Before his death in July 2012, Covey disputed criticism that he simply repackaged his Mormon faith in the "Seven Habits."
Backers say the program exceeded expectations.
"It is easier for kids at 5, 6, 7 to learn the habits than it is for us adults," said Joel Katte, principal of Meadowthorpe Elementary in Lexington, Ky., where student leadership assemblies feature students singing about and performing skits about the habits. "It's kind of a first language for them."
The program got its start in 1999 when Muriel Summers, principal of A.B. Combs Elementary in Lexington, asked Covey whether he thought the habits could be taught to children. FranklinCovey provided free training for her staff.
"We started to see amazing results," Summers said. "We saw children really being recognized for what they do well, not what they didn't do well. And we started to love them through their challenges."
Covey documented the experience at Summers' school and others in a 2008 book, and the program expanded. Besides the U.S., it's also being used in more than 35 counties, including Australia, Japan and China. Sean Covey, executive vice president at FranklinCovey and one of Covey's sons, said the company's goal is to have the Leader in Me program used in 10 percent of U.S. schools.
The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University examined two elementary schools using the program and found that students reported their teachers were nicer, while staff reported improved student behavior. That was the experience at Benjamin Harrison Elementary in Marion, Ohio, where discipline problems declined as troublemakers turned into "role model" students, principal Leah Filliater said.
"I think they saw themselves differently, and I think staff treated them a little differently," Filliater said. "I think it's a different philosophy that each student can be great at something."