April 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

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Character Education: Developing Effective Programs

The recent character education movement has spawned many questions related to which methods are the most appropriate approaches to character education. A review of the existing research literature on moral development and character education programs has uncovered several effective and ineffective approaches to character education. Implications for 4-H youth development programs are discussed.

Annette Kusgen McDaniel
Graduate Student Assistant
Missouri 4-H Youth Development Program
Columbia, Missouri
Internet address: c608273@showme.missouri.edu

Recently, "What Matters Most: A Newsweek Poll" (Newsweek, 1997) polled 506 parents of children ages 0-3 years and asked them about their most important goal as a parent. The most common response, given by 48% of the parents, was making sure their child grows up to be a moral person. Unfortunately, this goal is becoming harder for parents to achieve. Traditionally, parents and their children were embedded in a network of family and community that contributed to the moral upbringing of children. Families, however, are becoming more and more isolated. As a result of this isolation, the task of moral training has increasingly become the sole responsibility of parents (Schulman & Mekler, 1994).

The difficult task of raising moral children is compounded by other forces in the lives of children and parents (e.g. culture, media, peers, etc.) that promote unethical, immoral, and self-focused behavior. "Only rare and fortunate teenagers encounter the kinds of experiences that help them break out of this envelope of self-interest and learn to contribute to others" (Ryan, 1986, p. 232).

In fact, the conduct of United States youth during the last 20-30 years has been marked by two trends: (a) a rise in destructive behavior, and (b) a rise in self-destructive behavior (Wynne & Hess, 1987). These trends have helped spawn a revival of interest in character education. If this revival is to succeed, it will have to successfully address the issue of program effectiveness (Leming, 1993b). One way to help insure that we are taking the correct approach to character education is to examine the literature on moral and ethical development and to explore previous approaches to character education to determine which methods are effective and which are not.

Development Theories


Lawrence Kohlberg is likely the most well known moral theorist; his name is synonymous with moral development. Kohlberg expanded upon the work of Jean Piaget, who viewed the development of logical reasoning as a progression through a series of stages in which individuals incorporate a greater number of interacting variables in each stage (Lozzi, 1990). From Kohlberg's perspective, moral development is the increasing ability to differentiate and integrate the perspectives of self and other in making moral decisions. This is the product of an interaction between the child's cognitive structures and the structural features of the social environment. The capability for complex perspective taking and for understanding abstract concepts is associated with advances in moral reasoning. Kohlberg believes that moral development is promoted by social experiences that produce cognitive conflict and that provide the child with the opportunity to take the perspective of others (Kohlberg, 1969).

Kohlberg's model is compiled of three hierarchical levels, each containing two stages. With each stage, the reasons individuals give for advocating a particular response to a moral dilemma become increasingly more complex. The first level, Preconventional Reasoning, is the lowest level of moral development. Children functioning at this level show no internalization of moral values; moral reasoning is controlled by external rewards and punishments. Conventional Reasoning, the second level, encompasses individuals who have internalized certain standards, but the standards are those of others (e.g. parents, societal laws). Individuals reasoning within the third level of moral development, Postconventional Reasoning, have completely internalized moral standards and no longer reason based upon others' standards (Kohlberg, 1978). For example, an individual in stage 6 who is faced with a conflict between law and ethical conscious will follow ethical conscious even if it involves personal risk (Santrock, 1997).

Kohlberg ascertains that moral thinking can be advanced educationally, using social interaction, cognitive conflict, a positive moral atmosphere, and democratic participation (Kohlberg, 1969). He advocates a Just Community approach to education which includes equality of the participants, "ownership" of decisions by all group members, and a teacher that advocates mature moral reasoning but who does not present morality in an authoritarian way (Harding & Snyder, 1991).


Through his research, R. L. Selman has developed social role taking stages which are viewed as a link between Piaget's logical reasoning stages and Kohlberg's moral reasoning stages. His model consists of four interacting components: logical reasoning, moral/ethical reasoning, social role taking, and information (Lozzi, 1990). Selman places emphasis on the role of experience and learning, such that advances in social perspective taking depend heavily on the individual's experiences with others, including appropriate social stimulation and education. The progression to higher levels of social perspective taking depends heavily on appropriate social experiences (Atwood, 1992).

Selman's five stages are as follows:

  • Stage 0 (ages 3-6). Children cannot distinguish clearly between their own interpretation of a situation and another person's point of view.
  • Stage 1 (ages 5-9). Although children realize others may have different views than their own, they are unable to understand such views.
  • Stage 2 (ages 7-12). Older children and preadolescents can reflect on their thoughts and feelings from another person's viewpoint, but they cannot hold both perspectives simultaneously.
  • Stage 3 (ages 10-15). Adolescents can step outside their own viewpoints and those of others and assume the perspective of a neutral third person.
  • Stage 4 (adolescence-adulthood). Individuals can now understand their thoughts and behaviors from a more abstract level that is capable of a generalized, societal perspective (Selman, 1980).


Unlike Piaget and Kohlberg who discuss logical and moral reasoning, James Rest provides a framework for understanding moral behavior. His Four Component Model includes moral sensitivity, moral judgment, moral decision-making, and moral action. Moral sensitivity is the recognition that a situation exists in which moral action may be needed and that these actions may have consequences for others. Moral judgment is a judgment about what one ought to do, while moral decision-making involves considering alternatives and weighing pros and cons in light of their probable consequences for self and others. Finally, moral action includes the will and skill to implement the decision (Rest, 1983). Rest concludes that his framework should be used as a basis for formulating objectives for moral education programs (Rest, 1986). Effective character education should be sensitive to the developmental levels of children and should create programs accordingly.

Character Education: What Doesn't Work

There was a large character education movement in the first three decades of this century that utilized elaborate codes of conduct and integrated these codes into all aspects of school life. Lecturing and moralizing by teachers were also incorporated into this character education movement. From 1924 to 1929, the Institute of Social and Religious Research investigated the nature of character and the school's role in its development. The prescriptive approaches utilized by the character education movement were found to be ineffective (Leming, 1993b). Similarly, much research has shown that there is no direct link between values and behavior. It is, therefore, an "erroneous assumption that teaching moral values will produce significant reduction in irresponsible behavior" (Lockwood, 1993, p. 3).

The following methods have also been found to be ineffective in promoting character in youth: lecturing and moralizing, authoritative teaching styles, externally derived codes of ethic, and setting the ethics agenda without involving students in the process (Matthews & Riley, 1995). Additionally, Wainryb & Turiel (1993) state that "the processes of moral development and decision making are neither simple nor straightforward."

Prescriptions for moral education that fail to account for these complexities are not very likely to succeed. For example, some programs emphasize "Just Say No" to drugs or sex. However, there is little evidence to support that this message of abnegation is effective (Wainryb & Turiel, 1993).

For many, it seems logical that rewarding ethical behavior and punishing unethical behavior is a positive approach to teaching good character. However, there is a large body of literature that negates this approach. One such study found that mothers who had positive feelings regarding the use of rewards and used them often reported that their children were less likely to behave pro-socially than mothers who did not frequently reward pro-social behavior. This may be because rewards can undermine pro-social motivation in situations where rewards are no longer forthcoming (Fabes, Fultz, Eisenberg, May-Plumlee, & Christopher, 1989; Lepper & Greene, 1978).

Rewards motivate students to get rewarded, therefore, children do not develop a commitment to being generous or respectful. Similarly, punishment only produces compliance in the short run and only teaches children what they are not supposed to do instead of teaching them what they are supposed to do (Kohn, 1991). Rewards also tend to reduce children's interest in performing rewarded behaviors for their own sake. Children who are frequently rewarded are likely to only behave pro-socially when they believe external pressures are present (Grusec & Dix, 1986; Kohn, 1991).

This is because extrinsic motivation tends to erode intrinsic motivation. Children who are frequently rewarded for pro-social behavior are more likely to attribute the behavior to the reward than to think of themselves as caring and helpful (Deci & Ryan, 1985). It is preferable for children to come to believe that their pro-social behavior reflects positively about themselves (Grusec & Dix, 1986). The goal of character education should be to promote self-initiated behavior and for children to be reinforced by the good feelings in others. Effective moral education strives to change what the child finds reinforcing instead of providing external reinforcements when the child behaves ethically (Schulman & Mekler, 1994).

Character Education: What Works

Unfortunately, very few carefully controlled evaluations of character education programs exist (Leming, 1993b). Research on character education, values education, and moral reasoning has tended to focus on formal school settings (Matthews & Riley, 1995). However, the research that has been conducted has provided insight into effective approaches to character education. Like good education of any sort, effective character education involves learners in setting the agenda, uses peer involvement, and utilizes parental and community support (Matthews & Riley, 1995). "Several studies have shown that schools that seem to have an impact on student character respect students, encourage student participation in the life of the school, expect students to behave responsibly, and give them the opportunity to do so" (Leming, 1993b, p. 67).

After reviewing character education literature, Matthews and Riley (1995) determined that effective ethics education is grounded in community. "We ensure failure if we teach ethics without using a community context to illustrate, nurture, and support ethical development. Without grounding ethics within the particular community and cultural context of the learner, ethics remain abstract, outside the scope of experiences of the learner, and ultimately irrelevant" (p. 17). Without an environment that is conducive to being a person of character, character education can not be effective (Kohn, 1997).

In order to be successful, prevention programs must focus on enhancing and creating positive environmental contexts (families, schools, and communities) that, in turn, reinforce positive behaviors (Benard, 1992). A school/community program for sexual risk reduction among teens attempted to create such an environment by integrating value-based sex education information and activities within regular school subjects in addition to involving parents, clergy, church leaders, local newspapers, and radio stations. This program also used special events to raise community awareness. As a result, pregnancy rates for females ages 14-17 declined two years following the program (Leming, 1993b). We have learned from value-based sex education that when schools, parents, and the community are involved in a common effort to encourage responsible sexual behavior, there is the potential for changing adolescent attitudes and sexual behavior (Leming, 1993b).

By evaluating sex and drug education programs we have also learned that lecture approaches are ineffective, peer counseling and education are more effective, and the social influence approach is most effective (Leming, 1993a). Research supports that drug education using the "social influences" strategy, which tries to make students aware of the social factors that create pressures to use drugs and help students develop the skills to resist the pressure through role-play, are successful in altering behavior.

One program that uses the social influences strategy in addition to parent involvement with homework, the mass media, community organization, and health policy programming to combat adolescent drug use reduced the use of three target drugs among students in the program (Leming, 1993b). It is very likely that the approaches used in sex and drug education can also be applied to character education, but due to the relatively few numbers of evaluations, caution should be used in drawing generalizations from the data (Leming, 1993b).

Cooperative learning strategies have been shown to increase pro-social behavior and to enhance children's ability to take others' points of view. In contrast, children who are competitive and whose parents emphasize competition are less empathic than their peers (Kohn, 1990). Cooperative learning in the school setting involves placing students in small groups where group learning is of central importance and students are not only responsible for their own learning but for the learning of others as well (Leming, 1993b). This approach increases academic achievement, acceptance of students of other races and ethnic origins (Leming, 1993b), mutual concern among students, and positive social attitudes and behavior (Leming, 1993a).

Several parenting behaviors have been shown to promote moral conduct. Parents who model pro-social behavior promote children acting in the same way (Kohn, 1990). Several studies support the importance of a nurturant rearing figure who is explicit in his or her pro-social training, using inductive and affective communications (Radke-Yarrow & Zahn-Waxler, 1984). Other results suggest that structural family characteristics are far less important than the quality of family relationships in the development of adolescent moral reasoning (Speicher, 1992).

Additionally, parents who provide helping experiences first hand (such as caring for pets or looking out for younger siblings) teach pro-social behavior to their children and allow their children to think of themselves as helpful, caring people (Kohn, 1990). "Promoting service as a lifelong commitment is enhanced when youth participate at many ages, through multiple avenues, and when opportunity is given to reflect on the act of service" (America's Promise, 1997, p. 7). Such service-learning experiences have been shown to enhance self-esteem, a sense of personal competence and efficacy, and social responsibility for others (America's Promise, 1997).

In keeping with the effective approaches discussed above, Antes and Norton (1994) provide the following suggestions for moral education:

  • Provide opportunities for students to be responsible for each other by providing cross-age grouping and cross-age tutoring. The older will benefit by being a role model and by developing patience and tact, and the younger will benefit by being helped academically and witnessing a caring, helping relationship.
  • Relate educational experiences to students' lives providing opportunities for students to share their points of view.
  • Develop cooperative activities in the community with service projects to help students develop a sense of responsibility and connection to the community as a whole.
  • Encourage discussions with and among students concerning aspects of school life and how to interact with other people in the appropriate manner.
  • Guide children in playing a role in decision making in the classroom and school.
  • Provide for forms of student self-government in public schools as a means of helping students contribute to others and develop critical thinking and interaction skills.
  • Use day-to-day activities and what is happening in the students' lives as opportunities to deal with values and ethics.
  • Encourage students to think in complex ways about moral issues in life as they appear in the curriculum.
  • Use reading and writing activities to encourage moral and ethical thought.
  • Structure the learning environment so that it models democratic values and provides a safe environment for learning, sharing, and cooperating.
  • Encourage self-discipline through cooperative interaction between persons in the learning environment.
  • Use discussion, role-playing, and analytical and creative projects as a basis for critical thinking about values, attitudes, character traits, and moral issues.
  • Use cooperative learning activities to help students develop social interaction skills.
  • Establish parent support groups to develop a moral consensus.

Implications for 4-H Youth Development Programs

Based upon this information, how can 4-H implement effective character education and how will we evaluate a community based character education initiative? Learning from previous programs, we are aware that top-down, externally imposed character education is ineffective. Therefore, it is imperative that we involve youth in the process from the very beginning. We cannot only target youth; the whole community system must be involved in the effort.

It is concerning that many programs within the new character education movement are not involving young people in the development of character education programs. It is evident from the research that the success of character education is partially dependent upon learners having direct input in setting the agenda. It may be possible that programs with adult-determined codes of ethics can be effectively utilized if youth participants are allowed to modify or add to these ethics codes so that they, too, can have ownership of the ethics and values being taught.

4-H youth development programs are already doing a number of things consistent with effective approaches to character education. A community based approach has been adopted by a number of programs. Cross-age interaction and learning takes place within SERIES, Problem-Solving Challenge, and camp counseling. Additionally, adult-teen partnerships are developed within Leadership RAP. 4-H also provides youth with the opportunity to experience citizenship through service learning projects. Moreover, the four "H's" are congruent with the four aspects of a psychologically mature person. A psychologically mature person is a problem solver (head), is allocentric and empathic (heart), acts on democratic values (hands), and is autonomous and self-directed (health) (Sprinthall, 1997).

Search Institute has identified 40 developmental assets that when present in youth are likely to reduce engagement in a wide range of risky behaviors. Additionally, the more assets youth possess, the more likely they are to grow up engaging in positive behaviors and being competent and successful. Several of the identified assets are characteristics that 4-H character education hopes to instill in children, such as: service to others, caring, equality and justice, integrity, honesty, responsibility, and restraint (Roehlkepartain & Benson, 1996). Therefore, if we are able to implement successful character education programs, we will not only enhance the character of our youth, we will provide them with assets that will assist them in being caring, resilient, and successful individuals.


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