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5 Steps to Supporting Strengths in Students
Attitude is Everything Teaching Teens
Justin Coulson
03/01/2023

5 Steps to Supporting Strengths in Students

One of the most exciting research findings from positive psychology is the amazing wellbeing boosts that can be achieved when we harness our own strengths, and the strengths of our children or students. It seems that when we know what our strengths are – or when our children and students can identify their strengths – and those strengths are put to good use, we are happier, more engaged, and more fulfilled.

So what are strengths?

I ask this question in my keynotes around the country and most people can identify examples of strengths pretty easily. Courage, empathy, leadership, enthusiasm, energy, curiosity.

Most people can also identify that strengths involve doing something well.

But I drive pretty well. That alone doesn’t make driving one of my strengths. I don’t get behind the wheel of a car and think, “Oh yes, baby. This is me. I’m feeling strong right now!”

Defining strengths

Strengths are potentials for excellence that are inside every one of us, and every one of the students or children we work with or are parents of. Strengths are authentic, pre-existing characteristics that we perform optimally, and that energise us. When we use our strengths, we feel strong. So, if we are not using our strengths how are we feeling?

Weak.

Think about the kids you love. Think about the kids you work with. Consider this: when they show up at school, or in life, how often are they using their strengths? And if the answer is “not often”, should we be surprised if they’re struggling, feeling disengaged and disinterested, and… weak?

You might ask yourself the same question. Recent data suggests the majority of teachers want to get out of the profession. Chances are, it is at least in part because the system is stifling teachers’ capacity to use their strengths. Many who work in other youth-related services feel similarly.

So if strengths make us feel strong – and happy – how do we use them?

I suggest the following quick-start steps to start on your strengths journey:

  • Try the free viame.org website and discover your top 5 signature character strengths. In 20 minutes you’ll get an idea of what your strengths are. (Remember that these character strengths are not the same as performance-based strengths, such as artistic, sport, or academic strengths.)
  • Ask yourself which of these strengths you used today and when – and importantly, how did it make you feel?
  • Work out how you can use those strengths more.

If you can do that for yourself, you’ll feel stronger – and more ‘well’.

Now, here are some ideas for your students and children:

  1. Have your students and children take the youth version of the VIA survey at viame.org
  2. Show them pictures of various pop-culture icons, cartoon characters, or other famous-ish people and have them identify their strengths. (English teachers might do this with characters from a novel set down for analysis.)
  3. Get them to identify the strengths of parents or friends (but be warned that this can backfire with witty adolescents)
  4. Find private and sincere ways to emphasise their strengths (we call this strength-spotting) and invite them to find opportunities to use them more each day.
  5. Give them assignments about various strengths to develop their understanding and language around what these strengths are and how they work.

Using strengths daily – particularly in the service of others – builds wellbeing, increases engagement, improves productivity, and makes people happier. But we need a clear language around strengths. Our young people need to know what they are, be able to identify them, and work out how to use them in order to get the benefits. Try these ideas, and tell me how you go.

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About the Author

Justin Coulson

Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia's most trusted parenting experts and authors and holds a PhD in Psychology. He is the founder of Happy Families (a website of parenting resources and advice) as well as the co-host and parenting expert on Channel Nine's Parental Guidance.

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