A lot of research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, education, medicine and economics has gone into finding out which character strengths help children and young people to succeed in life. The conclusion: Grit, Curiosity, Optimism, Self-Control, Zest, Gratitude and Social Intelligence (see for example, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed ). As a Promise Worker working with ages 11-25, part of what I have been piloting is how we can develop these character strengths in young people in order to help them to succeed and to flourish.
My journey into character strength land has been an interesting one as I discovered there was a lot of theory and practice going on in this area, although not much specific to the youth work sector. At first I was a little sceptical. I was suspicious about who chose which strengths were universally ‘important’, who decided how much of each strength young people possess and whether ‘success’ was linked to stuff like flash cars and a big wage packet rather than being individually defined. I value people for their unique strengths, so rating people against seven fixed strengths on a scale to track if the characteristic went up or down over time seemed difficult to swallow.
At the same time, adapting a strengths-based approach to character in a youth work setting allows for lots of positives too. For example, it helps young people and workers to think of character in terms of strengths that can be changed and developed rather than as fixed traits that people are just born with and so can’t do much about. It also helps young people and workers value these ‘non-cognitive’ or ‘softer’ skills as vitally important and linked to, rather than separate from, ‘harder’ outcomes, which fits in with a lot of the informal education values of youth work. This in turn allows us to draw on a framework that contributes to the flourishing of those who have perhaps suffered from greater degrees of poverty, inequality and childhood stress and trauma and who are thus statistically less likely to succeed.
It is also useful to remember that there are actually a more holistic set of 24 character strengths (see VIA Institute for the full list) which are all important but which have been narrowed down to the seven that are most likely to predict life satisfaction and success to make them more workable. However, I like to keep in mind all 24 and praise them in others when I notice them. In this way, character strengths have been much more about making people feel valued, noticed and capable rather than about focussing on deficits.
It is of course a challenge to help young people develop key character strengths and over time I have seen different activities work for different people and the same activities can be used to focus on different strengths. For example, a Bollywood dance class I teach can be used to develop zest (being present, enjoyment and energy) and curiosity (openness to trying something new) but can also be used to work on self-control (listening and following instructions) and grit (persistence and the ability to keep trying even when things are difficult). Having a 1-2-1 with a young person and using it as an opportunity to discuss their optimism and social intelligence is much better if you can share research with them about why these things are important and sharing examples can demystify the whole business of character into conscious thoughts and habits. Young people can begin to notice their feelings and interactions and are supported to adopt more helpful thoughts and routines to build their strengths. Measuring character strengths (young people as well as workers are involved in this) helps us all to adopt a strengths-based way of thinking, to better understand the impact of our work and to see where to direct our focus with different young people and groups.
A young woman I work with commented recently that she disapproved of trying to change peoples’ character as everyone is different. I agreed that it is great that people are different but I wanted to equip young people with as many tools and experiences and as much support and knowledge for them to cope better with life and be happy and fulfilled in whatever they choose to do.