Teaching Students about Character and how to Understand Their Behavior
Teachers noticed that their existing character education program was faltering. Students would engage in the correct activities, but not for the reasons that would really benefit them. In an interview with Fall Creek Valley Middle School, Jason Williams and Josh Quinn shared how Habitudes and character education has helped improve their STEM program, Project Lead the Way. As you will read, Jason had been using Habitudes and character education in his program for years; Josh saw the positive effects in Jason’s classroom and decided to try it for himself.
What problems were you facing before Habitudes?
Most of the students that come into our program have never had any type of discussion with an adult regarding character. If there was a behavior issue, an adult would address the behavior rather than helping the student understand the underlying character trait that is influencing their behavior. An overarching problem we face is lack of motivation in our students. To help overcome that, our school focuses on external rewards and consequences. When a student does something correctly, they expect a reward, and when they do something incorrectly, we must decide the consequence.
We found that because of this system and culture, our students starting doing correct activities just for the rewards. There was no intrinsic motivation built in these students. This led to all sorts of classroom management issues.
It was exhausting to constantly externally motivate students. Reward, punishment, reward, punishment. Jason allocated time in his classroom for character education and Habitudes, and I saw he wasn’t having the same problems. At first, I thought it was that he just had better students. Then I realized it was what he was teaching.
What kind of impact did Habitudes have on your students?
Our school implemented some character education initiatives, such as character posters in the hallways and “character words of the week”, but we didn’t find them to be effective nor engaging with students. We decided to teach Habitudes once a month in our individual STEM classes. We saw that the images were able to connect with all types of students.
We found it gives us an opportunity to not go right to discipline, but address the underlying problem. It gives language to address the character behind the behavior. When one kid starts packing up their books, then others do. All teachers see this behavior. I was able to quickly ask them, “Are we being Thermostats or Thermometers right now?” (A Habitude in the first series of images on self-leadership.) Quickly, they received the message and were able to self-evaluate their behaviors.
What results did habitudes help create for your school?
I saw Jason doing Habitudes and character development in his 7th grade STEM class, and I noticed he wasn’t having the same classroom management issues I was having. I asked Jason what his secret was, but he kept saying it was due to having conversations around developing character. I told him I didn’t have time to slow down and do a Habitude lesson. There was too much in the lesson plan to go through. Plus, his success must be due to have a good class of students. But eventually, I found that last assumption to be incorrect and gave in to trying Habitudes. I saw an immediate shift in my students.
I used to use tons of gimmicks to get students to behave correctly and do their work. It was all external motivation, and it was hard to keep up with all the rewards. After starting Habitudes, I now have almost no external motivators. In addition to not having to keep motivating my students, their quality of work is far better and the students are happier.
I also attribute our program’s student diversity to this character program. The 8th grade class I teach has 33% girls, which beats the 11-15% national average, and we have 50% minorities, which also beats the 10% national average.
Habitudes has changed our students and our program. I find my students are now intrinsically motivated to do what they need to, such as completing their homework and pushing in their chair. Parents say their kids love our class, and the parents even thank us for teaching Habitudes and character. When we tell them the specific character and leadership lessons we are covering, they say that is what I’ve been trying to tell them for years and are excited that another adult is affirming their work at home.
Teachers and visitors come by my class and say they don’t understand why the kids are the way they are. When I tell them about developing character in students, teachers say they don’t have time for that. I say, “I don’t not have time for it.” I don’t know how I would teach without it. Habitudes gave me a language to grow character in my students.
I recently pulled the numbers on referrals (disciplinary reports). As a school, the average is 46 referrals per teacher per school year. Josh and I write less than 10 referrals per year ever since we started Habitudes and character training. Several of those 10 weren’t even our students.
Is there a specific story of change that comes to mind?
The first story is of Sarah (name changed). She came from a good home. Her dad was an MIT graduate and was surprised to find out how much she hated school. In fact, her parents have said multiple times that, before our class, she was aimlessly wandering through life and had no purpose. But, she was really smart and had untapped potential.
After being in our class and going through Habitudes and character education, Sarah is driven and says she has a plan for the future. She’s one of our top students now and is now our program’s biggest recruiter. She tells students, “Project Lead the Way is more than just engineering. It’s about life, character and everything you need to be successful.” That’s the impact of Habitudes.
The second story is quite the comparison. It’s about Rebecca (name changed). Her home life was terrible… a nightmare… not even one we can describe here. After hearing it, you’d expect the worst outcome.
Rebecca is now a freshman in high school and recently reached back out to me. She informed me that she is in the advanced engineering class and is doing extremely well. She now wants to come back to our 8th grade class and mentor our students because of the impact our classes had on her life. Habitudes was her favorite part of the class. She jumped for joy when we said we were going over a Habitude one week. The funny thing is, we only spend one class day out of a month going over a Habitude, but for some like Rebecca, it’s their favorite part. Some students sign up for our class just because of Habitudes, which is surprising because our 7th grade STEM class is the hardest class available and our 8th grade STEM class is the second hardest class available. Students are lining up and fighting to be in our class.
We’ve found that wherever kids are at (whether from a great home or rough home), Habitudes helps take them to the next level in life and maturity. It gave Sarah motivation to be a great student, and it gave Rebecca hope for a brighter day. We’ve found these images to have the ability and power to connect with any type of student. It resonates with all kids at some level.
We teach a different kid at the end of the year than we did at the beginning. Not because they are smarter but because their character has grown and their leadership ability has expanded exponentially.
Our content and rigor haven’t changed. The only thing that has changed is character training and using Habitudes. Now our students behave better and are able to think long term about who they want to be and where they want to go in life.
Educators say they don’t have time to do character education, but we say we don’t not have time to do Habitudes and character education. Once you’ve gone down the path of integrating character education throughout your academics, you can’t go back. It is that effective.