Good role models are essential for our young people. Understanding the importance of role models, their character strengths and the knowledge of how to implement this into your curriculum is essential to a harmonious school environment. So where do you begin?

Who are your role models?

Who do you most admire? A former teacher, a world leader, a neighbour, your mum? As adults, we tend to give little thought to the idea of having a ‘role model’, as we regard this to be a quality that children seek from the adults in their lives. However, if you stop and consider who influences you most, and why, you’ll no doubt agree that the people you admire now, as adults, are giving you your most important life lessons.

Unfortunately, role models who uphold high ethical or moral values aren’t typically the people whose stories make it to the press or ‘go viral’ on social media. However, one example of a celebrity who is on a mission to do good is Rose Ayling-Ellis, the deaf actor who won the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing competition. She was recently interviewed and made clear that she wanted to use her platform for good, to be a positive role model, making sure deaf people have the same rights as everyone else.

Throughout our lives we become aware of notable people who are not such positive role models. Knowledge of these public figures who appear lacking in integrity, humility or kindness allows us to make good connections about character and understand more about the character strengths we personally want and need from our role models.

It is, however, worrying that with repeated exposure to these ‘anti-role models’, it can become easier to lose our own moral compass. This is especially concerning for our digitally native young people who have access 24/7 to social media and the internet. This highlights the importance of exposing our young people to good role models in educational settings, helping them to develop and self-identify character strengths in themselves and those in their wider environment.

Furthermore, studies of learning in children show that through a process known as vicarious reinforcement, we start to model the behaviour of individuals whose actions seem to be getting rewarded. In vicarious reinforcement, the tendency to commit a behaviour that someone else gets praise or attention for increases almost as much as if you were getting the rewards yourself.

Unless the public figure, who might be seen as an anti-role model, is thoroughly and utterly disgraced and then completely disappears from public view, vicarious learning will occur in those exposed to that person’s actions. Most of the time, though, these people do anything but disappear.

What sort of role models should we be seeking?

When thinking about role models it is critical that we think about what makes someone amazing. Is a beautiful person a role model? If someone is a great footballer does that automatically make them a role model? If the answer is no, then we quickly need to use the language of character to discuss what we think makes a good role model.

Asking your students who they regard as good role models and why, is a great starter to explore what values they are placing on people and therefore themselves. It is the beginning of a journey to recognise that what they value in others is also what they will aspire to for themselves. This can lead to our young people making positive links with high calibre role models, which can then have a positive impact on their own mental health and wellbeing.

As children grow up, there is often an elder person they admire for many reasons. Usually, it is a parent, teacher, sibling or cousin, and is someone they look up to and copy. Some do it intentionally, while others do it without realising how influenced they are by that person. These people are a child’s primary role models. As times passes, the people who take on these positions in a child’s life will change as the child matures and their interests differ, but the influence of good role models at an early age cannot be underestimated.

Positive role models influence our actions and motivate us to strive to uncover our true potential and overcome our weakness. Having this ambition pushes us to make the most of our life. Role models are a must for self-improvement because they can provide a standard to strive for or compare ourselves with. By recognising ‘greatness’ in someone else it helps us strive to reach our own potential, to be the best that we can be.

Choose carefully – finding the right role models

Our expectations are usually based on what we see around us. We should choose our role models carefully, opting for those who have moral standing and live their values. Though they may have their flaws (who doesn’t?) they should be inspiring despite these. This will help us to see how it is possible to overcome or simply turn a weakness into a strength, and not let flaws hold us back from becoming the best of us.

These role models may not be people in the public limelight but rather part of the ‘everyday amazing’ we have in our lives. There are also countless people in history, in all walks of life, who can make inspirational role models. All great leaders, sportsmen and high-achievers have one thing in common — they all have positive role models whom they strived to emulate in some way and eventually some have ended up achieving great things themselves.

Have multiple role models

We all need different role models for different stages and aspects of life.  Using historical role models as Amazing People Schools does, is a stepping-stone into the present and helps us appreciate the positive strengths of the people around us. There are so many great people to admire, and they can easily become our inspiration.  

Three areas to consider around using role models

Role models for young people are often young people themselves

Having the conversations about inspirational role models including who around school is liked and admired is so valuable. There may be those who are perceived as popular but are in fact using their personal power to bully or belittle others. The language of character is way of exploring our behaviours and impact on those around us and on our world.  Engaging in this type of conversation with young people and demonstrating how success is achieved though strong character is essential for them to be able to demonstrate those strengths in themselves. Furthermore, discussing with young people which media personalities, i.e. vloggers, YouTubers or others who inspire them, helps them build a deeper understanding of their personal values and what’s important to them. Once students have a good understanding of character strengths and can identify them in historical figures, they see those strengths in more contemporary individuals, including their peers who they look up to.

It is essential that all staff recognise that they need to act as role models

“Don’t worry that your children don’t listen to you. Worry that they are watching everything you do”

Weatherley – cited in Corrie: Becoming Emotionally Intelligent

This includes not only the teaching staff but also the teaching assistants, reception, dinner and playground staff, cleaners and caretakers. They are all observed, and the values and character strengths purported to be important to the school need to be lived by the adults in it.

Use role models in every aspect of the curriculum

All subjects have their heroes, and these subject specific individuals should be brought into lessons to discuss not only their academic achievements, but the character strengths they have demonstrated to overcome challenges and adversity. For example, Marie Curie showed courage and determination in her continuing to study in secret as women were not allowed to attend further education. Her courage also helped her travel to France to live and work in challenging conditions. Her integrity on using her discoveries for the good of humanity rather than her own advancement remains an inspiration.

Seek good role models

In summary good role models can help all of us strive to be more than we currently are, they are an essential ingredient when thinking about human flourishing. Using historical role models can be an inspiring way to introduce an amazing person’s story and explore the character strengths demonstrated. An understanding of these strengths can then be brought into conversations about contemporary figures in light of their strengths. When we talk about character, we ultimately start to expect more of ourselves too.

We’d love to learn more about who your role models are. Comment below and inspire us with the next generation of amazing people. If you’re unsure how to include role models in your teaching, a free exploration of all of our historical and contemporary amazing people is available on our website Amazing People Schools. We’d love to hear from you, so feel free to drop us a line, our team are ready to help.

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