The power of character strengths, and how to teach them

Promoting character strengths in school can improve pupils' confidence, performance and wellbeing, research suggests

Sarah Shine

Wellbeing in schools: How to develop pupils' character strengths

Numerous times I heard a buzz in the staffroom as teachers chatted about positive education: “Oooh, X’s school ‘does’ PosEd and the results are amazing!”

Such comments triggered my curiosity and I soon found myself wading through interesting research on what it is – and what it is not. What I have learned is that there are many myths about positive education. It is not:

  • About being happy all the time and avoiding negative emotions.
  • Never failing.
  • A one-size-fits-all programme.
  • A quick fix.

Instead, positive education brings together the science of positive psychology with best-practice teaching to encourage and support individuals, schools and communities to flourish. Positive education is underpinned by research; specifically the PERMA model and character strengths.

The second of these, character strengths, refers to the positive parts of your personality that influence how you think, feel and act.

Peterson and Seligman (2004), in their research into character strengths and virtues, studied all major religions and philosophical traditions and found that the same 24 character strengths were shared in virtually all cultures across three millennia, such a bravery, creativity, judgement, humour and gratitude.

What’s more, character strengths are not about ignoring the negative.

Rather, developing them may help us to overcome the inevitable challenges of life. For example, you can’t show perseverance without first wanting to quit; you can’t show self-control without first being tempted to do something you know you shouldn’t. 

What’s more, research shows that understanding and applying your strengths can help you build confidence, increase happiness, strengthen relationships, manage problems, reduce stress, accomplish goals, improve performance and more.

Clearly, then, teaching students about character strengths could have serious benefits in school, which is why we have made them a key focus of school life.

How to promote character strengths in school

1. Discuss one character strength a week

To support social and emotional literacy, in our school we have an expectation of weekly wellbeing lessons.

In the lessons, we share a character strength that we will focus on and a definition. For example, "Gratitude – I know when good things happen to me and I do not take them for granted. I always take time to thank family and friends."  

Through class discussions, students are then supported to deepen their understanding of the focus character strength. For example, if gratitude is the character strength, the teacher would explain that people with this strength are friendly, trusting, caring and positive, so there is a base for the second part of the discussion...

2. Explore the character strength

Once a definition has been interpreted, we ask questions to encourage the children to connect to the character strength and better understand it. 

We often use stories or video clips that illustrate the character strength in action and discuss it and differentiate by age group. For example, to understand the character strength of honesty with our key stage 1 students, we shared the story I Didn’t Do It!, which is all about telling the truth.

For KS2 children, we watched the Effects of Lying talk by Georgia Haukom, a TEDxKids video. The children enjoy seeing the character strength in different mediums and it gives them chance to relate to what is being discussed.

3. Highlight role models               

Each week, in our assembly, we showcase the work of a global citizen who has demonstrated the focus of a character strength.

For example, we talked about how footballer Marcus Rashford had shown the character strength of courage to form his taskforce to tackle child food poverty, and Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, when the focus character strength was kindness.

We review the characteristics of people with the character strength and encourage the children to spot the strength during the week.

Such a simple task has really inspired the children. Regularly they excitedly report to us where they have seen or how they have used the focus character strength.

4. Character strength weekly challenges

As well as asking the children to spot the focus character strength, each week, we also give them strength challenges: for example, when the focus character strength was curiosity, we asked the children to try something new during the week. 

On this occasion, the children amazed us with their feedback. Different pupils had been inspired in different ways. A Year 5 child could not wait to show us her fashion designs, whilst a Year 3 child shared his experiences of eating a durian – a Malaysian fruit.

There was a genuine buzz to the stories of their new experiences.

5. Use character strengths as the focus for weekly assemblies

Each week we use the focus character strength as the theme for the assembly. 

As well as showcasing a global citizen with the strength, we read a story that illustrates the character strength, and focus the reflections on it. We have found this approach to assemblies has enabled us to use a wider range of texts that better reflect the cultural literacy of our international context. 

Consistently, our students impress and surprise us with their comments about the character strengths. Student voice feedback since our return to school has shown how many of our children are learning to use character strengths to help them understand themselves and others. 

Sarah Shine is pastoral leader at Alice Smith Primary School, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She tweets @ShineyKL

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