Every person has a combination of 24 character strengths and if developed correctly can have a significant positive impact on their lives. Research has shown that using your character strengths can help to protect against the onset of mental health problems, manage and overcome problems, improve relationships and enhance health, and wellbeing.

Character strengths can be nurtured and developed through positive psychology, an approach that is at the core of Worth-it initiatives to improve emotional wellbeing and resilience in children and young people.  Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human strengths and flourishing and the applied approach enables individuals, communities and organisations to thrive.

Character Strengths for Positive Mental Health

As reported in the Department of Health document ‘Future in Mind’, in an average class of 30 children, three will suffer from a mental health disorder including conduct disorders, anxiety, depression and severe ADHD. Since COVID19 there has been a rapid increase in mental health problems in children, with one in six struggling with mental health issues.

Over the past years the Department for Health and Department for Education announced that schools would be encouraged to develop whole-school approaches to promoting mental health and wellbeing and this would include work on character and resilience. Primary and secondary schools are seen as vital in order to prevent issues like self-harm and eating disorders developing in later life, as children can develop healthy coping skills, communication and problem-solving skills early on and embed them for future difficulties and diversity. Schools are no longer just about promoting academic excellence.

A way to prevent the development of mental health problems in children and young people is to support them to build awareness and use their strengths. There is a significant evidence base from the field of Positive Psychology that tells us when children are taught how to use their strengths they develop wellbeing, and resilience as well as skills for learning and achievement. All of these are essential for promoting positive mental health and preventing mental health problems developing.

What are Character Strengths?

Character Strengths are the positive parts of your personality that impact how you think, feel and behave and are the keys to you being your best self.

Following extensive character strengths research drawing knowledge from a range of sources including literature, science, philosophy and religion, Peterson and Seligman (2004) identified six universal virtues and twenty-four character strengths considered to be the foundation for developing human flourishing resulting in the introduction of the VIA classification. The VIA has become known as a guide which can robustly identify each strength and virtue.

The virtues identified are wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence: the twenty-four character strengths sit within these six virtues. When used character strengths can actually have a significant positive impact on your life. Research shows that using your character strengths can help you:

  • Buffer against, manage and overcome problems
  • Improve your relationships
  • Enhance the health and overall wellbeing
  • Protect against the onset of mental health problems
  • Build resilience
  • Improve work performance for pupils and adults
  • Develop skills for learning and achievement

Character Strengths and Positive Education

Character strengths education in schools is about helping children to understand what strengths they have and how to use them in certain situations. Developing a language and lens of strengths is important for pupils to develop self-awareness, self-worth, confidence and resilience. When using a language and of strengths all children and young people can build consistent approaches that support them to improve wellbeing and develop skills for learning.

Character strengths use is the foundation for improved attainment, achievement and improved behaviour and the earlier on in a child’s education they can identify and use character strengths the more likely children will go on to lead happy and fulfilled lives – reducing the risk of developing mental health issues later in life.

How can Character Strengths be used in Schools?

Strengths are an integral part of the SEARCH pathways to wellbeing. The SEARCH pathways provide an evidence-based framework for developing wellbeing. This framework underpins all our work with schools to develop positive mental health and wellbeing. We have developed these pathways into our Wellbeing Toolkit Course for teams, which is also available in our DfE Assured Wellbeing Club for Senior Mental Health Leads.

Secondary School VIA Strengths Art Project

When we work with school staff teams, school leaders, mental health leads and pastoral staff we teach them how to use strengths-based approaches with children and young people.

Working with staff to use a lens of strengths and strengths language, we help embed this into teaching and learning and build strengths-based interventions that support more vulnerable children who may be more at risk of developing mental health problems. And improve strength awareness for all children which promotes wellbeing and protects against mental health problems.

Primary Strengths Display

Examples of schools using character strengths

Primary schools we have worked with have adapted the VIA strengths framework to suit the needs of their children and staff. They explicitly teach these strengths across the school, through themed weeks, explicit lessons and assemblies as well as aligning the strengths to specific teaching and learning objectives.

Strengths are visible in every classroom and around the school environment. Some schools have created their own terminology for strengths which is understood by the whole school community including parents, children and staff. Examples include 'Super Strengths' and 'Ingredients for Success'.

We support schools to develop and embed their own strengths-based interventions based on research and practical know-how that involve supporting schools to use strengths approaches such as:

  • Students identifying their own strengths
  • Students identifying lesser strengths ( there are no weaknesses in our approach to strengths)
  • Staff spotting and feeding back strengths to students
  • Pupils giving strengths-based feedback to each other
  • Using the strengths to help learning, achievement and wellbeing
  • Learn to recognise strengths in others
  • Identifying strengths of the group, class or whole school community
  • Plan and envision their strengths use in future.
  • Strengths-based reflection
  • Strengths-based goal setting

Ways to apply strengths in schools

Our strengths-based approach to developing student wellbeing is built into our programmes and support for schools. These include

Whole School Approach to Strengths

Using strengths a part of multi-component strategy that incorporates, motivates and empowers the whole school to promote mental wellbeing and tackle mental health issues – creating an ethos and culture of resilience and wellbeing using the SEARCH wellbeing pathways.

Resilience Coaching Sessions for Students

Using strengths through coaching sessions that improve a young person’s performance in school, enhance their psychological wellbeing, improve engagement and create their own success in life.

Training in Wellbeing Activities and Strategies

Using strengths-based tools and resources and wellbeing activities and interventions based on the SEARCH pathways to wellbeing.

Peer-to-Peer Support for Students

Young people act as peer supporters and are trained and supported appropriately to help improve the mental health of other students recognise and use strengths.

Develop a culture and ethos of strengths

Embed a school culture and ethos underpinned by strengths, putting Positive Education at the heart of your school community benefiting students and staff.

Find out more about how we can support you to develop strengths in the children and young people you work with

If you would like to find out more about our approach to supporting schools to develop children and young people's mental health and wellbeing access our FREE Introductory workshop or access our FREE Mini Course, which provides an example of how one primary school has developed a strengths-based approach to whole school wellbeing.

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