The Most Essential Back To School Gift Is You

August 13, 2017
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Dan Tomasulo

By Dan Tomasulo |

A good teacher or parent is like a good gardener. Your job is to find the inherent qualities of something that needs to thrive – and find ways to make that happen. But what makes a good gardener? In many ways good gardeners are like flowers. They have innate dynamics that aren’t taught, but rather come about under the right conditions. Roots go deep looking for nutrients, and the pedals stretch upward in a heliotropic effect stretching outward toward the light. A good gardener needs stability and consistency, as well as the chance to find his or her source of light. As I’ve been preparing a new book, which includes a review of the best interventions for parents, students, and teachers, one dynamic gets ongoing research attention. The results from the last dozen years indicate that the development of character strengths, more than anything else, is the best preparation for success. Teachers and parents, the gardeners among us, must find and use their own character strengths if they are to help nurture them in children.

Do you know what your character strengths are? Do you know what these strengths are in the students in your life?

A character strength isn’t a skill, or something you’re good at.  Rather, these strengths emerge through our feelings, thoughts and actions. One’s character is about the virtues we have and how they’re used. These traits, when used, can profoundly benefit you and those around you.  Researchers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman classified character strengths and virtues into 24 categories organizing them into six types. The character strength survey based on it has radically changed the focus of education around the world.  The six virtues followed by their 24 character strengths are:

Wisdom and Knowledge:  creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation

Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, zest

Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership

Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control

Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor spirituality

The interesting fact about the research is that once teachers and parents know their top strengths and learn to use them in more and different ways, they are then in a very good position to do something called strength-spotting. When we acknowledge the use of strengths in others it has been shown to be the fastest, most effective way to build good relationships and help others succeed. In being able to strength-spot you not only activate the use of these strengths, you have an opportunity to influence them.

Learning about your strengths is the first step. You could glance at the list above and circle the top five. This would be one way to get a hint about what they are, but there is a free survey available for adults and youth that is accurate and helpful. Accurate because it is based on years of research from around the world about what traits are valued. Helpful because it gives you ways to expand your use and help others use theirs.

The research is impressive. Students who learned to identify and use their character strength did much better in school, enjoyed it more, and were more engaged. Could parents and teachers want better outcomes than these?

I encourage you to learn about your strengths by taking the survey at The results are free, as are the articles on how to use them.  Once you learn about your strengths you can help the student in your life learn about theirs. As Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who pioneered early childhood education around the world has said: “The education of even a small child, therefore, does not aim at preparing him for school, but for life.”

Dan Tomasulo holds a Ph.D. in psychology, an MFA in writing and a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches positive psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. For more information, visit his website

This article was first published in the August 10-17, 2017 Back to School edition of The Two River Times newspaper.

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