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Cultivating Character With a Strong Sense of Self

I would like to share the following article about Saint David's Sophrosyne values-centered health and wellness program. Written by Dr. Evan Morse, it appears in the current issue of Saint David's Magazine.

Dr. Morse and Ms. Chaiet of Prepare Inc. lead boys in role-playing strategies to combat stress.

In adolescence, boys enter an exciting yet vulnerable period of rapid social and emotional development in which they begin to form an independent identity as they encounter the wider world. Students at Saint David’s are faced with a very large world as both digital natives and residents of a global metropolis. In recognition of these challenges, Saint David’s has continued to refine the Sophrosyne program. Sophrosyne is a values-centered course that helps boys navigate social, health, and wellness issues while developing a strong sense of self. In the later years, the classes focus on particular risk factors and strategies, but the extension of the program into the Lower School reflects that the true core of the program is character education. In every grade level, Sophrosyne is an opportunity for self-reflection on virtues like empathy, respect, and friendship.

As a young program, Sophrosyne continues to expand, now spanning First through Eighth Grade. Despite its newness, the boys have begun to confidently claim the once unfamiliar term as their own. On my first day, one boy assuredly defined Sophrosyne for the class as “knowing yourself, and knowing what’s good for you.” I found this to be an excellent interpretation of a difficult-to-translate ancient Greek word that combines the concepts of good health, temperance, self-awareness, and excellence of character.

“Sophrosyne” perfectly expresses the idea of a balanced program of character education. Fundamentally, this Greek moral framework conveys that right action is the result of self-knowledge. Further, since the Greek philosophical tradition does not draw a strong distinction between the body, mind, and soul, the term Sophrosyne naturally links bodily and mental health to virtue in practice. Framed in this way, the program innately situates the latest empirical research on health outcomes within a classical framework.

Sophrosyne classes are grounded in the values of Saint David’s.

In helping boys to develop the ability to reflect on and respond to the challenges they face, Saint David’s has one particularly critical asset: a supportive community guided by an enduring mission statement. This mission-driven community underlies the development of Saint David’s reimagined health education program. The values of Saint David’s—deliberate moral introspection, critical analysis, and a respect for religious tradition—are a beacon that guides the boys’ growth. These values bind the Saint David’s community together, allowing Sophrosyne to build connections across the school’s programs, reaching, for example, to the Religion Department for applied moral guidance, to English classes for a critical emotional vocabulary, or the advisory program for more individually guided reflection.

The activities of our classes are geared toward the development of self-knowledge and its growth into self-advocacy. Boys are guided to consciously reflect on their own feelings, needs, and motivations and then to articulate this knowledge by appropriating the values of Saint David’s for themselves. The personal nature of Sophrosyne obliges the boys to deeply and authentically engage with these values. This discernment is the foundation of the second major emphasis of the Sophrosyne program: the forthright presentation of various perspectives on difficult topics.

Dr. Morse leads a Sophrosyne session on how to deal with challenging situations related to drugs and alcohol.

Rather than being passively told what to think, students are given the opportunity to envision their own ideal state of well-being, and from there, discern how to pursue this. This approach builds trust, allowing the boys to advocate for themselves, and encourages them to seek support from across the community. Empowering boys in this way enables them to not only ask good questions, but ultimately to make responsible choices that are authentically their own. All the evidence shows that self-regulation is critical for social and emotional health as adolescents gradually but inexorably achieve increasing independence. 

We can see these principles in action across the program, but I would like to look at two concrete examples. Digital media and technology are an increasingly omnipresent aspect of modern life. From coding classes and robotics to digital art projects, the conscious use of technology across Saint David’s is an exciting trend.

These opportunities increase student engagement and help to prepare boys for life in a rapidly changing world. But the breakneck pace of technological change also presents risks. As a result, good digital citizenship and healthy technology use have become pivotal elements of the Sophrosyne curriculum. We have partnered with an outside group, Common Sense Media, that is committed to avoiding moral panic and focusing on the latest research into healthy technology use in adolescence. We then frame and develop this factual information in light of the values of Saint David’s—ensuring that healthy use contributes to the growth of good men.

In every grade level, Sophrosyne is an opportunity for self-reflection on virtues like empathy, respect, and friendship.

The boys are active partners in these discussions, and their experiences, needs, and concerns ultimately shape the direction of the program. The curriculum gives each boy the opportunity to reflect on his own feelings about and relationship with technology. In doing so they rely on an emotional vocabulary developed across the curriculum. The boys vividly clarified the addictive potential of social media and video games for themselves in a discussion in which they shared their own experiences and subsequent feelings using literary similes. Responding to the pitfalls of technology requires both self-regulation and community engagement, but awareness and engagement are first steps on the path to fulfilling, ethical use of new technologies.

The focus of the Sophrosyne program is student wellness through self-knowledge, but as the mission of the school makes clear, service to the self necessitates service to others. In practice, this means that the personal work of Sophrosyne is always informing and informed by boys’ work in other areas. Here Saint David’s commitment to a balanced education shines: a boy’s awareness and expression of his own feelings builds on and informs the experience of empathetically reading literature.

The exploration in religion of what it is to be a person for others guides the boys’ approach to right conduct in their own lives. Further, in the Seventh and Eighth grades, Sophrosyne can provide structured resources to the advisory program, while the close relationship between each boy and their advisor allows for further discussion about difficult topics. In each of these cases, Sophrosyne is strengthened by its deep connections to the broader community and curriculum.

The role of Saint David’s is education in the broadest sense. The continuing growth of the Sophrosyne program shows the commitment of the school to not only shape men who are scholarly, creative, athletic, and spiritual, but who are good. Self-knowledge and strength of character are foundational to present well-being and resilience in the face of future challenges but also to the basic integrity that comes from uniting all these qualities in a healthy and balanced way.

Evan Morse, Ph.D., is Upper School Sophrosyne Coordinator at Saint David’s School.

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