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WomanOf the Month 7-04: Michele Borba

As our children prepare for a new school year, a valuable subject may be missing from the lesson plan: character education and moral development. Throughout her career, Michele Borba, Ed.D, has focused on helping teachers and parents strengthen children###s behavior and moral intelligence. An author and internationally known educator, she is passionate about helping children become their best. First and foremost, she says, children need to develop three virtues upon which all others are founded: empathy, conscience, and self-control. While an early start is best, it is never too late to begin, she counsels.

"These are the most significant, essential virtues for any human being," says Borba. "I realized when I was commissioned to write a book on building moral intelligence that unless children have these virtues, they won###t know how to be more respectful, or be more kind to others."

What are some of the ways we can build empathy in our children? "Children are born with the potential for empathy-they are hardwired for it-but unless we nurture it, it lies dormant," notes Borba. "Children are being raised in a cruel world, where they are barraged with violence and war, which is breaking down their sensitivity to other human beings. So, we teach empathy developmentally. Children who are more empathetic have been treated empathetically. They have been picked up when they are crying and told they are loved. We practice emotion identification. At one and two years old, parents should talk feelings with them: ###Oh, you look so happy; or ###Oh, you look so sad.### You can###t be sensitive unless you can read the feelings on someone###s face. We especially need to do this with boys, because we###re masking feelings for boys.

"When children are four to five years old, we can help them practice reading emotion by having them turn off the volume on the TV and guess how the characters are feeling. We can also begin asking, ###How would you feel if that happened to you?### This is a great discipline question as we teach children to imagine standing in another person###s shoes."

Conscience is a "work in progress" through the teen years. Before talking to their child about having a conscience, parents should first ask themselves what they stand for, notes Borba. "It###s impossible for a child to have rules, standards, and guidelines unless you###ve planted them in their head," she says. "Parents should reflect on how they want their kid to turn out: What are the traits you consider most important? Is it perseverance, respect, patience? You have to TEACH these in this way:

T: target what you stand for
E: expect the behavior
A: accentuate it in daily life
C: catch the kids doing it
H: highlight the reasons why it###s important to act that way.

"Often we don###t tell children the value of why they should be kind or respectful. We need to tell them why they should act that way, not just to do it," says Borba.

Self-control is the brake system for children. "You can have a heart and mind, but unless you learn the brake system and think before you act, you###ll go barreling into a temptation," says Borba. "Parents can help the child become aware of triggers that make the child angry or physiological signs that indicate a loss of self control is imminent. Then you can teach them new ways to handle the anger. One important method for the child to learn is 1) stop; 2) breathe; and 3) count slowly to 10. Remember to repeat the skills for several weeks at a time, Borba notes. "Often we try to teach too many skills rather than repeating the same skill until it is learned."

Borba grew up in Saratoga, Calif., in what is now Silicon Valley. The daughter of a school district superintendent and a kindergarten teacher, she recalls that her mom was the epitome of compassion and her dad demonstrated tenacity and perseverance. "I never remember them raising their voices," she says. "They###d sit and talk to help you reason out what you were doing, and they were so accepting. I think they instinctively knew how to do that; they had that fiber in them, despite the fact that my father lost his own dad at age two and really had to overcome every obstacle. He was the first kid to graduate from college in his family. I believe to be successful as a parent and in working with children you have to love what children are about."

Borba didn###t plan on following in her parents### footsteps. But after earning her teaching credential in education, followed by a master###s in learning disabilities, she began working with children with severe special needs and found she loved it. In the meantime she married a fellow teacher, now the director of special education for the Palm Springs Unified School District, and they opened up a counseling center for troubled youth. She worked on her doctorate while raising three children and began writing. "I had always loved to write," she says," and I had an incredible high school English teacher, Mr. Jolsen, who told me I had the ability and was a mentor."

Today she conducts workshops nationwide and internationally for school districts, teachers and parents. She has written 19 books, among them No More Misbehavin: 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them; Building Moral Intelligence; Parents Do Make a Difference; and Esteem Builders. Her latest is Don###t Give Me That Attitude! 24 Selfish, Rude Behaviors and How to Stop Them. She also authored a proposal to end school violence (SB1667) that was signed into California law in 2002.

"All is not well with American kids," notes Borba. "We put so much emphasis on test scores that we###ve lost the child###s heart. No other industrialized country has the scope of our problems, in terms of child abuse, health standards, nutrition, and violence. We need to make how our children turn out our number one priority in this country."

For more information on Borba###s books, articles and other work, go to www.behaviormakeovers.com.