Embedding Character Strengths

“It is not who you are but what you do.” Character strengths are tools we use at any given moment to behave in the right way in difficult situations. Examples of character strengths are qualities such as: perseverance (grit), leadership, teamwork, self-regulation, kindness and social intelligence.  I talked with a Head recently and he highlighted the process, the ‘extra’ effort at the often incremental and important moments which defined success (or failure) further down the line. He said,

“The lesson is simple: we have to commit in the present, and somehow trust that our efforts will count in the future.”

The reason I start with the idea of moments defining us, is that our awareness and experience of character strengths helps us cope with, build on and learn from these moments. But how to embed character strengths in our home environment and in school? A good starting point is asking yourself, “When at your best what do you draw on most?” It is about knowing, developing and utilizing what is right with your best strengths. I recommend taking the VIA Character Strengths survey. Whilst the questions could be perceived in several ways and are dependent on what memory you are drawing from, in general, the same strengths will appear in the top half. The ones at the bottom of the list of 24 are not weaknesses but strengths which have not been used as much yet!

I recently completed a course on embedding character strengths and we did a ‘speed dating’ task where we had to listen to another person talk about a recent event for one minute and in that time we had to highlight the character strengths they used in that ‘moment’. It was an enlightening task and something you can do with a group of youngsters for fun or when you have a quiet moment with one or doing a chore at home. How did they behave at their best? Which strength did they use? Deliberately identifying strengths in their behaviour is a more proactive approach than purely focussing on negative aspects.



“We often forget that, for many children, academic learning is not a primary, natural or valued task. It is the positive relationships and sense of belonging that a good school culture provides that gives these children the comfort, confidence, competence and motivation to learn.”

 – Dr James Comer, 2005


What better way than through MCM’s 3C’s – Compassion, Companionship and Conversation and to which we could add – Courage and Creativity.

Wellbeing at the College is being thrust into the limelight as a fundamental and essential narrative for our community to thrive and the culture surrounding it only serves to benefit the teaching and learning that goes on in and around our campus. To embed this language, which is guided by  character strengths, we take an approach which does not seek to dismiss failure, or suppress negative emotions, but celebrates the learning that comes from accessing and acknowledging these common threads to being purposeful, grounded and well balanced. The approach we are advocating is a strengths-based approach which this article sums up very well and is relevant to us as parents and teachers – How to be a strength-based parent

A strength is only a strength if it is used productively to move you forwards. Bravery, love and compassion are all too easily referred to, or dismissed by the cynical, but they are to be celebrated and are just three character strengths that spring to mind in this fast paced world as being underdeveloped and undervalued.

By focusing on our young peoples’ strengths, we can help them flourish and reflect with a purpose which avoids being over critical and growing unhealthy habits. Character strengths strengthen the minds of our young people as they steer through their teenage years and unpredictable life that will follow.

The following are sound bites from some sixth formers:

  • Forgiveness, Kindness and Fairness – “I believe that these are a true representation of my strengths. My personality allows me to forgive people easily even if they have said something that offended me. It also allows me to treat others equally. I think that I love being kind to people, as it makes me feel better, knowing that I have just helped someone. I think that there is a high value in knowing what your character strengths are. This allows us to choose a career path that is most suitable to our personality, which allows us to excel in the career that we choose.”
  • Humour, Gratitude and Judgement – “I rely a lot on humour as I feel that it is a great way to make life a lot better. Making people laugh and feel happy is quite an important factor to consider in my opinion when interacting with other people. Gratitude is also something that I frequently express as I feel that there is no reason not to. These are my top strengths since they are easy for me to show in general. Knowing your strongest character strength can be quite useful for most people. If they are feeling a bit lost or are unsure of themselves during tough times, they can rely more on their character strengths, and return back to something that they are familiar with.”
  • Creativity, Curiosity and Gratitude – “I think of myself as being very creative and curious and I often try to play to these abilities.”
    “I think that to be successful, you need to play to your strengths and maximize them in every opportunity. Identifying what they are is obviously very useful as it would help you to make choices on a small or large scale.”

What fascinates me about these comments and is striking, to say the least, is that they remind us all of how much we can learn from the young people we care for. This is a very powerful reason why we have the three C’s and why engaging in ‘conversation’ with the young people around us is so invaluable. It is why the pastoral side to education is such a great strength of our community; it provides important additional opportunities to positively engage with and support the young people and the adults in our community and beyond, and for them to learn to support each other – a vital skill on their journey after school.

Further Reading: ‘The Strength Switch’ by Dr. Lea Walters

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