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What is character? "It's simply nothing more than teaching youngsters and, for that matter, ultimately adults to do the right thing when no one is looking, when you don't need to, when there is no reward for doing the right thing," said Secretary of State Colin Powell at the June 19 White House Conference on Character and Community, which prominently featured psychologists' research on fostering children's ethical and moral development.

Hosted by first lady Laura Bush, the meeting brought together about 200 educators, researchers, congressional and government officials, and schoolchildren to discuss research-based methods of integrating service learning and character development into education.

"Some people think of education in terms of the Three R's--reading, writing and arithmetic--but another R is essential: responsibility," the first lady said in her opening remarks. The nine conference speakers, who included several psychologists, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, PhD, the first lady and President Bush, explained how educators can teach that fourth R, as well as fairness, sharing, trust, tolerance, respect and caring.

"The conference was another initiative in keeping with this administration's strong commitment to a science-based approach to education reform in both academic and nonacademic arenas," says Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate and one of the White House invitees. "In particular, this event clearly highlighted the potential contributions psychology can make in these endeavors."

In his comments to the conference, Powell talked about the key to his own character development: growing up in a South Bronx neighborhood where the entire community looked out for children and modeled solid values. When children head off to school, it's important that they continue to see adults of good character, said Powell.

"The real learning comes from watching the adults," he explained. "If they're taught it and if they see it in action in their family, in the community, it'll be scratched, engraved on their hearts forever."

Psychologists at the conference presented several ways to make that mark:

  • William Damon, PhD, professor and director of Stanford University's Center on Adolescence, summarized the psychological research on character development, emphasizing that good character is promoted when adults set high expectations for children. Moreover, he said, character education should be a communitywide effort that not only teaches children what not to do, but engages them in activities that allow them to practice virtuous behavior--such as volunteering in the community.

  • Because positive role models from history or public life can have a big impact on children, Lawrence J. Walker, PhD, a University of British Columbia psychology professor, discussed his research on individuals who are exceptional examples of moral character, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Oskar Schindler. While there is no one prototype for such individuals, he said, many share common traits, including self-sacrifice, altruism, conscientiousness, openness, honesty, dependability and self-control.

  • Kenneth A. Dodge, PhD, professor and director of Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy, discussed Fast Track, a violence prevention program that targets children who are poor, behave aggressively at home and have difficulty getting along at school. The program includes parental behavior management training, social-cognitive skills training and reading tutoring for children, school-teacher training, and biweekly home visits. After 11 years, the program has had significant effects: Children in the Fast Track intervention are less likely to be placed in special education, rated as aggressive or diagnosed with conduct disorder than those in the randomized control group.

  • Darcia Narvaez, PhD, of the University of Notre Dame presented findings from the Community Voices and Character Education project. Community Voices helps students become "experts" in character by developing skills that are based on basic socialization, positive psychology and altruism. The instruction is integrated into schools' existing curriculum in every subject, and the program is adapted to each locality by involving the community in decision-making and teaching the skills. The program's pilot study has found that children in the program significantly increased their prosocial responsibility, ethical identity and prosocial risk-taking, while those in the control group showed no increases.

"Teaching character and citizenship to our children is a high calling," President Bush told those in attendance. "I want to thank you all for joining here to figure out how we can do more and how we can make a continued difference in the lives of children."