Four ways private schools build character

Shaping well-rounded students through social, emotional and psychological support

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Private schools have a well-earned reputation for producing high-achieving graduates. Still, many
also pride themselves on nurturing students who are well-rounded, well-adjusted human beings, not just gifted scholars.
Here are four ways private schools help build their students’ character.

Core values

The path to character-building begins with a private school’s core values—a mission statement, a belief system, a credo or key traits for students to develop. “Our school [has] seven character attributes that we weave through- out our programming,” says Brendan Lea, principal of the middle and senior schools at Toronto’s Bishop Strachan School. “A growth mindset, ethical citizenship, curiosity, self-awareness, grit, voice and leadership—our whole community is committed to the development of these [traits] in our students.” Positive reinforcement of a school’s values also helps them take root. “Promoting core values is an integral part of our belief system,” says Lee Venditti, principal at J. Addison School in Markham, Ont. “Praising and acknowledging students when they demonstrate the desired values encourages them to continue exhibiting these behaviours.”


Since private schools have autonomy with their curricula, teachers can develop lesson plans that support their students’ social and emotional growth. “Our students work on independent real-world projects that are designed to answer contemporary dilemmas,” Lea says. “For example, in AP Research, students develop their own research questions and examine personal topics, such as homelessness due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Indigenous knowledge and environmental stewardship.” At Toronto’s Crescent School, character competency has been integrated throughout its curricular and co-curricular programs. “We’ve done this work in partnership with the Centre for Curriculum Redesign, a non-profit global organization dedicated to improving 21st-century education,” says Nick Kovacs, deputy headmaster.


Outside the classroom, private schools offer myriad programs, clubs, groups and events that further foster social and emotional growth, learning and meaningful discussion—for students, as well as staff and parents. “Stress and negative feelings will always be a part of life,” says Kathy LaBranche, executive director of strategic enrolment at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont. “Our community works to model and build skills with students to manage these emotions.” Gina Kay, executive director of Crescent’s student services says the school’s mentorship program is pivotal in providing students with academic, social and personal support, as are its student-led affinity groups. “[They] allow students with shared aspects of their identity—and their allies—to build connections, lend support, share ideas and ensure their interests are well-represented in the school,” she says.


Sometimes a student may need more intensive help coping with personal challenges, and private schools offer an array of professional support. “We have dedicated social-emotional guidance counsellors across junior kindergarten to grade 12, as well as a full-time school psychologist,” says Lea of Bishop Strachan. Often, these expert teams work with students, staff and each other to provide end- to-end support. “Together, [they work] closely with students,” Lea says, “and provide teachers and our parent-and-guardian community with strategies and tools to help maintain the mental wellness of our students.”