We live in a complicated world, in which the beauty and hope that we know exist become overshadowed by a constant news cycle of hatred, violence and corruption. How do we prepare our children to navigate narratives of terrorism, racism and devastating inequality while supporting healthy social and emotional development?
We all have a critical role to play in helping our children grow into engaged, empathic and caring citizens. Through reading and self-expression, we can surround children with diverse stories that will connect them to the power of their own inner narratives, and to the stories of others. These “mirrors” and “windows” of reading open the world for children. And they offer a way to break down the walls that hostile narratives playing out in the media and political theatre would attempt to build up.
In my decades of experience working with teachers and parents across the country, and with community leaders and grassroots organizations around the world, the idea of learning that centers on children’s inherent strengths has emerged as the best and fastest way to boost resilience and literacy levels. My organization LitWorld created the 7 Strengths model for social and emotional learning. By empowering every child through sharing her own story, as well as listening to the stories of others, the Strengths serve as an ideal platform for guiding children towards empathy. The 7 Strengths include belonging, friendship, kindness, curiosity, confidence, courage and hope.
As individuals we all seek connection to a community where we feel accepted, supported and celebrated. By sharing our inner voices with one another, we create an environment of openness and respect. By listening to one another, we learn tolerance and creativity. Children flourish when they feel safe and necessary. Both the classroom and the home should be places for comfort and growth, assuring children of their stability while encouraging them to take risks. Use literature to explore community. Offer a book that illustrates a character’s experience in joining a group of some sort in order to explore the question: What does it mean to be part of a community?
Knowing how to cultivate and nurture relationships is key to a successful future. Friendship is an equal playing field where two people share a connection that fosters in them a deeper understanding of themselves. It is hard to navigate friendship, and yet friendship is a powerful tool that serves children well for the rest of their lives, whether at work or at home. Great literature reflects the imperfections of relationships. Seek out books that show both the challenges and triumphs of friendships, and be sure to talk to children directly about how the characters’ demonstrate friendship to others, and how they do not.
Kindness is often underrated. And yet, it prevents bullying, fortifies every single human, and powers us forward in the most challenging of times. It means being tender toward others in the world who are in need, both near and far. A community without kindness will not succeed. It is only by working with one another, instead of against one another, that we can harness the positive energy of our combined agency. Remember that children internalize the lessons of kindness from the books they read. They learn that being considerate of others goes much further than simply looking out for yourself. And make kindness a part of your classroom by acknowledging and praising students when they demonstrate kindness to each other.
Fostering a willingness to explore new territory and test new theories can open a plethora of opportunities for children. The analytic skills they develop through their own sense of curiosity can be applied in other contexts in school and elsewhere. Children who ask questions are proactively engaged in their environments and learn to anticipate both problems and solutions. Through read alouds and discussions in which you ask open-ended questions about the story, children learn how to think critically and creatively about a text. Curiosity is natural for many children, so be sure to recognize and encourage it in these settings.
Thinking independently and expressing ideas with assurance are important characteristics that we hope to build in children. Confident people are able to approach any situation knowing that they have the tools for success within themselves. Confidence can be practiced in small and daily ways in a praise-centric and inclusive environment. Ensure that when praise is given, it is specific to the child, specific to the time you have spent together and intrinsic to their being. You could say, “I love the way you listened to what Kisha was saying, and added your own ideas to the conversation.” “Thank you for making our visitors feel welcome by offering them a place to sit.”
Courage can be practiced, and courage can be learned. It is far different from the popular idea of “grit” which sometimes seems to assume that if only a child will get tough, that child can overcome obstacles. The struggles children face, whether it is bullying, difficulty at home or just getting through a hard part of school, are very real and do require courage. We learn from the mistakes and adventures of the characters in literature. We celebrate their triumphs and mourn their losses. Encourage children to apply those lessons in their own lives, knowing that if we have the courage to take risks, to make ourselves vulnerable, it will pay off tenfold in positive results.
There is so much value to optimistic thinking, and believing that today’s efforts will produce good things for yourself and for the world. Hope can be transformative for children as they aspire to more, pursue greatness in their own lives and look for inspiration in unlikely places. Seeking a diverse range of stories can help our children celebrate a world of possibility. They may read about a female president of the United States, living life on Mars or having superpowers. They can travel to the edge of the galaxy or the bottom of the ocean. They can swim with dolphins or travel to the past and meet heroes who dreamed of a better world and fought for freedom and justice. Hope is the guiding inspiration that will power our children’s futures.
By talking about these ideas—the 7 Strengths—and finding ways to make them part of children’s lives, you are providing the foundation for powerfully positive ways of communicating and interacting. When you praise children as they demonstrate positive behaviors, and point out ways to practice the behaviors at home, in school and in the community, you are imparting wisdom about how to live well among others. To live in an increasingly complex global environment, we need to impart human values of respect, understanding and compassion. Children are our greatest source of creating new and hopeful stories for our future, and that is possible with the foundation of the 7 Strengths to guide them.