Why we should proactively develop character in our young people

In this article Simon Dean, CEO and Founder of challenger Troop (CIC) talks about how he believes that character development is something that needs to be actively passed down to the youth of today.

Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan MP, has defined character development as a key priority in education. She has recognised that the abilities and traits that help young people deal with setbacks, confidently engage in debates, and contribute to the wider community are “equally important” to them as securing good grades.

But what do we mean by ‘character development’? Character development cultivates the virtues of character associated with common morality – understanding the difference between right and wrong, making the moral choice to ‘do the right thing’. In terms of character education, cultivating those virtues in pupils that are vital to enable them to flourish, to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations. These include tangible virtues such as honesty, courage, integrity and self-discipline, alongside those less so, such as ‘good sense’. These are all big concepts when we are talking about young people and children.

But why is character important – can it be taught? Whose role is it to teach character? Is it something that is taught or largely passed on via role -modelling and emotional contagion?

Character development is an ongoing process, beginning at birth and continuing throughout our lives. It is a learning and reactive process based on responding and interacting with those around us, considering the opinions of those influencing us, using sound judgement to make and take our own decisions and having the strength of character to deal with the resulting consequences of our actions, both good and bad. Therefore, surely the virtues of good character are all around us and reinforced everywhere; in the home, school and playing fields, in interactions with adults – parents, teachers, coaches.

If all of these situations around us are positive, supportive and encouraging then we as a society could sit back and think “Great! This young person will flourish and will become a nice young man or woman”… But what happens when they are not positive? What happens when meaningful relationships in the family home break down, friendship groups are negative and destructive, positive role models are non-existent and relationships with teachers and the school have broken down? In this situation, young people through no fault of their own can become labelled as “problem children”, “disruptive”, “good for nothing” and thus begins a cycle of negativity from which it can be hard to recover from.

I firmly believe that children are not born bad, they are a product of the behaviours they witness around them.

Young people have a tremendous capacity to change given the right support, environment and positive encouragement. I have seen girls who are crippled by shyness in the classroom shout instructions at the tops of their voices to teammates as they race to complete the obstacle course before the opposing team. I have seen a young man who ‘thought only of himself’, stay in a set of underground tunnels to support a younger member of the group who had lost his confidence.

Character development is not just the province of family and teachers, and it is not about ‘fixing’ the child. We all have a responsibility to build the best social and institutional conditions around our young people so that they can feel empowered and develop a strong sense of responsibility to themselves and others so that they can achieve their potential in school and beyond.

At Challenger Troop developing an individual’s character is at the heart of our work. With ongoing support from strong role models, we provide opportunities and experiences designed to challenge young people to move beyond their limitations. By building strength of character, we empower our participants to have a greater sense of self-reliance and to understand and be accountable for the actions they take.

As adults, we understand that we can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, but young people today are growing up in a ‘social world’ where every action can be broadcast and commented upon through a variety of social media platforms within minutes. Yet the impact and effect of other people’s opinions of us are just as important now as they ever were. Can our young people take risks, make fools of themselves? Are they so scared of the tweets or comments that they don’t even try something new? If so, how will they ever learn from their mistakes? Are they too concerned with what others think of them, rather than just being true to themselves.

Being comfortable and secure within ourselves is vitally important. We talk of virtues such as patience, humility, understanding, honesty and integrity, but it takes a great deal of self-confidence to stand up for what we believe in, to confront our peers in challenging situations, to be resilient when it would be so much easier to give up. These virtues can and should be taught, or at the very least gained through undertaking challenges in planned, structured and supported ways. Playing hide and seek as toddlers teaches us that we can remove ourselves from sight and that our friends will come and find us. Outdoor adventure activities such as expeditions, camping and bush craft teach us interpersonal skills, resilience and also valuable interdependence skills.

Understanding our own limitations helps us to be compassionate and patient with others. Teamwork and cooperation not only get the job done but teach us to listen to others, to respect others’ opinions and contributions, to learn from and provide support for each other. Many times I have seen a young person, labelled as the playground bully, put an encouraging arm around a younger, less confident team member.

We are encouraged by this renewed focus on developing character in schools. Being described as a successful young person is a label in itself and can be a tough one to live up to. We all have a responsibility to help and support our young people, by ensuring that they have the personal skills and strength of character to make informed positive decisions which enable them to flourish in school and later in the world of work. Then we, as a society, can truly say we lived up to our role in developing the young people we want to see in the society of our future.


Challenger Troop CIC

Tel: 0845 548 5070





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