SD 4-H encourages youth character development

Farm Forum

When Willow Lake community members, parents and school faculty made character education a focus for students; they turned to South Dakota 4-H to help them develop programming.

“The partnership with SDSU Extension 4-H staff made sense because they have the resources available to provide our teachers with the training and materials necessary for character education,” explains Willow Lake Principal, Tracy Bratland Bruns.

The decision to add character development to the school’s curriculum came out of a two-day strategic planning session the school hosted in 2013 where parents, community leaders and faculty outlined goals and direction for the school.

“We want to make sure that our students are prepared for the 21st Century and ensure that they not only have the education, but the character skills necessary to succeed,” Bratland Bruns said.

The curriculum developed by SDSU Extension 4-H staff focuses on character traits, such as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. It outlines fun, grade-appropriate activities teachers can do with students to help them gain an understanding of how to implement character into real life situations.

“In a small school like ours, teachers wear many hats and their days are full. Because our teachers didn’t have to reinvent the wheel and develop curriculum, they were able to easily incorporate character into their classroom instruction,” Bratland Bruns says.

To encourage citizenship, one teacher began taking the seventh grade class on a monthly visit to the local Senior Citizens’ Center where they play BINGO with community members’ decades their senior. Each month a new character trait becomes the focus of a school-wide assembly. During the assemblies the sixth grade class puts on a skit to demonstrate the character trait of the month.

Just a semester in, character has become an integral part of the culture at Willow Lake School. Students’ character is celebrated right along with academics and athletics. Students from each grade level are recognized for exhibiting character – receiving certificates and their photo in the local newspaper.

“It’s made a difference,” says senior Mikayla Prouty, 17. “Like many schools, Willow Lake does have some bullying issues. I feel like now that everyone is focused on character, bullying has gone down and people are nicer to each other. It’s really evident among the younger kids.”

Prouty and classmate, Dylan Wicks, led a character development assembly for the elementary students titled, Polishing Your Character. During the assembly, they gave each grade-schooler a polished stone and encouraged them to keep it in their pocket and take it out to reflect any time they felt the urge to act out.

“My kids are all about keeping their pebble close by,” says Erin Brenden, a mom with three school-age children attending Willow Lake School. “It is neat as a parent to see that my kids really care about demonstrating good character.”

Brenden participated in the strategic planning session and was instrumental in reaching out to 4-H staff for help in developing the character programming. “I was very involved in 4-H in my county and also served as a State 4-H Council Ambassador, so I knew 4-H had character programming,” Brenden says. “As a parent I want what is best for my children. Based on what I hear from my kids, it seems like the focus on character has had a positive impact on the overall school environment.”

The change in climate doesn’t surprise Kim McGraw. “For many kids, character is a big word that doesn’t have a concrete meaning. Once it is presented in a way that is relatable, students are able to understand how to implement it into their daily lives,” says the SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Clark County.

McGraw and Karelyn Farrand, SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Character Education Field Specialist continue to work closely with Willow Lake School staff to provide them with character education training, curriculum and guidance.

McGraw calls the partnership a natural fit. “Every aspect of 4-H develops members’ character; whether they learn responsibility and discipline caring for a livestock project or communication and public speaking skills through judging contests and leading their club meetings – character development goes hand-in-hand with traditional 4-H programming. This partnership with schools and partnerships like it, allow us to spread the message on character development to a much larger audience,” McGraw said.

Captain Character puts a Fun Twist on Character Development

Brad Keizer would agree. As the 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Custer and Fall River Counties he has witnessed the far-reaching power partnerships provide.

Throughout the year Keizer partners with the after school programs to provide after school and day camp staff with character training that focuses on how they can make a positive impact on the lives of children they interact with. He guides teens in peer-to-peer mentorship training as part of the 4-H Teen Leadership Conference where 20 teens lead a camp for 200 of their peers.

Perhaps Keizer’s most unique character partnership is that with his alter ego, Captain Character,the fun costume he dons when he visits elementary classrooms or assemblies to talk about the importance of character in students’ daily lives.

“Captain Character is a fun way to reach kids with the message of how our strength comes from the inside. Students love it! I’ve even had to sign autographs,” Keizer says. “Character development is the foundation of everything we do in 4-H. If we can help youth develop strong character, everything else will come.”

Keizer and McGraw are among 38 SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisors who serve counties throughout South Dakota, provide character programming and curriculum to schools and youth organizations throughout the state. To learn more, contact Karelyn Farrand, SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Character Education Field Specialist at