Strength Based Strategies for Character Development
by S. Person, E. Portt, E. Rawana & B. Person
We consider strengths to be the competencies and characteristics within students that are valued not only by the student but by society as well (Rawana & Brownlee, 2009). Strengths develop from the everyday life experiences of students. Here at the Centre for Education and Research on Positive Youth Development (CERPYD) at Lakehead University, we have developed a strength-based approach for schools (Rawana, Brownlee, Probizanski, & Baxter, 2014). We strongly believe that identifying student strengths is important because it allows teachers to gain a more comprehensive and balanced understanding of each student’s behaviour and learning style in order to set practical goals that can set the stage for student engagement and a positive school climate. Within this article we consider how strength-based strategies and tools can facilitate the character development of students in the classroom. In this context, we consider character to be the moral and ethical traits of students and the display of these traits in their emotional experiences, cognition and behaviour (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).
Four Core Needs Important for Healthy Character Development
There are four core needs that are important for the wellbeing of children and for healthy character development as they transition into adolescence. These four core needs, which are intrinsically related to strengths, include the need to feel competent, valued, trusted and hopeful. When one or more of these needs are not met, there is an increased likelihood for compromised development and functioning, and for a self focus on deficits rather than strengths. The need to feel competent will be used to illustrate this point.
Social competence includes qualities such as empathy, and when this need is met students engage in positive social interactions that facilitate learning (Wentzel, 1991) and provide opportunities to develop reciprocal, long lasting and positive relationships (Rose-Krasnor, 1997). However, a lack of social competence among students is associated with increased antisocial behaviours (Jackson, Henriksen, Dickinson, & Levine, 1997). Moreover, if students do not feel competent then they are less likely to focus on their strengths. Teacher-student relationships are very influential, with longitudinal data suggesting that high closeness and low conflict in teacher-student relationships predicts a student’s increased social competence later in the school year (Zhang & Nurmi, 2012). We believe that teachers can effectively promote feelings of competence in their students, and by doing so can also help to promote the internalization of strengths and healthy character development.
Fostering Student Strengths to Facilitate Engagement
Identifying and working with a student’s strengths might inherently facilitate engagement in the classroom when the competences and characteristics that the student values are being discussed (Rawana & Brownlee, 2009). When a strength-based perspective is utilized in the classroom and students are working from areas that they value and are skilled or competent in, we expect that students will be engaged in the process. For example, if math is a strength for a student and that student assists other students during a math activity, the student may be engaged and empowered from this opportunity to use this strength.
Promoting school engagement is important since greater engagement is related to higher academic performance (Lam et al., 2012). A study that assessed youth from grades 7 to 11 found that lower behavioural and emotional engagement predicted greater substance use and delinquency (Wang & Fredricks, 2014). This finding indicates that low student engagement is related to greater problem behaviours. The study also found that engagement and problem behaviours contributed to one another in a reciprocal manner. Thus, school engagement may protect against involvement with problem behaviours (Wang & Fredricks, 2014) and may instead promote healthy character development.
Fostering Student Strengths to Improve School Climate
Fostering student strengths also has the potential to enhance school climate. Social relationships among students and feeling safe at school are two components of school climate (Thapa, Cohen, Guffey, & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013) that may relate to student strengths. For example, empathy is often related to positive outcomes regarding peer relationships. Higher empathy has been related to defending peers who are being bullied (van Noorden et al., 2014), and high affective empathy (i.e., having emotion such as compassion in response to another person’s experience; Davis, 1983) has been related to using positive problem-solving strategies with peers (De Wied, Branje, & Meeus, 2007). In addition, bullying others has been associated with lower affective empathy (van Noorden et al., 2014). Thus, promoting the development of empathy or overall social-emotional skills among students might positively contribute to peer relationships.
The importance of developing empathy and social emotional competence among students is recognized among educators, and some schools and ministries have demonstrated efforts to foster these skills and characteristics. The Ontario Ministry of Education (2008) introduced Finding Common Ground: Character Development in Ontario Schools, K–12, which is an initiative striving to promote character development among students. Similarly, some schools have implemented interventions to promote social emotional competence, such as the Roots of Empathy program (Gordon, 2003). We believe that building such competence among students would also contribute to positive peer relationships and a healthy school climate. As a part of the empathy-building process, we also believe that empathy can be cultivated as a strength if students value being empathetic towards others. If empathy is taught and discussed in a way that encourages students to value being empathetic in the classroom, then empathy essentially becomes a strength that students may be interested in using to further promote healthy character development.
Tools for Identifying Student Strengths
Now that we have introduced strength-based strategies and discussed how this might increase student engagement, improve school climate and promote healthy character development, we’d like to discuss some tools that teachers may find helpful in this process. By identifying student strengths, teachers become equipped with a tangible resource for communicating with students, their parents and colleagues. Strengths can be identified in a number of ways and with a variety of tools. Here at CERPYD we have developed a Strengths Assessment Inventory (SAI) tool that is readily used and can be easily completed by students online or on paper and administered in individual or group formats (strengthassessment.ca).
The SAI tool is a brief behavioural checklist for students aged 10 through 18 that teachers can use to identify their student’s strengths. The tool is based on student strengths that are related to seven relevant domains of functioning, including strengths at school, strengths during leisure time, strengths with friends, strengths from knowing yourself, strengths from being involved in the community, strengths from faith and culture, and strengths from goals and dreams. To illustrate, in the strengths at school domain, students are asked to identify a number of their competencies, such as (their ability to): listen, complete work, get along with staff or study for tests.
Tools for Examining Student Engagement and School Climate
As well as identifying student strengths, teachers can use additional tools that assess for student engagement and school climate; these two constructs are commonly studied in relation to the implementation of a strength-based framework in the classroom. The Student Engagement Instrument (SEI; Appleton, Christenson, Kim, & Reschly, 2006) is a holistic tool aimed at assessing a student’s affective, cognitive and behavioural engagement at school. The School Climate Survey (SCS), a subscale of the Diversity, Individual Development and Differentiation Survey (DIDDS; Lupert, Whitley, Odishaw, & McDonald, 2006), is a tool that seeks information about the child’s experiences in their classroom, with the schoolwork and with the teacher. Through collaboration with the three main school boards serving Thunder Bay, CERPYD has used these measures in an ongoing project that seeks to provide an evaluation of a strength-based framework (Rawana et al., 2014) as a means to produce a positive school climate and enhance student engagement. If teachers are interested in using a similar strength-based framework in their classroom, these tools may prove to be useful resources.
Benefits of Using Strength-Based Strategies in Your Classroom
By adopting a strength-based approach, your students will learn recognize each other’s strengths and how to use these strengths in healthy ways that help to increase student engagement and improve school climate (e.g., by building empathy). By identifying student strengths using tools such as the SAI, and encouraging students to use these strengths to deal with difficulties, they will have the competence to tackle challenges using strength-based solutions. However, teachers must guide students in this process and take opportunities to incorporate student strengths into the day-to-day curriculum (Rawana et al., 2014). Helping students recognize their strengths will, in turn, allow teachers to set realistic expectations for students and for the classroom. This is an ongoing process that must be consistently developed, reinforced and re-evaluated in an effort to encourage dialogue among teachers and between teachers and parents. When teachers meet the core needs of every student and especially engage those who struggle, students will be able to take responsibility for their learning and to develop their own interest and talents from a strengths perspective. Using this kind of approach when interacting with your students promotes empathy and can help to create a climate in the classroom that sets the stage for healthy character development.
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