How to use Character Strengths to create a Positive Classroom

Dr. Georgiana Cameron
Prof. Bob McGrath 

Smiling article

Right now, an opportunity exists for schools in Australia and other places to get exposure to the work on the VIA Classification. The Character Lab at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the U.S. is currently conducting research to revise the VIA-Youth. Schools that are interested in participating in this research are still being recruited. In return for participating, each student gets a report of his or her key strengths. The school will also receive feedback on how its students compare to others on the character strengths. Participating schools will receive of stipend of $3,000US for their participation, as well as $500US for the individual who coordinates the project locally.

If you would like to discuss the possibility of participating in the study, contact Bob McGrath at

Schools are busy places, and even busier as the year begins.  There are classrooms to set up, books to order, classes to plan, a timetable to schedule and reschedule, new students and families to meet, planning and so on. Despite all this busyness, it is also an opportune time for reflection and consideration of possibilities.  Many teachers will be asking themselves, “How do I want my classroom to be?”  This is an important question when we consider how the social world of the classroom influences our students’ perceptions of how the world works.  In many ways our classrooms represent the social world we hope our students go on to create.  

Why create a Positive Classroom? 

Positive classroom culture is known to have a significant impact on students’ learning outcomes, engagement, prosocial behaviour and connection to school (Patrick, Ryan & Kaplan, 2007; Ryan & Patrick, 2001). When researchers have defined positive classroom culture, they have emphasised teacher-student relationships, the promotion of mutual respect, co-operative and active learning and a sense of support. Values underpin each of these aspects of culture.  How can we support each other without kindness, generosity and love?  How can there be mutual respect without honesty, justice and forgiveness? How do students engage in learning without persistence, teamwork and bravery? As such, values are powerful tools for teachers in cultivating positive classroom culture.  Even without being aware, teachers teach these values through their interactions, instruction and the way they hold themselves. Awareness of and attention to values allows teachers to be purposeful in the kind of culture they want to create.  


Use the VIA Classifications 

One of the most important contributions to values education has been the introduction of the VIA Classification of Strengths and Virtues by Peterson and Seligman (2004).  This classification includes 24 character strengths reflecting six more general cross culturally valid virtues: Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence.  The link between using these character strengths and increased wellbeing/life satisfaction is well established in the literature (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004). More specifically, there has been over 30 research articles published about character strength measurement, interventions and education programs with children and adolescents (See here for summaries). 

The language of strengths provides a great starting point for cultivating a positive classroom culture.  Strengths language can be used in setting classroom expectations. As teachers get to know and observe their students, they might begin to look for collective classroom strengths.  Rather than attempting to cover all 24 strengths, it is best to focus on 3 to 5 strengths so that each of these strengths can be explored comprehensively and generalised across different scenarios.  Applying a strength-based perspective, teachers could ask themselves “Which strengths are my students already demonstrating?”  .  The process of identifying student strengths may be done through observation and/or asking students to complete the VIA Youth Survey



In keeping with best practice teaching, teachers could identify a particular strength like honesty, work collaboratively with students to define honesty and list strategies for how to appropriately action this strength in the classroom context (MacSuga-Gage, Simonsen & Briere, 2012).  Beginning with a strength students are already familiar with and ‘strong in’ allows for more tailored sequencing and scaffolding of strength language, as they begin with easier to grasp concepts. Defining a strength is not limited to dictionary definitions. Rather, strengths are often best defined through story-telling. Stories of strengths can come from history, the news, teachers, students, parents and people in the community.  In relation to the honesty example, students might be asked to chat with a partner or reflect on a time in their lives when honesty was the best policy and another time when honesty made matters worse. By exploring the extremes of strength use, students can start to identify for themselves how to balance strengths in the classroom environment. These discussions could be reinforced by documenting and displaying key learnings which might include ways to action this strength, class goals for this strength and insights about this strength.  Keeping this display simple will help to make sure it’s utilised by the teacher and students as teachable moments. For example, a student admitting they haven’t completed their homework task is not just about discussing the negative consequences of this, it also becomes an opportunity for the teacher to positively reinforce the student’s honesty and openness in the classroom. 


 Routines & Structures

Another way to sustain positive culture in the classroom is through predictable routines and structures.  Each class might begin or end with a quote about one of the class’ target strengths.  Practices can be embedded into daily routines by regularly inviting students to share a story about a particular strength and/or talk to the person next to them about how they have been using strengths.   A very powerful mode of positive reinforcement for teachers is Strength Spotting. The teacher might set aside a certain period of time each class to observe and spot strengths.  At the end of the class or the start of the next class the teacher gives specific feedback about the strengths they have observed. For example, “Today I observed a great deal of hope and persistence in how students approached the problem, with students coming up with long lists of ideas and negotiating through disagreements in their groups.”  In establishing Strength Spotting as a classroom routine, students can learn from repeated teacher role-modelling, and be scaffolded to spot strengths in each other. 

Whilst the focus of this article has been how strengths can be used to cultivate positive classroom culture, there are many other ways in which strengths can be incorporated to support students wellbeing and learning.  


If you would like to discuss the possibility of participating in the above mentioned study, contact Bob McGrath at


MacSuga-Gage, A. S., Simonsen, B., & Briere, D. E. (2012). Effective Teaching Practices: Effective Teaching Practices that Promote a Positive Classroom Environment. Beyond Behavior, 22(1), 14-22.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.

Patrick, H., Ryan, A. M., & Kaplan, A. (2007). Early adolescents' perceptions of the classroom social environment, motivational beliefs, and engagement. Journal of educational psychology, 99(1), 83.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.

Ryan, A. M., & Patrick, H. (2001). The classroom social environment and changes in adolescents’ motivation and engagement during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 437-460.





How to cultivate positive classroom cultures using strengths
How to cultivate positive classroom cultures using strengths
How to cultivate positive classroom cultures using strengths