Imagine waking up one day and having everyone you encounter understand the ways in which you are unique and extraordinary. What if everyone viewed the things you did as needed contributions, and rather than looking for what is wrong with you, people pointed out what is right with you? If that happened, you would be supercharged. You would feel free and released from the burden of having to defend yourself. You would be psyched to jump out of bed and get to work. You would feel, well, strong. Wouldn't it be nice if just one day of your life could be like that?
The Strengths Movement in Schools is about just that. Developing strengths in kids is about getting everyone: the students, teachers and parents to change their thinking in order to
experience the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes from living life from your strengths rather than your weaknesses. Teaching young people to focus on what interests, engages and energizes them is the best gift we can give children. It is what every child deserves.
Some things endure; they are sticky in an important way. Other things breeze into the world, cause a momentary stir, and dissipate as soon as our attention is diverted. Hula Hoops, super-low-rise jeans, Tupperware parties -- those are fads. Civil Rights, preserving the environment, and now -- the Strengths Movement in schools -- these are societal advances upon which our
future depends. They are not fads. They will endure even if the whole world ignores them.
People will keep circling back to the ideas and causes that are universal and timeless and demand our attention.
Simply put, strengths are the things that we do that make us feel energized and alive when we do them. Every single person has strengths. Children's innate strengths are like live wires connecting their unique inner qualities to their promise as adults. Those wires have life's most potent energy flowing through them, and we as adults have the power to amp up or damper down the energy flow. When the energy is turned up and strengths are developed to their fullest, people's passions light up. Life becomes meaningful and enjoyable even in the face of conflict. Strengths are what push people to that place. They are the things that keep our curiosity engaged, that step out ahead of us and beg us to follow. They are what we would do if money, prestige, and responsibility were inconsequential. Our strengths speak to us with a persistent, urging voice that begs for us to take notice, to unleash them, and in doing so, we put our best selves forward -- not just in school, but on the job and in our relationships with others.
For most children, we have unintentionally created a world of limits. In order to change this, we must change the way we think about raising children. We must begin to nurture their strengths from a very early age. To do this we will need to retrain our minds and theirs to see people's strengths rather than their weaknesses. This involves commitment -- commitment
to knowing that inside every human being there is something valuable and worthwhile and that this needs to be realized and released into the world. When limits are placed on this belief, children swell up and become bloated by their unexpressed sense of purpose. This leads to many ill effects -- frustration, anger, depression, reckless abandon, or, the worst effect, complacency toward life. Children do not start out in these weakened states. They begin with the knowledge that on some level they are special.
There are ways schools can embrace and teach to children's strengths. Many fabulous teachers in good schools have adopted the strengths-based philosophy, using all kinds of useful activities and tools, but in order for strengths to really take hold, they will need a whole-school strength environment that includes a multi-year curriculum. One such program is in existence and called the Affinities Program (www.strengthsmovment.com). It has been tested in Sharon Hills Pennsylvania in a large comprehensive high school where it showed increased engagement and fewer discipline problems in the first year of implementation. There are programs and curriculum and the time has come for us to weave the concept of developing children's strengths into the educational dialog.
There will be people who want to argue against and criticize these concepts. They can do that if they wish, but they will only be delaying the inevitable. The world is calling for our schools to change, and for this to happen, we must do things differently. It's common sense that we will not get new results from sticking to the same old methods. Naturally, the ideas and suggestions about how to bring about strengths will seem different -- they are. Any amount of real change might seem uncomfortable to begin with but the results will be worth it.
The time for a national strengths awakening is now. The world is not going to wait for us to change the way we raise and educate children. We will need the strengths of future generations to solve problems that threaten to undermine the well-being of society as a whole.
There are many U.S. high schools that employ wonderfully, creative practices and programs that promote individualization. There are whole schools of thought such as the Montessori method, and organizations such as the Coalition for Essential Schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Big Picture, the George Lucas Foundation, and Harvard University's Project Zero, among many others, all invested in creating school environments in which students are engaged in meaningful individualized learning. The concept of strengths development is compatible with every one of these organizations.
There are thousands and thousands of dedicated teachers employing very creative methods in classrooms, often under very difficult circumstances. A national school reform movement is bubbling. Future-thinking schools will be of even greater benefit to students when they include programs that intentionally focus on student strength development. Every day more people realize that focusing on strengths is the answer to creating a life that is truly worth living. We all stake our futures, our health, our livelihoods on the promise of the accomplishments and decisions of the next generation. They will need to develop their strengths to care for us as much as they will need them to care for themselves. Children cannot do this alone. They need adults--parents and teachers, especially--to guide, teach, and serve as their role models. Strengths are for everyone, and the sooner people realize we must overturn the deficit model, the better off we'll be.
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