Character Education That Really Counts

A Quick Peak at How Compassionate Communication Can Improve Character Education Programs in Our Schools

By Tiffany Meyer

Four years at Riverview Elementary have taught eight-year-old Lydia Castro a lot about character. Words like responsibility, respect, trustworthiness and compassion are partnered with clear rules about right and wrong behavior in the school’s “Character Counts” education program — one of many nationally recognized programs implemented in schools throughout the U.S. and Canada.

While stats show that character education programs are lowering incidents of violent behavior, conflict and bullying in schools, Compassionate Communication proponents Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson ask an important question — what is the real reason for the student’s change in behavior?

“When we teach children about character, it’s often in terms of should, have to, ought to, duty and obligation, which are all subtle expressions of violence,” says Sura Hart, coauthor with Victoria Hodson of The No-Fault Classroom and The Compassionate Classroom. Children who are motivated to act based on ideas of good and bad, are acting from a language of obligation.

“That gives a person only two options: submit or rebel,” say Hart and Hodson. “Either way, there’s a high cost.”

While students in this capacity will most likely choose to submit from fear of punishment (or even the shame of a label), such motivation fails to teach children to act from an intrinsic desire to contribute to each other’s well being. More importantly, it doesn’t provide children with the specific communication skills needed to express themselves without resorting to verbal or physical violence.

Hart and Hodson suggest an even more effective alternative — teach kids to understand the basic human needs behind all actions, and “arm” them with an “emotional vocabulary” so they are empowered to resolve conflict and choose more positive methods for getting their own needs met.

In The Compassionate Classroom, Hart and Hodson provide educators with dozens of lessons and activities to teach the simple yet powerful Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (NVC) process.

The NVC process differs from most character education programs by teaching students and educators an emotional vocabulary — words to describe feelings (absent of judgment or blame), and words to describe our wants/hopes/needs at any given time. Using the full process of NVC, students learn to move beyond common patterns of judgment, evaluation or right versus wrong labeling.

With the NVC process, students learn to take more responsibility for their own feelings, rather than blame their feelings on the actions of others. By learning about the basic human needs we all have in common, students learn to use empathy and to express their own feelings in terms of the met or unmet needs that are triggering our emotions. The result is a deeper connection to the people and world around them, particularly in times of conflict.

“Integrity and obedience are not the same thing, yet we often use them interchangeably when it comes to character education,” say Hart and Hodson. “We need to go back and ask ourselves two crucial questions. First, how do we want our children to behave? That question is as far as most people go. Do your best. Turn your work in on time. Sit quietly. Don’t cheat.”

“But that first question is meaningless without a second: What do we want their reasons to be for behaving in that way? Answering the second question is vital if children are to learn not just to recite a checklist of good behavior that’s expected when others are watching, but if we want them to live into those values fully, as discerning and compassionate human beings.”

Tiffany Meyer is the past editor and a contributing writer to the NVC Quick Connect e-Newsletter, the founder of the Help Share NVC Project, past marketing director for PuddleDancer Press, founder/president of Numa Marketing, author of Writing a Results-Driven Marketing Plan: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Making Every Dollar Count, and creator of the companion online training program, Results-Driven Marketing Mastery. She has been learning and practicing NVC for more than a decade and remains committed to integrating it into her personal and professional life.