Researchers have found that a focused program to build social, emotional, and character skills resulted in significantly improved overall quality of education, as evaluated by teachers, parents and students.

The study by researchers at Oregon state University. It involved 20 elementary schools grades K-12 in Hawaii. A program was established to organize activities to build character that went beyond more traditional rules or policies to control or punish problem behaviors, the authors explained.

While the program still takes only about an hour a week away from traditional education, previous research proved there were much lower numbers of suspensions, lower absenteeism, and better reading and math scores on standardized tests.

Researchers found that for the first time teachers believed this approach improved “overall school quality” by 21 percent, with parents and students agreeing in slightly smaller numbers.

“Improved social and character skills leave more time for teachers to teach, and students to learn and be more motivated,” said Brian Flay, an OSU professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences.

“What we’re finding now is that we can really address some of the concerns in our schools by focusing more on character in the classroom.”

Flay explained that these are not new concepts and that they have always been discussed.

“They’re the kind of things that have always been discussed in families, church and social groups,” Flay said.

“A third-grade lesson, for instance, might be helping kids to understand how other people feel, to learn about empathy. That may seem simple, but in terms of educational performance it’s important.”

School quality, as defined in the research, includes a safe environment, involvement and satisfaction among individuals, student support, continuous improvement, standards-based learning and other features, the authors explained. Policies to curtail substance abuse, violent behavior and other problems have shown only limited results.

Lessons include topics related to self-concept, physical and intellectual actions, managing oneself responsibly, getting along with others, being honest, and self-improvement.

The study found that there were 72 percent fewer suspensions, 15 percent less absenteeism, and much better reading and math skills based on state tests. National tests showed a 9 percent improvement in these academic subjects.

“The current research supports the hypothesis that these programs can generate whole-school change and improve school safety and quality,” the researchers explained in the Journal of School Health. “The present study shows improvements in school quality were made by relatively underperforming schools.”

According to the researchers the findings suggest that schools, districts, states and the federal government should consider policies and funding directed toward social and character programs of this type.