The character strength model from Positive Psychology is one of the most important, and useful, findings of the last couple decades. I have found ways to apply it to parenting, education, and more. As an educator and parent, I have been frustrated by the limited opportunities for the two most important people in a child's life, parent and teacher, to have what Harvard University professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls the "essential conversation."
My day job is primarily testing kids for learning issues. When I talk to parents about my evaluations, they are often tense and worried, bracing for a list of problems. I get a completely different reaction when I choose to start my feedback by discussing the student's strengths. Ears open up and the parents sense that I care about their kid.
Teachers can get a similar connection with parents over the school year. They don't need to do a formal evaluation. They just need to start using the language of character strengths.
What might happen if a classroom teacher started the year by having a conversation with each student about his/her "superpowers" (character strengths)?
- Teacher and student could work out a plan for each student to work on one or two strengths over the semester
What might happen if the first thing the teacher talked to the parent about was this plan?
- The family could keep an eye out for the student's use of the superpower at home and in the community
What might happen if each contact with the parent, especially the parent-teacher conference, could serve as a place to check in on the student's growth and development of that superpower?
The research in Positive Psychology shows that using your core character strengths more has two profound effects: (1) it makes you happier and (2) it creates new connections, opportunities and a general "upward spiral" in your life. You may be surprised when the parent's, student's, and teacher's observations may show more than "Suzie used gratitude twice this week." There may be a lot more to report. Not to mention the overall impact on the dynamics between your students, when they start supporting each other in flexing their superpowers. Imagine the cool things that might develop within the classroom community.
If teachers can speak to parents about their child's work through the lens of their best character traits, parents may not be so grade-focused. Since parent teacher conferences are only 15 minutes, having some communication between teacher and parent prior to conferences might help that time be better spent. Beginning the school year with that conversation and including parents at the onset gets a buy-in that can change the tone and focus of parent-teacher conferences.
Idea: develop a worksheet (even better, an app) that parents could use at home where they can log examples of their child's character strengths they see in home life.