By Dr. Kirk Austin
Michael was in trouble again. The school had called Karen, the foster parent, to report his “bullying” behavior on the playground. In speaking to the principal, Karen learned that Michael had been playing aggressively with the other children. As others had reported, Michael would yell at other kids and push them if they refused to let him play in their games. The school personnel were clearly frustrated and hoped that Karen could offer some assistance in addressing the problem. She agreed to talk to him.
Finding time at the end of the day Karen talked to Michael in a moment of calm. It was their ritual to have a talk about the ‘best of their day’ when Michael was ready for bed. Karen asked him about what he liked about the day, what was good, and whether he had highlights. To her surprise Michael identified playing “Super Hero’s” with the other kids on the playground. He had no recollection of acting aggressively with other kids, but rather, thought of his interactions as play. To him, the other kids were the bad guys, and he was merely playing the Super Hero. His super power was to push them off of the play structures so that they couldn’t do harm to the imaginary citizens of the city. Karen listened, tucked him into bed, and wished him a good night sleep.
Karen knew that changing the aggressive ‘behavior’ was at the top of the school’s interests. But she also knew that behavior was an expression of the thoughts and feelings that lie beneath the surface. She knew that Michael needed support in learning to ‘attach’ with others in healthy ways. She also knew that he needed support in building a positive and healthy identity. As she reflected, Karen thought of using Michael’s imagery of being a superhero to help positively influence his connections at school. Perhaps if there were a way of helping him to identify a ‘strength’ that he wanted to use, his interactions with others might become less toxic. She thought of Signature Strengths as a starting point.
The VIA Signature Strengths are a classification of 24 character strengths identified by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in their book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004). Their research identified 24 strength-based characteristics that were morally valued by individuals and institutions in 40 different countries. According to research, when these strengths are identified and invested by an individual, corresponding reductions occur in depression while increases occur in individual happiness. Karen thought that by identifying Michaels ‘strengths’ and exploring their application, he might better attach to his peers while reducing schoolyard conflict.
The next morning, Karen talked to Michael about what he liked most about the super hero that he played. He noted that he liked being the world’s leader in taking on and stopping the bad guys. Karen also explored if he ever concealed his identity, like other superheroes such as Superman (Clark Kent) or Batman (Bruce Wayne). He hadn’t thought of it, but the idea made sense to him and he liked it. Looking over the list of strengths Karen identified “leadership” and “self regulation” as closest to the ones he most admired.
Setting out a plan, she encouraged Michael to conceal (self regulation) his Hero identity during the next morning at school. She also had worked a plan with the school, that his teacher would ask Michael to use his power of leadership in organizing a small craft time for part of the afternoon. To the school’s surprise, the day had no incidents that included Michael. The next day, Karen and the school planned other activities that allowed Michael to use his strengths of leadership and self regulation. Reading to younger children, planning short activities and doing school announcements all allowed Michael to invest his strengths. Debriefing the day with Michael, Karen was able to explore what had worked and where he had struggled. The two would then strategies how to use other strengths (creativity, persistence, kindness, etc.) in the following weeks. Over time the school reported that they had far fewer ‘behavioral’ concerns regarding Michael, and that he had become a better student.
Learning and talking about Signature Strengths is a great starting point for many children. Exploring which strengths are employed by their real-life heroes helps to deepen their knowledge. Thinking about creative ways to invest a different strength a week can develop these strengths in applied ways in children and the adults that teach them. The benefits will be experienced by the communities that apply them.
|WISDOM & KNOWLEDGE||Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge|
|Creativity||Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things|
|Curiosity||Taking an interest in all of ongoing experience|
|Open-Mindedness||Thinking things through and examining them from all sides|
|Love of Learning||Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge|
|Perspective||Being able to provide wise counsel to others|
|COURAGE||Exercising will to accomplish goals despite opposition, external or internal|
|Authenticity||Speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way|
|Bravery||Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain|
|Persistence||Finishing what one starts|
|Zest||Approaching life with excitement and energy|
|HUMANITY||Interpersonal strengths that involve ‘tending and befriending’ others|
|Kindness||Doing favors and good deeds for others|
|Love||Valuing close relations with others|
|Social Intelligence||Being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others|
|JUSTICE||Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life|
|Fairness||Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice|
|Leadership||Organizing group activities and seeing that they happen|
|Teamwork||Working well as member of a group or team|
|TEMPERANCE||Strengths that protect against excess|
|Forgiveness||Forgiving those who have done wrong|
|Modesty||Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves|
|Prudence||Being careful about choices; not saying/doing things that might be regretted|
|Self-Regulation||Regulating what one feels and does|
|TRANSCENDENCE||Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning|
|Gratitude||Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen|
|Hope||Expecting the best and working to achieve it|
|Humor||Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people|
|Religiousness||Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of life|
|Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence||Appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life|
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.