Study supports need for character education

Published 9:00 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It’s seems there is more to the old adage “play nice” than previously thought, particularly when it comes to children.

An analysis of 33 independent studies recently determined that teaching children social and emotional skills – from how to “play nice” to how to respect others in group settings – can actually increase academic performance by as much as 11 percentile points. In other words, teaching and reinforcing these basic social skills can move a child from the middle of the class in performance – say the 50th percentile – to the top 40 percent.

According to an Associated Press article, the study’s authors say the difference lies in the way social skill instruction affects central executive cognitive functions, or the ability to gain greater control over impulses and actions.

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So schools would be wise to continue to focus on character and social skills development, at the earliest ages. Teaching children simple manners, or reinforcing what they hopefully are being taught at home, can make a difference in the child’s capacity to learn. Teaching respect for others only enhances that capacity.

It sounds like a win-win, and such a simple solution: teach the whole child in hopes of helping produce more competent, capable and successful adults who will have the skills necessary to cope and to continue learning throughout their adult lives.

Of course, it’s a balancing act. Many schools nowadays are graded and judged based on test scores and students’ performance (think No Child Left Behind). At extremes, administrators focus on teaching to the test, prepping students only for their performance on a set of benchmarks, and ignoring the greater needs: students who lack self-control and respect for others.

Schools can’t do everything, but they can do something. And if teaching manners and social skills helps children to learn, then we need to find ways to integrate those into core curriculums.