Parents and Teachers: To What Degree Do We Identify and Encourage Students' Strengths

As parents and teachers, we know when students do well in their activities and when they struggle. Our job is to raise healthy, happy, intelligent, and compassionate young people. To do this we need to know something about those in our care.

While psychology has often focused on what is wrong with individuals, an important new movement in psychology emphasizes what is healthy and positive. Professor Martin Seligman and his team at the University of Pennsylvania have developed what has become widespread as "positive psychology". After lengthy research, in religion, philosophy, and culture, Seligman posits the idea that there are 24 potential strengths in each person.

For example, self-regulation, empathy, grit, perseverance, spirituality, etc. enhance the well-being of the self and others. Parents and teachers can spot these strengths (capacities for goodness and virtue) in young people, acknowledge them, and re-inforce them. From this point children have a foundation to manage their well-being. This is a life-time process for children as well as adults, for unique situations will demand different strengths. The goal, however, is healthy individuals, strong families, and nourishing communities.

Fatima Doman, in her book Authentic Strengths, writes "…character strengths are those aspects of your personality that define what is best in you…positive traits that are beneficial to self and others…we flourish once we identify and flex our strengths." She goes on to emphasize the degree we use these strengths in all areas of relationship.

Unlike the young people who lack motivation and feel depressed, identifying one's strengths is a powerful force in accomplishing one's goals. Hundreds of scientific studies support the benefit of visualizing and using strengths. Lea Waters, in The Strength Switch, explains how strengths "…contribute to our goals and development." She explains that "A parent's role is to guide children in positive uses for their strengths…" As teachers we, too, are concerned not only with the academic achievement of students but also their well-being."

I ask students in my middle school class to reflect upon and identify their signature strengths, those which provide them with energy and are a central force in their lives. Kai explains how gratitude has become central to his life. He visited a poor township in South Africa and was confronted with a degree of poverty that stunned him. He returned home and has been grateful for everything in his home and his personal possessions. I mention to him that he is a humble student in class, and perhaps that is a reflection of his gratitude.

Anthony shares about his teamwork strength. He loves being part of a basketball team and learning to cooperate and work well with his fellow teammates. He admires his coach, who is able to draw out the best from his team. I praise his desire to use this strength when working cooperatively with others. I gently mention to him that the class is like a team and I am the coach. For our team to do well and learn new things, everyone needs to be focused on the activity of the moment. Enough said.

Caleb is a kind, gentle person who shows a great deal of care and respect to others. However, he does not know how to use these qualities when he fights with his sister. She starts to fight, he says, and he responds accordingly. I suggest to him that when he feels the urge to fight, he might go to his room and try to get in touch with his gentle, yet strong, nature. He might use his strength to visualize a scenario where he reframes the situation. He can be the source of strength that brings peace in the house and comfort to his parents.

As a teacher and parent, I need to encourage the best for those in my care. Also, I need to develop my own strengths of patience, perseverance, prudence, as well as a great dollop of humor.

Mose Durst is an author, educator, and the former president of the Unification Church of the United States. He received a master’s degree and PhD while studying English Literature at the University of Oregon. He taught at a number of colleges and currently teaches literature and history at the Principled Academy in San Leandro, California. He has published eight books including Principled Education, Shakespeare’s Plays, and Oakland, California: Towards A Sustainable City.