Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character strength of the day: hope – the story of Celebrating Strengths

Hope is a forward looking virtue and one that is at the heart of teaching and learning – we teach for the future, we pass on wisdom (we hope) and knowledge and culture – good things – to the next generation.


So it is something of a paradox that a good way to BUILD hope is to reflect on the past, to tell the story of where we have come from, of past hopes that came true, past struggles survived. So this post is my reflection on where Celebrating Strengths has come from, the story of how it came into being. It is also a way of building my own personal hope that it might continue to grow and spread and do a little bit of good in the world of education and in the lives of children and teachers…

Starting with storytelling 

With a Masters Degree in Child and Adolescent Mental Health from The Tavistock Clinic and UEL, and a background in special needs teaching, I wrote an article, in 2003, on the importance of traditional tales, legends, myths and fairy tales in education for a teaching magazine called Five to Seven (published by One phone call later and I was delivering a training day to Riddings Infant School in Scunthorpe on using fairy tales, and reviving the ancient teaching technique of story telling.

I focused NOT on using stories to teach spelling or grammar or reading but on using them to nurture the well-being – the mental health – of children and I emphasized the importance of fostering the art of story telling in schools. Story telling is an ancient and powerful teaching technique, creative, nurturing, using the whole teacher and engaging the whole child.  Oral story telling can enhance the ability of ancient and powerful stories, like myths and fairy tales, to help humans make sense of the world and of themselves, and to pass on wisdom and values from generation to generation.

Adding reflection and celebration

As well as storytelling, another way that human societies have fostered well-being and passed on values to the next generation, has been to take time out of the daily routine to reflect and to celebrate. So at Riddings, we decided to create a yearly cycle of celebrations – festivals that allowed us time to reflect, to tell stories and to celebrate just being a community together. We first developed an Advent festival, that became a Festival of Lights, with the highlight being the Spiral of Lights #SpiralofLights. Westcliff Primary Scunthorpe UK This has now become a valued tradition in schools  in Scunthorpe and elsewhere in the UK.

Other festivals we developed were a Beginnings Festival, an Endings Festival and festivals that celebrated the local and global community and the performing arts. The ideas and stories behind these festivals were later published by TTS as a series of 7 festival books


Character Strengths – the final ingredient

The last ingredient we added to the mix, the staff and pupils of Riddings Infants, (and by now also Leys Farm Junior School, Riddings Juniors and Enderby Road Infants) and I, was the character strengths and virtues of Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004).

We loved the words, the children loved the words. Parents began to comment when their 5 year olds came home talking about persistence or gratitude. We added signs from British Sign Language to the words, we added the words to displays and linked them to the stories and festivals we were already using – and Celebrating Strengths was born!

strengths displayAt first the schools and I made our own resources, I wrote versions of over 60 traditional stories and sent them to the schools, we created pictures and certificates to embed the character strengths in the environment and language of the schools. Then, a lovely young Danish teacher and artist, Laura Linder, drew me some cartoons of all of the strengths and, with some added ideas from the pupils of Bollington Cross Primary School, the beautiful cartoons now published by TTS were born.

PrintI am proud of Celebrating Strengths. It has developed over the past 10 years. There are several books that describe the ideas behind it


It has been used in Denmark and translated into Danish! It is known and used by schools in Australia, too.

But what I am MOST proud of is the fact that it combines the wisdom of so many people. As this post makes clear, no one person created Celebrating Strengths. It was, very genuinely a collaborative project – the staff and children of Riddings Infants, Leys Farm, Riddings Juniors, Enderby Road …my lovely colleague Belinda Catt who then introduced it to Frodingham Infants School …the staff and children of Bollington Cross Primary…the work of Peterson and Seligman, the beautiful cartoons of Laura Linder, my superb colleagues at TTS, my Australian colleagues at schools like Geelong Grammar, Burgmann and St Michael’s Anglican Schools and the Berry Street Institute Schools, who adapt it for their own very different cultural climate…the nameless creators of the stories we tell…The Selkie Wife, Red Riding Hood, St Werburgh and the Geese….

And now it is my pleasure and privilege to be working with some more amazing schools – and pupils and teachers, who are changing and developing it further – Thomas Gray Primary in Bootle, Downshall Primary in Ilford, St Paul’s Poynton. These UK schools are using it as a practical and positive way of implementing #PSHE, personal, social and health education and #SCSM spiritual, cultural, social and moral education. I am researching it and developing it further for my own PhD.

And the developments and the changes and the bright ideas we come up with, will, hopefully, (because hope is where this story started), be written about here in this blog and will help, in a little way, to foster education, to pass on good things, like love and kindness, stories and silence, to the next generation. I hope so, anyway.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P., 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A classification and handbook. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

character strength of the day: humility

DSCF1916Humility, according to Seligman’s research, (2004), is bottom of the list of most American’s character strengths and is generally not a popular strength to possess. When my colleague, psychologist Carmel Proctor and I, were writing our character strengths based PSHE programme, Strengths Gym, we decided to use the word modesty rather than humility, as we noticed that teenagers have negative reactions to the word humility. They link it in their minds to humiliation.

I now wish we had used the word ‘humility’ instead because the more I work with this character strength, the more I read and think about it, the more essential it seems to me for our busy, rather driven and perhaps over independent modern way of life.

Humility means acknowledging that I need other people, for example. It means allowing myself to make mistakes and to be human. It means being honest about my strengths and my weaknesses and knowing that I can’t save the world single handed.

In an education system that puts teachers and pupils under pressure to be ‘outstanding’ and to give ‘100%’ effort, 100% of the time, humility says that everyone needs to rest sometimes, everyone has off days, not all lessons are outstanding, some are just good enough. Pupils, it seems to me, need to know that their teachers are human sometimes, not superhuman all the time. Otherwise they are presented with an impossibly high standard of being adult to aspire too and some of them, understandably, look at what is on offer and seem to opt out.

I have been reading a book called ‘Lectio Devina, The Sacred Art’ by Christine Valters Paintner. In it she writes that humility means giving up, ‘unrealistic expectations of how things ought to be for a clear vision of what human life is really like’ and ‘remembering our human limitations’. As a driven, perfectionist over achiever, I find humility lets me breath, lets me admit that I’m not good at everything and that, sometimes, I need help.

Personally I find humility to be an immense relief. I’d like to recommend it to the education system too!

Paintner, V.P., 2012. Lectio Devina, The Sacred Art. London: SPCK

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P., 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A classification and handbook. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character strength of the day: patience

I have based my education work on character strengths on the work of Peterson and Seligman (2004). I am an educator, not a psychologist, and I have adapted Peterson and Seligman’s list to fit the context of schools and classrooms. I made small changes to language here and there, but the biggest change I made was to add a strength – in response to comments from many teachers and from my own reading and understanding of learning and teaching – I added the strength of patience.

Patience is an inherent part of TEACHING – we have to be patient with ourselves and our pupils, we have to allow ourselves to be human and allow them to be human too. It is an inherent part of LEARNING – we have to be patient and allow ourselves not to understand, not to grasp at easy solutions, not to settle for the quick and obvious answer and to do that long enough for deep learning to happen.

This week I was privileged to help an excellent teacher of the #AlexanderTechnique, Sue Fleming, to run a group in Manchester who are learning the Alexander Technique, mostly to help prevent or improve aches, pains and bad backs. They were learning to pause and notice – their bodies, their feelings, their thoughts, how they sit, how they stand, how they breath – and learning to do those things with more awareness, more lightness, more thought. For those who’ve never heard of the Alexander Technique it is a ‘psychosomatic’ discipline, a ‘movement-based embodied contemplative practice,’ (Schmalz et al 2014), a way of tuning into your ‘whole self’ and how you react to your environment, to the stresses and strains of life. It is subtle, it is gentle and it takes time to learn it.

And fresh from the state school system of education in the UK, where I work as an adviser on ‘well-being’, I was aware of how slowly Sue was taking things, how much time she was giving to reflection and noticing, to questions and questioning – and I was impressed and challenged.

Because in schools right now, everything is FAST, everything has PACE (and it’s FAST pace, not slow pace!), everything is EFFICIENT. But some thinking and some learning can’t be done quickly. As the Nobel Prizewinner Daniel Kahneman points out, (2011) some thinking needs to be done slowly, some thinking needs PATIENCE! And efficiency and speed are not the only goods in life, sometimes kindness, gentleness, beauty and ‘what is right’ are more important.

So, here’s a tip for cultivating patience, for letting things take the time that they take…..

‘Pause at Doors’

You go though doors many times every day. When you come to a door just press your internal pause button

Pause….notice your feet and the feel of the floor beneath you; notice if you are breathing; notice what you are thinking, feeling and sensing, seeing and hearing; pause and think about wanting to go through that door lightly, cheerfully and with a twinkle in your eye …and then release your pause button and move on.


Tiny pauses in your day can ground you, calm you, slow you down, de-stress and unwind you …and cultivate the ability to wait, to be patient, to let things take the time that they take …..

Kahneman, Daniel, 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow

Schmalzl, L., Crane-Godreua, M. A. & Payne, P., 2014. Movement-based embodied contemplative practices. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience , Volume 8, pp. 1-6, London: Penguin

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P., 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A classification and handbook. Washington DC: American Psychological Association

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character Strength of the Day: Kindness

I saw a good post about the #character strength of #kindness on linked-in this morning, here

It made me stop and think – about the fact that kindness is one of the first victims of ‘busyness’. Kindness takes time…time to stop and think…time to notice other people…time to be creative about how I might be kind….time to go out of my own, important way for somebody else…

Because kindness is often about little things and little things are easily overlooked, buried under an avalanche of ‘urgent’ or ‘important’ things – emails, texts, to-do lists, meetings, economics….

Kindness is often free…perhaps that’s why it isn’t valued much in Western society? And it takes time….but it passes the death bed test. I suspect more people think, on their death beds, of the people who were kind to them and wish they had been kinder in return, more often, than regret an unsent email…