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Activating Character Strengths in the Classroom

By Dr. Jillian Coppley (Darwish), Mayerson Academy

As in so many other individual and collective practices, activating character strengths in the classroom has been shown to have a profound and positive impact on engagement, performance, and learning. While there are curricular resources and professional learning programs to help educators establish strengths-based cultures in classrooms, schools and districts, teachers can take simple actions to begin to establish a strengths-based classroom with their students.

To begin exploring strengths right away, consider these examples in each of the four critical teaching domains.

Domain 1: Planning and Preparation

Demonstrating knowledge of students is key to effective planning and preparation. When reflecting on students, it can be easy to fall into a deficit-based perspective, focusing on their shortcomings. Consider what it might look like to plan for instruction based on what’s strong with students, not what is wrong with students. For instance, how can instruction be planned to build on strengths such as curiosity, kindness or judgment?

Take Action: Typically, as an an educator, you plan instruction for your students. Consider co-planning with students by sharing a proposed assignment and inviting students to modify the activity to engage their signature strengths.

Domain 2: Classroom Environment

An effective learning environment is one that is infused with respect and rapport. A strengths-based perspective is grounded in two key principles. First, it involves an appreciation that everyone possesses all 24 universally valued VIA character strengths. At the same time, every individual has a a profile of strengths that is unique to him or her. Acknowledging these principles and creating a shared language of strengths in the classroom is an excellent way to develop authentic respect and rapport.

Take Action: When you provide feedback to students, take a moment to consider what strength they might be exhibiting and embed that in your interaction, e.g. "Wow! Your attention to detail in the format, content and delivery of this presentation really exhibits your strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence." This specificity will make the feedback more powerful and will reinforce strengths-based language in the classroom.

Domain 3: Instruction

Students learn when they are engaged. When you activate your unique character strengths, engagement is maximized. Making sure that students have regular opportunities to utilize their unique strengths, with open-ended learning opportunities, classroom roles, extracurricular activities, etc. will ensure their engagement and their learning.

Take Action: Parent conferences can be tremendous learning opportunities. Consider having students lead the conference by talking about their strengths and how they have used them in the past and how they want to explore them in future learning experiences.

Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

This domain encompasses a range of activities including personal reflection, growth and development. Before you can help activate strengths in someone else, it is essential to know how to maximize your own engagement, learning and performance by activating personal character strengths. When thinking about areas in which performance or engagement is less than ideal, consider how dialing up or dialing down strengths might change outcomes.

Take Action: If you participate on a team or committee, consider beginning your next meeting by appreciating the strengths of the individuals present or possibly having each participant recognize the strength of a student they worked with in the past week.

The possibilities for creating a strengths-based culture in your classroom are endless! You can start with small activities and interventions to get yourself and your students acquainted with strengths and their benefits. When you are ready to go deeper, visit the Mayerson Academy website to learn about Thriving Learning Communities, comprehensive character strength curriculum guides, services and resources.