says it does, and the same results will meaningfully transfer into your school, agency, or setting, YOU need to do your own investigation, analysis, and due diligence.

Too many programs (as noted above), are purchased because of someone else’s personal experience and testimony, their “popularity” and marketing, due to a “celebrity” endorsement, or because they are “easy” to implement.

Once again, these programs need to be Evidence-based. And, the newly reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, explicitly defines “Evidence-based” as:

“when used with respect to a State, local educational agency, or school activity, means an activity, strategy, or intervention that ‘(i) demonstrates a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes based on— ‘(I) strong evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented experimental study; ‘(II) moderate evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study; or ‘(III) promising evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias;

or ‘(ii)(I) demonstrates a rationale based on high-quality research findings or positive evaluation that such activity, strategy, or intervention is likely to improve student outcomes or other relevant outcomes; and ‘(II) includes ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such activity, strategy, or intervention.”

This message will discuss this definition more practically. . . providing guidance on how to evaluate “character education” programs in a more functional way.

The primary conclusion will be: Schools need to choose programs that (a) are evidence-based; (b) teach social, emotional, and behavioral skills with instruction that uses social learning theory components; (c) have been successfully field-tested—reporting positive and sustained results with students who are similar to their own students; and that (d) use classroom teachers as the primary instructors, and mental health staff as the multi-tiered layer of support for students who need adapted, smaller group, or more strategic or intensive instruction.

All of this will be accomplished, using four “mantras” that capture important, scientifically-sound implementation principles.

Mantra 1: Behavioral Awareness vs. Behavioral Skill

The First Mantra is: “Behavioral Awareness does not necessarily translate into Behavioral Skill.”

How many behaviorally challenging students know that they have made a “Bad Choice,” can tell you what that Bad Choice was, will tell you what the Good Choice should have been, and then will assure you that they will make the Good Choice next time. . . . only to demonstrate the Bad Choice again and again? [Spoiler Alert: Most of them.]

While some students do this because they are motivated to make Bad Choices (these students are called “Performance Deficit” students), many more students (who are “Skill Deficit”) have never learned, mastered, or cannot independently apply the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills that they need.

These latter students are “Can’t Do” students; in contrast to the former who are “Won’t Do” students.

Critically, the “Can’t Do” students have not learned how to disagree with someone appropriately or accept that they are wrong; to think through a number of possible good choices and choose the best one for a specific situation; to avoid problem situations or talk through and resolve a teacher or peer conflict; or to maintain self- or emotional-control.

For the Skill Deficit students, the only “intervention” is social, emotional, and behavioral instruction.

The questions here are: “Who will do the instruction?” “What instruction is best—and when, where, and how will it occur?” And, “Given the student’s status, how strategic or intensive does the instruction need to be?”

Said a different way: If the student has never been taught the needed skills, the instruction could occur in the classroom, guided by the classroom teacher(s). If the student needs excessive remediations, accommodations, smaller group instruction, or has significant emotional or mental health needs, the instruction may need to occur with a mental health (counselor, school psychologist, social worker) professional.

The key to all of this is that social, emotional, and behavioral skills need to be explicitly taught. And yet, most character education programs (that are not social skills programs) do not use behavioral instruction. Instead, they often use stories or narratives, teacher-led presentations or lectures, or group activities or discussions as their primary “instruction.”

While discussion-oriented character education programs may increase students’ awareness, understanding, or even knowledge of what they should do, there is no guarantee that their students can perform the required behaviors.

Think of it this way: While I may think that I can be an Oscar-winning actor, and while I am aware of what I need to do to prepare and when on-stage, I truly do not have the acting skills (if I were ever to get on-stage). To be successful, I need a theatrical coach who teaches me effective skills and techniques, who watches me practice while giving me critical feedback, and who mentors me with additional critical feedback and follow-up practice when I begin to perform on-stage.

To be successful, character education curricula need to include behavioral instruction, practice, feedback, and opportunity. Moreover, the “coaches” (that is, the classroom teachers) also need behavioral instruction—so they can teach and implement the curriculum in scientifically-sound and effective in-class ways.

Mantra 2: What Does “Behavioral Instruction” Entail?

The Second Mantra is: “Talk doesn’t change behavior; Behavioral Instruction does.”

Expanding on Mantra #1, we have established that most character education programs talk about behavior. . . they don’t teach behavior using scientifically-based behavioral instruction approaches.

As a licensed psychologist who has provided “private practice” therapy to many children and adolescents, I would like to tell you that Talk doesn’t change behavior.

Indeed. . . as a quick sidebar. . . if talk changed behavior, every one of us would be at our ideal levels of health, weight, stress, and fitness.

That is. . . you can’t TALK yourself into health. You can’t TALK yourself into losing weight. You can’t TALK yourself out of stress. And, you can’t TALK yourself into being fit.

While the TALK may MOTIVATE you. . . you need to demonstrate healthy behaviors, effective diet and nutritional behaviors, effective stress prevention and reduction behaviors, and effective activity and exercise behaviors.

And so, in therapy, most of my focus was on teaching my child and adolescent clients the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that they needed for success.

If my clients already had the skills and our “talk” helped to change their motivation to use the skills (that is, they were “Performance Deficit” students), then the talk “worked.”

But (once again) most of my students had never learned the skills (that is, they were “Skill Deficit”). Or, they were not using the skills independently (transferring our therapeutic work into their daily lives), or they did not have the self-control skills needed to use their skills under “conditions of emotionality.”

Critically, in these latter two areas, students often need to be taught how to use their skills independently, and how to control their emotions. These are related areas of skill deficits.

Significantly, this instructional sequence is exactly what teachers do. They teach students academic skills “in isolation” (for example, the different definitions of a word). They teach students the metacognitive skills so that they can differentially apply their vocabulary skills when words are in a paragraph or story context. And, they teach students the emotional-control skills so that they don’t panic during a test, and forget what they have been taught and how to apply it.

And so. . . what are the goals and components of Behavioral Instruction?

The goals of Behavioral Instruction, quite simply, are to teach students—at their developmental level—the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills that they need for school, home, peer, and community success.

To do this, they need to (a) learn and memorize the skills and their specific steps (or “scripts”); (b) practice these skills and scripts so that they become automatic; (c) learn how to apply, adjust, and adapt these skills to different social situations; and (d) learn how to self-monitor, self-evaluate, self-correct (as needed), and self-reinforce so that they become effective self-managers.

Critically, this does not all happen at once. Preschoolers and early elementary-level students typically learn their skills, but need to be prompted to use them by adults. Middle to late elementary students become more adept at self-managing “routine” social skills, but not those that are more socially complex, or that involve high levels of emotionality. And, adolescents continue this process—becoming more adept with complex and emotionally-involved social situations over time.

Critically: the developmental progression discussed immediately above is EXACTLY why social, emotional, and behavioral skills need to be taught from preschool through high school. . . just like reading, math, science, and other academic areas.

The components of Behavioral Instruction are based on the most valid and long-standing theory in this area, Social Learning Theory.

Discussed by Albert Bandura and others, social learning theory has empirically demonstrated that behavioral skills (which include emotional control, cognitive/attitudinal control, and behavioral control) are taught using the following components: Teach, Model, Roleplay, Performance Feedback, and Transfer of Training.

More specifically:

When Teaching and Modeling: Teachers need to make sure that students:

  • Have the prerequisite skills to be successful
  • Are taught using language that they can understand
  • Are taught in simple steps that ensure success
  • Hear the social skills script as the social skills behavior is demonstrated

When Practicing or Roleplaying: Teachers need to make sure that students:

  • Verbalize (or repeat or hear) the steps to a particular social skill as they demonstrate its appropriate behavior
  • Practice only the positive or appropriate social skill behavior
  • Receive ongoing and consistent practice opportunities
  • Use relevant practice situations that simulate the “emotional” intensity of the real situations so that they can fully master the social skill and be able to demonstrate it under conditions of emotionality
  • Practice the skills at a developmental level that they can handle

When Giving Performance Feedback: Teachers need to make sure that the feedback is:

  • Specific and descriptive
  • Focused on reinforcing students’ successful use of the social skill, or on correcting an inaccurate or incomplete social skills demonstration
  • Positive--emphasizing what was done well and what can be done well (or better) next time

When Transferring or Applying Social Skills after Instruction: Teachers need to make sure that they reinforce students’ prosocial skills steps and behavior when students:

  • Have successfully demonstrated an appropriate social skill
  • Have made a “bad” choice, demonstrating an inappropriate social skill
  • Are faced with a problem or situation but have not committed to, nor demonstrated, a prosocial skill
  • Must use the skill in situations that are somewhat different from those used when the skill was originally taught and practiced

Collectively, these components are the instructional components that successfully teach students their social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

Moreover, this pedagogy does not differ from the way that effective teachers teach academic skills when they (a) Teach students scaffolded information, skills, and step-by-step processes; (b) Demonstrate these skills sequentially to the class; (c) give students massed and distributed Practice opportunities and systematic Feedback; and (d) provide students with guided opportunities to Apply their skills toward eventual independence.

But, once again, precious few character education programs (excluding social skills programs) either include this behavioral instruction in their curricula, or make it the centerpiece of their program.

Mantra 3: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management

The Third Mantra is: “Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skill Instruction is Part of Classroom Management.”

Expanding on Mantra #2, we have established that social, emotional, and behavioral skills need to be explicitly taught to students from preschool through high school, and that the instructional approach is exactly the same one that teachers use when teaching academic skills.

Beyond this, it is important to know that literally hundreds of well-designed research studies investigating school-based social skills programs revealed that classroom time spent on addressing the social, emotional, and behavioral skills and needs of students helped (a) to significantly increase their academic performance as well as their social and emotional skills, and that the students involved (b) were better behaved, (c) more socially successful, (d) less anxious, (e) more emotionally well-adjusted, and (f) earned higher grades and test scores (Durlak, et al., 2011; January, Casey, & Paulson, 2011; Payton, et al., 2008).

More specifically, these studies revealed that these positive results occurred:

  • At the elementary, middle, and high school levels;
  • For students at all socio-economic levels (although they were especially effective in classroom or schools with higher percentages of free and reduced-price lunch students);
  • When classroom teachers and other school staff did the instruction, and embedded the skill practice into daily classroom activities and interactions; and
  • When the programs used roleplay and other experiential activities; and infused their skill instruction and practice throughout the school year.

Altogether, these results involved over 240 studies and more than 280,000 students. When compared to students not receiving the social skills training, those receiving the training demonstrated academic gains amounting to an 11-percentile point advantage.

Given the results above, it is clear that social, emotional, and behavioral skill instruction significantly contributes to effective school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management.

In addition, it must be emphasized that (a) all students—from preschool through high school—should receive this training, and (b) these students’ classroom teachers should be the primary teachers of the social skills.

This is not to give the classroom teachers “another thing to do.” This is to recognize that these teachers know the students better than anyone else, they can (as above) more easily embed the skill practice into daily activities and interactions (like cooperative learning groups, project-based learning activities, science labs, and other collaborative efforts), they have more opportunities to reinforce good social skill behavior than anyone else, and they have the most to gain from the academic benefits also noted above.

Relative to school counselors, social workers, or school psychologists: they should not be the primary social skills instructors. This is an “old-school” role that is no longer supported by the behavioral science.

Indeed, when most counselors teach the primary social skills program:

  • They can only be in each classroom twice per month at most (and this is true more at the elementary school level than at the secondary level—where counselors rarely have routine visitation time);
  • The classroom teachers often use the time to catch up on other work or to take a break (thus, creating a “transfer of training” problem when the teachers do not know enough to reinforce the program during the day, and the students don’t “connect” the teacher with the program and its implementation);
  • There is not enough instructional time is available for roleplays—much less for skill application and infusion; and
  • The students do not see the skills as important to the academic program, much less than to classroom management.

Indeed, the best social skill instruction role for counselors, social workers, and school psychologists is to (a) co-teach, as needed, selected skills with the classroom teachers (for example, those involving complex or controversial social interactions or emotional situations); and (b) provide the multi-tiered layer of support for students who need adapted, smaller group, or more strategic or intensive clinical or therapeutic instruction.

Relative to the skills that are taught, the emphasis is on teaching skills and not constructs. That is, a social skill program cannot teach “Cooperation,” “Respect,” “Responsibility,” “Safety,” “Trustworthiness,” “Fairness,” “Caring,” or “Citizenship.” Instead, the program must teach the behaviors that are embedded in or represented by these constructs.

For example, the Stop & Think Social Skills Program (see the additional information in the right-hand column), teaches 20 essential skills at the preschool through Grade 1, Grades 2 to 3, Grades 4 to 5, and Middle/High school levels, respectively.

These skills include:

Listening, Following Directions, Asking for Help, Ignoring Distractions, Dealing with Teasing, Accepting a Consequence, Apologizing, Starting/Ending a Conversation, Setting a Goal, Dealing with Anger, Handling Rejection, Dealing with Peer Pressure, Walking away from a Fight.

Many of these skills, once again, facilitate students’ prosocial skills, their cooperative group skills, their academic engagement, and thus their social and academic progress and success.

Mantra 4: Management versus Self-Management

The Fourth Mantra is: “The absence of behavioral problems, do not represent the presence of social skills.”

The essence of this Mantra is that there is a difference between “behavior management” and “behavioral self-management.”

Relative to the former, some teachers (and parents) attempt to completely manage students’ behavior. Sometimes this occurs through coercive management where students are afraid to misbehave because they will receive a harsh or severe punishment. At other times, this occurs through excessive supervision.

Either way, when students are behaviorally over-managed, they do often demonstrate fewer inappropriate behaviors. . . but they also tend to stop demonstrating appropriate behaviors. In essence, they are stuck in “neutral”—avoiding antisocial behavior in fear being punished, but also avoiding prosocial behavior in fear of calling undue attention to themselves.

But the biggest problem with over-management is that students are not being taught self-management skills. Thus, when the coercive or excessively supervised management is gone, many of the students do not know what to do.

This happened in a small district where I was consulting a number of years ago. The High School staff complained vigorously that the 9th graders were consistently coming from the Middle School “out-of-control.” When I observed at the Middle School, I noticed that all of the students—in Grades 6th, 7th, and 8th—were supervised everywhere. . . all of the time. When I asked if this was typical, I was told that this practice had been in place for the 10 years of the current Principal’s tenure.

Critically, this explained. . . first, why there were virtually no office discipline referrals in the school to speak of. Indeed, between the mixture of constant supervision and the punishments for inappropriate behavior, the students either did not have the chance to be inappropriate, or they were afraid to.

Second. . . this phenomenon explained why the 9th graders were coming to the High School “out-of-control.” This was because—after three years of constant supervision and dependency on the adults—most of the students (the Skill Deficit students) had never learned adolescent-level social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills. Thus, they were unprepared to be organized, independent, and self-sufficient as expected in 9th grade.

The remainder of the students (the Performance Deficit students) had the self-management skills, but they did not care. They were now free from the previous years’ supervision and punishments (at least until they completely acted up), and free to “test their wings” to see how much they could “get away” with.

The Point? While we need to provide some structure, supervision, and “management” with all students, if we don’t simultaneously teach and help them develop social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills, they will never learn to be confident, capable, independent, productive, self-sufficient, and successful individuals.

And so. . . the Mantra.

As noted above, when school staff over-manage their students, the students often get stuck in neutral—passively (even protectively) sitting back and letting the adults take the lead.

This passive behavior is further reinforced when teachers believe that “good classroom behavior” occurs when students are not exhibiting any problems.

But. . . the absence of behavioral problems does not represent the presence of social skills. That is, the passive students, who are not demonstrating any behavioral problems in the classroom, may have no social skills at all. They simply have not been put into a position of having to demonstrate these skills.

The Bottom Line, once again, is that we need to behaviorally teach all students social, emotional, and behavioral skills from preschool through high school, giving students the opportunity to practice their skills to a level of developmental self-management. This is all part of an effective school’s discipline, classroom management, and student engagement/self-management process.

And the process needs to go well beyond the awareness that typically results from character education programs. It needs to involve the instruction embedded in social skills training programs.


It is a simple fact that how students feel, feel about themselves, behave, and get along with others strongly predicts their interactions and their achievement in school.

  • If students are feeling pressured, bullied, or unsafe, they focus more on these emotional conditions than on academic instruction and learning.
  • If they are unsure of themselves, lack self-confidence, or are self-conscious, they may not believe that they can succeed.
  • If they do not have the behavioral skills to pay attention, work independently, or organize themselves, their academic work may suffer.
  • If they cannot relate to others, work cooperatively in a group, and prevent or resolve conflicts, they will not socially survive.

We have known that students’ social, emotional, and behavioral competency and self-management is essential to their academic and interpersonal success in school for decades. While a strong academic program with effective instruction and a focus on real-world knowledge and skills is essential to student achievement and understanding, it is evident that (a) a positive and supportive school and classroom climate, (b) with positive and productive student and teacher interactions, and (c) effective classroom management also are necessary.

The newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA) requires states and districts to track a non-academic indicator that correlates with academic achievement. I cannot think of a more important indicator than students’ ability to demonstrate interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, emotional control and coping skills.

Not only will these skills enhance students’ academic engagement and achievement, but they will also address other ESEA/ESSA requirements related to office discipline referrals, suspensions and expulsions, teasing and bullying, and disproportionality.

But we need to go beyond awareness training. We need to use our scientific and evidence-based knowledge to teach and change behavior.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Feel free to contact me at any time, and remember to look at my website  for the many free resources that are available there.