“Make contact before you need to make contact.” These are the words of one of my most admired mentors. As a school principal committed to building a great learning environment, she made sure that each teacher contacted every parent with a positive message about their child in the first weeks of school. Based on her sage wisdom I made time in the first weeks of school to place a call to every parent of every student I ever taught and share with them how glad I was to have the opportunity to work with their child and a word or two about something I had already noticed and appreciated about him or her. Beginning a relationship on a positive note opened doors to conversations and insights I might not have otherwise experienced. It made it easier to also have future challenging conversations that were also sometimes required – the calls about Matt leaving the playground or Susan not following the classroom rules, or Jamie not turning in homework. Even with this benefit in mind, it was difficult to make time for these calls and admittedly challenging in some instances to readily see the strengths of some of the most demanding students.
A tool that can help make this much easier is the free VIA Character Strengths assessment. This assessment can be quickly administered to an entire class resulting in individual student reports revealing unique character strengths. VIA creates a language for talking about what is right in people, and a wonderful way to begin a new and positive conversation with parents that can be reinforced throughout the year.
Understanding a student’s signature strengths can also be a highly effective way to discuss challenges. Instead of seeing the student through the lens of impulsivity, for example, and then focusing our efforts on how to transform that student into a controlled and predetermined form, we can assess and promote the optimal conditions for growth and development based on the same student’s character strengths. Perhaps it is bravery, honesty or zest? Can this be moderated with other strengths the student might have?
Approaching students, parents and communities with the positive message that there are core qualities that shape the way we think, act and feel can transform relationships between parents and teacher and teachers and students (see The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology for more information on the “broaden and build” theory.) When this happens we start to see the emergence of learning communities that expand their possibilities for learning, collaboration and performance.