Character Building with the Six Pillars of Character

Character education curriculum, lessons, and activities

This article was originally published in the February 2023 edition of Story Monsters.®

For over 30 years, CHARACTER COUNTS! has worked with parents, educators, and coaches around the world to help them instill the Six Pillars of Character— trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship—in their students. These values serve as the foundation for our work, whether in kindergarten classrooms, middle schools, high school sports, or in the home.

CHARACTER COUNTS! is a values-based program because values guide our decisions, and at its core, character education is about helping kids make good decisions. Without intentional values, human beings tend to make decisions based on what is easiest or most emotionally satisfying. In fact, one could argue that we make decisions that way because we value what is convenient and feels good. However, this isn’t a good decision-making framework. If we don’t want to default to impulsive values, then we must have intentional values to guide our decisions. In CHARACTER COUNTS!, we want our decisions to be trustworthy, respectful, responsible, fair, caring, and demonstrate good citizenship.

The Six Pillars of Character are not exclusive. It’s OK to have other values. Nor are the Six Pillars inherently better than other values. The Six Pillars are useful because they are universal, an important factor when working with diverse stakeholders. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, or any other demographic factor, there are few if any people who hope their child is irresponsible.

There aren’t many teachers or parents who wish they trusted their kids less. When we can align diverse stakeholders around a set of core values, then we can align our decision-making as individuals and as a collective. In other words, we can analyze whether our individual decisions and our group or organizational decisions reflect the Six Pillars.

Once the Six Pillars of Character have been identified as your values, the next step is to turn values into behaviors. Values can be vague. What is perfectly respectful to me, you might find abhorrent. We have to define what the Six Pillars actually look like for us in our specific circumstances. In some schools, responsibility might look like wearing your school uniform each day, while other schools don’t have a school uniform at all. Sometimes definitions change based on age. In little league sports, fair could mean everyone plays the same amount of time. In middle school, fairness could mean everyone gets to play, but not necessarily the same amount. In high school, fairness could mean those who deserve to play the most get to play the most. The point is, values must be defined so that we can turn stated values into operational values—what we do each day.

Many of the books featured in Story Monsters Ink provide exceptional opportunities to teach students how to use the Six Pillars to make decisions, but also define what each pillar looks like in action. For example, if a character in a book is asked to help a friend cheat on a test, how could the Six Pillars help the character determine what decision to make? Or, if a character in a story stands up for their friends, you can ask students which pillar the character is demonstrating. The same type of exercise can be done with any value you privilege in your family, school, or team.

CHARACTER COUNTS! is proud to partner with Story Monsters Ink to bring you more information about character development and using resources to teach students critical character competencies. Story Monsters, home to the award-winning Story Monsters Ink® magazine, is the literary resource for teachers and librarians and the marketing and production solution for authors and publishers of children’s books.

Story Monsters Ink is offering all CHARACTER COUNTS! supporters a free 12-month digital subscription. Subscribe here and use code: CC12

Learn more about Story Monsters.

What is the Content of Your Character?

What is the content of your character

This article was originally published in the January 2023 edition of Story Monsters.®

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have stated it best when he wrote, “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” That’s what we’re chasing as educators, as parents, and as a society—intelligence plus character. We want our kids to be smart and good. We want our students to maximize their intelligence and academic competencies, and we want them to be good people. Though schools and governments are always focused on intelligence and academic proficiencies, the focus on character education rises and wanes. And yet, we continue to return to this simple truth—to do our best work and be our best self requires good character.

Character isn’t simply what one does when no one is looking, as the oft-repeated saying goes. It’s also what one does when everyone is looking. In fact, our character is revealed in every action and decision. It’s what powers our performance, any performance, from practicing a sport or musical instrument to completing a group assignment or learning a new language. After all, one is far more likely to succeed at any of those tasks if they demonstrate work ethic, discipline, a growth mindset, and other character traits.

Character also powers our relationships. Our relationships are far stronger when we are trustworthy, respectful, caring, empathetic, generous, and so on. At CHARACTER COUNTS! we work with teachers, staff, administrators, coaches, and other educators to help them teach, enforce, advocate, and model key character competencies so that their students can maximize their potential. Built on the Six Pillars of Character—trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship—CHARACTER COUNTS! helps schools and organizations create, sustain, and enhance a Six Pillar culture that shapes the character of the individuals in that culture.

Thankfully, character skills aren’t fixed. No one is eternally blessed or condemned with good or bad character skills. Like dribbling a basketball, writing an essay, or solving math problems, character skills can be taught, practiced, and improved, and CHARACTER COUNTS! provides resources and professional development to aid teachers in their work to develop students’ intelligence and character.

For example, pick any book for any grade level. As your student engages with the book, ask them to consider:

  • What traits are the characters demonstrating, and how do those traits impact the action in the book?
  • Whether the decisions the characters make are trustworthy, respectful, responsible, fair, caring, and a demonstration of good citizenship.
  • If they would make a different decision than the characters. Why they would make that decision?

No one has perfect character; we’re all works in progress, but the more we examine our character, reflect on our decisions, and practice putting good character traits into action, the more opportunities for success and positive relationships are presented. Intelligence plus character—that is and should always be our goal.

CHARACTER COUNTS! is proud to partner with Story Monsters Ink to bring you more information about character development and using resources to teach students critical character competencies. Story Monsters, home to the award-winning Story Monsters Ink® magazine, is the literary resource for teachers and librarians and the marketing and production solution for authors and publishers of children’s books.

Story Monsters Ink is offering all CHARACTER COUNTS! supporters a free 12-month digital subscription. Subscribe here and use code: CC12

Learn more about Story Monsters.

Giving Compliments (Grades K-5)

Giving Compliments - Character Counts Lesson Plan

Compliments are most meaningful when they are heartfelt and specific. In this activity, students practice giving compliments that are specific and kind. Students will also explore the right way to respond to compliments.

Character Education Objectives:

Students will:

  • brainstorm specific and meaningful compliments for their classmates,
  • reflect on the impact of hearing positive things about yourself, and
  • discuss how to respond to compliments.
  • A sheet of paper with a star (approximately 8 inches) on it for each person
  • Markers or pencils
  • Break students into small groups. Each group should stand in a circle.
  • Provide each student with a paper star and ask them to write their name at the top of the star.
    Students should pass their star to the person on their right.
  • Ask students, “Think about the classmate whose name is on top of the star. What is their ‘star quality? What’s one of the best things about them?”
  • Each student should write a compliment on their classmate’s star.
  • Encourage them to be honest and specific. Explain that the best compliments are the true ones! If needed, give suggestions as to the types of positive things they could say.
  • Students can continue giving compliments as they pass their stars around the circle. Ask them not to repeat anything someone else has written. Remind them that they’re looking for everyone’s star qualities, not to decide who is the “star of the team.” Once they have complimented everyone in their group, everyone has their own star back.
  • Note: If your participants are young, you may need to talk first about how we each dream of being a “star of the show” and that our everyday qualities bring star qualities to our group.
Discussion Prompts:
  • Why do we all need to hear positive things about ourselves?
  • Why it is sometimes hard to accept a compliment?
  • What should we say when someone compliments us? (“Thank you”)

Following Directions and Playing by the Rules (Grades K-5)

Character Counts Playing by the rules

Playing by the rules is an important part of fairness. Students will learn that in order to play by the rules, we need to listen carefully and follow directions. We can only play fair when we understand the rules. 

Character Education Objectives: 

Students will:

  • explore how rules or directions could be interpreted in diverse ways.
  • reflect on how unclear rules or directions can lead to unfair situations.
  • discuss ways you can ask questions when you are unsure.
  • discuss why playing by the rules is an important part of fairness.
  • A piece of paper (the same size) for each person
  • Blindfolds if desired
  1. Tell students that you are going to play the Snowflake Game. The students who follow the game’s directions win.
  2. Ask the students to either close their eyes or put on blindfolds.
  3. Tell them you will be giving instructions and they are not allowed to ask any questions.
  4. Give each student a piece of paper.
  5. Give the following directions, but do not answer any of their questions.
    • Fold the paper in half.
    • Tear off the bottom right-hand corner.
    • Fold the paper in half again.
    • Tear off the upper right-hand corner.
    • Fold the paper in half again.
    • Tear off the lower right-hand corner.
  6. Have participants open their eyes and unfold their papers.
  • As they hold up their papers, ask the students what they see (the differences in each other’s papers even though they all had the same directions).
  • We all had the same directions, but our snowflakes look different. Why do they look different?
  • No one did it wrong, but there weren’t clear directions on how to do it. To be fair, we need to follow the rules and directions. So, it’s important we give clear directions and make sure everyone understands the rules for a fair game.
  • Ask students:
    • How could the directions be changed to make the snowflake game fairer?
    • What questions could they have asked to better understand the rules of the game?
    • Can they think of a time when they needed to ask questions to make sure they understood the rules?

Move Beyond Stereotypes (Grades 6-12)

character counts - move beyond stereotypes


This lesson explores the stories of real people to help students learn how to move beyond stereotypes. They’ll learn how accepting others’ authentic and unique selves demonstrates respect and fairness. 

Character Education Objectives: 

Students will:

  • how sharing our individual stories with the world helps break down unfair stereotypes. 
  • explore Human Library stories. 
  • reflect on their experiences with the Human Library story.


Opening Discussion:

  • “Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest. When we learn that individuals do not fit the group stereotype, then it begins to fall apart.” – Ed Koch
    • Ask students what this quote means to them?
  • Share some stereotypes (teens, elderly, rich, poor). Then, ask about a stereotype students have (or used to have) about a group or individual.

Instruction and Activity:

  • Teach students about Human Library projects. It is a collection of real-life human stories you can “check out.” These stories aim to break stereotypes. In addition, they help people embrace fairness and togetherness through our differences. 
  • Ask students to explore the Human Library to learn more about others. Most importantly, suggest choosing individuals whom they may normally stereotype.


  • Why did you select that particular human library book?
  • What did you learn about someone else today?
    • Why did learning about someone’s story impact any stereotypes you have or had?
    • How does getting to know someone else’s story make you a more connected citizen?
    • Describe how hearing someone else’s journey impacts your own story.


  • What did you learn about yourself today?
  • How did what you learn today help you move beyond stereotypes?

Social-Emotional Learning Funded by ESSER

ESSR Funds SEL and Character Education

Social-Emotional Learning and Character Education can be funded by ESSER! An intentional focus on social-emotional learning and character skills has never been more important. Fortunately, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund (I and II) provides funding for COVID-19 relief projects. This can include professional development, curricular resources, assessment, and support services for students’ social-emotional needs.

Professional Development

Our professional development workshops:

  • teach strategies on creating a positive school culture,
  • provide best practices on how to teach, enforce, advocate, and model social-emotional skills,
  • and help educators create a plan to provide sustainable SEL services.
Curicular Resources

We have a variety of curricular resources to help you intentionally and consistently focus on character and SEL skills. Additionally, you can buy many of our digital materials as a perpetual license. Your school can use ESSER money on a one-time purchase that you can utilize long after ESSER funding runs out.


Schools use culture and climate assessments to identify parts of their culture that may need attention. When taken annually, these surveys can illustrate how your social-emotional interventions are positively impacting school culture. Importantly, since you can use ESSER funds through September 2023, schools can gather two years of valuable data.

Get Started

We’re dedicated to helping educators intentionally and consistently teach these important skills. For more information on using ESSER funds for CHARACTER COUNTS!, please contact Jason Lamping at

More information about ESSER:

Support for afterschool and summer programs: 

Funding by state: 

Making Assumptions and Respecting Others (Grades 6-12)

Overview: This lesson focuses on the importance of respecting the differences of others, the impact of making assumptions about others, and how respecting each other’s differences can make relationships stronger.

Character Education Objectives:

Students will: 

  • watch a video about respecting the differences of others,
  • discuss how to recognize and respect each other’s differences,
  • reflect on experiences when they made assumptions,
  • reflect on how making assumptions impacts our ability to respect differences


Opening Reflection: 

  • “We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are” – Andy Stanley
    • What does this quote mean? 
    • How do our assumptions impact the way we treat others?
    • How do our assumptions affect relationships?

Watch Video:


  • How were these two different from each other? You? Me?
  • How did their differences impact their relationship in the beginning?
  • What did they learn about one another’s differences?
  • How can changing your perception help you to respect differences?
  • In what ways can you show someone that you respect their differences?
  • How can respecting someone’s differences help you develop stronger relationships?


  • Write about a time when you made an assumption about someone. Describe how you discovered that your perception of them was wrong once you got to know them.

Our Differences Make Us Stronger (Grades K-5)

Character lesson - differences make us stronger

Overview: Our differences are our greatest strengths. Learning about what we have in common gives us a sense of belonging, but embracing and respecting our differences makes us a stronger community. 


Students will: 

  • explore the similarities and differences of their classmates.
  • discuss what it means to recognize and respect each other’s differences.
  • reflect on how it feels to be excluded for your differences. 

Materials needed:

  • Large sheets of paper—write 1, 2, 3, or 4 on each
  • Marker
  • One die with the 6 and 5 covered up
  • List of questions (see below)


  1. Place one numbered sheet of paper in each corner of the room.
  2. Gather the group in the middle of the room and point out the four corners.
  3. Read a set of choices (use suggestions listed below or create your own) and ask students to go to the corner that best represents them. For example: “Which drink do you like the best? Go to corner 1 if you like soda the best, corner 2 for juice, corner 3 for milk, or corner 4 for water.”
  4. Once the students move to the corner that represents them, ask each corner to briefly discuss why they selected their answer.
  5. Ask a few students from different corners to share with the large group.
  6. After a brief discussion, roll the dice. The number it lands on is the “unlucky number.” Eliminate the students in that corner. If you need to move the game more quickly, use the dice to choose the “lucky number” and that corner stays.
  7. Keep playing until only a few participants are left. Play through at least two times.
  8. Following the activity, ask:
    • How did it feel to be with others who are just like you?
    • How does it feel when you are different than everyone else?
    • What can we do to show respect to those who are different than us?
    • How could our differences make us a stronger group?
    • What did it feel like when you were eliminated from the game because of your differences?

Question Suggestions:

  • Which music do you like best…rock, rap, country, or classical?
  • Which do you wear most often…tennis shoes, sandals, bare feet, or boots?
  • Which drink do you like the best…soda, juice, milk, or water?
  • Are you most like a…square, triangle, circle, or oval?
  • What type of movie do you like best…action, romance, comedy, or science fiction?
  • Where would you most like to go on vacation…the beach, mountains, an amusement park, or camping?
  • What color do you like best…green, purple, pink, or blue?

Adapted from Team-Building Activities for Every Group

True Friends (Grades 6-12)

True Friends

Overview: This lesson asks students to consider their current friendships. Having true friends is important and learning what healthy and trusting relationships feel like is imperative for a teen’s social development.

Character Education Objectives:

Students will:

  • read a poem about a true friendship.  
  • share the elements of a true friendship.  
  • reflect on their own friendships to consider if they have true friends. 


  • Chart paper/markers or online wordcloud tool


Small Groups 

  • Read the poem My True Friend.
  • Ask students to highlight key words from the poem that are needed in a friendship.

Whole Group 

  • Ask students to share the words they highlighted in the poem.
  • Write the words on chart paper or in an online wordcloud tool.


  • Reflect on the words collected on the chart paper/wordcloud.
    • Do you have any friendships that are not represented by the words we collected?
    • What can you do about it?
  • Think about the qualities of true friends. Do you represent the words on the chart?
  • How will you change your behavior to improve or develop friendships?

My True Friend by Abimbola T. Alabi

You always answer when I call
And help me up if I should fall,
But you never complain at all,
My true friend.

You confront me when I am wrong
But will never scold me for long,
Instead, you try to keep me strong,
My true friend. 

You know the funny things to say
To make me laugh my fears away.
Like the sun, you brighten my day,
My true friend.

You see in me gifts I deny
And urge me to give things a try.
You spread for me my wings to fly,
My true friend.

You always perceive what I need
And offer it before I plead.
Just like a book, my mind you read,
My true friend.

You value little things I do
But won’t brag of what you do too.
How can I ever repay you,
My true friend?

And greatest of all I have found
When times are tough and I’m down,
You are the one who sticks around,
My true friend. 


Trustworthy Friends (Grades K-5)

Trustworthy and Reliable Friends - Character Counts

Overview:  This activity will demonstrate ways that reliable and trustworthy friends can help you achieve things that feel impossible. Knowing how to identify traits of a trustworthy friend and the benefits of being one will help students as they develop their character skills. 

Character Education Objectives: 

Students will:

  • engage in an activity that will require that they trust and rely on their partner. 
  • share the elements of a trustworthy friendship. 
  • reflect on their own friendships and consider how trust is vital to relationships. 


  • Divide students into pairs.
  • Partners sit facing each other with the soles of their shoes pressed against the other player’s shoes.
  • Ask students to reach out and grab their partner’s hands.
  • Next, ask students to pull their partner’s hands. As they pull at the same time, they should try to pull each other into a standing position
  • Have participants try this activity with a new partner (start with similar size partners and then try varied size partners).


  • When do we have to rely on each other? How does that make you feel?
  • Share about times when others have gone beyond the usual to show that they care for you. Ask students to share their experiences.
  • What happens in a friendship when you cannot rely on the other person?
  • Why is it important to have trustworthy friends?

Trustworthiness is one of the Six Pillars of Character. Click here to learn more about the Six Pillars!