When creating reward systems in our classrooms, one natural focus is on those students who have performed well academically. While I do believe it is good in recognizing this, there are so many students that often get left out because academics are not necessarily their strong suit. Maybe it has been a rough year at home or perhaps there is a learning disability that is difficult to predict. To broaden the spectrum and really create meaningful rewards, I began implementing character-based awards in my classroom, and they had a huge impact on student morale and achievement.
The character-based awards that I created were very much based on the character traits/competencies, as described by Robert Marzano. He identified 43 character attributes and 58 character behaviors. Students were awarded for demonstrating one character attribute of their choice from these lists; it not only included character attributes that they were already familiar with, but also provided them with a greater awareness of character. Character attributes included qualities such as: being kind, respectful, responsible, and courageous.
Behaviors included “turn in homework,” “show improvement on test scores,” etc. It was very flexible and it allowed the students to recognize each other for character-based behaviors. I passed out character-based awards during various “award ceremonies” throughout the school year. They were laminated and students could place them on their desks or locker (or hang them on their refrigerator at home if they were exceptionally proud, of course).
Application of Character-Based Awards
With character-based awards, it was important that all character attributes were being recognized equally–I didn’t want this form of recognition to be a popularity contest. In addition, character attributes were identified from the character traits/competencies as given above and I would strongly advise against using character attributes that can be taught (such as fairness or honesty). The only “bad” character attribute is being disrespectful, while other character attributes are not inherently bad–they just demonstrate whether or not a character trait is being used in the right way.
For example, character attributes such as obedience or respect are not bad character attributes on their own, but if they were exhibited in a disrespectful manner they would be considered “bad” character attributes–but I didn’t want my students ever feeling that character-based awards for them were meaningless because it was a character attribute/behavior they already exhibited or were trying to learn. It was important, especially for character traits such as honesty and responsibility, that character behaviors (the character-based awards) were being demonstrated in a way that was respectful of the character trait itself and not just their peers.
The best part about character-based awards is that they can be applied to anyone in the class, not just the character-based award recipients. Students see character demonstrated every single day–they may not always realize it, but character is being modeled by their peers and other adults. By increasing character recognition within the classroom community, students will begin recognizing the character traits held by all of their classmates; character-based awards show recognition for all character traits–not just the traits of those who receive awards.
It is very important to remember that character-based awards must be earned and not given simply because it was a rough day at home or there are a lot of homework assignments to turn in. As a character-based awards recipient, I would have felt awful if my award was given to me simply because I had a rough day and needed some recognition; character values are very important and character-based awards should be earned, appreciated, and recognized. These kinds of character-based awards can also bias students towards good character–it may seem simple to just give character-based awards out to everyone at the end of every week, but character is a lot more complicated than that.
Benefits of Character Trait Recognition
By recognizing positive character traits and behaviors in the classroom community, teachers can promote respect throughout their students’ development. This program offers a very good template for character recognition in schools and it can easily be integrated with a school’s existing character education program.
The character education program can expand by allowing teachers to recognize character behaviors in any subject. Teachers frequently say they cannot teach character because it is not their responsibility, but character education lies within every subject area and every teacher. For example, at the conclusion of a science experiment that involves the careful use of materials, a teacher can recognize students for careful use of materials.
Similarly, a character award can be granted after a student memorizes a poem or once he/she gets a grade on his/her math quiz that shows significant improvement. These character behaviors are within the curriculum and the character education program can focus upon them as well.
The character education program will be most successful when behaviors are recognized weekly. By recognizing character every single day, students will begin to recognize character traits in the actions and words of others around them–the classroom environment will become more character-oriented. However, this may not be practical depending on your particular classroom, curriculum, etc. This is why I had award ceremonies quarterly and intertwined them with my student goal-setting activities.
Another way to implement the character traits in between giving our character-based awards is by focusing on Social-Emotional Learning, which runs parallel to character building. More character education programs are now focusing on Social-Emotional Learning, which teaches character traits outside of character education. By using character education and SEL together, we can help students learn about character in a variety of ways that promote growth throughout their development.
Character Recognizition for Faculty, too
Many schools also have character recognition days for faculty members to recognize the character exhibited by teachers throughout the year. This character-based award is given out to teachers by other faculty members and character education plays an important role in character recognition within a school environment.
The character education program can be used to recognize character traits in students, staff, and adults outside of the school. Students are capable of recognizing character traits in their parents, relatives, and mentors. Adults are capable of character recognition in their colleagues, co-workers, supervisors, etc. It would be very beneficial if students could recognize character traits exhibited by their parents and they can use the character education program to assist them with character recognition on a daily basis.
Teachers who receive character awards from their students have indicated that it is a character recognition that they will never forget. By recognizing character traits on a regular basis, character-based awards are something students want to work for and teachers want to receive.
Students who exemplify exemplary character are eligible to be recipients of character awards in various categories: character, character trait, character strength, and character trait awards.
A character award is given to students who display multiple character traits on a consistent basis. Character awards are awarded at the character education committee meeting that takes place either quarterly or monthly in most schools. This character recognition program is run by a school’s character education committee led by a teacher(s) and character education student leaders. The character education committee is responsible to determine which character traits a character award will be given for, how many character awards the school wishes to give out every year, what character traits are most important within their school community, how the character awards will be distributed throughout the school
Using self-assessment surveys allows students to accurately assess their character strengths and character traits. One way to do this is by handing out surveys for students to fill out anonymously on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, or quarterly). Students can get character recognition from their peers by sharing character self-assessment surveys with the class during character education committee meetings.
In addition, this version of character-based awards can be given to a character trait, character strength, or character virtue that is exhibited by one student, and character trait awards can also be given to a character group of students who exemplify the character trait on a consistent basis.
Implementing in Your Classroom
In the end, you need to determine what your students will respond best to in terms of thriving and striving to be the best versions of themselves. It may take a round or two to get this on point, but once it is, you will certainly see a vast difference in the culture, engagement, and success of your classroom.
Using character-based awards was one way I differentiated my instruction to meet the diverse needs of students. As you can tell from the character attributes and behaviors that were chosen, character education was very much a part of our school culture and moral character was highly emphasized. However, I think character-based awards would work well in any educational environment. The character-based awards could be used with individual students or groups of students (i.e., character teams).
It was an effective way to acknowledge character within the classroom and it provided a more personal connection between the character and student. Students who received character-based awards were more likely to reflect on what character attribute they received the award for. I would encourage teachers to be very specific about character attributes and behaviors when assigning character-based awards.