Picture this, your 5-year-old child comes running in the house after school and you have this interaction:
“Mommy, mommy, I used perseverance at school today.
“Really?! How did you do that?”
“Because I just kept trying. I wanted to give up on a math problem because it was so hard. But, I told myself to use my perseverance. So, I kept trying and I figured it out!
This is a typical conversation that emerges from the first grade students at Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, where educator/consultant Sarah Pearlz is training the teachers on how to bring strengths into the classroom. Here are examples of what they do:
Teachers read stories and ask the children: What strengths did the main character show? Did you notice any characters being curious? Using fairness?
Teachers infuse strengths into the lesson plans. Bravery is taught, prudence is explained, kindness is discussed.
Students identify their own top strengths, referred to as “my signature strengths.”
Students discover and practice ways of using their signature strengths at school, with their homework, and in play with other students.
Students are directly encouraged to turn to their character strengths when they are trying to manage a problem or a conflict with another student.
Nothing short of extraordinary. Here’s what the teachers observed:
Spontaneous strengths use. The children learn the language and quickly begin to apply it at home and school.
Increases in confidence from the beginning of the school year.
Increases in problem-solving and openness to new things.
Greater happiness from the beginning of the school year. (This is aligned with scientific findings that character strengths use is connected to well-being in youth and children.)
Feeling more authentic (yes, the kids do use that word). They report feeling a sense of ownership of who they are. They see themselves in a new light – from a different angle.
Transformed parent-teacher meetings. Teachers (and students, when present) share with parents the character strengths of the child and how the child uses them during the school day. Teachers also query the parents’ about their character strengths.
A new perspective for parents. Here’s an example: A very critical father, upon learning about his son’s signature strength of creativity and his son’s use of creativity in solving complex problems, wrote a letter to his son with the following statement: “Your mother and I were so amazed and surprised at who’ve you’ve become this year.”
Strengths spreading throughout the school: Other teachers hear the excitement from the students and teachers and want in on the practice. Teachers appreciate that this approach is not about doing “one more thing” rather it’s about enhancing the work they are already doing.
Video resources on character strengths in education
Shanghai American School: Shanghai, China: video (1st graders)
Bella Vista Elementary School: Salt Lake City, Utah: video (4th graders)
Newark Boys Chorus School: Newark, NJ: video (whole school)
St. Peter’s College: Adelaide, Australia video (high school students)
Strengths Gym (2011) by Carmel Proctor and Jenny Fox Eades. This practical book focuses on various exercises for working with each of the 24 character strengths. It comes with a CD of worksheets and exercises.
Smart Strengths (2011) by John Yeager, Sherri Fisher, and David Shearon. This guide-book is for parents, teachers, and coaches interested in building character strengths and resilience in youth.
Celebrating Strengths (2008) by Jenny Fox Eades. This book is for teachers and school professionals interested in bringing character strengths into the school culture.
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Proctor, C., Tsukayama, E., Wood, A., M., Maltby, J., Fox Eades, J., & Linley, P. A. (2011). Strengths gym: The impact of a character strengths-based intervention on the life satisfaction and well-being of adolescents. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(5), 377-388.
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Shoshani, A., & Slone, M. (2012). Middle school transition from the strengths perspective: Young adolescents’ character strengths, subjective well-being, and school adjustment. Journal of Happiness Studies.
Weber, M., & Ruch, W. (2012). The role of a good character in 12-year-old school children: Do character strengths matter in the classroom? Child Indicators Research, 5(2), 317-334.
Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.