Life Compass
Stress Tests of Character

Navigate Stress Tests: 5 Q&A's

Helping Students Navigate Stress Tests: 5 Q&A’s

#1: What is a Stress Test of Character?

We all face stress tests of character. In life, challenges are inevitable. How we respond to them is a matter of choice. 

As philosopher Dr. Steve Tigner wrote, stress tests “put individual characters on trial in their most revealing ways, showing — or betraying — what they are really like . . . [They are] the tests of heroes.” The choices we make during difficult moments reveal a lot about our strengths, our struggles, and our priorities. These stress points also highlight the practical need for courage, integrity, tenacity, resilience, respect, and compassion. These strengths, or virtues, help us withstand the storms of life. 

But it isn’t easy. When we are under pressure — when our brain is flooded with stress hormones — we often experience the biological drive to fight, flee, or freeze. In these moments, it’s easy to fall back on old habits, to overreact, or to give in to instinct. While we may not have control over the emotion that washes over us in a challenging moment, we do have the ability to choose what we do next. 

How we pause, reflect, and respond to stress can give us a chance to grow — and, in turn, this growth gives meaning to challenges. When students learn how to navigate stress tests with courage and tenacity, it allows them to say:
  • That was a tough project, but I persevered.
  • It would have been easy to cheat on that assignment, but I chose integrity. 
  • I made it through that difficult situation; I am more resilient than I realized.
  • I chose to be kind even though the other person didn’t make it easy.
  • I was scared, but I chose to be brave because it was the right thing to do. 
A clear vision of who we want to be, how we want to treat others, and what we hope to accomplish helps us respond more purposefully to everyday challenges. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know “where you want to get to... then it doesn't much matter which way you go.” It prompts the question, “What actions can I take that align with my values?”  

Adolescence is a time marked by stress tests. Why? Because change — even positive change — is inherently stressful, and teenagers' lives are filled with change! Their brains and bodies are growing, their social lives are evolving, and they face choices about college, job training, current events, and their economic future. As we talk about helping them develop character, we must also look at how they deal with stress. 

Stress tests look different for each person. The same external situation will evoke various first reactions: excitement or fear, hope or dread, joy or disgust. Students will have different emotional reactions to similar academic and social pressures. One student may tremble at the thought of giving an oral presentation while another thrives on speaking in front of peers. 

Here’s the good news: these first reactions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They just are. For the most part, we cannot control the obstacles we will be asked to confront; many stressors are simply out of our control. And that can feel scary to teens.  What we can choose is how we respond to these challenges. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  But teenagers need support as they develop courage, resilience, and practical wisdom.  

Adolescent psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour uses the metaphor of exercise to help teens reframe their understanding of stress: To develop physical strength, she says, you have to slowly push your levels of physical endurance, building up strength through resistance training. In other words, “you should see [a challenge] as an extraordinary weight training program for your mind. You are going to walk out of it tougher and stronger than you have ever been.” 

That’s an empowering message for students: stretching to face challenges is part of how humans develop strength. 

In an interview with Deborah Farmer Kris, Damour continues, “Brave is a positive word — it’s something we aspire to be. Built into the word is the understanding that the person is scared and yet they are doing something anyway. Scared is here to stay. Anxiety is part of life. It’s not our job to vanquish these feelings. It’s our job to develop the resources we need to march forward anyway.”

#2: What Character Strengths Help Us Navigate Stress Tests?

Virtues are strengths that help us make wise choices — choices that will help us flourish at home, at school, and in our communities.

In our beautiful, diverse, and often tumultuous world, there is remarkable consensus about the strengths of character — or virtues — we admire in others and strive to develop in ourselves.

Virtues that Support Academic Excellence

Virtues that Strengthen Relationships

Virtues that Help Us Navigate Challenges

  • Tenacity
  • Attention
  • Thoroughness
  • Curiosity
  • Intellectual honesty & humility
  • Empathy
  • Compassion 
  • Kindness
  • Respect
  • Gratitude
  • Courage 
  • Self-Control
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Hope

One virtue that is particularly vital to withstanding challenges is courage. Courage doesn’t mean we do not experience fear or anxiety. In fact, fear and stress are uncomfortable yet vital reactions because they offer data about what we are experiencing in our environment — including physical and psychological dangers. So courage is not a denial of fear, which is probably there for a good reason, but the decision to have the right response anyway. When we are brave, we acknowledge our fear, but we also look beyond ourselves and weigh the other factors involved in order to make the right decision. 

So how do we develop courage and other character traits? Practice. Practice. Practice. 

Two thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle wrote, “We learn by doing. [We] become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts . . .  brave by doing brave acts.” 

Here’s the thing: virtues such as courage or integrity are not flat and static. There is not a cookie-cutter “brave” response to every challenging situation. Courage will not look the same in every situation, and it takes practice and experience to habitually respond to challenges bravely.
The science around resilience (i.e. the capacity to recover from difficulties), echoes the importance of practice and highlights the need for adults to support children in developing this capacity. According to research out of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, “Resilience can be built; it’s not an innate trait or a resource that can be used up.” They describe resilience as emerging from an “interplay between internal disposition and external experience” and note that: “[R]esilience is shaped throughout life by the accumulation of experiences — both good and bad — and the continuing development of adaptive coping skills connected to those experiences. What happens early may matter most, but it is never too late to build resilience.” Likewise, it is never too late to strengthen courage, compassion, and other virtues that help us thrive in the face of challenges.

#3: How Do We Coach Students Through Stress Tests?

One caring adult. According to
research on childhood adversity, “every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed rela­tionship with a supportive adult.” As Dr. Marc Brackett, Director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence, said, “Research shows that the mere presence of a caring and loving adult is a co-regulation strategy. If our children believe in their soul that the person they are with cares about them and is there for them — even if that person doesn’t say anything — that’s a strategy.”  

Teachers can serve as caring mentors who help students develop the internal strength and skills they need to face challenges. And when teachers expand their toolkit of practical strategies for integrating character education into their classrooms, their influence can be amplified.

When navigating challenges, students and adults need practical wisdom: the ability to assess a situation and respond well in the moment. Practical wisdom requires the head and the heart. We can desire to be compassionate, but we still need to use our brains to determine what a compassionate response will look like in a particular situation. After all, a toddler might think it’s kind to share a cookie with a newborn — but that’s not good for the newborn! 

As our colleagues at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues write, “What is significant about the practical moral wisdom . . . is that the deliberation it requires is highly context-sensitive and therefore not readily susceptible to codification in the form of the general rules characteristic of traditional professional codes.”  

To paraphrase Aristotle, virtue helps us aim correctly, and practical wisdom helps us move toward that target. Aristotle also offered this helpful framework: every virtue, or strength, is found at the high point between two extremes. For example, true courage lies between cowardice or emotional paralysis (too much fear) on the one hand, and recklessness (not enough appropriate caution) on the other. Similarly, hope can be eroded by both despair and wishful thinking. 

This is a familiar concept for students. Even young children know that Goldilocks encounters “too hot, too cold, too hard, too soft” as she searches for “just right.”    

Depending on our personality, temperament, and prior life experiences, we all tend to initially gravitate toward one extreme or another. In the face of conflict, is our first instinct to rage or retreat? In expressing difficult feelings, do we gravitate toward passive or aggressive communication? Our gut-level response to a situation is our “first reaction.” 

Here’s a powerful message for students: when you encounter a challenge or opportunity, you are not bound to your first reaction. It’s healthy and normal to feel stress, but that feeling doesn’t need to rule you. You can own your response to a situation when you:
  • Recognize your first, often instinctive, reaction
  • Pause to reflect on the situation, remembering what you are aiming for, and who you aspire to be.
  • Recalibrate and respond in a way that matches your vision, your why
This is practical wisdom in action.

So how do we bridge the gap between our initial reaction and a thoughtful response that matches who we are and who we aspire to be? First, we need to open up the conversation. Human beings are “hardwired to connect,” and teens crave mentors who provide compassion, guidance, vision, and inspiration. Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, notes: “Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways.” 

When students are under stress, we can provide them with empathy and help them pause, reflect, and think through clarifying questions such as: 
  • How am I feeling right now? Why?
  • What do I know? What do I need to know?
  • What do I want the outcome of the situation to be?
  • What help do I need? 
  • What is one step I can take right now that moves me closer to my goal? 
As Dr. Susan David from Harvard University explains in her book Emotional Agility, “emotions can give you tremendous data.” 

When we have a strong emotional reaction, reflection can help us pay attention to what it might be communicating. For example, the feeling of loneliness may tell you that you crave connection — but there are lots of ways to seek out social connection, some healthy and some destructive. As Susan David cautions, emotions offer “data not direction.” Feeling fear or anger does not mean we need to fight or flee. Feeling angry with a friend doesn’t mean we need to yell at them. Feeling nervous about taking a test doesn’t mean we need to skip class that day. But when we are scared or confused, it’s easy to fall back on old habits or give into instinct

Dr. David suggests that when you have the internal thought, “I want to do this but I’m scared,” take one small step that moves you toward your goal. After all, she writes, “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking.” 

When we reflect, we can evaluate our reactions and take small, deliberate steps to move us in the direction we want to go. If I want to take better care of my physical wellness, what’s one step I can take, right now? If I am overwhelmed by demands, what small changes can I make to prioritize my time? If I am in conflict with a friend, what might help open up lines of communication?

According to research, giving students opportunities to articulate a strong vision about who they want to be and what difference they want to make in the world is a protective factor. Teachers and mentors can help scaffold these moments. In a study out of Stanford University, middle school students were asked to reflect and write about something that truly mattered to them, and they engaged in this exercise during a typically stressful point in the academic year. Students who participated in this exercise saw significant academic gains as compared to their peers who did not engage in this reflection. This was particularly true for at-risk students. Similarly, first-generation college students who were asked to write about the three values that were most important to them also saw academic gains.

Think about it this way: students spend hours every day at school. The environment inevitably shapes them. Week after week, year after year, they are developing habits and ways of being — but are those habits helping them flourish or flounder? 

The relationships we build, the lessons we teach, the conversations we have, the tone we help set in the hallways and lunchroom, the policies we enact — each of these communicate something to students about what’s important to us.  
  • Are we communicating, clearly, that our most important goal is to help them thrive academically and personally?
  •  Do we look for research-based tools to help them become more resilient, responsible, courageous, and compassionate human beings?  
  • Do we model for them our belief that the brain is malleable and responsive to effort, and we can all develop habits that will help us flourish? 
  • As the mentors in their lives, do we believe that character development is a lifelong enterprise and that it is never too late to build stronger, healthier habits? 
As educators, we will have moments of success and moments that feel like failures as we face life’s stress tests of character with as much grace as we can muster. When we have a vision of who we want to be as educators, we can navigate challenges and find the resilience to get back up and take one more step forward — for the greater good of our students. 

#4: Why Are Stories Powerful Teaching Tools?

In addition to modeling and coaching practical wisdom, we can use the curriculum to help students navigate stress tests of character. And stories are a vibrant tool. Why? We learn more about character from a life than a lesson. Character education is not about teaching a stale set of rules that students should follow in a rote, dispassionate way.  True character education is multidimensional and dynamic — sensitive to both the context and complexity of human experience. 

That’s why storytelling is such a powerful pedagogical tool. Stories capture lives.

Everyone struggles, even those people we look up to in admiration. Students can gain valuable insights by reflecting on challenging moments in the lives of literary characters, historical figures, mathematicians, scientists, and artists. These stories also vividly show what virtues look like in action — and the courage and practical wisdom required to make strong choices under difficult circumstances.
Our brains love stories because
  • stories are appealing, motivating, memorable;
  • stories help us develop a vision of who we want to be and how we want to interact with others;
  • stories give us an opportunity to see how other people navigate life’s challenges for better or worse — particularly their stress tests of character;  
  • stories help students see the scientists, mathematicians, and the people who occupy their history books as real people who struggled with internal and external challenges, just like we all do; 
  • stories can vividly show what virtues and habits look like in the real world — and highlight the practical wisdom required to make strong choices under difficult circumstances. 
We are wired for story. As Dr. Greg Marshall writes, “For human beings, the pull of stories is primal. What oxygen is to the body, stories are to our emotions and imagination. Story is concrete, not abstract... It is the story’s concreteness that activates the vicarious imagination — our ability to experience the thoughts, actions, and emotions of others as if they were our own.” In this way, he writes, they “extend an invitation” for us to become more wise and compassionate.  

In her book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that storyis one of the most powerful influences on our behavior. Facts alone, she writes, “overlook the core of what makes us human; our fears, our desires, our prior beliefs. To make a change we must tap into those motives, presenting information in a frame that emphasizes common beliefs, triggers hope and expands people’s sense of agency.”

Teens crave role models and exemplars, and when we offer them diverse stories, they can start to see themselves in the narrative. 

For example, after researching the life story of African-American NASA researcher Katherine Johnson (whose story was told in the book and film Hidden Figures) one young woman wrote, “I want to be an astrophysicist, and sometimes I feel alone in my passion. Knowing someone else like Katherine Johnson is in the math world made such a big impact on me.” Johnson’s story taught her, “There is an objective to life: there is a reason you are here, and you have to find it.” 

Psychiatrist Jeff Kotler notes that from infancy, “we learn to make sense of the world, as well as to prepare for life’s challenges, through the listening to and telling of stories.” He writes:

What is a story that changed your life? Think of a seminal story you’ve heard or watched that had such a strong impact on your life that the effects still resonate within you today. Think of a character from a story who so intimately inhabits your life that he or she feels as real to you as anyone you know personally. Consider a story you tell about yourself that holds within it a sacred and precious quality that you value most. And most importantly, recall an instance in which you faced a difficult challenge, disappointment, or crisis and you managed to recover and become stronger as a result: What story did you tell yourself (and others) about this experience that featured you in a heroic role rather than as a victim?

When we read about the lives of people we admire, he says, “they feel like intimate friends with whom we feel closely connected.” And every student could use a few more friends!

#5: How Can We Use Stories In the Classroom to Help Students Navigate Stress Tests of Character?

On our
Stress Test of Character website, we have pulled together several resources and a few sample lesson plans to help you think about how to integrate stories into your classroom — as one tool for helping students navigate the stress tests of character. But you can also ask yourself this question: Who are the women and men in my field who have inspired me? What stories have I encountered that have influenced my understanding of the field?

After you identify a “stress test story,” engage students in critical thinking with questions like these:
  1. Context: What is the context of this story? What internal and external factors contributed to this moment/situation? 
  2. First Reactions: Imagine you were in this situation. What first reactions would be understandable under the circumstances? What emotions might a person experience?
  3. Possible Responses: What are the array of possible choices this person had in front of them — and what would be the potential consequences of each?
  4. Motivation: What might be guiding this individual’s decision making and why?
  5. Character Strengths: In this situation, what virtues/strengths are being tested? What virtues/strengths would they need to make the best possible decision? 
  6. Actual Responses: What did the person in the story ultimately choose to do? What does this suggest about his/her character? Who was affected? In hindsight, what do we know now that might have been valuable insight to this person? 
As you explore stress test stories, the people your students meet will become points of reference for future discussions in the classroom — and will inspire students when they face their own stress tests of character.


Karen E. Bohlin, EdD, LCI Director

Dr. Karen E. Bohlin, Director of LCI and Head of Montrose School, is a recognized thought leader in the field of character and ethics education. Director Emerita and Senior Scholar at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility; co-architect of the National Schools of Character Program, Dr. Bohlin has served as advisor to the White House Domestic Policy Office on character education; consultant to the MA, GA, WV, NJ, SC Departments of Education; scholar for the Intellectual Virtues Project at Loyola Marymount University; a sabbatical fellow at the Jubilee Centre; an editorial reviewer and contributor to the Journal of Character Education and the Journal of Education at Boston University.  She is the author and contributing author of several books including Teaching Character Education Through Literature: Awakening the Moral Imagination (Routledge 2005), Building Character in Schools (Jossey-Bass 1999) and Happiness and Virtue: Beyond East and West: Toward a New Global Responsibility (Tuttle 2012). An important focus of her work is helping school leaders and teachers develop practical wisdom.

Deborah Farmer Kris, LCI Associate Director

Deborah Farmer Kris is passionate about sharing the best research and practices that help parents and educators answer the question, “How can we help our children thrive?” Deborah works as a parenting columnist and consultant for PBS Parents, she writes about education for MindShift (an NPR education blog), and she is a senior associate at BU's Center for Character and Social Responsibility. Over the course of her career, Deborah has taught elementary, middle and high school, served as a school administrator, and directed a girls leadership institute. Her writing has been featured several times in The Washington Post, and she is the co-author of the book Building Character in Schools: A Resource Guide. A popular speaker, she has presented to hundreds of parents and educators around the country on topics related to character development.

The Authors would also like to gratefully acknowledge those whose wisdom and teaching have inspired this work: 
Steven S. Tigner, Professor Emeritus, Boston University
Kevin Ryan, Founding Director, the Center for the Advancement of Ethics & Character
James Arthur OBE, Director, The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues
Beth Purvis, Program Director, The Kern Family Foundation
Teachers and school leaders we have worked with around the country
The faculty & staff of Montrose School

The Stress Tests of Character curriculum was made possible with the generous support of a grant from the Kern Family Foundation and our partnership with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Copyright © 2020 LifeCompass Institute for Character & Leadership. All rights reserved.

For more information on this and other resources, visit The LifeCompass Institute.

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