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Good manners, good students, good adults

Pinellas educators laud the introduction of character education into the classroom. It's designed to teach youngsters, among other things, respect and responsibility. Without such guideposts, experts say the students may become troubled adults.

Would you send your child to a formal dinner party without instructions on how to behave?

Probably not. Then why do so many parents send their children off to school without the ability to behave there?

"Too many children don't have the basic manners such as saying please and thank you," says Emily Williams, an intervention and behavioral specialist at Shore Acres Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "There is incredible acting out, tantrums and fights. They exhibit 2-year-old behavior."

Even students designated as "smart kids" are coming to school throwing temper tantrums, talking back to their teachers and showing little or no skills in how to make friends, educators say.

Anger, disrespect and poor social skills are warning signs of future problems, says Linda Jones, Pinellas County supervisor for safe and drug free schools. Some of these behaviors may indicate that the child could have trouble adjusting throughout his school years and/or might become violent.

Surprisingly, such things as making the honor roll, scoring high on IQ tests or being well-behaved are not a child's ticket to school success or a productive adulthood, according to a study by the University of Illinois Children's Research Center at Champaign.

The single best childhood predictor of success as an adult is a child's ability to get along with other children, researchers say. Children who are generally disliked, who are aggressive and disruptive, who are unable to sustain close relationships with other children, and who cannot establish a place for themselves in the peer culture are at risk for problems as adults.

Poor mental health, dropping out of school, low achievement and other school difficulties, poor adult employment history, and trouble sustaining mature relationships are the consequences of poor childhood peer relationships, says Lillian Katz, professor of early childhood education at the University of Illinois.

To help children hone their relationship skills, "character education" will be part of the elementary school curriculum in Pinellas County schools this year. Respect for self and others, responsibility, honesty and self-motivation will be among the topics included in the curriculum.

Although the school system will do what it can, Jones says that it is the examples and guidance provided at home that are vital to building good character.

"I would like to see parents reinforcing good character at home," Jones says. "Children need to be motivated to do their best whether it's their schoolwork or their chores at home, to deal honestly with people, to respect themselves and others, their parents and peers."

Colleen Coughenour, a prekindergarten teacher of handicapped students at Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg, agrees with the incorporation of character education into the elementary school curriculum.

"That's a key to a lot of the work we do in my room," Coughenour says. "I have had parents who are very respectful and teach that to children and it's a team effort between the parents and the school. At other times teachers have to counteract a lot of negatives from home and that can make the school experience difficult."

Pamela Griner Leavy is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.

harming people or property?

Back-to-school behavior checklist

Here are some questions that parents _ and teachers _ can ask to determine if a child is behaving in a manner that will lead to success at school and later in life. This checklist was compiled with input from Emily Williams, intervention and behavioral specialist at Shore Acres Elementary School in St. Petersburg; Linda Jones, Pinellas County supervisor for safe and drug-free Schools, author and Pinellas County educator Sylvia Rockwell, and Lillian Katz, professor of early childhood education at the University of Illinois.

+ Does your child have one or two good friends? Educators stress that healthy social development doesn't mean a child should be a social butterfly. Some children are more shy than others and it may be counterproductive to push them into social situations that make them uncomfortable. Excessive shyness that doesn't go away should be a behavioral red flag.

+ Is your child involved in a variety of peer group activities? It's important for schools and families to provide children with the opportunity to bond through sports, youth groups and faith communities.

+ Are you pushing your child to be popular or painting too rosy a picture of school? When starting school, children are often told they will love school, make good friends, have a great time. Although such positive information is necessary, children also need to be told that there will be difficult times. Realistic information will help children avoid guilty feelings later.

+ Is your child usually able to function without a parent present?

+ Are teachers seen as the villains? It is important not to criticize teachers in front of children because it empowers children to be defiant. "I am amazed at what I hear parents saying about school and about teachers in front of their children," says Lillian Katz. "Go to the school and talk to adults, not in front of the children."

+ Are teachers accentuating the positive? Unfortunately for children with a lot of behavior problems, everything the parents hear about is negative. It's important for teachers to give positive feedback. If children feel the adults in their lives are against them, they lose motivation and trust.

+ Is your child able to express frustration and anger effectively without harming people or property?

+ Is your child able to control her behavior? Impulsive children do not want to sit in their seats or stand in line, and often can't follow directions. Children with short attention spans often can't sit and listen.

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