In the age of high-stakes testing and increasing academic expectations, the pressure placed on students, teachers, and school leaders to perform is significant. For students, this comes at a time when they are already experiencing other pressures that occur during childhood and adolescent development (Dumas, Ellis,
& Wolfe, 2012; Killen, Rutland, Abrams, Mulvey, & Hitti, 2012). Academic progress and achievement often suffer during these foundational years. Learning can be negatively impacted by the emotional and social issues children and adolescents experience when these areas overlap with academic challenges (Suldo, Gormley, DuPaul, & Anderson-Butcher, 2013). Social emotional skills are vital for students to successfully interact with others while meeting academic challenges.

Character education is an effective way to help students navigate these critical years and create a positive school environment. It provides meaningful and ethical motivation for students to develop academically, socially, and emotionally (Burroughs & Barkauskas, 2017). When critical thinking is used in character education that addresses social emotional skills, positive reinforcement occurs and learning and achievement improve (Arslan & Demirtas, 2016; Dymnicki, Samboldt, & Kidron, 2013; Varela, Kelcey, Reyes, Gould, & Sklar, 2013).

In short, social emotional learning describes the skills students need, critical thinking provides the means to teach those skills, and character education offers the motivation for students to acquire them.

To help educators bring character education into the classroom, we brainstormed 36 character traits and 36 critical thinking–based activities to teach them. You can download the full guide if you’d like, but we’ve picked a few to share here. These can be mixed and matched in numerous ways to best fit your students and classroom goals.

Step 1: Choose a Trait to Focus On

  • Compassion
  • Encouragement
  • Gratitude
  • Kindness
  • Perseverance

Step 2: Choose an Activity to Teach the Trait

🔬 Character Experiment: Students work in small groups to design an experiment that observes and records the results of exemplifying the character trait in real life. For example, groups select one or two members to perform random acts of kindness while the other students observe and record responses from the recipients. After the experiment, students organize and report their findings. Students answer probing questions such as:

  • What do the results of your experiment tell you about the impact of exhibiting this character trait? Explain.
  • What would happen if this character trait was demonstrated daily in our school? Why?

💬 Imagine: What would the world be like if this character trait were nonexistent? Students work individually, with partners, or in small groups to brainstorm, discuss, and describe how the world might be if the character trait was nonexistent or ceased to exist. Students present their ideas to the class for further discussion.

👉 Caught Showing Character: Each student nominates a classmate who exemplifies the chosen character trait. The nomination should include specific examples of how this student demonstrates the trait. The teacher posts nominations in the classroom or hallway.

❓ Survey: Students work in small groups to conduct a survey explaining what the character trait means to students. Groups create 1–3 multiple-choice questions to poll other students. The findings of the survey may be presented in charts, graphs, or dot plots.

🔎 Etymology: Students research the etymology of the name of the chosen character trait. Students write an essay or journal entry on the origins of the trait’s name, how it has or
has not changed over time, and what the character trait personally means.

Looking for more ideas?

For a 36-week character education program, download our free white paper.


Arslan, S., & Demirtas, Z. (2016). Social emotional learning and critical thinking disposition. Studia Psychologica, 58(4), 276–85. doi:10.21909/sp.2016.04.723

Burroughs, M. D., & Barkauskas, N. J. (2017). Educating the whole child: Social-emotional learning and ethics education. Ethics and Education, 12(2), 218–32. doi:10.1080/17449642.20 17.1287388

Dumas, T. M., Ellis, W. E., & Wolfe, D. A. (2012). Identity development as a buffer of adolescent risk behaviors in the context of peer group pressure and control. Journal of Adolescence, 35(4), 917–27.

Dymnicki, A., Samboldt, M., & Kidron, Y. (2013). Improving college and career readiness by incorporating social and emotional learning [online issue brief]. Washington D. C.: College & Career Readiness & Success Center at American Institutes for Research.

Killen, M., Rutland, A., Abrams, D., & Mulvey, K. L. (2012). Development of intra- and intergroup judgments in the context of moral and social-conventional norms. Child Development, 84(3), 1063–80. doi:10.1111/cdev.12011

Suldo, S. M., Gormley, M. J., DuPaul, G. J., & Anderson-Butcher, D. (2013). The impact of school mental health on student
and school-level academic outcomes: Current status of the research and future directions. School Mental Health, 6(2), 84–98. doi:10.1007/s12310-013-9116-2

Varela, A. D., Kelcey, J., Reyes, J., Gould, M., & Sklar, J. (2013). Learning and resilience: The crucial role of social and emotional well-being in contexts of adversity (English) [online report].