Early Character Building Using Books and Songs
Over the buzz of your busy classroom you overhear a child in the block center sing,
“If you take just one block
You’ll get closer, you’ll get closer.
If you take just one block
You’ll get closer, you’ll get there!”
You draw closer to the blocks to see what prompted the singing and observe Noah watching closely as Emma attempts to stack another block on the very top of a tower about half his height. As she places the block at the pinnacle, they both jump up and down shouting with delight over her success. You smile as you think of the song that inspired the musical encouragement--a song about perseverance called “Step By Step” (Vincent) that you’ve shared with the class--that has been edited slightly by Noah to fit their circumstance.
The fact that Noah edited the song is no coincidence. You frequently model altering songs to fit your needs throughout the year. While you may easily change “The Wheels on the Bus” to “The kitties on the bus say, ‘Come on, Pete!’” nothing has quite the same feel as hearing children make a song about such an important quality as perseverance their own.
Character Education and Social Emotional Learning
There has been a great deal of discussion recently regarding Character Education and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in the classroom. Understandably, some people use the terms comparably, but there is a difference. There is not a “right” program, and some schools combine or use both approaches to maximize the long-term impact.
Character Education: Traits such as perseverance, courage, honesty, kindness, compassion, cooperation, responsibility, respect, fairness, commitment, loyalty and a positive attitude, while not necessarily preferred by all cultures and communities, are qualities generally shared worldwide. Character Education is a method used to instill those traits in children through explorations of feelings and extrinsic motivation so that they will become constructive citizens.
Social-Emotional Learning: CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) defines SEL as any research-based program in which the approach is sequenced, explicitly targets social and emotional skills, and focuses on understanding students’ own existing beliefs and attitudes and how they determine their choices and impact others. Teaching children how to be self-aware, manage themselves, develop and maintain relationships, and make responsible decisions are lifelong, intrinsic SEL skills.
Build Character with Books and Songs
There are many overlapping topics and skills between CE and SEL and we can use some of the same techniques to enhance both approaches. Here are a few tips and tools--with books and songs you can incorporate tomorrow to help you facilitate growth through either approach.
Determine which traits &/or skills you will focus on for the year.
Some traits you may choose could include: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship, courage, integrity, or persistence. Regardless of which you choose, remember to teach some that reflect each of these aspects of good character: thinking, feeling and behavior. The traits you choose will determine the best pacing, but with younger children it is best to focus on one skill or trait per month. This simple song by Lindsay Munroe provides a good introduction that starts with, “I am kind” continues with being strong, brave, and wise, and ends with the self-affirming, “I am love”.
Establish clear expectations for children when discussing feelings, concerns, and experiences.
Make sure that the children understand that the classroom should feel safe for everyone to share so that everyone may grow. How should students act? How should they ask for a turn to talk? What reactions are OK or not OK (e.g. laughing at someone’s feelings)? What does a “good listener” do? You likely covered much of this at the beginning of the year, but it is always good to review!
Here are some helpful tools:
- Book & Song: Lizzy’s Do’s and Don’ts by Jessica Harper
- Video: “Respect” by Mr. Omar
- Song: “No Interrupting Song” by Heidi Songs (Create your own motions!)
- Song & Video: Whole Body Listening Song by Songs for Speech
- Book & Video: Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen by Howard Binkow
Relationships are key to developing positive, safe learning environments.
When it comes to exploring emotions, thoughts, experiences--both positive and negative--having a positive relationship with and between students underpins that emotional safety. Try some of these ideas to help you foster relationships:
- Book: All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold - celebrating inclusion and diversity
- Song & Video: Little Drops of Water by Liz Buchanan - building friendships
- Book: Lubna and the Pebble by Wendy Meddour - compassion; feeling invisible vs “seen”
- Book: The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill - transformative power of friendship
- Song: The Feelings in My Heart by Rachel Rambach
- Song: “We Are a Circle” from Best of Vincent Nunes, Vol. 1
Incorporate explicit instruction daily!
Daily instruction provides additional opportunities for developing trusting relationships with students and between them. Discuss, review or practice at least one trait or skill each day to maintain the same sense of importance and urgency that you do for other subjects. Developing self-worth and the ability to get along with others may be the most important skills you teach each year. “Maslow before Math” reminds us that a child’s physical and emotional well-being precede learning academic content. Begin by reviewing group meeting expectations before discussions.
- Review using this adaptation of the Osani Circle Game (“Circle of Love--Osani”). The children of the Efe’ tribe of Zaire in Central Africa (DRC) play this game seated in a circle, feet toward the middle, touching. In the original version each child (going around the circle) takes a turn naming a round/circular object or something that expresses roundness (e.g., sun, moon, family, birth/death cycle, etc). If a player fails to give a correct answer they drop out of the circle (sit cross-legged in their place) until one player remains. In this version, select a topic related to character, i.e. “kindness.” In turn, each child should state a way in which they do/can show kindness. This may be used to review group sharing rules, song lyrics (one word per student), qualities of character, different feelings, or most anything that provides a “list” of plausible answers. If playing a second round, begin with the person who “dropped out” first previously.
- Book/Video/Song: A Little Scribble Spot by Diane Alber - Use this simple song along with some Feelings Flash Cards like Todd Parr’s or ones you create yourself to match the book/song to encourage students to provide a daily “check in” with their own feelings. This could also be made into an interactive pocket, clip, or stamp chart.
- To reinforce that feelings are temporary, if time permits, check in again after lunch, recess, or the end of the day.
- Select a weekly or monthly Song of the Day to represent this part of your learning. An upbeat option is Bari Koral’s “It Takes a Little Kindness.”
- Book: ABCs of Kindness by Samantha Berger
Teach children responsibility!
Teach children that they are responsible for their bodies, actions, choices, words, their learning, and for their learning environment--which includes others. And yes, teach them what “responsible” means, too! That is a lot to oversee for little ones. Mindfulness and simple yoga practices can help set the tone for calmness and can be used--even if briefly-- multiple times throughout the busy day.
- Song & Video: Bari Koral’s “Peace, Love & Kindness” (aka “Peace Song”) has just the right tempo and repetition to help children regroup
- Video training (free): Make Every Pose Count: Teaching with Yoga by Bari Koral.
- Song & Video: “Responsibility” by Ron Johnson
- Song & Video: “Let’s Be Responsible” by Hey! Frankie Doodle
- Song: Stop-Think-Choose by Steve Couch
The sooner children learn the vocabulary of character and the actions of a socially-emotionally stable self, the better prepared they are to face challenges, work through difficulties, celebrate successes, and become well-rounded, respectful citizens of school, home, the community and beyond. While ample research has shown that children who learn character traits and develop usable social-emotional skills have better success in relationships both at school and outside of school, the evidence will really be in your classroom of self-confident, engaged learners!
Gulbrandson, Kim. Committee for Children. Character Education and SEL: What You Should Know.
Olson, Christopher. Education to the Core. SEL or CE?.
Rayner, Lindsay. (2020). What Is Character Education?
Couch, Steve. Stop-Think-Choose (Character)
Couch, Steve. School Superhero (Anti-bullying)
Grammar, Red. Bebop Your Best: Songs to Build Character By
HeidiSongs. Music for Classroom Management. “No Interrupting.”
Koral, Bari. It Takes a Little Kindness. “Peace Song.”
Koral, Bari. Yoga & Mindfulness Starter Pack.
Narwhals and Waterfalls. Look for their latest album “Full Circle SEL.”
Bits of Positivity. Free Songs and Rhymes for Character Education. (a huge collection of videos on various character traits and themes)
Schuler, Ann. Songs in the Key of Character
Talking with Trees. Character Education Songs (videos by subject)
Books & Other
Growing Book by Book. Lists and lists of great books related to any topic including SEL.
Narwhals & Waterfalls. Blog. Lots of ideas for implementing SEL.
Olivieri, Pam. Rockin’ Resources: Books to Teach Character Traits. Also see link in post for additional themed books.
Overcoming Obstacles, K-2 curriculum. Free lesson plans for CE/SEL.
Lisa Heintz, M.Ed., is an educator with over 25 years of experience supporting learners from toddlers to adults, and owner of Little Songbird: Songs for Learning, a site that provides quality children’s music and book recommendations for PreK-grade 3 educators. She stays “green and growing” by volunteering in community and school projects that focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with the Children’s Music Network. She is fascinated by birds of all sorts, loves cats, and is the proud mom of a son who is a shining example of what intentional teaching and parenting can do for children with disabilities. Connect with Lisa at Lisa@LittleSongbird.com.