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Written By: Fiona - Nov• 08•13

So what are ‘Character Strengths’?

Put simply, strengths fall into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic strengths are our talents and skills; intrinsic strengths direct our talents and skills. “Character strengths are the fuel and the rudder that energize and direct our talents,” says Dr Neal Mayerson, Chairman and Founder of the VIA Institute on Character.

For example, if you have a talent for playing basketball, it will be your intrinsic strength/s – perseverance, teamwork, self-control etc – that will focus and direct your talent to a higher level of achievement.

Intrinsic strengths are ‘character strengths’. This semantic distinction is taken from the science of positive psychology, a relatively new branch of psychology initially brought to fore by Professor Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association in the early 90s. Positive Psychology shifts the enquiry from ‘What is clinically wrong?, to ‘What constitutes a good and satisfying life?’.

What is Positive Psychology?

Martin Seligman, the ‘father of modern positive psychology’ and author of many books, including Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, and his latest, Flourish, in 2004 co-authored with Christopher Peterson to produce the ground-breaking handbook, Character Strengths and Virtues – ‘the DSM of positive psychology’ – which unpacks the notion of character, and based on explicit criteria, classifies the resulting 24 universally and morally valued strengths.

Evidence-based research supports the claim that when we use our strengths we more have more fulfilling and happier lives, are more resilient, have less stress, increased vitality and a stronger self-esteem.

Who wouldn’t want that? And who wouldn’t want that for our children – and our teachers?

Strengths-based education in the Classroom

Traditionally, character education in schools is seen as a set of traits or values upheld and promoted to instill these values in its students. However, what the VIA Classification does is celebrate our own constellation of top strengths that, once learned and engaged, enables teachers and students alike to flourish.

If we see each of the 24 strengths as 24 different ‘seeds of potential’, and give each child the opportunity to nourish and grow their own top strengths (whilst still having ready access to their lesser strengths), we give them the greatest gift: to thrive, and to be the best they can be in the world.

When children learn about and engage their top strengths, they develop a ‘strengths-language’ and culture. As an offshoot of this, they begin to:

  • celebrate differences in themselves and others;
  • align specific strengths for specific tasks;
  • have a sense of ‘this is the real me’; and
  • shift their own focus from ‘what’s wrong?’ to ‘what’s right?’.

Also, when a child develops their ‘strengths muscles’, their self-esteem and resilience increases, resulting in them being able to recover more quickly from adversity.

We don’t just want our children to be okay. We want them to flourish,

And isn’t flourishing at the heart of what education is about?

References:

Character Strengths and Virtues,  Peterson, C., &Seligman, M.E.P., Oxford University Press. New York, (2004)
The Strengths Book, by Linley, A., Willars, J., & Biswas-Diener, R, CAPP Press, UK (2010)
Pursuing the Good Life, by Christopher Peterson, Oxford University Press, USA, 2013
Celebrating Strengths, Jenny Fox Eades, CAPP UK, 2010

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HEART MATTERS

Written By: Fiona - Oct• 17•13

There are many kinds of love so forgive me if I reduce the infinite to the finite, down to three kinds of love: love where we are cared for, love where we care for someone else, and romantic love. I’m not going talk about romantic love, as most of us would be familiar with its benefits (emotional, physical, sexual, procreation-al etc), but I will, however, briefly elaborate on the first two:

1)      The kind of love when we are cared for.

As primates, we have a need to belong. And belonging means we are cared for by another. It counts if we show up – or not – and if we don’t, we are missed; our absence is noticed. In other words, we matter; we are cared about, and therefore we know we will be cared for. Those who care for us are our safety net. They are our footings, our buttresses. Our safe harbour. Our lean-to.

2)      The kind of love when we care for someone else

Caring for someone takes us outside of our self; our gaze is towards the other. We hold their best interests alongside our own, and sometimes even ahead of our own. Caring for someone we love gives us purpose, cultivates compassion, and allows us to practice kindness. It is no surprise then, that research shows that married/partnered people are healthier and live longer. (Siegler et al, 2013)

Martin Seligman, ‘the father of positive psychology’ conducted a strengths survey amongst 40,000 US Drill Sergeants, and surprisingly, the most predominant top strength was ‘The capacity to love and to be loved.’  When I first heard this I was flabbergasted (as were the researchers); however, upon reflection, it makes a lot of sense.

Seligman deduced that those with a top strength of love make great leaders and are drawn towards leadership roles because they care deeply about those under their guard.

Can you imagine how beneficial this knowledge would be in the business world? There may be employees out there with a top strength of love who are champing at the bit to take on more leadership roles. This knowledge has the potential to translate into satisfied, compassionate and caring leaders who are constantly looking out for the well-being of those who work with or for them.

And now imagine the benefits of a child’s ‘capacity to love and be loved’ being noticed and nurtured in the classroom. Giving that child the opportunity to explore their top strength of love through the expression of leadership may be just the thing that has them seen, rather than overlooked, for leadership roles.

We all have a capacity to love and be loved. For some, however, with love as a top strength there will be a resonance: a ‘this is who I am’, ‘this is me at my best’.

Maybe the Beatles were right: “love is all you need” – especially when you want to lead.

Source: Springer Science+Business Media (2013, January 10). ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2013/01/130110102342.htm

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Planting Seeds of Greatness

Written By: Fiona - Oct• 09•13

Everyone has been affected by a teacher at some point of their life. And given October 5th was World Teachers’ Day – a UNESCO initiative, ‘devoted to appreciating, assessing, and improving the educators of the world,’ I think it’s timely we take our collective hats off to teachers everywhere. (http://www.worldteachersday.org)

Teaching is one of the most vital professions. It forms, shapes, influences and often determines the outcome of our careers, lives and successes as we go out into the world as newly polished adults. Unfortunately, in many parts of the western world, teachers do not receive validation or appreciation for such an essential contribution.

In India, it’s a different matter. Teachers there are revered; they are ‘noble people’. When I travel to India and mention I am a teacher, I’m always surprised and humbled to be held in such high esteem.

Watching a TED talk on YouTube last week, I was deeply moved and inspired by American teacher Rita Pierson, a teacher for over 40 years, who said: ‘I want students to see the value of possibility’, which is why, when grading a student’s 20 question quiz, she marked it as ‘ plus 2 (with a smiley face)’.  When the student saw the results of his test and the grade he’d been given, he was puzzled.

‘Miss, is this an ‘F’?’ he asked her.

Rita said yes, it was.

‘Then why’d you put a smiley face?’ he asked.

‘You got two right. You didn’t miss ‘em all,’ she replied.

‘I reckon I can do better next time,’ he said. ‘Minus 18 sucks the life outta ya. A Plus Two says I ain’t all bad.’

Not only did Rita Carter see possibility, she planted its seed within this boy’s future, alongside other seeds of hope, optimism, love and persistence.

That’s what teachers do. They plant seeds of possibility and greatness; they are the cultivators of the child’s garden.

Within the context of Character Strengths, these seeds are our ‘intrinsic’ strengths. They are the strengths we have within us that enable our skills and talents (‘extrinsic’ strengths) to grow and flourish.

So in honour of World Teachers’ Day, I’d like to thank some of my teachers for being my horticulturalists:

First up, there was my grade three teacher, Miss Remsnik, who was as kind as Miss Honey in the movie, Matilda, and who spoke with a softly lilted European accent and munched red capsicums like apples. She was sweet and gentle and not the least bit scary. Miss Remsnik planted a tiny seed in me called ‘kindness’.

Secondly, my high school English teacher, Mrs Coghlan, who’s bobbed grey hair belied her youthful enthusiasm. She both encouraged and rewarded my writing ability with an Honours Certificate, two years running. Mrs Coghlan planted a seed of ‘excellence’ in me.

Thirdly, my night school English teacher, Kelvin Edwards, who taught us grammar with gusto, new words with wonder, and even took us on daring, cultural excursions – including a visit to a maximum security prison to see a theatre performance.  Kelvin planted two more seeds: ‘love of learning’ and ‘enthusiasm’.

And finally, my university lecturers: Peter Davis, Gaylene Perry, and Judith Rodriguez, who nurtured and nourished the already-planted seeds by Miss Remsnik, Mrs Coghlan and Mr Edwards, helping me grow and flourish.

Thank you, my teachers.

My hat is off.

(See Rita Pierson’s talk here: http://youtu.be/SFnMTHhKdkw)

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Oh honestly!

Written By: Fiona - Sep• 11•13

Prior to Australia’s national election held on September 7, 2013, I conducted a brief survey about the desired character strengths in a leader, and what character strengths we perceived our two main candidates to possess.

Well the survey results are in:

What we want mostly in a leader of our nation are the character strengths of:

Honesty/Integrity (75%)
Leadership (63%)
Teamwork (50%)
Perspective (49%)
Judgement/Critical Thinking (47%).

However, what we want and what we think we are getting are two very different things indeed.

The survey showed that the perceived top strengths of Tony Abbott were, in ranked order:

Perseverance (60%)
Spirituality (52%)
Leadership (47%)
Bravery (40%)
Teamwork (38%)

And for Kevin Rudd:

Perseverance (70%)
Zest/Enthusiasm (56%)
Hope (42%) & Leadership (42%)
Humour (36%) & Bravery (36%)

I could comment and analyse these results until the cows come home (which begs the question: Where do the cows go?), but it’s not my job to do that. It’s my job to get us thinking about what our own and others’ character strengths are, and more significantly, the character strengths of our children.

So: who, in your children’s life is a paragon of leadership? Do they emulate character strengths that you admire in a leader and that you aspire for your child to live out of?

And given honesty and integrity are qualities we most strongly desire in our political leaders, how honest and integral are you in yours and your children’s life?

Seligman and Peterson (2004) define this Character Strength as follows:

“Integrity, authenticity, and honesty capture a character trait in which people are true to themselves, accurately representing – privately and publicly – their internal states, intentions, and commitments.” (p250)

Or as I put it: ‘Being who you say you are, and doing what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it.’

I’ve always liked the question: ‘Where’s your integrity in this?’ It’s a question I ask myself if I hesitate in not fessing up to being undercharged or not being up front in declining an invitation. Gets me every time and stops me in my tracks, reminding me of my personal standing of integrity: to be in integrity not only with myself, but also with others.

Nobody’s perfect – and nor should we expect ourselves to be – and giving ourselves ‘permission to be human’ gives us permission to be just that. That being said, living an authentic, honest life of integrity is a character strength we must all learn to access, whether it be your top or lower strength – for the sake of our children. Or, if you are a political leader, for the sake of our nation.

Just like Luka Bloom sings: “Wherever you go, there you are.” You cannot escape yourself.

Honestly.

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FOLLOWING THE LEADER

Written By: Fiona - Sep• 05•13

At Arthur’s Creek Primary school, in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, a class of grade fives and sixers were given an activity called Money Money Money. The purpose of the activity was for them to put into practice the three character strengths they’d learnt in class that morning: fairness, leadership and teamwork.

Each child was randomly given a few USA coins: a mixture of pennies, dimes and nickels. The objective of the activity was to work out the value of each coin, then distribute the money fairly amongst the group.

Within a few seconds it was apparent which children were leaders, who were followers and who were zone-out-erers. Chaos ensued, as some juggled coins, some sat on coins, some got bored, some got loud, and some sat quietly, just waiting for the end result to be revealed. Some simply lay back and looked at the ceiling,

And then there were others who were fully engaged, coming up with ideas, delegating tasks (‘Hey Ian, you count the pennies.’ and ‘Amy, add up this pile of coins and write down the total.’) and generally thinking outside the square. Before long, and not without some gentle encouragement and guidance at various points from the teacher, the money was able to be distributed evenly.

It was great to watch these young leaders assert themselves and take control when given projects or activities to accomplish. They rose to the occasion, spoke louder, persuaded with conviction, and engaged and often inspired the whole team to achieve their common goal.

When we seek out, observe and then name the expression of our character strengths, we give ourselves and others permission to put our best foot forward, to be seen and to be validated. This allows us to thrive. To flourish.

True and authentic leadership isn’t motivated by the benefit to the self, but of the group. Great leaders collaborate, support, direct, guide and help. They are initiators and motivators.

May they also be humane, forgiving, inclusive, strong and wise.

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TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER

Written By: Fiona - Aug• 28•13

Most of us would have been given an opportunity to practice and cultivate leadership at some point in our childhood; we either naturally took charge in group activities, or were reluctantly appointed leadership roles to develop our skills. For some it was a challenge not to be in charge; for others it was a blessing.

Whether you were – and still are – a team leader or team member, we all have some sense of what it is that constitutes a good leader.

So this is my first question: what qualities, attributes, traits, strengths – call them what you may – do you look for in a leader?

This is a valid and important question to be asking ourselves in the face of an upcoming election on September 7 when the leader of our country will be decided.

And interestingly, an Associated Press poll states that the majority of us care more about our candidates’ character than we do about their policies. If this is the case, then my next question is this: what character strengths do you believe our potential leaders possess?

According to Seligman and Peterson (2004):

“We praise leaders who rise to the occasion, seize the moment, take the lead, show the way, take charge, get the job done, do what is needed, say what has to be said, get everyone on the same page, build morale, inspire followers, instil pride, restore order, make changes, voice common concerns and serve as moral compasses or consciences. “

That’s a tall order. Or is it? Perhaps we live in hope that these16 praise-worthy points above are merely promises we trust our elected leader will keep… (Pigs might also fly, too.)

It is with these questions about character that have been at the forefront of my mind, and with September 7 looming and political media saturation at its peak, is the reason I have put together a brief questionnaire to find out your view on what character strengths the ideal Prime Minister would have, as well as identify the character strengths you see in our two primary candidates: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and leader of the Coalition, Tony Abbott.

The questionnaire is brief, completely anonymous, and is for general interest only. Please also note that From Strength to Strength is a totally non-partisan organisation.

Results of the survey will be published in a blog after the election.

Take survey now: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NG7LZ2Q

Thank you!

 

 

SOURCES:

The idea for this questionnaire has come from the VIA Institute on Character, who, prior to the 2012 Presidential Election, conducted The VIA Presidential Caucus Project – a detailed questionnaire on political issues and candidates’ character – and was the only national opinion poll on the public perception of presidential character.  To read more about this and to see the breakdown of their statistics, go to: http://viacaucus.org.

Associated Press Poll

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. New York: Oxford University Press.

 
 




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FLOW, FLOW, FLOW YOUR BOAT

Written By: Fiona - Aug• 15•13

When my twins were young – maybe five or six years old – I took them to a kids’ activity day at Bendigo Pottery, in Central Victoria. On the way, I tried to explain where we were going and what we were going to do. ‘It’s a big place that makes pots out of clay, on something called a ‘potter’s wheel’ that spins around and around…’ They’d stopped listening after the word ‘pots’, so I stopped explaining, except to say it was going to be fun.

 

We arrived at the factory and joined the long line of other kids all decked out in their art smocks, waiting for a go at the potter’s wheel. Then it was the boys’ turn. Sam sat before his blob of clay and tried to form it into some kind of shape as the wheel frantically spun, splattering brown sticky goop everywhere. What he ended up with wasn’t much better than what he started with.

Alex took his place at the wheel and instinctively rested his hands on the lump of clay, feeling its weight and form as the wheel began to spin. Then, like a pro, he began to mould and shape the clay with deft and delicate precision. It was a magical few minutes, as this boy – who from the moment he could walk, ran, who hated sitting still for any length of time, who leapt and jumped and laughed into life – sat perfectly still with focussed attention on the task before him, oblivious to everything going on around him. When he’d finished, and the wheel stopped, he looked like he’d come out of a dream.

Alex had, as psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyil would attest, experienced being in ‘flow’. (The process of total involvement, complete immersion and energised focus in an activity – often referred to as being ‘in the zone’.)

As we left the potter’s studio with the boys’ creations: one’s cute and comical misshapen and lumpy vessel, and the other’s cup of creative symmetry, Alex looked at me accusingly and said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me about this before?” – like I’d been keeping it a secret from him all his young life!

The same thing happened to me when I was not five, but fifty. And not at the potter’s wheel, but at the computer. I’d been instructed by my business coach to do an online ‘strengths’ survey, which showed me, in ranked order, my 24 strengths. Not weaknesses, strengths. ‘You mean I’m not broken? That I don’t have to ‘fix’ anything?’ I asked her.

Like Alex, I too, was incredulous. Why didn’t anybody tell me about this before?

I’m here to tell you this: you can work on your weaknesses until the cows come home, but doing so won’t make you happy; won’t give you vitality, and won’t have you leaping out of bed in the morning. Nor will you experience flow.

We are all acutely aware of our weaknesses. And one sure-fired way of overcoming a weakness or shortcoming is to develop and use your strengths.

Trust me on this.

And remember one thing: it’s going to be fun.

Reference: Flow, by M Csikszentmihalyi, Harper and Row, USA (2002)

Go to: www.viacharacter.org for your free, on-line strengths survey.

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The Strengths of Our Children

Written By: Fiona - Aug• 07•13

I was about to enter the school gates when my phone rang. The phone number on the screen showed it was my children’s high school, so I answered it quickly.

‘This is Mrs Allan, from Valley College,’ said the stern voice on the other end of the line. ‘I’m Alex’s math teacher.’

‘Hi Mrs Allan!, I said, chirpy. ‘How can I help you?’

‘Alex needs to learn a thing or two about manners and stop giving me cheek in class,’ she snapped.

Were we talking about the same Alex, I wondered?

I looked around me. The sun was shining, my red wheelie suitcase was packed full of props, and I was about to teach Character Strengths to kids in year five – the exact opposite of what Mrs Allan was practicing right now.

I felt my indignity rise in defence of my son, but instead of biting back, suggested to we discuss the issue at a more appropriate time, and after I’d spoken to Alex.

That night, with the teacher’s words still ringing in my ears, I decided to approach the incident with open curiosity and re-visited Alex’s VIA Strength Survey results, which he’d completed just a few months earlier.

And there it was: a top, resounding strength of Fairness and Justice. This is a fine quality in my 16-year old son, and something he carries with him in all facets of his life. I took this information with me to my conversation with him.

After listening to Alex’s version of the story, and seeing it through his lens of fairness and justice, what had transpired made a lot of sense to me. Talking to his strengths, and telling him I understood why he would felt unjustly targeted, gave both of us perspective on the situation. He was also able to see it from Mrs Allan’s viewpoint, allowing him an opportunity to resolve the issue with her: without victimisation, blame or lack of responsibility.

It was a conversation I was proud of, as a mother. In the past, I may have simply barged in with accusations (not dissimilar to Mrs Allan), laced with disappointment. But coming at a difficult conversation from a strengths-perspective certainly hit the mark.

After hanging up the phone that day after Mrs Allan called, I made my way to the library, where 30 kids were waiting for me. What a joy it was, to be with children full of curiosity and enthusiasm, their hands shooting up at rocket speed to ask and answer questions, and their laughter rippling across the classroom. Better still, to see their teachers’ faces blushing with pride when students named their strengths.

I bet Alex’s math class wasn’t like that.

1. Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths. UK: CAPP Press.
2. Peterson, C., &Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.

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Be Friend

Written By: Fiona - Aug• 02•13

I have a handful of friends that are very dear to me: Lucy, June, Pete, Carole, Sheryl, Kerryn, Sam and Steve (in no particular order). Sure, there are more, but these are my top eight.

Friends will tell us if we have a poppy seed stuck in our tooth or if our butt looks big in our new dress; they will catch us when we fall or pick us up when we have fallen. They will tell us to stop whingeing and start doing, or send us a card reminding us they care. They know what we need to hear, and when we need to hear it. They know when to be quiet and when to holler. They celebrate our victories and console our losses.

Research shows that we live longer if we have friends, (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2010), so as long as your life continues to be worth living, then having friends around ensures you can keep doing so for longer.

Friendship is not just about having a friend; it’s also about being a friend. Friendship also doesn’t have to be a full time job, nor a life-long commitment. You can be a friend to a stranger by lending a hand to help them up, or dropping coins into their cup, or simply taking the time to compliment or thank them. Friends can come, and friends can go.

Having a friend keeps us visible; ‘I see you’, is the message you send, just as they, in return, validate your existence. You matter. We matter. I matter. We all matter. We all benefit from friendship: the giver and the receiver.

I once asked a girl called Hannah in grade five to describe her best friend. Here’s what she said:
Kind
Funny
Smart
Generous.

I then asked the children in the classroom to describe Hannah. Here’s what they said:
Kind
Funny
Smart
Generous

Our friends are a reflection of ourselves, if not our obvious and apparent selves, then our subconscious selves, the selves with qualities we wished we had more or less of. Of course, during various stages of our life, we have a few dodgy friends, but invariably, those friendships don’t last, or are discarded when you realise the relationship no longer reflects who you are, or how you want to be in the world.

But the friends that are your rocks, your celebrators, your commiserate-ors , your ‘through thick and thinners’ are the ones that will keep you going, keep you real and keep your life full and rich – poppy seeds and all.

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Sweet and Sour

Written By: Fiona - Jul• 25•13

“…A signature strength is a character trait that is deeply held – a trait that is part of defining one’s essence of being. It is a very strong tendency of thought, feeling, and action.  …Signature strengths are so central to a person’s psychological identity that suppressing or ignoring any of those strengths would seem unnatural and very difficult.” Neal Mayerson, PhD (www.psychologytoday.com)

Here’s the good news: When you play, live and work in the domain of your top signature strengths, you’re more likely to feel invigorated, energised and even a little happy. (Maybe even a lot happy.)

Here’s the bad news: If you play, live and work too hard and too long and too much in the domain of your top signature strengths, you’re likely to feel drained, frustrated and/or exhausted.

Like any muscle, your strengths muscle can be overused, resulting in weakness, just as an underused muscle can lead to atrophy. The downside of underutilising our strengths is a pretty easy concept to follow; however, the idea that overuse has a downside, isn’t as easily digested.

As acclaimed psychologist, Robert Biswas-Diener, says in his book, Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, ‘Our strengths are often so effective and energizing that we fall into the trap of using them as the hammer with which we strike everything in sight.’ Just like the hammer of  inappropriate humour, or leadership to the point of despotism, or demanding excellence to the point of perfectionism, your strengths, overused, can work against you.

Take the strength of kindness, for example, with it oozing out of every pore and without restraint, ie: ‘have this/take this/let me do that for you/what do you need?/ how can I help?/ everything okay?/after you!/your wish is my command’ etc. Eventually, the over-zealous kindly person would feel burnt out and all used up.

The other downside of overstretching the kindness muscle is that it can also appear to others as being syrupy and compliant. This is a prime example of an overused strength.

As with the strength of curiosity. Overused and under-regulated, curiosity becomes an insatiable desire to know everything about everyone at all times, which is not only impossible, but tiring. The overly curious person can also be perceived by others as being a sticky-beak or snoop.

Here are a few other examples of strengths overused, and their flipside:

Overused Bravery – taking unnecessary and dangerous risks = Reckless

Overused Forgiveness – overlooking transgressions, ad infinitum = Pushover

Overused Prudence – being so cautious, the ‘spice’ of life disappears   = Killjoy

Overused Persistence – doggedness, at all costs = Fixated

Overused Creativity – outside the square, squared = Eccentric

Overused Enthusiasm – spinning like a Catherine Wheel  = Hyperactive

As with most things, moderation and regulation is the key.

So when you’re living in Top Strength Land, take stock now and again and ask yourself: ‘How’s this working out for me and others?’; ‘Am I on cruise-control or is my foot flat down on the strengths accelerator?’ ‘Am I feeling energized or burnt out?’

Are your strengths sweet, or are they turning sour?

 

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