From education to employment

Helping young people amplify their strengths for future success and happiness

Ruth Cooper-Dickson

The core principle of coaching (as opposed to counselling) is empowering individuals or groups to look ahead to the future and make positive change. In doing this, individuals can make specific goals and put in place the tools and techniques that will enable them to realise these ambitions.

But perhaps the most important tools of all are the ones that we already possess – our strengths. Identifying, acknowledging, and truly believing in our strengths can have a hugely transformational effect on our lives. We need to learn how to be genuinely positive advocates for ourselves in order to reach our potential.

In positive psychology settings, tapping into strengths is paramount – particularly among individuals or groups that have experienced trauma, adversity or struggle with low self esteem. There are many ways practitioners or leaders can bring strengths’ work into sessions with their clients or students. Strengths are different from talent or skills; they are more trait-like. They are part of who we are.

Scientists at the Values in Action Institute discovered a common language of 24-character strengths that make up what is best about our personality. The framework demonstrates we all possess the 24 strengths in different degrees making up our unique personality. Peterson and Seligman (2004) published the 24 strengths and six universal virtues: parallel to this is the Values in Action (VIA) Inventory Classification.

This holistic measure assesses each of the 24 strengths using a 240-item measure (10 items per strength) and is a freely available tool that anyone can access online. Within 15 minutes you can view your report of the 24-character strengths. Research shows that if you have an active awareness of your strengths, you are 9x more likely to be flourishing, which is the opposite end to languishing on Keyes’ (2002) mental wellbeing continuum. 

The beauty of the VIA inventory measure is that we all possess the 24 strengths, the top listed 3-7 strengths are known as our signature strengths, the ones nearing the bottom of the list can be defined as our lesser-used strengths. Our greatest areas of potential to grow are by tapping into our signature strengths. 

Through my Community Interest Company, CHAMPS for Change, we’ve been delivering strengths-based interventions for some time now. Most recently, we’ve seen significant positive change through our pilot strengths work with young people via educational charity Caramel Rock.

The purpose of this work was to encourage students to explore their own values and how they align to their strengths, and to identify where and when their strengths are used (or under-used). Ultimately, it encourages the students to consider how to make the most of their strengths – as well as shout about them! More tangibly, it takes participants through to the next step – goal setting, CV development and interview preparation – with a far better understanding of how to effectively present themselves.

Students all access course content that starts conversations – conversations that we encourage them to continue beyond the formal sessions. This is to ensure that they are putting their learning into practice until it becomes second nature.

These conversation starters and the VIA surveys that all students completed and reflected on as part of their work are crucial – it’s inherently difficult for us to easily see our own strengths without digging a bit deeper. We had many participants feeling surprised at what came out in their top three strengths, although when they took time to consider them, they could see that they really did possess and utilise them. This recognition will enable them to increase the power of these strengths and put them into practice more regularly and more thoughtfully.

Being thoughtful about our strengths was another key learning point. Once we are armed with a good understanding of what they are, it’s important to be able to pause and reflect and consider if we are approaching or responding to situations with the right tools (or strengths) driving our actions. We also explored mindset, for example, how we respond to a rejection from an interview. Could we see it as not being ‘the right job for me’ rather than ‘I’m not good enough.’

Students have described these sessions as ‘life-changing’ and one even returned to take part in the second cohort, embedding the work she found is so valuable. We’ve also found that the impact has extended beyond career development, with one student telling us that she had been passing what she had learnt onto her family and children. Perhaps the most common outcome was that students found that their confidence had greatly increased, particularly from having the opportunity to hear fellow students discuss their experiences and strengths.

We all go through adverse life situations from time to time – but this adversity has been more pronounced during the ongoing pandemic. Being able to tap into our individual strengths at a time when we are feeling lost, languishing, or losing hope, allows us to recall and cultivate what is good and strong within us. So there’s no better time to undertake such work.

By Ruth Cooper-Dickson, Positive Psychology Practitioner and Trauma-Informed Coach

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