Strengths can be described in lots of different ways. Here, we are talking about strengths of character which are about how you relate to other people and the world around you. When you are using your true strengths, you feel full of energy.
Character strengths are different from talents or skills or knowledge. So you could have wonderful talents like playing football or cooking or you may have passed lots of exams or be a highly skilled nurse or teacher, but that is not what we are talking about here.
Sometimes we talk about character as if it’s just one thing - we may say someone has good character. But character is actually made up of lots of different strengths and everyone has a different profile of strengths including things like curiosity, bravery, kindness, humour, hope, modesty, etc.
Recent evidence suggests that recognising our own character strengths and using them daily can help us build happier, more meaningful lives.
We change the world by tiny individual acts of honesty, courage, kindness and integrity, by celebrating our own strengths, just a little more each day, and helping others to do the same.
Jenny Fox Eades
Absolutely everyone, including you, your friends, colleagues and each child or young person you live or work with has their own set of character strengths to be discovered, valued and used. When young people use their strengths, they develop into adults who are not only respectful, but are respected for who they truly are.
The magic of character strengths is that all of us can grow in all of the character strengths, although we have a tendency to be stronger in some aspects than others.
Focusing on weaknesses is fairly common. Many of us spend time and energy striving to do what we’re not so good at, as we think this will help us become better people. It may do, but it may exhaust us in the process!
When we work or live with children or young people, we may focus on what they are not good at and try to help them fix it. For example, a child may find it difficult to work with others in a team. We might focus on this supposed weakness, worry about it and try to fix it by getting them to work more often with others. But this may be frustrating for the child and for you. Instead, it may be more helpful to think about and focus on the strengths that the child shows when working on their own, for example curiosity and perseverance. If you nurture these strengths, the child may feel better about themselves and in time, may feel better about working with others.
Research has shown that finding and using our strengths is really important for improving health, happiness and our sense of self-worth. As adults working or living with children and young people, you have a powerful tool to help them lead happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives. You can help them notice and value their strengths and you can help them use their strengths more in their daily lives. Talking to children and young people about their strengths will help to build their confidence and help them to flourish.
At school, encouraging pupils to share the activities and interests they have out of school can help with this. Hearing about children and young people’s wider experiences and achievements gives teachers an awareness of the strengths pupils have outwith the school curriculum.
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters, compared to what lies within us.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
So what kind of things are we talking about? Researchers have spent a lot of time finding out which strengths of character are valued across cultures. They came up with a list of 24 character strengths:
Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence or skilled performance in all aspects of life
Not shrinking from threat, challenge or difficulty
Not saying or doing things that might later be regretted
Thinking of new and productive ways to do things
Taking an interest in experiences
Approaching life with excitement and energy
Treating all people the same according to a sense of equality and justice
Forgiving those who have done wrong
Being aware of and thankful for good things that happen
Speaking the truth and being genuine
Expecting the best and working to achieve it
Liking to laugh and joke and bring smiles to other people
Doing favours and good deeds for others
Organising group activities and making sure they happen
Valuing close relationships with others
Love of learning
Mastering new skills, topics and knowledge
Letting your accomplishments speak for themselves
Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
Finishing what you start
Being able to provide wise advice to others
Controlling what you say and do
Being aware of the motives and feelings of yourself and others
Believing in the higher purpose and meaning of life
Working well as a member of a group or team
Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2009). Character Strengths: Research and Practice. Journal of College & Character, X(4).
Fox Eades, J.M. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: CAPP Press.
All these strengths are important to wellbeing. We all have these strengths to a greater or lesser degree and all of them can be developed. It’s best to focus first on your top strengths - the ones that come most easily and naturally to you. These can help you build the other strengths into your life.
Did you know?
Hope, kindness, sociability, self-control and perspective have been found to be protective against the negative effects of stress and trauma.
Did you know?
There is evidence that effective teachers - judged by the improvement of their pupils on standardised tests - show high levels of the character strengths: sociability, enthusiasm and humour.
Did you know?
The most important character strengths for our wellbeing and happiness have been found to be gratitude, optimism, enthusiasm, curiosity and love. If we are to encourage children to have long term happiness and fulfilment, we should be encouraging them to develop these strengths in particular.
Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2008). Positive psychology and character strengths: Application to strengths-based school counseling. Professional School Counseling, 12(2): 85-92.
The underlying idea behind the emphasis on strengths is that we get more of what we focus on.
Jenny Fox Eades
Here are some activities you could try to help children and young people recognise and develop their strengths:
Top 5 Strengths
Young people aged 10-17 years can do the youth version of the strengths test at: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/questionnaires/strength-survey-children.
It will take them about 45 minutes to answer all the questions. Then they will get a rating of their top 5 strengths which are called ‘signature’ strengths. Discuss their top five strengths with them. Ask them to think about whether they agree that these are their top 5. Ensure their understanding of these strengths by asking for examples of when they use each one in their lives.
Don’t be surprised if appreciation, forgiveness, modesty and open-mindedness are low on their list. In general, children and young people will find these difficult - they will develop as they get older.
You can do a number of different activities after a group of young people have completed the strengths questionnaire:
Deliberate Acts of Kindness
This activity is about the character strength of kindness. It involves doing things for others with no motive other than being kind for its own sake. Doing something kind for others does not only help others, it helps us too by making us feel better about ourselves.
Ask children and young people to think of things they can do for others. Tell them that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big thing or a little thing - little things are just as important as big things. Talk to them later about what they did and how they felt about it.
Here are some ideas to start you off:
You at your best
Ask young people in a group setting to introduce themselves in a different way than they would normally. Instead of asking them to say where they live or who is in their family or what they are studying, ask them to describe themselves at their best. Say, for example:
"Think of a time when you did something or acted in a way that made you feel you were a good person - I don't mean an academic or athletic achievement, but something like being really brave when facing a difficult situation, or being really kind to someone in distress. Tell us the story of what happened and how you felt about it."
This encourages young people to think about who they are as a person in terms of their strengths. It also helps them get to know others on a deeper level.
This fun activity helps you to discover the superheroes in your family, class or group! Some of the television science fiction and fantasy series have several superheroes with different skills. In order to solve a problem, or to save the world, they need to use all their different skills and work together as a team.
What you do:
Some things to talk about together: