Nurturing Character Self-Awareness in Teens

A strengths-based exercise strategy.

Posted Sep 01, 2018

I recently conducted a character development workshop for high school students who were attending the Military Child Education Coalition’s (MCEC) National Training Seminar in Washington, DC. Military personnel move frequently and thus their children must regularly adapt to new schools, make new friends, and otherwise adapt to new surroundings. I was chatting with the fourteen-year-old daughter of one of my West Point colleagues recently. I asked her how many times she had moved, and she said eight times. This is not unusual, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see the challenges this presents children of all ages. To help military children succeed in this and other challenges, MCEC has developed a variety of programs aimed to promote the well-being of these young nomads. Because frequent family moves are not within the sole purview of military families, many of MCECs programs are relevant for civilians who must relocate because of professional or personal reasons.[i]

Military Child Education Coalition, used with permission
MCEC Student 2 Student program.
Source: Military Child Education Coalition, used with permission

One MCEC program that is especially effective is called Student 2 Student®, or S2S™ for short. In the S2S program, students, including children of both military and non-military parents, can volunteer to form a S2S chapter. MCEC has trained over 1000 elementary, middle, and high schools in 34 states and 13 foreign counties in S2S programs, helping thousands of children along the way. MCEC provides each chapter with training and support to help them achieve their mission of easing school transitions. In addition, S2S members can volunteer to attend special training and development experiences. For example, each year about 20 S2S kids from schools around the globe attend a one-week long leader development program at West Point, named after and supported by the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Francis Hesselbein. The Air Force Academy supports a similar program each year.

At this year’s National Training Seminar, I conducted a session with 30 S2S attendees. All were high school students, and included freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. They were a mix of military and civilian teens. This character development workshop was one of several programs these S2S members were able to attend over the course of the national meeting. They were bright, diverse, and highly motivated (if you ever find yourself becoming cynical about today’s youths, I suggest you spend an hour with an S2S chapter. Your faith in this new generation will be quickly restored!).

There were two goals for this session. First was to build self-awareness among these teens about their own positive character strengths. Second, I wanted to show them how their own personal character strengths may provide a toolbox, from which specific tools (i.e., strengths) may be selected to help them succeed in a variety of situations. Prior to the National Training Seminar, MCEC emailed all participants a link to the Values-in-Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS).[ii] First described by positive psychology pioneers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, this questionnaire measures each of 24 character strengths purported to be universal in the human species, rank ordered from the highest to the lowest.[iii] These 24 strengths are organized into six “moral virtues” including Wisdom and Knowledge (consisting of creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective ), Courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, zest), Humanity (capacity to love, kindness, social intelligence), Justice (teamwork, fairness, leadership), Temperance (forgiveness, modesty, prudence, self-regulation), and Transcendence (appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope/optimism, humor, and spirituality). The students’ scores on the VIA-IS were used as the basis for the remainder of the workshop.

I began the workshop by asking the students to form six groups, with each group seated at a separate table. Each table was equipped with a flip chart and colored markers. I asked each student to privately list their top five character strengths, and then to spend five minutes reflecting on an occasion in the past when they had used one or more of these strengths to accomplish something difficult, to achieve a goal, or to overcome an obstacle. Next, I asked each student to pair up with another student at his or her table, and to share their response to this question. This resulted in a lively discussion within pairs of students. We capped off this part of the workshop by asking volunteers from each of the six tables to share their experiences with the audience at large. Through this discussion, the students learned about their own character strengths, and from the general discussion the many ways that different strengths may be leveraged to succeed in a variety of situations.

The second part of the workshop focused on the idea that one’s complete profile of character strengths may be used as specific tools matched to specific sorts of problems. For this exercise, I assigned one of the moral virtues (Wisdom and Knowledge, etc.) to each of the six tables. Thus, the five students at one table would think about the individual character strengths that comprise the humanity virtue, another table those that make up the transcendence virtue, and so forth. Next, I posed a series of hypothetical scenarios to the group that teens are likely to face, such as dealing with a bully, struggling to do well in a particular class, or fitting in after moving to a new school. The assignment for each of the six groups was to think of ways that the component strengths of their assigned virtue could be used to overcome these challenges. For each scenario, I asked students from each table to discuss their ideas with the general group. The discussion that ensued was lively and enlightening. It was interesting for both the students and me to see how strengths from the different virtues could be applied in different ways to address widely different sorts of challenges faced every day by high school students.

There is a growing body of evidence that learning about one’s character strengths and how to mindfully use them to better one’s life is an effective strategy to build personal and social well-being.[iv] For the workshop attendees, this represented a new way of thinking about themselves, and how their own unique profile of positive character strengths may be employed to enhance learning, social relationships, personal adjustment, and to overcome obstacles. These teens will soon face new and bigger challenges. Graduating from high school, entering college or the workforce, forming new relationships, and a myriad of other life changes — all may be made easier by enhanced self-awareness and knowledge of how to apply character strengths in the ways covered in the workshop.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

[i] For more information on MCEC go to www.militarychild.org/

[ii] To take the survey visit www.authentichappiness.org

[iii] Peterson, C., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2004), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (New York: Oxford University Press).

[iv] For more on the science of this, see Matthews, M. D. (2014). Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War (New York: Oxford University Press), Chapter 2, page 26.