Using the Language of Character Strengths in the Classroom

Dr Georgiana Cameron

Introducing the language of character strengths in your classroom is a highly impactful way to interweave Positive Education through your everyday teaching. As with most things we teach, we begin with vocabulary, breaking down what specific character strengths mean for our class. Whilst the Values in Action (VIA) definitions can guide us, the meaning of character strengths can shift according to students’ developmental stage, backgrounds and the contexts in which they live. Prudence for one class may mean ‘good with money’ and ‘living a simple life’ in another. The character strength of fairness can take on very different forms depending on a person’s experiences of fairness, and whether fairness is interpreted as what is fair to me or what is fair for others. Finding out what character strengths mean for your students is an essential first step.

Ways you might introduce the language

Depending on your time with the class and their needs, you might use character strengths language in different ways. If you have limited time with a class, it may be good to focus on three to five character strengths you have spotted in your students as a way of connecting, celebrating and reinforcing the use of strengths, for example, “I am noticing this class utilises self-control in doing their work. I see many of you are actioning the strength of forgiveness when working in small groups.”

Or you may decide to consider strengths you see the class benefitting from, for example, “This term we are focusing on the strength of critical thinking to assist us with making good decisions and comprehension.” If you have more time with a class, you can introduce character strengths language through asking students to complete the VIA survey and tally their individual strengths to find out your class’ signature strengths. Another alternative might be to play with character strengths cards and create a game based on how much students identify with certain strengths, for example, swapping cards until they are content with three strengths they see as ‘very like me’ or ‘want more of’. See here for character strength resources which can be used in the classroom.

Break character strengths down into behaviours

Having a vocabulary to talk about strengths is a wonderful first step, yet if students do not understand how character strengths relate to their actions, the language is unlikely to benefit them in terms of increasing their wellbeing and resilience. Using a strength paragon or role-model can be a useful way of coming up with behaviours associated with specific strengths. Someone like Nelson Mandela might be used to represent a paragon of forgiveness, and students could be asked to come up with a list of actions which he did to suggest this.

Another way of breaking strengths down into behaviours is to ask students, “What would a person who is very kind do and say?” in different situations. It’s important to keep digging for richer descriptions of behaviour beyond ‘smiling’, such as giving someone a hug when they are sad or sharing their food with someone who has forgotten their lunch. In making strengths more concrete, it is important to keep emphasising different interpretations of strengths. Sharing your food with your friend is not the only way to be kind, and it may not always be a kind action. Perhaps sharing your food is not so kind if food is given on the condition that they spend lunchtime with you. Class discussions might focus on the many possible strengths we can use in a given situation and the outcomes associated with different strengths.

Connect character strengths to context for students

Help students to understand that strengths can be useful in creating good experiences and navigating difficult experiences. In creating good experiences, we might focus on certain strengths to bring more joy into our lives or because they align with the kind of person we want to be. In using strengths to navigate difficulties, it can be useful for students to think through how they might use strengths against specific problems. By problems, it might be a real world problem like pollution, or a classroom problem such as not getting along, bullying and conflicts, or it might be a work problem such as when we do not understand something in class.

To begin with you might brainstorm, what strengths could be useful to develop to deal with this problem. In the case of pollution, prudence may be seen as a useful strength. In the case of not understanding something in class, love of learning, could help us. In thinking about these strengths, what does a person who is high in prudence and love of learning do and say? The prudent person will only buy what is needed and may try to minimise use of fuel. The person who loves learning may like asking questions, finding out how to do things and so on.

For every problem, it is possible to think of other strengths that people could apply. “Now, let’s think of another strength we could use!” You may go on to ask students to unpack how creativity, fairness and hope could assist them with not understanding something in class. By looking at the multitude of strengths and ways of using them, you are helping to acknowledge diversity within the classroom.

Differentiate strengths for your students

Sometimes when working with students who are younger or more concrete thinkers, we might use the metaphor of our physical body to describe strengths. I might have a top strength of zest, which is like having really strong arms. When someone asks me to be patient and to wait, the strength of zest is not so useful, like how my strong arms aren’t so useful when doing leg squats. Instead, I may need to train up one of my lesser strengths like self-control or humility for this particular task.

Check out this research article by Tayyab Rashid and others which provides some ideas about how you might use character strengths within your teaching to upskill students and address particular problems.

We deliberately use the character strength wheel (below) with our students to make the point that all of these strengths are important, there is no a hierarchy of strengths, rather they all have their place.

Dr Georgiana Cameron
Dr Georgiana Cameron is a Trainer and Content Developer for the Institute of Positive Education. She has completed a Doctorate of Educational Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Georgiana has strong experience working directly with students, teachers and families in her work as an educational psychologist. Her time working on large-scale mental health initiatives in schools has given her a sound understanding of mental health prevention and promotion.

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