School setting: Secondary all-girls school

Location: Perth, Western Australia

Psychologist Martin Seligman first used the term Positive Education about 10 years ago when describing the concept of teaching both traditional academic skills and the skills of wellbeing in schools. A quick Google search of “Positive Education” will now bring you about 437,000 results! So, if you are feeling enthusiastic about introducing wellbeing strategies at your school, it is common to feel a bit overwhelmed in knowing where to start.

When I consider all the concepts from Positive Education that have been introduced in my school, there is one that I find most engaging for a wide variety of students – character strengths (learn more HERE). Peterson & Seligman defined character strengths as the positive personality traits that benefit us and others. I think that strengths work is flexible, fun, insightful and practical for students, and an engaging way to start the wellbeing education journey. Here are some ways we have incorporated strengths, specifically the VIA Character Strengths, into my school.

Individual Counselling

As a psychologist working with students who are struggling, I notice they are often lacking self-confidence and direction, making it difficult for them to identify their strengths of talent or skill, which is the focus in schools. However, everyone possesses strengths of character that can be readily identified. Almost every student I see will include an exploration of their signature character strengths, with my favourite tools being the VIA strengths survey and the Flourishing Strengths Cards. After completing a Flourishing Strengths card sorting task, I take a photo of the top strengths cards to keep in my case notes and provide the student a copy as an easy way for them to remember their strengths and a description of them.

Once strengths are identified, I can then discuss with a student how they can:

  • use these traits when problem-solving;
  • improve their self-confidence;
  • better understand the individual differences amongst their peers and family members;
  • make decisions on subject choices leading to future careers;
  • focus on using their best traits more often to improve their wellbeing.

Talking through the positives of a student’s character helps to give them that much-needed reassurance to be who they truly are. I think that individual strengths work doesn’t need to be restricted to counselling sessions with psychologists, and could also be used in careers counselling, subject selection meetings, behaviour reviews, and parent-teacher meetings.

Group Work

I have also found that character strengths work well with groups of students. When training a group of fifty Year 9 Peer Mentors, I used the FAS Engagement activity ‘Strengths – Me at my Best’. The students had learned their signature strengths prior to the training, so their instructions were to:

Think about a time when you felt “at your best” and felt proud of yourself in some way. What were you doing? Who were you with? What character strengths were you using? Write your story.

Students then took turns sharing their story with a peer, reflecting on which strengths they were using and how it felt to share the story. This activity provided students a chance to better understand their own strengths, develop a better understanding of their peers and get a positive emotion boost! I have consistently found that young people engage more readily with wellbeing activities when including open discussions with their peers.

Other ways my school has incorporated strengths include:

  • Strength spotting activities between students HERE
  • Strengths games like Bingo and Snakes and Ladders HERE
  • Thinking of three new ways to use a top strength
  • Making visual representations of signature strengths including paper hands or flowers

So, how will you incorporate character strengths into your school? There are plenty of ideas already available, but use your creativity and adapt these ideas to best suit the students in your school.

Tanya Kadak | School Psychologist
Tanya Kadak (BA Hons; Dip Ed) has been a School Psychologist since 2001, currently working at Hale School and People Diagnostix in Perth, Western Australia. Tanya worked for 14 years at Mercedes College, an all-girls Catholic secondary school, where she developed a passion for Positive Psychology research and its applications. She has completed training in Positive Education with Dr Lea Waters (2013) and The Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School (2014). Tanya has been implementing wellbeing strategies and developing resources for schools, with a commitment to translating wellbeing science into practical and effective activities that are engaging for young people.