Schools and Parents Have to Work Together on Character Education

British Members of Parliament have discovered that children must have grit, courage and determination to do well in school.

As I write this, they are publishing a report calling for "a national conversation" in the UK on how to build resilience and character in children, in order to help close the widening social gap. Their focus is on how schools can do this successfully, and one of their models is the work done by KIPP schools here in the U.S., to help students build their inner resources.

But character education starts early, and it's impossible for schools and teachers to do this by themselves. Parents must step up.

My recent book BACKBONE: How to Build the Character Your Child Needs to Succeed shows how parents can do this but, as one critic has pointed out, it's unlikely to be read by those parents who most need to hear what it has to say.

One of the biggest problems in education is how to reach hard-to-reach families, and encourage them to support their children better.

But I know from my long years as an education reporter, that it can be done, and the rewards are enormous. All parents want the best for their children, and will listen to messages, and make changes, if they are presented in the right way.

There are, of course, blocks to overcome. These include:

*Many poorer parents are terrified of teachers, or resent authority. They have often had a bad time at school themselves, and feel inadequate and unimportant. They don't want to engage with schools, and don't feel smart enough to help their children become smart.

* They don't have the knowledge of how learning works that would empower them. They tend to believe, fatalistically, that everyone's basic level of 'smartness' is set at birth, and fixed by circumstances.

* As a result, they don't always have the high aspirations for their children that would help their children reach higher.

* They often live chaotic lives, unaware of how churn and chaos is draining their children's ability to focus and learn.

But these can be overcome.

How? By being human and taking time. It also takes empathy, and presenting messages in a way that connects.

One early-learning program had a huge break-through when it told parents a (slightly simplified) truth of neuroscience -- that sharing books with their toddlers would make their children's brains 'bigger.' The parents hadn't known that their children's brains could change and develop, and when they did, they read and read them.

Another program, with shy immigrant parents, took root when it was presented as a knitting and sewing club. Mothers felt comfortable bringing along their work to meet over coffee, in a room in school, during which they talked about how they taught their children to sew and knit, and then about all the other skills that they could also teach them -- courage, persistence, determination, organization.

And I've seen men in Africa do a complete U-turn, from completely denying their daughters an education, to being the keenest fathers on the block, once they had slowly chewed over with educators all the economic and social advantages it would bring to their girls, and their families.

Nothing, of course, can alleviate all the bad effects of economic poverty on children except families becoming better off. And good parenting programs can't be done on any scale without investment. But it's important to know that, if the resources are available, attitudes can shift.

Parents need to hear that they don't need a college degree to help their child do well in school, their love and care are more than enough -- when used in a way that supports their child. They need to know a little more about learning, and how it works. And about children, and what they need to flourish. Then they need the support of the school, of each other, and some warm, available mentors to help them start to make the changes they want to bring in.