Character education is an inclusive approach to education where the goal is for all students to develop virtue literacy and head on a path of flourishing. As with many things in education, some teachers say, but not with my students. Students all come from diverse experiences, backgrounds and lives. With character education, that can be a benefit.
The varying perspectives and experiences lead to rich discourse and learning for each student. However, some educators might still wonder how to teach their students character with so many other factors at play. Traditionally underserved students might appear to teachers as uninterested in character, distracted or on a different life path. But most students can develop character.
In this Article:
- Distractors for Underserved Children
- What Can You Do? — Tips to Support Underserved Students
- Basic Needs: Build Character
Distractors for Underserved Children
Let’s consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.1 If a student’s basic needs are not being met — hunger, sleep, shelter, etc. — then they cannot attend to the higher needs (self-actualization and desire to reach one’s potential being the highest need). Thus, for many populations of students, especially underserved children, learning how to be a “good” person and forming their character might seem far from attainable when they have basic needs lingering in question.
The second highest level of needs according to Maslow is safety, health, resources, and personal security, followed by the love and belonging level. Before self-actualization, individuals also need to build esteem (in oneself and through connections with others).
Underserved youth across the nation are in Title I schools with free and reduced lunch because they come from homes that struggle financially. Many students face hunger, turmoil, trauma, sleepless nights, and more daily. This can make it difficult to focus on school academically, let alone hearing about how to be a good person in this world when the world might feel that it is against you. In the minds of youth, it may be difficult to grapple with the idea of being a contributing citizen by exhibiting good character when life seems to continuously throw you obstacles.
Along with their level of needs being a distractor, some underserved youth may also come from lives where their role models are far from moral exemplars. Many students have criminals for family members or are exposed to criminal activity. They may even be taught that bad behavior is good. Take for example the student whose family member steals food from the store out of need to feed the children in the home. They may be taught that stealing for this reason is acceptable. While that may make sense to some, that is still stealing.
So, with all these distractors, how can students focus on learning how to demonstrate good character and make good decisions?
Character education is not meant to change students, it is meant to support students (including underserved students) in becoming the best that they can be in their life. It is about empowering them with the capacity to make the best decisions possible in the situations they face, for the common good. Arming them with the knowledge and experiences to continue their character formation can build their character and set them on the life journey of character development. There are some ways educators can address students’ levels of need and help them move toward growth needs (levels 3-5 on Maslow’s model).
What Can You Do? — Tips to Support Underserved Students
Educators hold the potential to leave lasting impacts on the youth they encounter by supporting underserved students. They are often considered role models for students and through their actions and behaviors, model character for students. While educators cannot solve all the problems with physiological needs students encounter, they can provide emotional security and a safe place. This starts with relationships.
#1 Building Strong Relationships
Building strong relationships with students can foster emotional connections and provide security. By learning about students, their lives, their interests and genuinely showing care for them, educators can fill that need. Through such strong connections, educators can focus on student strengths when discussing their character and help them build confidence.). Further, the social stability offered in classrooms and through teacher-student relationships fosters motivation to grow.
Students desire predictability and order, which happens in a classroom with routines. In these approaches, educators have the ability to meet the deficiency needs (levels 1 and 2 on Maslow’s hierarchy) to some degree and provide opportunity for students to focus on the growth levels that follow.
Relationships also cultivate the love and belongingness needs levels being met. Students long for interpersonal relationships and feelings of connectedness. Learning in community builds connectedness. Not only can teachers build relationships with students by knowing them and recognizing their strengths and interests, but they can also foster relationships among students.
In the classroom, there are many opportunities for students to build connections through “get to know you” activities and collaborative work. Allow students time and space to connect and learn about one another, as well as work in the community.
As students work in a community, they should have opportunities to share their ideas, learn from the perspectives of others, and build capacities to respect one another in dialogue. Such activities and experiences can build character and teach students how to contribute to a communal society.
#2 Examples Students Can Relate To
Educators can also consider bringing in examples that students can relate to. When thinking of teaching character through moral exemplars, focus on individuals that students can relate to regarding their life experiences. Perhaps focus on someone in the community itself. Discuss community issues that are in the students’ real life. Discuss the challenges and character development exhibited by individuals that resonate with students’ personal experiences. Provide opportunities for students to demonstrate character in relation to their own life or something in the community.
#3 Recognizing Student Strengths
Empowering students through acknowledging their student strengths, allowing time for reflection and perspective taking, offering opportunities for character development and practice, and fostering virtue literacy not only enhances their self-esteem but also meets their esteem needs. The collaborative work and allowance of sharing ideas and hearing diverse perspectives or experiences also teach students to respect one another, as well as themselves. These practices can build character and meet the needs of students.
#4 Individualize Support
Individualized support for underserved students is to consider and think about their needs. Break down walls with strong relationships, get to know them by asking questions and then support them based on their individual needs. Just as students need differentiated instruction with academics due to varying cognitive abilities, they also need individualized character development.
Underserved students might need more support learning about values that relate to their struggles, such as courage, while others who have their basic needs met might need to build empathy. Learn your students’ strengths, their lives and their needs to help build them up.
#5 Use Character in Your Response
Students experiencing trauma and life struggles often experience negative modeling of character in other adults around them. Be the moral example. When students have negative behaviors, respond to them with empathy and help them talk through the issues. When students have a hard day and come in without their homework, try to show them grace. Get to know them and try to understand the issue. Then, offer support to break the barriers.
Some underserved children do not have someone at home to support them with their homework; some do not have a quiet place to do work; some do not even sleep or eat at home — thus, homework is not a priority. In cases such as these, demonstrate the concept of perspective-taking and empathy, by sitting with them and assisting in understanding what they might have missed their homework. Always consider the student and their experiences and then be the model for good character.
Basic Needs: Build Character
By building relationships with students and within students and providing a safe place with stability, teachers can meet student needs and foster their character formation. By modeling good character and teaching character in ways students can relate to, teachers can enhance character development.
Here are some key takeaways for educators:
- Connect with students
- Build relationships
- Empower students
- Hear student opinions
- Learn in collaboration
- Be a moral exemplar
- Make it relatable
- Provide avenues
By providing avenues for character practice and community building, teachers can support character and good decision-making growth for students. By acknowledging their strengths, embracing their diverse voices, understanding, supporting and caring for them, teachers can empower students, which supports underserved students in flourishing.
1 McLeod, S. (2023). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. Retrieved on Dec. 4, 2023.
Approved by the assistant director for the Canyon Center for Character Education on Dec. 20, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.