Role Models for Youth: A Survey and Unit of Study

Role Models for Youth:
A Survey and Unit of Study


Steven H. White and Joseph E. O’Brien

Students’ identification with role models is a part of how they perceive themselves, or at least what they hope to be someday. An “essential, and often neglected, dynamic of character formation is the provision of opportunities for students to observe and practice good character and civic virtue.”1 The deliberate study of role models in social studies might enable students to reflect on what characteristics they consider important in a person and how they might strive to acquire those characteristics. We would like to present, first, an overview of students’ responses to a survey about role models, then a unit of study for teaching about role models in the second through fourth grades.

We posed three questions about role models to approximately 830 K-12 students in eastern Kansas.2 We gave a written survey to 3-12 grade students and interviewed K-2 grade students. The sequence of questions was arranged so that students were required to consider what a role model was and what they might need to do to become one before identifying who was one of their role models. Once they identified a role model, they were asked to explain why the person or character was a role model to them.


What is a Role Model?

Overall, responses to this question fell into four categories. The majority of students gave definitions that were general, such as “a role model is someone to look up to” or someone “you want to be like.” The second most popular response described a role model as someone who “sets an example” or “does good things.” A third category consisted of responses such as someone “who inspires you,” “who teaches you,” and who “helps you.” While related, each set of responses seemed distinct. Respondents seemed influenced by a role mode#146;s actions and portrayed role models as a positive or influential person. The fourth category consisted of five different, but related, responses: “I don’t know”; “do not have one”; no response; a literal definition of model; or a nonsense answer. The responses of primary students often showed incomprehension or misunderstanding: first, “I don’t know”; second, a literal definition of model such as a “Star Trek mode#148; or someone who “shows clothes”; and third, non-answers such as “a woman.” It could be that the meaning of the term role model is unclear to very young students so—in a classroom setting—a basic definition would have to be provided by the teacher before a meaningful discussion could be had.


Who are Your Personal Role Models?

Parents and other family members were identified most often as a role model. Teachers were second. Third came popular persons such as sports figures, actors, and musicians. The remaining role models represented less than 8% of the responses and included such figures as God, Martin Luther King, Jr., and “myself.”


How Do You Choose a Role Model?

The responses to this question fell into six categories and enlightened us with regard to students’ conceptions of a role model. There were two categories of character traits that represented the largest sets of responses. The first category consisted of general traits that implied a relationship such as “caring” and “loving.” A second category included traits that seemed oriented toward the role model him or herself such as “pretty,” “cool,” and “smart.” A third category consisted of helpful actions, the role model assisting the respondent—typical responses included the role model “setting a good example,” “showing me right from wrong,” “teaching me,” and “showing me the right way to do things.” Specific accomplishments of the role model served as the basis for the fourth category—the role model was “a hard worker” or “good at what she does” or had “achieved” some success. “Look up to” and “admire” made up a fifth category, but represented less than 7% of the responses. The sixth category was incorrect answers.


Making Connections

Students’ conceptions of a role model often depended on a personal relation. This might help explain why students identified so few public figures as role models. Also, given what they desired of a role model, it is not surprising that they focused on adults in two familiar roles—an older family member and a teacher. The idea that a role model sets an example dominated their response, but students also considered general characteristics to be important. Specific, notable achievements seemed less important than consistency in a role model. There was a great variety, however, as to which character traits were most worthy of emulation. This finding seemed to underscore the personal nature of one’s relationship with a role model.3

In summary, students defined a role model as someone who:

> Embodies a set of character traits worthy of emulation

> Is capable of action worth admiring

> Seeks to help others

> Inspires and enables others to take action

> Is someone to look up to

The students’ responses raised as many questions as they provided answers. Is a role model, for example, so personalized that students are unlikely to agree upon the character traits that make someone a role model? Will students be unlikely to agree upon public figures that might serve as role models? Since many schools use character education programs that are based up a set of character traits, are students likely to encounter discrepancies between what they believe constitutes a good role model and what the program offers or what other students believe? Just as important, how stable are the traits and actions that students associate with a role model? Do students tend to look up to the same role model through the years? If so, do the reasons why a person is considered a role model change? We are pursuing these questions as we further investigate students’ understanding of role models.



“One important dynamic by which individuals acquire values is through exposure to attractive models of behavior.”4 Often such exposure occurs in an ad-hoc, haphazard manner, but by incorporating a study of role models into the existing social studies curriculum, teachers could draw upon a rich source of potential role models in history and across cultures (see References).5 Just as important, teachers can draw upon students’ own experiences and even use people in the community as resources (as guests in the classroom or interviewees for student reporters), people who students consider to be role models. Such an approach increases the relevance of studying about role models, ties the students to their local communities, validates students’ efforts to find good role models, and provides a basis for discussion about civic virtues and responsibilities. G



1. National Council for the Social Studies, “Fostering Civic Virtue: Character Education in the Social Studies,” Position Statement (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1997). (

2. Blue Valley School District, Overland Park; Kansas City Kansas School District; Lawrence School District, Lawrence; and Turner School District, Kansas City.

3. These findings stand in contrast to what we learned when we posed similar questions to the same students about heroes. In comparing heroes and role models, role models, by and large, were more personal than heroes. For some respondents, heroes seemed more distant, larger than life, and less attainable than role models. Respondents did not necessarily have to identify with a hero, but did have to with a role model. Role models were always positive, though not necessarily the heroes. In fact, respondents often indicated that it was important that their role model not do something such as “take drugs” while a few respondents identified individuals as heroes who were noted for doing just that.

4. NCSS, Position Statement, 1997.

5. G. E. Tompkins and L. M. McGee, Teaching Reading with Literature: Case Studies to Action Plans (New York: Merrill, 1993).


Conly, Jane Leslie. Crazy Lady. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Twelve-year-old Vernon forms an offbeat friendship with an alcoholic woman and her developmentally disabled son that changes all their lives.

Farmer, Nancy. A Girl Named Disaster. New York, Orchard Books, 1996. Eleven-year-old Nhamo (whose name means “disaster”) flees her village in Mozambique in search of her father in Zimbabwe. She survives harsh conditions and then builds a new life in the very different world of her father’s people.

Fenner, Carol. Yolonda’s Genius. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Yolonda, a feisty fifth grader, is determined to bring to light her younger brother’s talent to transform the world around him by the music he makes.

Fisher, Leonard Everett. Gandhi. New York Atheneum, 1996. Young readers are introduced to Gandhi, the father of independent India, and his powerful message of change through nonviolence.

Freedman, Russell. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery. New York: Clarion, 1993. Eleanor Roosevelt’s life is chronicled from a sheltered, unhappy childhood to her role on the world’s stage as a humanitarian and activist.

Giff, Patricia Reilly. Lily’s Crossing. New York: Delacorte, 1997. Ten-year-old Lily’s best friend moves away and her beloved father goes off to war in the summer of 1944. Lily meets a young Hungarian refugee and they share loneliness, secrets, and lies.

Konigsburg, E. L. The View From Saturday. New York: Atheneum, 1996. A smart sixth grade class may win the “Academic Bowl,” but it is their friendship that earns them first place in the contest.

Orgill, Roxane. If I Only Had A Horn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. This story recounts the random events that led to Louis Armstrong’s first experiences with coronet, which was just the beginning of a dream come true.

Parks, Rosa, with Jim Haskins. I Am Rosa Parks. New York: Dial, 1997. This civil rights heroine tells her story of growing up in the South and leading the Montgomery bus boycott, a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

Peck, Richard. A Long Way from Chicago. New York: Dial, 1998. Joey recalls his annual summer trips to rural Illinois with his sister Mary Alice during the Great Depression to visit their extraordinary grandmother.

Pinkney, Brian, Eleanor. San Diego: Gulliver, 1997. A feisty cowboy child grows up to become the most famous black rodeo performer.

Simon, Charnan. Jane Addams: Pioneer Social Worker. New York: Children’s Press, 1997. This book introduces readers to Jane Addams’ life from her happy childhood to her establishment of Hull House, an experiment in social welfare.

Stanley, Diane. Joan of Arc. New York: Morrow Junior, 1998. A French peasant girl leads the French to victory against the English. The story is told against a backdrop of detailed descriptions of everyday life in fifteenth century France.

Stanley, Diane. Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Morrow, 1999. This biography opens a window onto the life of an astonishingly complex and creative Renaissance genius.


About the Authors

Steven H. White and Joseph E. O’Brien are associate professors of social studies education in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.



Role Models: A Unit of Study

The most interesting lesson learned from our work was the complexity and depth of the students’ thinking about role models. Their thoughts led us to create the following model for a unit of study for students in grades 2-4. The unit’s purpose is to enable upper elementary school students to explore and analyze role models through literature and interaction with each other as guided by the teacher. Specific goals are for students to

1. Identify and describe role models in general class discussions

2. Identify and analyze the characteristics of historical role models

3. Identify and analyze the characteristics of their own personal role models

4. Create related works, such as a collage, a lifeline, and “library card catalog.”

It could take five or six class periods to complete the entire unit, but parts could be omitted. Suggested lessons are described below.


Lesson 1: Survey and Discussion

Conduct a role model survey and discuss the results as a class. Sample survey questions:

1. What is a role model?

2. Who are your role models?

3. What characteristics made these people role models for you?

4. Do role models affect your own behavior? Why or why not?

5. What would you have to do to become a role model for someone else?


Lesson 2: Biographies and Lifelines

In this activity, the teacher places students in three groups and has each group read a biography of a person who could possibly serve as a role model (see References). Each group then makes a lifeline and lists any characteristics of a role model that were revealed in the biography.

Directions to Read to Students: “Yesterday we used a survey to explore what you and other students think about role models. Now we’ll investigate what makes a person a role model. Read the biography assigned to your group. As you read it, ask yourself whether this person has any characteristics of a role model. You may choose more than one characteristic. Make sure you can explain to the rest of the group why you chose each characteristic. Your group should be prepared to give an oral report about the cKaracteristics of this person that you might try to copy in your own life.

“To accompany your presentation make a lifeline of the person in the biography.1 A lifeline shows the major events in a person’s life. Draw a line with two endpoints, where the first date is the birth of the person and the last date is his or her death (or, if they are living, the last end point is “the present”). Then list the dates of the most important events or actions in the person’s life in chronological order. Use the biography to help you make notes about these events. Record the date of the event below the timeline and summarize the event in a few words above the date. ”


Lesson 3: Brainstorm and Discussion

After hearing the oral reports on the biographies, ask the whole class to brainstorm answers to the question: “What are the characteristics of a role model?” Create a large list on the board. Then discuss some of the items in this list, guided by questions posed to the class for discussion.

1. Are some characteristics or actions more important than others? Why or why not?

2. Who today exhibits any of these characteristics?

3. What makes a role model stand out from other people in your life?

4. If someone is famous (in sports or entertainment), are they always a good role model?

5. Were the people in the biographies always famous and popular?


Lesson 4: Selection and Categorization

Directions to Read to Students: “Who can be a role model? Some people have family members or friends as their role models. Other people have teachers or police officers. Other people look up to a movie star or popular sports person. List any characteristics that you admire in people that you know (on the line after each item. It’s okay to have blank lines).”




Community leader



Police officer

Older sibling Teacher

Minister Coach

Neighbor Friend


Directions to Read to Students: “Below are some of the characteristics and actions of a role model identified by you and others who have thought about this topic. Decide how important each characteristic is to being a role model, then place an appropriate score (1, 2, or 3) in the space next to it.” (Teachers can customize this list by adding characteristics identified by their class in the right-hand column).


1: Very Important—This characteristic makes a person a role model.

2: Somewhat Important—This characteristic is admirable, but other traits or actions are more important.

3: Not Important—This characteristic is unlikely to make a person a role model.


____ Serves the community ____

____ Is physically strong ____

____ Performs a magnificent feat ____

____ Possesses special abilities ____

____ Inspires people to do good things ____

____ Has a nice personality ____

____ Makes someone else’s life better ____

____ Makes sacrifices for other people ____

____ Overcomes obstacles ____


Lesson 5: Testing the Limits

Directions to Read to Students: “We have been discussing what was needed for someone to serve as a role model. Now you will test your ideas. Consider the examples below of people and their behaviors. Then check either ‘Yes’ (I consider the person a role model) or ‘No’ (I don’t consider the person a role model). Use the space below each entry to explain in writing why you said yes or no.”


A police office who smokes cigarettes Yes No



A teacher who plays favorites Yes No Explanation:


A fire fighter who parks in handicapped spaces Yes No



A winning soccer coach who uses only the best players

Explanation: Yes No


A nurse who hates dogs Yes No



A mayor who runs red traffic lights Yes No



Lesson 6: Collage and Library Card Catalog

Directions to Read to Students: “Now you need to pull the pieces together. We will all construct a collage to show what makes a role model. Use the biography and the lifeline that you have already made to help you.”

Step 1: As a group, write a definition of a role model and tape it to the top of the poster board.

Step 2: Individually, look through the magazines supplied for pictures and words that match your group’s definition of a role model. Cut them out and place them in the middle of the table.

Step 3: As a group, review the cut-out material. Select those pieces that best meet your definition.

Step 4: Decide how to arrange the pieces on the poster board and then attach them to it with tape or glue.

Step 5: Present your collage to the class. Ask other students to tell you the definition of a role model on the basis of the collage.

Directions to Read to Students: “To wind things up, we will create a role model library catalog. Each biography reading group will complete a card that includes a lifeline and a description of a person’s qualities and deeds. A drawing of the person can be added. As you read other biographies, they can add to this card catalog so that the class will have many examples of role models.”



Role Model Library Entry


Person’s Name: Picture/Drawing


Lifeline: ____________________________________________


Personal Characteristics:

Life Accomplishments:

Source (biography title and author):

Student Group Members:



A further application: Each student can add a postscript to the above activity describing how he or she might strive to attain one or more of the qualities exhibited by this role model. A teacher might use these culminating activities to evaluate students’ ability to:

1. Provide a clear and specific definition of a role model

2. Create an accurate lifeline of a historical person

3. Describe the characteristics and actions of this person that seem admirable

4. Justify their own selection of personal role models consistent with their definition of a role model.



1. The idea of a lifeline is described in G.E. Tompkins and L.M. McGee, Teaching Reading with Literature: Case Studies to Action Plans (New York, Merrill, 1993).