Originally published: May 2019
Introducing a common language of ‘what is right’ or ‘what is good’ into your school has the power to strengthen school culture through increasing engagement, improving relationships and enhancing wellbeing. It is frequently uplifting for teachers and students to increase their awareness, their appreciation and their application of Character Strengths.
In Positive Education literature, Character Strengths are defined as the positive human qualities which serve as pathways for living a good life. For many schools, the VIA classification of 24 Character Strengths is a great starting point because of its simplicity, universality, evidence base, and because much of the tool is freely available.
Below are four ways of harnessing the power of Character Strengths within a school environment. Hopefully these ideas act as food for thought and catalyst for action, but ultimately the goal is for you to modify, tailor and apply these ideas in your own context. This is not an exhaustive list, just four digestible ideas for you to ponder.
- Right from the start, gather Character Strengths information!
When a student is first registered with a school, it is important that a whole range of personal details and information regarding medical, emotional, physical or educational concerns are collected. However, does your school also ask and collect information about a new student’s Character Strengths, interests and talents? It is validating for a child and for a parent to share with their new school information about what makes the child strong, moral and resilient. It is also important for this information to go on a child’s file and to be shared with key colleagues. Another way of achieving this goal is to invite parents, early in a school year, to write about their child at their best. Given that one’s Character Strengths are not fixed, it is important to occasionally revisit the identification of Character Strengths and Signature Strengths. Teachers are also encouraged to regularly document and share positive student information and ensure positive messages are communicated during key student transitions.
- Validate what’s right before discussing what’s wrong
In all schools, there will be times when a teacher is required to have a conversation with a student regarding a mistake (mis – take). This may be a behavioural matter or an error of judgement on the student’s behalf and requires a confidential (and clear and compassionate) conversation. Immediately prior to the conversation occurring, revisiting the student’s Signature Strengths and acknowledging these qualities in the student may well lead to a more productive and educative conversation where the student acknowledges their mistake and explores ways to resolve and repair the situation.
- Intentionally identify Character Strengths in a challenging student (or colleague)
There will always be challenging students and challenging colleagues and there is a good chance there have been times when you have been the challenging student or the challenging colleague for someone else! Due to our innate negativity bias it is easy for us to notice a perceived flaw in someone else’s character and for this to become the dominant, and sometimes only trait we notice in this person. Given the vital importance of nurturing respectful relationships, a way to shift your perspective is to consider, identify and acknowledge various Character Strengths authentically actioned by this person. Dr. Denise Quinlan put it elegantly in a post simply titled ‘24 Ways to Like a Difficult Child’.
- Weave Character Strengths into your thankyous
As you write supportive notes to members of your school community (colleagues, students and parents), can the intentional inclusion of specific Character Strengths add to your message? Articulating explicit strengths you have seen in action and admired, accompanied with specific evidence and examples can be warmly received and deeply valued by another. Always ensure your authenticity and use language that feels comfortable to you and words you anticipate will be well received. This can be extended judiciously to report writing and providing student feedback.
Please don’t hesitate to be in touch and let us know your favourite application of Character Strengths in schools.
Justin Robinson is the former Director of the Institute of Positive Education. As a passionate leader in the field of student and staff wellbeing, Justin has been invited to write for a number of publications and speak at conferences both in Australia and around the world.