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Parents, educators, youth-development practitioners, and scholars are united in an interest in identifying the contexts of youth that are associated with positive development. With increasing urgency, this interest is focused on a key indicator of positive development: Character. Embodied by the vision of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," the growing interest in character development is predicated on the aspirations of parents and of youth-development practitioners that enhancing children's character will benefit both individuals and civil society.

Consistent with this societal emphasis, current applied developmental scholarship seeks to understand the processes through which an individual's actions in key ecological settings result in positive outcomes (Bornstein, 2015; Crosnoe & Benner, 2015; Ganong, Coleman, & Russell, 2015; Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015; Rubin, Bukowski, & Bowker, 2015; Vandell, Larson, Mahoney, & Watts, 2015). As explained by Vandell et al. (2015), much of this research is framed by relational developmental systems-based models of individual [??] context relations (Overton, 2015), such as the bioecological model proposed by Bronfenbrenner (2005; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). The focus on using RDS-based ideas as a frame for character development research has occurred, at least in part, because of philosophical, theoretical, and empirical work that has addressed the issues of if and how attributes of character (e.g., the character virtues presented in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, written in about 350 B.C.) promote thriving in youth while also fostering positive civic engagement and positive and valued contributions to communities (Berkowitz, 2012). Indeed, key conceptual models of character development (e.g., Lerner & Callina, 2014; Nucci, 2016) conceptualize character as attributes of an individual's relations with his or her social context that involve coherently "doing the right thing" across time and place to provide mutually, positive benefits to both person and setting.

The emphasis on character as involving mutually beneficial relations between an individual and his or her community context (represented as individual [??] context relations) has been a basis for the growing interest in studying character development in key settings for youth development, such as families, schools, and organized out-of-school (OST) activities. OST settings are important to add to families and schools as a key developmental context of youth development. Not only do millions of school-age youth spend substantial amounts of time in organized OST activities, including sports, faith-based initiatives, and programs such as 4-H or Scouting, but these activities often afford unique opportunities for sustained engagement that is motivated by the interests of youth (Larson, 2000). In addition, researchers have found organized OST activities to impact character-related attributes (e.g., positive purpose; kindness, generosity, or contribution to others; diligence, perseverance, or grit; and honesty, integrity, or fairness) as well as affect several academic, socioemotional, behavioral, noncognitive, and physical indicators of positive development that may be either moderators or covariates of character development (Vandell et al., 2015).

This research has attracted the burgeoning interest of practitioners and applied developmental scientists (e.g., Ettekal, Callina, & Lerner, 2015; Wang, Batanova, Ferris, & Lerner, 2016). Reflective of this interest was a workshop convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in July 2016 to review research and practice relevant to the development of character, with a particular focus on ideas that can support the adults who develop and run out-of-school programs. The Committee on Defining and Measuring Character and Character Education was appointed to plan the workshop: Deborah Vandell (chair), Catherine Bradshaw, Lucy Friedman, Ellen Gannet, Stephanie Jones, Richard M. Lerner, Velma McBride Murry, and Jennifer Brown Urban. Alexandra Beatty served as the senior program officer from the National Academy. The committee recognized that there are many definitions of character and many ways of describing the objectives for programs that aim to help young people develop positive attributes. The committee members noted that, whereas good character is in one sense easy to recognize--in people who are responsible, honorable, and emotionally healthy, for example--the words used to describe it may seem to imply stances on complex questions. For example, some people who study these issues use the tools of biology and psychology to understand individual differences, whereas others focus on questions of culture, gender, and power relationships to explore the roles young people are asked to emulate.

Although thorough exploration of these complex issues was beyond the scope of the workshop, the committee was able to focus on obtaining an overview of the available academic research and structuring discussions with presenters who reflected a variety of expertise and perspectives. The committee members also had the goal of meeting the needs of practitioners, particularly those involved in out-of-school programs, and of encouraging researchers and practitioners to learn from one another. The committee designed the workshop to explore four themes:

* defining and understanding character,

* identifying what works in developing character,

* implementing development strategies and evaluating outcomes, and

* measuring character.

The committee commissioned several papers and planned sessions that allowed participants ample time to engage with the authors and one another, and to consider ways the material presented could apply in their own work. A summary of the workshop was published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2017), and can be found at

In this two-part special issue, we bring together the voices of eminent scholars and practitioners who participated in the June 2016 National Academies of Sciences workshop, "Approaches to the Development of Character," to address in greater depth and detail the four above-noted themes. All articles underwent additional peer review and revision prior to acceptance into the special issue. In Part 1 of the special issue, three primary articles and three commentaries address the definition of character, effective practices in character education, and the role of OST programs in character development, respectively. In Part 2 of this special issue, three primary articles and two commentaries address the implementation and evaluation of character development programs and issues related to the measurement of character and its development. A final commentary by Alexandra Beatty of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reflects on the importance of fortifying the research on character development at a time of urgent challenges that test character, and the value of weaving these ideas into activities that naturally engage young people's curiosity and enthusiasm.

Accordingly, in the first part of this special issue, Larry Nucci conceptualizes character as a developmental system embedded within the self-system. Using a relational developmental systems (RDS)-based perspective, he views the character system as including four components. The first three components consist of basic moral cognition (as described within domain theory), other regarding, and self-regarding social emotional capacity. These three components comprise "moral wellness." The fourth component "moral critical social engagement" defines mature moral character. Nucci emphasizes that character and the context are mutually constitutive and continuously coacting. Character is captured through its coherence within and across contexts rather than consistency of actions or moral choices.

In their commentary, Kristina Schmid Callina and Richard M. Lerner focus on the idea of coherence as it applies to understanding character development, education, and assessment. They propose that coherence may be understood in at least three, interrelated ways: as the appropriate application of morality to a particular situation; as employing the right virtue, in the right amount, at the right time (Aristotle's concept of phronesis); and as an integrated system of moral concepts. In his commentary, Robert E. McGrath focuses on Nucci's equation of character with moral functioning. He discusses his research, indicating that inquisitiveness and self-control are indicators of character even when not used to support moral ends, so long as they are not used to support immoral ones. In addition, he suggests that Nucci's model should be expanded to outline competing considerations that enter into moral decision-making.

The second primary paper, written by Marvin W. Berkowitz, Melinda C. Bier, and Brian McCauley, summarizes the findings from eight reviews of the literature on the effectiveness of character education programs. From this work, they develop a conceptual framework of six foundational character educational principles (PRIMED) and use it as an organizational structure for the 42 character education practices. In addition, they provide a comparison of practices that support academic achievement and those fostering character development, and show substantial overlap in effective academic and character practices.

In her commentary, Camille A. Farrington extends the discussion provided by Berkowitz, Bier, and McCauley by addressing the question of how child and youth environments might "build character." She uses both theoretical work and empirical studies in other disciplines (e.g., neuroscience, cognitive science, social psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, philosophy) to theorize about potential processes whereby school practices develop character in children and adolescents. She proposes that 10 particular "developmental experiences"--specific opportunities provided for young people to act and reflect--are means through which settings influence the development of character and equip children and youth to build toward agency, an integrated identity, and a set of competencies that support success in young adulthood. Finally, she notes some potential alignments with Berkowitz and colleagues' PRIMED framework.

The paper by Deborah A. Moroney and Elizabeth Devaney then reviews the evidence on staff practices and quality programs that foster character development through social and emotional learning. Describing the state of the OST workforce, and barriers and opportunities to adding social and emotional learning to their job description, the authors provide an overview of the literature on the characteristics of staff practices that yield positive youth outcomes and the readiness of the OST workforce to implement intentional opportunities for social and emotional learning. They explore current and potential future efforts in the field to prepare staff to incorporate practices that support social and emotional learning.

In the second volume of the special issue, Joseph A. Durlak reviews literature that emphasizes how both research findings and practical applications have confirmed the fundamental importance of program implementation in the spread of successful character education interventions. He discusses some of the multiple factors that can enhance or impede effective implementation, and presents a framework that illustrates the multiple steps that should be followed to increase the chances that a program will be put to a fair test in a new setting. Using findings from character development interventions to illustrate various points, the author notes that a collaborative partnership between researchers and practitioner is critical to effective implementation.

Jennifer Brown Urban and William M. Trochim discuss how character development practitioners, researchers, and funders might think about evaluation, how evaluation fits into their work, and what needs to happen in order to sustain evaluative practices. They present a view of evaluation whereby evaluation is not just seen as something that is applied at a program level, but is an endeavor that considers the ecologies and systems within which programs are embedded. The authors present strategies for enhancing evaluation practices at the organizational (macro) level as well as strategies for enhancing evaluation practice at the program (micro) level.

Noel A. Card provides an overview of the methodological issues involved in measuring constructs relevant to character development and education. He discusses the three fundamental psychometric properties of measurement: reliability, validity, and equivalence. He emphasizes that developing and evaluating measures to ensure evidence of all three psychometric properties has substantial impact on the quality of character development and education research. In his commentary, Clark McKown notes that, if researchers and practitioners want character and social and emotional learning skills to be addressed in schools and youth development programs, they had better assess those skills. To build on the ideas of Card, McKown raises four points. First, advancing assessment in the field requires a vigorous pursuit of conceptual clarity. Second, the field will benefit from efforts specifically creating assessments designed for practice; these efforts should include consideration of how assessment data are interpreted and used. Third, clarity is needed about the purposes for assessing character and social and emotional learning. Fourth, the method of assessment is a critical but underappreciated consideration, because different methods of assessment are suited to measuring different dimensions of character and social and emotional learning. In her commentary, Nancy L. Deutsch focuses on the ways in which social scientific knowledge represents human constructions of the world and the implications of this stance for the measurement of character. She considers how context influences those constructions and the need for researchers to more purposefully engage with questions of construct (in)stability across contexts both within and between people. She points to the need to expand developmental scientists' methodological tool box to include multiple quantitative and qualitative methods.


Collectively, we believe these articles will further advance understanding of character development as well as inform best practices for character assessment, measurement, and promotion in youth. As coeditors of this special issue, we hope that readers find this collection of articles both informative and inspiring.


Berkowitz, M.W. (2012). Moral and character education. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds.), APA educational psychology handbook. Vol. 2: Individual differences and contextual factors (pp. 247-264). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bornstein, M. M. (2015). Children's parent. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Eds.), Ecological settings and processes: Vol. 4. Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 55-132). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2006). The bioecological model of human development. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.) & R. M. Lerner (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 1. Theoretical models of human development (6th ed., pp. 793-828). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ettekal, A. V., Callina, K. S., & Lerner, R. M. (2015). The promotion of character through youth development programs. Journal of Youth Development, 10(3), 6-13.

Crosnoe, R., & Benner, A. D. (2015). Children at school. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Eds.), Ecological settings and processes: Vol. 4 Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 268-204). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ganong, L., Coleman, M., & Russell, L. T. (2015). Children in diverse families. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Eds.), Ecological settings and processes: Vol. 4. Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 133-174). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170-183.

Lerner, R. M., & Callina, K. S. (2014). The study of character development: Towards tests of a relational developmental systems model. Human Development, 57(6), 322-346.

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Bowers, E., & Geldhof, G. J. (2015) Positive youth development and relational developmental systems. In W. F. Overton & P. C. Molenaar (Eds.), Theory and method: Vol. 1. Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 607-651). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Approaches to the development of character: Proceedings of a workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Nucci, L. (2016, July). Character: A multi-faceted developmental system. Paper presented at The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Workshop on Approaches to the Development of Character, Washington, DC.

Overton, W. F. (2015). Process and relational developmental systems. In W. F. Overton & P. C. M. Molenaar (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science: Vol. 1. Theory and method (7th ed., pp. 9-62). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Rubin, K. H., Bukowski, W. M., & Bowker, J. C. (2015). Children in peer groups. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Eds.), Ecological settings and processes: Vol. 4. Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 175-222). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Vandell, D. L., Larson, R. W., Mahoney, J. L., & Watts, T. W. (2015). Children's organized activities. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science: Vol. 4. Ecological settings and processes (7th ed., pp. 305-344). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Wang, J., Batanova, M., Ferris, K. A., & Lerner, R. M. (Eds). (2016). Character development: Tests of relational developmental systems models [Special issue]. Research in Human Development, 13(2), 91-96. doi:10.1080/15427609.2016.1165932.

Richard M. Lerner

Tufts University

Deborah Lowe Vandell

University of California--Irvine

Jonathan M. Tirrell

Tufts University
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Author:Lerner, Richard M.; Vandell, Deborah Lowe; Tirrell, Jonathan M.
Publication:Journal of Character Education
Article Type:Report
Date:Jul 1, 2017

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