Character Development and the Brain

The story that began a course in Character Development

A 16-year-old, 250-pound athlete stood before a classroom of doctoral students at an eastern university. His mother, the class’s professor, had invited him to speak about the impact of self-perception on a person’s life. The young man looked the part of the self-assured football player and track star. However, the class learned, his attitude had been much different in previous years. He told the students how he had seen himself as a failure. He explained, “I failed tests, didn’t do homework, stayed back in school, and was considered an oddball. I could do well in sports, but not in much else.”
__ Although his parents praised him, assured him of his intelligence and offered him money, trips and/or special privileges for good grades, nothing seemed to help. He told the class, “I saw myself as a failure and believed I was a failure, and accepted myself as a failure, except at sports.”
__ Of course, this impacted his social life. He hung out with like-minded kids. He gained accolades for his athletic prowess, but he simultaneously felt part of and apart from most people. “Good grades weren’t everything,” he said. “But not having them sure kept me from being accepted, or people listening to me. Guess they thought I was a great jock, but not too bright.”
__ “What made this self-perception of being a failure change?” a doctoral candidate inquired at the end of the presentation. “What caused you to see yourself as a success, after you refused to accept the incentives that were presented to you?”
__ “What made me change was the ability to challenge myself, to see if I could be successful on an exam in my ninth-grade English class. I earned a grade of 100%. It was my first success. I realized that if I had achieved this one success, I could achieve two, three, four, and as many as I wanted. One success led to another.”

Another student, a woman in her mid-40s, asked how teachers could get teenagers to be respectful. The young man sauntered forward and stood very close to the woman as he answered: “How do you get us to be respectful to you teachers? Well, how do I give you something I don’t have for myself?”
__ A gasp could be heard throughout the room.
__ The student elaborated: “If you are asked for an apple and you have one, then you can give it away. But if you don’t have an apple, you can’t. If you don’t have self-respect then you cannot give respect to another. You cannot give someone something you yourself do not possess.”

A Need for Character Development

The events in the preceding story occurred in 1999. I was the professor in the class; the student was my youngest son, Seth. In the aftermath, I created a program for teaching character development to teacher candidates and student learners, whether in a home or academic setting, in the K-16+ classroom, both nationally and internationally (Schiering, 2000: Self Acceptance and Influences on Teaching and Learning). While Seth’s presentation was the catalyst for the course, compelling reasons already existed regarding the need for a formal program to encourage character development, including problems of school violence, antisocial behaviors, gangs, and domestic problems.
__ In his book Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, David Elkind writes, “The real danger of growing up fast is that children may learn rules of social license before they learn the rules of mutual respect.” Due in part to the aforementioned antisocial behaviors, bookstores are filled with children’s books on character development and ethical behavior, including bullying prevention, tolerance, friendship, feeling special, overcoming setbacks, and strengthening relationships with friends, family and/or a higher-power. The goal is to promote self-awareness and self-esteem by providing information that will create amicable relationships, resulting in persons of good character; and, ultimately, to create peace within an individual and in a community.

The Four Factors of Character Development

Regardless of one’s cultural mores, ethnicity, level of education, gender, race, religion or socioeconomic status, there are six components, according to Phi Delta Kappa International’s Education Encyclopedia: Character Development, of being a person of good character. These include being a good citizen, responsible, trustworthy, fair, respectful, and caring. While designing my course on teaching character development, the following four factors consistently emerged:
1. A basic awareness that character development needs to be recognized as a process that takes a lifetime to complete.
2. Character development (like any other skill) is a learned response that becomes natural through practice.
3. Life experiences upon which one can reflect, synthesize and analyze may well result in character-building.
4. There are certain crucial life experiences that all cultures embrace.

The Neuroscience of Character Development

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explained at the 4th International Brain Conference, held at the United Nations in 2008, that neuroscience is a collection of activities which allow one to understand how the brain works, especially in relation to the mind. “We now have a very clear idea of the structure of DNA, which is a fundamental element in the transmission of traits through genes,” Damasio explained. “However, even with this information and the idea that genetic coding has a good deal to do with predispositions to particular behaviors, the latest frontier of neuroscience addresses human emotions, decision-making, and processes of consciousness. Being physically and mentally active are of equal importance. The more you put your brain to work, not only as a child but as an older person, the more likely it is that your brain is going to be in good condition. Positive emotions have a positive effect on the health of the tissues in a body.”
__ Dr. Allen Rauch, a professor and researcher in the field of science at Molloy College, presents his support of Damasio’s neuroscience research when he says to his classes, “More and more, we’re learning about the fact that our behavior seems to be genetically predisposed. However, this neurochemistry may be altered and influenced with physical activity and maintaining the body’s homeostasis through physical and mental exercise, diet and sleep. This physiological status relates all systems of the body working in conjunction with one another. Subsequently, participating in life with acceptance of new challenges and engaging oneself in accepting attitudes may promote and increases one’s well-being.”
__ Character development requires a self-assuredness that includes affirmative, optimistic, constructive, encouraging and upbeat attitudes. A sense of self-awareness is crucial in encouraging healthy thinking, ideas, opinions, judgments and feelings, as well as emotions. How does one come to that place of well-being? Perhaps it begins with teaching what it means to be a person of good character.
__ Underscoring every academic and social situation, there needs to be a comfort zone where active listening and discourse are reciprocal. To foster this, it is essential to realize that each of us is part of a whole. A person’s membership in a social or academic setting relates to one’s being together with, not separate from, others.
__ If mutual respect for this membership is achieved through intentionally being a person of good character, the aforementioned comfort zone is realized. This area of well-being serves as a foundation for realizing one’s full potential by acknowledging and accepting the self and others. As the introduction to my course states, “Positivity in thoughts and actions…includes an individual’s relational attitudes for healthful living in the ‘now-being’ of one’s life.” Practicing being a person of good character will result in a more positive self-image.

Teaching Character Development

Areas of Commonality

While we’ve been told there are six degrees of separation between humans, in fact we are all interconnected; we are joined by the fundamental cognitive and emotional aspects of the shared social realities that influence our thinking and feelings. In 1937, renowned educator John Dewey noted that all people from all cultures share six common areas with respect to feelings and emotions: birth, death, success, failure, tradition, and love. While particulars may exhibit differentiation, the overall thoughts and emotional responses to such situations are reasonably constant and similar: new life, the passing of a loved one, doing well in school or achieving a high salary for work, being unaccepted due to poor grades or losing a job, celebrating holidays, caring about a significant other, or the feelings of parents for a child and vice versa.
__ Character development is impacted most by the beliefs and values that begin in a family or home, regardless of its physical or social configuration. As the individual matures and enters school, new societal realities are imposed that affect the families’ mores. Character is formed as an individual is exposed to the array of thoughts, ideas, opinions and judgments in common societal realms. Changes of belief occur when there is a shift from familial social realities to an individual’s comprehension of what he/she wants and needs in terms of current social and societal trends.

A Course on Character Development: Steps One and Two: A Role-Play and Chart

In an imagined high school corridor, two adult presenters playing the role of teenagers bump into one another and are profoundly rude to one another. The presenters then ask the audience what took place. The disrespect that was demonstrated is examined and a list is created of words that connote respect. After over 150 workshops, the following is the list that most often appears:

A Person Who is RESPECTFUL is:

Kind    Flexible Thinker
Caring    Active Listener
Trustworthy    Responsible
Considerate    Fair
Tolerant    Empathetic
Accepting of others    Thoughtful
Polite    Conversational
Compassionate    Helpful
Encouraging    Positive nature
Pleasant    Upbeat

Steps Three, Four, and Five: Questions, One Chart, and the Heart

Each individual is then asked if s/he exhibits each of these words to every person met every day. Then, the question is posed if s/he exhibits each of these words to herself or himself every day. The idea is presented that in order to first be “each of the words” that connotes respect to another, one must first be this to oneself. Also, in order for one to understand being respectful, the words that appear on the chart need to be defined and modeled.
__ If a student says s/he does not exhibit each of these words to him/herself, the course leaders ask, “Why?”
__ Discussion follows about the overall negativity in our homes, schools and other settings that are experienced on a daily basis. Why do we remember negative things that are said to us, as opposed to positive statements? It is not necessarily the case that there are more of one than of the other. Yet, as individuals we hold on to a negative comment and can recall it more readily than a positive statement.
__ To demonstrate this, a paper heart is displayed with each course participant’s first name written upon it. The group is asked to repeat negative statements they’ve used, or that they’ve heard others use. Examples include: I don’t like you. You’re dumb. You take the ‘short bus’ to school. I hate you. You’re gay, stupid, ugly. Poor test result. Shut up. Your mom is dumber than you. I can’t read what you wrote. You stink at sports. As each negative is given, the paper heart is folded.
__ This heart-folding is followed by asking the audience to repeat positive statements that s/he might have said, or heard someone else say, to another. Examples: I like you. I love you. You’re the best. Nice work. You’re smart. Come over for a play date. Your mom’s the best. You did that well. You look nice today. Wow, what a fantastic picture. I’d like to be like you. You’re talented. Those are terrific shoes. Nice driving. As each positive statement is given, the paper is unfolded. Even if there are more positives than negatives, the unfolding of the heart reveals creases on the paper, as it’s shown to the audience. The audience is told, “We call these, scars on the heart. Although you gave more positives than negatives the scars do not go away. They remain with you and are recalled, even reflected upon from time to time. Why do we hold on to the negative and how can this be changed?”

Step Six: One Rule

We hold on to the negative due to modeling of negativity which surrounds and encompasses our daily lives. People often use sarcasm to mask negative statements, but the recipient is hurt. Participants in my class were told that the Greek definition of sarcasm is “to tear the flesh.”
__ “How can this negativity in our speech be changed?” the instructor asks the students. “It can be changed by you,” they are told, “because you are a change agent. You are in control of what you say, and the actions you take. An act of your conscious will needs to be engaged and practiced with positivity.” There’s one classroom and life rule I implemented in 1976: No Put-downs—ONLY LIFT-UPS!
__ Granted, there was so much negativity in our daily experience that the children I was teaching didn’t necessarily know what a positive statement or compliment was. To counter this, examples were given and the term  shut up was obliterated from our discourse. The poem “One Life/Classroom Rule” explains more:

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

One Life/Classroom Rule
(Schiering, 1976/2007))
In my twelfth year of classroom teaching
Out of a career spanning nearly forty-two
I came across a situation
That was affecting both the home and school.

No matter where one went
It brought a loss to everyone’s needs
This was “negativity” taking over
In peoples thoughts, words, and daily deeds.

So I reflected for a period of time
About a variety of classroom rules
Like no gum chewing and how to sit
As well as overt and subliminal cues.

The one rule that I wrote and implemented
Was first written in the front of my mind
Then I posted it on the classroom wall
And it worked, well, really quite fine.

Honestly, it was undoubtedly very simple
And it impacts individual’s feeling good
About their personal self-worth and value
If all used it…it surely would…

Create a community of caring
One that promotes with incessant reason
A sense that there is thoughtfulness
In our sharing… regardless of the season.

It’s a rule for daily living
Without bias being displayed
With positive self-esteem the result
And it demonstrates a good “give-away.”

Here’s the rule for living
The best way that one can
To care about what one is saying
Without sarcasm…we’ll really be trans-

Formative in what we’re doing
With getting / giving a very big plus
The rule to which I refer is:
“NO Put Downs… Only Lift UPS!”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Interestingly, that one classroom rule spread, over the next five years, to include each classroom in the school, and many home fronts. What it brought about was a sense of a caring community of individuals. Character development was “in action!”

Remaining Steps: Building Community

My course on character development lasts three hours. During that time, interactive components are realized in a small-group format. One activity involves recording and sharing examples of the six international components of being a person of good character. These are then discussed in whole-group format. A handout on the definition of these six character traits is distributed to assist in realizing the meaning of each term/word. Another activity addresses a listing of stress factors or, as I like to call them, “calmness-challenged” situations. A good deal of conversation focuses on what brings about stress. A handout is provided of 50 known stressful situations that individuals and groups experience. Other topics include defining and handling socio-centricity, appropriate codes of conduct that may be implemented in social and academic settings, and rules for fair fighting, along with discussion on each topic. This is done so that the group may realize the differences and (more often) the similarities of the thoughts and opinions of those present.
__ The workshop-style course ends with this concept: Our life is not forgetting things that happen to us, but forgiving them. In order to be a person of good character, one may examine these thoughts: Our life is not forgetting, but forgiving…. Our life is not for getting, but for giving. When we reach out to others and ourselves with forethought about being positive in speech, demeanor and actions, we are building a person of good character and inviting others to do likewise. The end result is, hopefully, each of us realizing we’re human beings: humans in the act of being, who are doing our best to promote a community of good citizens who are caring, respectful, kind, trustworthy and fair people. bw

Reverend Dr. Marjorie Schiering is a member of IBREA’s Advisory Board and an officer on its Board of Directors. She’s a researcher and author on cognitive and meta-cognitive skill development, as well as character development, and overt and subliminal messages in children’s literature. She’s a full professor at Molloy College in Rockville Center, New York, in the Division of Education, a learning-style trainer and Director who serves on the Dunn and Dunn International Learning Style Board, and member/presenter for the Oxford Round Table on cultural allusions in children’s literature. Most recently she went back to school to become an ordained interfaith minister, which led to her being a chaplain intern at Westchester Medical Trauma One Center. She’s a mother of six children, and grandmother of nine. She has been teaching for 42 years.

Seth Schiering, the teenager talking to the author’s college students, became a special-education middle-school teacher in New York City. He teaches computer programming and animation.


  1. Loved your writings here. I’ve been researching character development for over 26 years when I found that the business world was so lacking in it in many companies. I decided to spend my life building a validated metric for measuring this lifelong effort along the way for positive reinforcement.

    Thanks for teaching character development. I am looking for more resources on how character building impacts brain chemistry.

  2. I work with emotionally disturbed and otherwise difficult teens in an educational setting. I found a major “aha” moment/statement in this article, “how do I give you something I don’t have for myself?” It’s such a simple concept that its sensicality doesn’t seat itself for most of us caught in the struggle.

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