7 Ways to Embed Character Development Virtually

08.27.2020 ,

By Arthur Schwartz, President, Character.org



“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”


This is my wife’s favorite expression, a pearl of wisdom our two children have heard time and time again. 

You probably agree with me that it’s been raining a whole lot of lemons since March.


While COVID-19 has created a myriad of challenges for schools, I also know the pandemic won’t deter your steeled commitment to foster character inside your virtual classroom.


Character.org is here to help you.


So let’s begin by naming the elephant in the room. As a former teacher, I know how much more difficult it will be for your students to practice kindness and respect in a virtual environment. Kids are social beings with a deep yearning for both peer and adult connection; moreover, character is often forged in relationships. This is especially true for kids in middle or high school.


Below are 7 tips to weave into your virtual classroom activities that will inspire your students to understand, care about, and consistently practice the core values at the heart of your school’s comprehensive character initiative.


1. Practice self-care before you create a caring classroom

I spoke to one of my friends last week, a school superintendent. During our conversation I asked her if she has talked to her staff about self-care. In fact, as her friend, I wanted to know whether she’s posted on her refrigerator door the steps she is going to take to guard against educator-burnout. It starts with us. I hope you will watch this amazing Ted Talk by high school teacher Sydney Jenson. In very personal terms, she shares with us why we need to both practice self-care and also support the emotional well-being of our fellow teachers.


2. Be inspired to inspire

This summer I discovered a set of character lessons for 5th-8th grade students that inspired me. I literally felt a jolt of pedagogical excitement while reading these incredible classroom activities. Developed by Dr. Maurice Elias and his team at the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University, the free curriculum focuses on the core values of generosity, future-mindedness, diligence, forgiveness, and gratitude. Remember, to inspire we have to be inspired.  So find the character approach, activities, or curriculum that touches your heart and fires you up.


3. Encourage your students to set “character goals” for themselves

Research shows that goal setting is a critical tool to strengthening self-regulation. Setting goals helps us get better at things we care about. Goal setting is also a widely-used tool of self-directed learning. Consider inspiring your students to set a “character goal.” This fall, invite your students to identify a character strength they want to improve, whether it’s kindness, responsibility, gratitude, or empathy (among other core values). Show them how to create a specific plan (with benchmarks) and how they need to ask someone in the class to be their “accountability partner.” At the end of the semester, create time for each student to share their character goal and what they learned about themselves (and the character strength). Take time to learn more about self-directed learning.  


4. Create a project-based character learning experience

In July I got an email from a Character.org colleague about a project-based learning experience in which 8th graders at Eastside Middle School in Kentucky participated. With the class fully online due to the pandemic, their teacher, Frances Valdes-Crispo, was searching for a way to assess her student’s understanding of The Diary of Anne Frank. She came up with the idea to ask each student to create an online “book” that focused on 8 “transcending traits” exemplified in Anne Frank. More specifically, each student’s challenge was to explain (and illustrate) how he or she will practice these virtues to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 8 virtues were self-sacrifice, cooperation, compassion, ingenuity, social responsibility, courage, integrity, and moral leadership. I’ve read each one of the 15 “books” created by Ms. Valdes-Crispo’s students. You should too. I can’t think of a more powerful project-based learning experience for students.


5. Invite your students to journal about their “character moments”

I just finished reading an inspirational article by Kira Newman on the benefits of journaling during times of stress. Journal writing is a widely-used SEL practice and perfect for this quarantined moment. Research shows that journaling can serve as a protective factor against anxiety and depression. The science behind the practice is straightforward: when we put our thoughts and feelings on paper they are less likely to take up room in our head. Or as Ms. Newman writes: Journaling “clears the mental deck.” The Greater Good Science Center, based at UC-Berkeley, has developed easy-to-use guidelines to encourage your students to start a gratitude journal. By the way, this particular suggestion is very close to my heart. My favorite expression is “an attitude of gratitude creates blessings.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated this pearl of wisdom to my own children.


6. Find creative ways to involve parents and families

Have you already, or are you planning to share with your student’s parents and family your commitment to character development? Have you thought about how they can support and reinforce your character lessons? Here are two parent-friendly resources I invite you to share with them. Michele Borba is a widely-recognized expert on how parents, care providers, and teachers can work together to cultivate character in the home and classroom. She has written several books about character for parents and families. There is also a new mobile app (CharacterDaily) that focuses on 6 character strengths: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. In addition to easy-to-use lessons, the app is filled with inspirational stories, video clips, and quotes (perfect for kitchen-table discussions). Download CharacterDaily in the app store.


7. Support and lead your peers and colleagues

Most leadership scholars study how leaders manage the individuals below them on the organizational chart. A few write about how to “manage up.” But not too many researchers look at lateral leadership – leading your peers and colleagues (i.e., those on your grade team, department, or the entire school staff). Here’s one way to practice lateral leadership this fall: Encourage your colleagues to review your school’s comprehensive character initiative and identify your team’s unique “signature strengths.” Perhaps it’s the school’s peer-to-peer tutoring program. Or service-learning experiences. Or the way your school emphasizes a daily or weekly core value or character strength. Now is the time to inspire your colleagues to soar with your school-wide strengths.


On behalf of the Character.org staff and our dedicated volunteers across the nation (and world), our hope is that each of the 7 tips above will help you turn lemons into lemonade. We believe in YOU!


Let us know how we can help.



I welcome your feedback. Email me at [email protected]