Three ways to develop character strengths and promote educational well-being

In these blogs and the videos that accompany them I am sharing with you what I have learned from 12 years of working in schools supporting the well-being of teachers and students.

The blogs and videos are meant either as a stand alone training resource or as a supplement to my published resources and my story videos.

In an earlier film, I talked about how I have put stories and storytelling at the heart of my well-being work in schools – precisely because a good story well told promotes the well-being of both teachers and students, An introduction to my well-being in education videos.

Now I want to talk about another theme, that of paying attention to character strengths and virtues.

I first came across the idea of character strengths in the work of Martin Seligman and the VIA or Values in Action character strengths and virtues. You can find more about this approach at the VIA Institute .

Of course the association of character strengths with education is much older and dates back to Aristotle. Aristotle linked happiness with the use of character strengths and virtues. And he said that children learn about qualities like courage and honesty in three ways

  1. seeing them used by role models
  2. thinking and reasoning about them
  3. using them for themselves

So we learn what courage is by being brave.

In my work, I’ve tried to draw on those three ways of learning.

Firstly, I’ve encouraged teachers to tell stories that show characters or historical figures using – or failing to use – qualities like love or friendship or enthusiasm. I might tell a story like Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom or Where is the Moon or the Three Little Pigs and then ask, what strengths did you see in that story? Where? I might also ask, were there character strengths that SHOULD have been used but weren’t?

In this way, children and teachers engage in a thoughtful – and educational activity – and at the same time begin to build up a picture of what the strengths look like in action and to listen for, look for the strengths, to spot them both in stories and then in other people and finally in themselves. Using character strengths for yourself, seeing them in others, thinking about them, builds positive relationships in the classroom and creates an atmosphere that enhances learning and supports well-being.

To develop Aristotle’s idea that we learn about character strengths and virtues through reason, I have used Philosophy for Children or P4C and taken either a story or a single word like creativity or courage as a stimulus for discussion. If you don’t know about philosophy for children there are resources and training available and the more I use it the more powerful a teaching tool I think it is. Again, a philosophy session is a very educational activity – we’re not trying to be therapists, we are encouraging intellectual rigour, depth of thinking and discussion. At the same time you as a class are building your understanding of what a particular character strength means in this group and in this community, now. It’s not what the ‘experts’ say about courage that really matters – it’s what it means in your school, your family, now that is important.

Finally, the third way of learning about character strengths that I have used in education is to create a concept of Strengths Builders – ideas and classroom exercises that deliberately set out to let you use and therefore build a particular strength. So, for example, if you want to focus on building the strength of curiosity for yourself or your class, you might set a challenge trying a single new food you have never tasted in the week ahead, or of watching a television programme or film you haven’t seen before – or of reading and even learning by heart a poem by a poet you have never read. You set out deliberately to pay attention to – and build – a particular strength. Then, if everyone in the class has done this activity – you can share and reflect on your experiences.

The shared experience – and the way that you are all paying attention to the same thing – curiosity – is part of what builds community. I will say more about community building in a future video.

If you want lots of ideas for building character strengths you can find them in my Character Strengths Ideas Box Character Strengths Ideas Box or in Character Strengths for Circle Time.

 

character strengths activity box tts

You can find a high school programme that contains strengths builders for all the VIA Strengths here Strengths Gym – a high school programme of strengths builders and stories for 11 to 14 years

Equally, you can think up your own.

Have fun.

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