Character education: Environment, empathy and failure

Written by: Dr Morgan Phillips | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What has your school’s response to the character agenda been? Dr Morgan Phillips offers a broad discussion about what character is, the challenges for schools in ‘teaching’ it, and the importance of environment, empathy and failure

The fact that “character” is now something that needs to be “taught” tells its own story about the modern world. I assume the powers that be feel there is not enough of it; individuals are letting themselves and the country down due to their lack of character or, worse still, bad character.

The rhetoric tells us that our children are not resilient enough, they are not kind enough, they are not creative, collaborative or critical thinkers, they do not persevere, they lack grit.

Could this be true? We are products of the environments we live in – so are our environments not producing character, at least not in the volumes deemed necessary?

School is an environment that has always had an influence on the character of children. As conditions in the wider environment become less conducive, the need for character to be developed in the classroom has grown; at least in the eyes of a slightly desperate government.

Rather than playing a part role in the character development of children, schools are now incentivised and encouraged to take significant responsibility for doing this – it is being loaded onto them. This presents a huge challenge for teachers. Schools must instil character in spite of prevailing social and cultural conditions, rather than in harmony with them; but this does also present an opportunity.

As teachers search around for an appropriate response, prescribed programmes and projects are emerging and being bought into.

They invariably promise to instil a set of qualities that will aid attainment and employability. Some come with a whiff of the artificial, a sort of intravenous injection of character. Others seem more natural, designed to nurture a school environment and culture from which character might develop organically.

So as you reflect on how your school and your teaching develops character, here are some ways to think about this important element of education.

Shape the environment, not the individual

Across two books, How Children Succeed and Helping Children Succeed, Paul Tough has explored how character develops in children, especially those from poorer backgrounds. The key insight is the emerging belief that qualities like grit, resilience, conscientiousness and optimism do not readily develop in schools that follow traditional teaching styles and modes of classroom organisation.

Research shows that character is developed in more subtle ways by the forces that exist in the home and school environments children inhabit. A key environmental factor is the presence or absence of stress.

Children, especially when they are young, who grow up in stress-filled environments find it harder to respond in calm and measured ways to demanding circumstances; they have been neurologically conditioned to be in a state of high vigilance, prepared to fight or flight their way out of tense situations. In contrast, children growing up in calm, reassuring environments, are better able to remain composed, consider their decisions more carefully and maintain concentration.

Tough explains further, in a recent article in The Atlantic: “When children and adolescents misbehave, we usually assume that they’re doing so because they have considered the consequences of their actions and calculated that the benefits of misbehaviour outweigh the costs. So our natural response is to increase the cost of misbehaviour, by ratcheting up punishment.

“One of the chief insights that recent neurobiological research has provided, however, is that young people, especially those who have experienced significant adversity, are often guided by emotional and psychological and hormonal forces that are far from rational. This doesn’t mean that teachers should excuse or ignore bad behaviour. But it does explain why harsh punishments so often prove ineffective in motivating troubled young people to succeed.”

Tough cites the work of Turnaround for Children, a charity supporting schools in the most deprived areas of north eastern USA, as a leading example of what can be done to transform the school environment.

Although Turnaround for Children does offer one-to-one support for children who have acute behavioural and emotional problems, the approach to character development focuses at a more macro level. It is based on understandings of the wider drivers of bad behaviour, what works best to develop character and how children develop what Tough terms “academic perseverance”.

In intervention teams of three of four, Turnaround first helps teachers to develop a calm atmosphere of belonging and engagement in the classroom.

For example, teachers are trained in techniques that help them to defuse confrontations, rather than escalate them.

Building on this, Turnaround helps teachers to develop teaching styles that are more cooperative. There are fewer lecture-style sessions, less dependence on repetitive worksheets and more emphasis on group learning, problem-solving and longer term project work, where pupils work together in teams towards common goals.

In the UK, programmes like Philosophy for Children (P4C) are gaining popularity. P4C focuses on the development of children’s ability to form and discuss philosophical questions. It does this through various group exercises and, most commonly, through sessions known as “community enquiries”.

During an enquiry, participants develop a philosophical question in response to a stimulus material such as a picture, short film or a story. They are then facilitated to explore that question in a semi-structured way. In groups of five to 20 pupils, children are taught to be respectful, thoughtful and helpful; they are not trying to win a debate, they are collaborating in a process of critical thinking – it is a dialogue. P4C has been shown to bring benefits to children in terms of self-esteem, listening and speaking skills.

It is also having a positive impact on attainment, especially among disadvantaged pupils. Teachers find value in these more cooperative teaching and learning styles, both in terms of children’s learning, but also in terms of behaviour as it fosters a sense of belonging and mutual respect between pupils that is conducive to a stress-free learning environment.

Re-shaping teaching styles and classroom organisation in this way can be challenging for teachers and they may initially resist approaches like P4C and Turnaround for Children. However, giving pupils more autonomy and more power to shape their own learning seems to be working, attainment and behaviour are both on the increase.

From setbacks to success

When I visit schools as part of my work for the Eco-Schools award programme, I am always amazed by the range of projects pupils and teachers show me.

One question I always ask is “did anything go wrong?” Inevitably something will have; maybe planning permission for the new solar panels fell through, maybe the ground they chose for the garden was too stony, maybe the anti-litter campaign failed to change behaviours.

Once they have told me what when wrong, we start to explore why it went wrong, what they learned from the experience, how they did things differently next time, and how they felt once they had overcome the problem or obstacle.

They tell me that they didn’t give up, that they tried something different, that they listened to advice from others, that they looked at the problem from a new angle, or that they asked for help. This is a process of character development; skilled eco-coordinators facilitate it by letting their pupils run with projects that they are passionate about and by consciously deciding not to steer pupils away from minor pitfalls.

Letting pupils experience setbacks and frustrations is a brave thing to do, but resisting the temptation to point out what might go wrong or to takeover when a problem does arrive is what makes great character education.

Longer term, children who experience things failing will stand more chance of succeeding; they develop persistence, resilience and feel the benefit of delayed gratification. The arrogance that can sometimes sprout from constant success and celebration is also, perhaps, checked a little.

Nurture empathy

As described by Jessica Alexander, co-author of the Danish Way of Parenting, in another recent article in The Atlantic, Danish schools put an emphasis on the development of empathy from an early age. Empathy and the action of empathising is something that can be nurtured and expanded so that we do it more often and more effectively over time. Empathy is different to sympathy in one crucial way. Empathy is about connecting with people and the emotions they are experiencing.

You do this by (re)connecting with your own past experiences of those emotions and by sharing them to help your friend connect with you and therefore feel less alone.

Empathy requires emotional investment; reconnecting with painful emotions from one’s past can be uncomfortable and even painful, this requires bravery, but we do it because it helps.

Sympathy is more detached, it is less involved, the difference is that you feel sorry for someone, rather than with someone.

When you feel something with someone a bond can form and these (comforting) bonds build our resilience as groups and individuals. This is explained beautifully by Brené Brown in a short RSA animation.

Children in Danish schools develop empathy through a variety of structured exercises. For example, they are shown pictures of people exhibiting a range of different emotions and are asked to describe their own feelings and the feelings of the people in the photos.

This helps children to learn the meaning of different facial expressions and trains them in self-control so that they are better equipped to respond in non-judgemental, empathic ways in real life. Many more ways like this are described in The Danish way of Parenting.


Character development is very often a group process, as individuals we grow through the shared experiences we have with our peers. We bond together to overcome difficulties and share successes and are stronger for them. As educators we can help children to develop the skills they need by working with them to create environments in which character emerges naturally and organically.

  • Dr Morgan Phillips is education manager with Keep Britain Tidy.

References and further information


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin