Empowering our children's strengths

The school year has started. 2022 is an extra special one for our family as our eldest son makes his debut in formal education. As many parents would experience at this stage of life, a whole new level of excitement and anxiety has kicked in - both for me and my five year old! From the basic needs of "Am I giving him enough food?" to "Will he enjoy school? Will he make good friends? Will he receive the support he needs?", a plethora of questions in all colours and shades go through my mind.

As he takes one little but important step towards greater independence, I try to help him become more aware of the tools he has in his toolbox (and those he can develop) that can help him through this significant transition. Those tools are his strengths - for example, humour to make others laugh and kindness to help them, thus supporting him in making connections. Our programs at The Helmsman Project take a strength-based approach and it's one I also try to integrate in my parenting life (not without its challenges!).

A friend lent me a little while ago a book on strength-based parenting by Dr Lea Waters AM, psychologist, researcher and professor. In her book The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish, Dr Waters shares practical ways to help create an environment, habits and strategies to empower children's strengths.

One of the book chapters discusses four psychological processes we can use to support strength development in children:

1. Mindset management: adopt a growth mindset, i.e. believe (and voice) that our talents/strengths/skills can develop and improve (I've referred to growth mindset in previous posts as it's one of the pillars of our programs, but for a refresher on the concept, you can watch this TedTalk by psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck)
2. Role modeling: actions speak louder than words... if children see the adults in their life demonstrating gratitude, for example, there is a high likelihood that they, themselves, will develop gratitude as a strength
3. Strength-based scaffolding: provide children with the resources and support to develop and utilise their strengths
4. Proximal development practices: the zone of proximal development refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner (e.g. a family member, a teacher, a coach or mentor). The idea is to provide children with opportunities to do things that stretch their capacity a little (i.e. be challenged), and supporting them through it. They can be encouraged to pull on existing strengths to achieve the 'challenge' or, in a scenario where the challenge requires a strength they are less familiar with, it's an opportunity for them to develop a new skill or strength, as long as the level of challenge is right and the support is adequate.

Another really important factor Dr Waters explains in her book is the need to focus our attention on strengths, not weaknesses. For example, if an activity seems boring or difficult to a child, thinking about how they can use their strength(s) to complete the activity could help them sustain their attention.

Sadly, there's a tendency in society to focus so much of our attention on deficits. In fact, one of our school principals was sharing with me the other day that her school has started integrating a strength-based approach to supporting and educating their students. This came from a weariness associated with the old deficit model where our focus goes to areas where students perform poorly, rather than focusing on their strengths. If only this positive psychology approach was applied across the board in our education system, we could empower our children to bring out the best in themselves and help them achieve the goals they want to set for their lives.

If you would like to explore your own strengths or those of your children, there are a number of validated tools that can help you identify them. The one we use at The Helmsman Project is VIA Character Strengths Survey.

If you have dabbled in strength-based parenting or teaching or you are the expert at it, I'd love to hear about your experience. Feel free to drop me a note at kim.larochelle@thehelmsmanproject.org.au.

Kim Larochelle

Kim joined The Helmsman Project as a volunteer when it first started delivering programs in 2013. In January 2014, she became one of the organisation's first two employees and is now CEO. She has had the privilege, along with the team, to witness and support The Helmsman Project's growth.

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