Hope! A resounding theme at the most recent Learning and the Brain Conference: Positive, Resilient Minds: The Science of Promoting Student Grit, Gratitude, and School Success. Threaded throughout the keynotes of positive psychology experts such as, Giacomo Bono, PhD, Michele Borba, EdD, and Patty O’Grady, PhD, was a strong message that the time is now to address the challenge of an increasing number of depressed and hopeless students in our schools. And just as strong a message was that we have the knowledge, tools and experience to tackle this difficult issue. But how?
Schools are a microcosm of society. When students come through the doors each morning, they bring with them the values, stories and experiences they’ve encountered outside the four walls of school. If this is true, then the inverse is also true, students take home each night what they’ve experienced at school. If we can reverse cruelty, disrespect and hopelessness in our schools, and instead breed kindness, gratitude, respect and hope, can we then begin to impact the larger community? I believe it’s possible (but then again, hope is one of my top character strengths.)
Where do we begin? Our experience in Thriving Learning Community™ classrooms and schools points us to the importance of adopting a new language – a language of strengths – that enables us to recognize and celebrate who we are at our core, as well as to understand and celebrate the positive character traits of classmates, teachers, family and friends. When students become rooted in an identity that is focused on their strengths, it opens their eyes to possibility. The possibility to influence their environment for the better, to set a course for themselves that they can control, a course that leads to positive outcomes. Hope is rising and kindness and gratitude are close behind.
Middle school students from Deer Park Junior High in Cincinnati, Ohio, have spent the past year learning how to describe themselves using the language of character strengths. As you read their reflections, take note of the sound of hope in these young voices:
I use creativity always! School isn’t always easy and I use different ways than other people… sometimes I use stories. In math I remember a song… and I make tricks for spelling and for science I create games so I can remember things. – Avery
I use gratitude every day in life because I feel blessed every day to know that today I get to see my friends and family. – Markus
Curiosity – I love hearing people’s stories… it’s fun to know things that happened to other people and the world. – Jessica
I am a person who is very loving. I am compassionate, and relationships are important. I am a leader and enjoy encouraging others. Lastly I am about bravery. I accept challenges and speak up for what’s right. – Ariana
I think my best 3 strengths now are love, bravery and zest. Love because whenever my friends need me or anyone does… I help them and comfort them. Bravery because throughout the year I have been speaking up for what is right. Zest because I have been participating more in class. – Savannah
TLC has helped me become a better person because now I know my strengths. When I’m having a bad day I just think about them and it helps me. – Miriam
And if these same students are rooted in their own strengths, how then does this transfer to how they see and treat others? Dr. O’Grady suggested, in her recent Learning and the Brain presentation – Teaching Kindness and Gratitude in Schools, that we “experience kindness and gratitude in a reciprocal way.” Listen for how kindness and gratitude surface as the students recognize strengths in family, friends and classmates:
My mom uses the strength love and I admire this because she is there when needed.- Avery
I have a best friend/cousin who has been there for me since we were little and the strength he uses is love and I admire it. – Jasmine
This person is a friend and they use this every day… and this is honesty. She will always tell you the truth no matter what and I admire that. – Markus
My friend is really good at forgiving. She can forgive almost anything. She is so kind and forgiving of others. She helps people who did her wrong, when they are at their worst. – Jessica
Humor is the strength she has… she is always making someone happy even at the worst moments. – N’Dreia
I admire kindness because if you are kind to someone they will be kind to someone else and then that person will be kind to another person and this will go on. – Maya
As students understand and live their strengths, their strengths of gratitude and kindness are activated right alongside the strength of hope.
We do have the tools, experience and knowledge to change the tide of depression and hopelessness… in our schools… and perhaps even our larger communities. Applying the science of character strengths has a ripple effect, replacing what is wrong with what is strong and inspiring hope.