Heads Up

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You know what’s kind of tricky? Explaining my job, or at least my title: character program director.

There are many definitions of, or ways of thinking about, character; and there are almost as many ways to program it. Character can live in: moments of conflict and resolution on the playground; any sporting endeavour; on the boards of the stage; the resolution of a debate; student leadership development; a mindful moment before class begins; or in the content of any given curriculum.

I like to think of character as interdependent with wellbeing. When we feel a sense of belonging and purpose, we have the capacity to engage in the world with our best self. Character can help our resilience in harder times. The definition on Angela Duckworth’s excellent resource Character Lab is also very helpful.

The eight-minute film The Science of Character “explores the neuroscience and social science that proves that we can shape who we are and who we want to be in the world.” They can function for you like “Character 101.”

Much of the recent work with character education has evolved from the research of Martin Seligman and the late Christian Peterson, as well as the subsequent contributions of many others in the field of positive psychology.

After extensive research, Seligman and Peterson wrote a book titled Character Strengths and Virtues that’s touted by Howard Gardner as “one of the most important initiatives in psychology of the past half century.” Their framework established a list of 24 values that are universally deemed as virtues.

You can take the free “Values in Action” survey to see where the strengths land for you and your family. (My top strength is love.) This graph is quite effective for those of you who are visual learners.

Once you know your strengths, they’re fun to work with and can help inform the choices you make. Opportunities to use your strengths are super helpful for building resilience, fostering positive feelings and nurturing healthy relationships. Just as important is figuring out how to use one’s strengths to cope with the tasks of life that are challenging. I asked a Year 5 class once how I could use my strength of love to cope with a task I find difficult (the example I gave was report card writing), and a boy suggested I could: “round up.”

Dr. Lea Waters recently published a book on how to use this science for strength-based parenting. It’s easy to “strength-spot” with anyone in your life. The next time someone shares a personal story with you, try identifying the strengths they’ve demonstrated throughout their narrative. It feels good as the storyteller to have one’s strengths validated, and it inspires excellent listening skills in the audience.

Knowing and leveraging your strengths with the five areas of Seligman’s PERMA theory is a scientifically proven way to build your character and live a flourishing life. The acronym stands for “Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments.” Here in Canada we’ve added a “V for Vitality.” Australia calls it PERMA+. Considering the research results of how nutrition and prosocial physical activity support mental health, I think this is both a brilliant and necessary addition.

Schools across the globe have embraced versions of character programs because they recognize that teaching traditional subject content isn’t sufficient in preparing our youth to live flourishing lives. Statistics show supporting student wellbeing isn’t in competition with academic achievement, but actually helps to improve it. Respected institutions like Stanford University and Harvard University are challenging how we define success and making changes to better support the student journey.

Thanks for reading.

Laurie Fraser, Character Program Director
lfraser@ucc.on.ca