How to teach children character traits

51vkrH+D5uL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Public school in America does a good job at teaching the basics: reading, writing, math, science, and other subjects.

Public schools are known to be a place where kids go to “socialize” with their friends.

However, public school typically don’t offer a course on friendship and interpersonal skills.

Kids with pro social character traits are generally more likeable. The kids poor social character traits are federally less likeable and more often rejected. They suffer more mental health problems too.

My book, Building Character with Sam and Izzy aims to bring social skills and character development to the classroom. The book has a mission to help kids to make more friends and to feel happier (most of the time). Being happy 100% of the time isn’t realistic.


My sister’s wild animals.

The book uses pictures of dogs (and some cats) to teach children how to make friends by improving their character traits. The book started when my sister’s two dogs Izzy (a Chihuahua) and Sam (an English Bulldog) became friends. What an unlikely friendship. I figured if these two (very different dogs) can be friends then any two kids could become friends too.

In fact, even the dog (and cat) can be friends. See the picture of my sister’s dog Sugar and the cat. I can’t recall that cat’s name.

My book isn’t therapy, but it uses a lot of recreational therapy interventions.

  • Bibliotherapy is a type of therapy based on reading books. My book could be used in recreational therapy.
  • Animal therapy is uses animals in the facilitation of needs. My book uses pictures of friendly animals
  • Activities are part of recreational therapy. My book includes access to download an instructor’s workbook with activity ideas: like making a compromise to select a game, volunteering and helping; being a team-member; and a good sport.

Here is the summary of the book:

Danny Pettry is a Recreational Therapist who specializes in working with children (ages 7 to 12) who have mental and behavioral health needs.
Now he has put together an astonishing children’s book to help ALL children have better social health and wellness.
Danny Pettry’s book teaches character lessons to children using colorful pictures of animals. This book is a valuable tool for teachers, group leaders, therapists and parents alike.
This book covers social skills and character values like:
Accepting others
Having good sportsmanship
Being respectful, generous, helpful, empathetic, and more.
This book helps children learn how to make friends and get along with others.
You’d like for your child or a child you know to develop and improve these skills, wouldn’t you?
You like pictures of cute animals don’t you?
All right then.
Just read the book to your child.


I’ve been featured in the media a few times with this book.

  • I did an interview for National Public Radio (but they’ve taken down the recording – I guess because it has been so many years).
  • Parenting Magazine featured the book
  • Several newspapers


Seal of Approval Winner by The National Parenting Center
Testers were delighted to discover this storybook that teaches children important lessons about tolerance, empathy, sharing, compassion and much more. Pettry uses adorable dogs and puppies to illustrate these good character traits. Parents noted how well the book was written. The style easily connected with children and was fun for parents to read. What many parents told us was that this book sparked conversations about various behaviors including how humans and dogs share many similarities when it comes to caring for each other.

5-Star Rating from Reader’s Favorites

5-Star Rating from Reviewers on Amazon!

Get the book here:


Personal Experiencecanstockphoto26598298

I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class. I didn’t have a 4.0 in public school or undergraduate school. I did finally get a 4.0 in graduate school. I had an A in almost every course. I did get a B in Ethics. I know – that doesn’t sound good, does it?

However, I did win the class of 1992 Good Citizenship Award at my Elementary School.

I’d argue that a child’s social health (interpersonal skills) and ability to deal with emotions (affect regulation skills) might be more of an indicate of success in life compared to just having high grade point average.

The Benefits of Being Likeable vs. the Cons for Being Unlikeable

canstockphoto21350525 copyLikeability is one social skill that can be addressed by Recreation Therapists.


Recreation therapists who provide services for people (children, teens, and adults) with behavioral health needs may encounter clients who lack interpersonal skills needed to get along with others, to make healthy relationships and connections, and to keep those relationships.


Rec therapists can provide education:


  • People who have unlikeable characteristics are more likely to be rejected, ignored, and left to fend for themselves. Think about it for yourself. How likely are you to reach out and help someone who has been rude and disrespectful towards you? It would be difficult to do.


  • People with likeable characteristics are more likely to get help, support, care, and things they want from others. Think about it for yourself.  How likely are you to reach out and help someone who has been helpful, kind, and just amazing towards you? You might feel inkling to help out that person.


Education alone won’t cause change. In example: cigarettes have educational warnings on the packages that let people know how dangerous they are and yet people still smoke.


            Real authentic changes have to be intrinsic and self-motivated. Outside change (like nagging) and (pestering) won’t do much to encourage a person to change.


Here are two rhetorical questions recreation therapists can propose as the start of a session to get a client (or clients in a group setting) to start contemplating (improving interpersonal skills).


Do you like winning?


Do you like getting what you want?


The two questions (listed above) might get people’s attention.


Most people are tuned into Wii FM, which stands for (What’s In It For Me?)



I then suggest: You might want to consider developing interpersonal skills to become more likeable.

Ask this question: 


Which one wins most of the time? Being likeable or unlikeable?


Write this formula on the dry erase board for the day:

Being Likeable is Greater Than > Being Unlikeable



Example of How Being Likeable Wins

 Share this famous story: 

Two politicians in England were running for Prime Minster. Both men wanted to “win” the position of becoming England’s next Prime Minster. One woman was arranged to have dinner with each of them on two consecutive nights. Here is what she had to say about each of them.

  • When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England.
  • But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.

Disraeli won the election that year and became the next Prime Minster. 

The same is true in most elections. Unlikeable candidates often lose elections to those people who are likeable (charismatic). Think about it for yourself? Who would you want to pick as the winner: a person you like or a person you don’t really care for? I imagine you’ll go with the person you like.

The same is true for anything that requires picking people. Most people pick the person like the over the person who they detest.

Here are some rhetorical questions for group members to consider:

  • Would you choose to go to a grocery store where you like the staff or would you go to the grocery store with people you detest?
  • Would you choose a dentist that you like compared to one who you dislike?
  • Would you give a loan to a friend who you like compared to a person you can’t stand?

People with “likeable” traits are probably more  likely to get chosen and selected.

The question to ask yourself: do you have “likeable traits?” Do you want to know the secret sauce for being more likeable and winning?

What was Disraeli’s secret sauce to winning the election?

It’s simple: 

Disraeli was more likeable.

He made people around him to feel important, valued, and even “clever” when they were with him. Whereas, Gladstone did not pay attention towards other people. Gladstone was more focused on himself and his own accomplishments.

So, how can you be likeable? Dale Carngie in his classic, best-selling self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence Others, said: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other peopleinterested in you.”

The Secret to being Likeable is very easy: be interested in other people.

Discussion Questions About Listening and Paying Attention

  1. How can you tell if a person is not listening to you and not paying attention to you and just not interested in you?


  1. How do you feel when a person doesn’t listen to you?



  1. How can you tell if a person is definitely listening to you and paying attention to you?


  1. How does that make you feel when a person is listening and paying attention to you?



  1. How do you imagine other people will “feel” around you if you don’t listen to them?


  1. How do you imagine other people will “feel” around you if you do show interest in them?



The Take-Home Message

  • Radical acceptance: we can’t change other people.
  • 100% personal responsibility: you can change yourself!

You can start practicing (being interested in other people) so that YOU become more likeable. So, you’ll start to make more positive relationships and keep those positive relationships!

 Attention Rec Therapist: Do you want to learn more about people skills? 

Sign-up for Interpersonal Success Secrets (self-study course). It is worth 5 clock hours of continuing education. Session content is CE pre-approved by NCTRC.

The course requires reading a book. We also include some helpful resources in the membership area for this course.

Go here now:

Violence and Barriers to Meaningful Relationships

A MSRT student at Temple University. shared that she had been introduced to Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk: What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.
Here is a link to the video:
The student shared, “His main point states that in life, our happiness is most influenced by meaningful relationships.”
She asked: “My question to you is how, in our practice, can we best promote meaningful relationships for our participants when there may be barriers due to violence? What kinds of interventions do you use to help various populations that may become more reclusive due to past abuse, gender violence, etc.? In what ways can we address this issue with participants?”
Here is my response:


I provide services for children (both male and female) between (ages 7 to 12) who have abuse-reactive needs. Children admitted to the unit have experienced some type of traumatic in their life.

 It is a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility. The typical stay is 6 to 9 months.

Some of the common needs among patients include:


  • Lack of interpersonal skills (possibly from learned behaviors)
  • Lack of assertiveness skills (often resorts to physical, verbal aggression)
  • Lack of a social support system (no identified foster family or adoptive family)
  • Lack trust in others
  • In addition, patients may have other conditions, like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Some children have Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) – this is where they had neglect at an early age and fail to learn how to have emotional connections and relationships


Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) are the two primary treatment modalities. There is evidenced-based research that demonstrates that these two approaches are effective.

Both TF-CBT and DBT have a focus on interpersonal skills.

  • In the TF-CBT mode, there is a phase called, enhancing social skills
  • In the DBT model, there interpersonal skills are one of the four main skill sets taught.


We identify our intervention as “interpersonal skills training or social skills training.”

We in recreation therapy have a lot to offer in this domain.


We use a lot of recreation activities as means to achieve outcomes.

  • Sports: taking turns, good sportsmanship, being part of a team/ group
  • Board games: taking turns, being a good sport,
  • Social activities: ballroom party for Halloween or ice cream social
  • Education/ classroom settings: to teach skills. Using pictures of children in different social situations
  • The listening game: Teach what paraphrasing is. Get a book like “The conversation starts.” Read a question to a group member. Group member answers. Randomly select a different group member to paraphrase what the first group member said to indicate he (or she) listened and then ask that group member a question.
  • Assertiveness training: Teach the children to ask for what they want or to express their feelings with use of I-statements.
  • Cinema therapy card game: Play a movie. Ask children questions from the card game that get the kids to point out social skills, emotions in characters
  • Community re-entry outings: passes to local parks, zoos, water parks, mall, or other places.
  • Emotional support: being able to recognize emotions in others and be able to offer support
  • Family-based recreation therapy: with rec therapist: Mental health therapist/ counselor provide family therapy. and the rec therapist often supervise the community re-entry outings before a new family is on their own with a patient. The rec therapist can implement games and activities to help the family and child to get to know each other, and supervises passes in the community.


The recreation therapist serves as a role-model, a coach, a facilitator, and evaluates progress.