Schools are full of characters. Lovely, shady, reformed and real characters everywhere. How many positive ones do you have though? If a six year old was helping a friend with a problem and said to you, “I am being helpful because that’s one of my positive strengths” then I’m sure you’d be pretty impressed. Recognising a character strength and articulating it with understanding is no mean feat for a nipper especially in a culture where it is more common to hear someone saying what they aren’t good rather than what they are. Knowing what character strengths you possess at such an early age is very achievable via the teaching of positive values in action. It’s safe to say that talking positively can be out of character for many children.
Positive psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman have identified 24 character strengths and how they can benefit happiness and wellbeing. They recommend identifying our top strengths and then using these regularly in our lives for improving health, happiness and our sense of self-worth. To find out what yours are then start by visiting www.viastrengths.org and complete an online test. I’ve done just that and my top five signature strengths are curiosity, love of learning, humour, perseverance, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence. I’m happy with that. But who taught me these and how have they developed? The different schools I attended when I was younger certainly contributed to these traits along with my parents, friends, clubs and jobs but I don’t recall anyone teaching me specifically about ‘character’ and playing to my strengths.
Given the importance we attach to character traits it is amazing that the majority of schools don’t actually have a character building teaching programme devoted to teaching specific strengths. Sure, ‘character’ is taught implicitly and explicitly in lots of different ways but how many places do you know that have a whole-school approach to teaching and developing character? If only someone had written an inclusive character development programme you could open up to the school and embed across the curriculum to enhance learning. Someone has - Jenny Fox Eades and her Character Strengths programme is a heart and soul set of resources that has the potential to equip all learners with a real understanding of each other’s positive strengths and virtues.
Celebrating Strengths is based on the work of Peterson and Seligman with a few tweaks here and there and includes another strength which they incongruously don’t include: patience. The ‘strengths’ in Celebrating Strengths include strengths of the head, heart, action, community, self-control and meaning and stretch from wisdom and creativity to hope and spirituality. This ambitious and well-thought out programme has three strands to it: strengths, stories and celebrations.
Ideas for focusing on and building these strengths into your curriculum are contained in a brilliant little box of inspiration that includes over 140 handy cards to help all learners think more about their own strengths and those of others. Each ‘strength’ has a story attached in an accompanying booklet and these would be perfect for assemblies as well as being just the ticket for PSHE lessons, literacy sessions, or end of day get-togethers and moments of reflection. The stories in themselves would be something to build into your daily routine because they all contain a key ‘strength’ message and practical example of that strength in action. They are all short stories but all long in discussion. They would be ideal for planting a seed at the end of the day ready for thoughtful discussion the next. The box is a real treasure chest of wisdom and creativity packed with activities and cross-curricular ideas that are full of life, purpose and value. There is plenty to go at here and there are some fabulous opportunities to weave storytelling, circle work and positive psychology. The cards are all springboards for you to develop your own ideas and put your own spin on the ball.
There are a set of 7 books each based around a different festival with titles devoted to beginnings, performing arts, harvest, community, Easter/Spring, Lights, and Endings. Each book takes 3 or 4 of the strengths and links them with the ideas for stories and strength builder activities found in the ideas box to develop into whole school assemblies. These are all well written and organised and very manageable too. I think to get the most out of this programme, assemblies are your perfect forum for introducing each strength and illustrating with a story.
To illustrate the 25 Character Strengths are a set of A4 cards, one for each trait. These simply drawn illustrations are delightfully drawn with a strength word underneath each one. These would make good visual resources and focal points to illustrate the strength you are zooming in on. Use them for a display, dotted around the school or for assemblies. These go particularly well with a Character Strength Playground sign. This robust foamex and fade resistant board shows all 25 illustrations and would be ideal for placing in the playground to help promote discussion. I think it could have been made bigger though. Poster versions of sign are something I would like to have seen too then each class could have one for display in their room and for placing around the school. If you spot someone displaying a strength then reward them with a sticker. There are 1200 stickers available, 25 designs, 48 of each. You could run out as the strength programme kicks in though!
What I like about this set of resources is that it weaves positive psychology with storytelling and celebrations by articulating values and focuses on what we are good at rather than our weaknesses. As teachers, we teach by example and focus on what is right with pupils and not what is wrong. This programme reinforces that approach and so has the power to make everyone ‘strength aware’ and build better relationships and interactions. You will start to notice everyone’s strengths, learn what the strengths are, compliment each other, thank each other and grow into a stronger school. As a whole-school project overtime, this has the ability to inject a real glow where everyone gets to know their own signature strengths and exploits them to the full. Negativity and character assassination has no place here.
Character Strengths has been tried and tested and the feedback from schools is very encouraging. An academic evaluation study of five schools using the programme reported enhanced emotional and social well-being, increased self-confidence and self-esteem, increased citizenship skills, and an enhanced ability amongst pupils to identify strengths in themselves and others. Rather impressively, the programme was also linked to improvements in story-telling and in developing a calmer school environment.
According to research, the most important character strengths for our wellbeing and happiness are gratitude, optimism, enthusiasm, curiosity and love. So, if we want children to have long term happiness and fulfilment then shouldn’t schools be teaching these strengths along with many others? It might be a good idea to reflect on what your school’s signature strengths are first and take it from there.
This welcome resource is full of character with strengths galore and comes highly recommended as a programme to make an integral part of the curriculum to benefit the whole school population. Get your leadership team to take a serious look at what’s on offer and the next time you are asked to provide a character reference, think on.