Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character Strengths – The Ingredients of Resilience

What is resilience?

This morning I worked with an Australian colleague putting together a workshop for the Practicing Positive Education Conference at Knox Grammar School in August.

In Australia, positive education, education for academic achievement and well-being, has been growing as a theme – or philosophy – of education for some years. Resilience is one of the core ideas at the heart of positive education and an important one. But what is resilience? How do you encourage it? Can you teach it?

A head teacher who has worked with positive education in the UK for 8 years now told me recently what she thought the ingredients of resilience actually are. She called it ‘an inner strength’ that gets you through times of difficulty or struggle.

We build resilience, she said, through identifying our strengths of character and learning to use them in different situations, learning to use them wisely. Over the next few weeks I am going to share some of her wisdom along with my suggestions for how you might apply it in your own context.

The Ingredients of Resilience

Ingredient 1: Open-mindedness

One of the things that undermines resilience most is jumping to conclusions:

  • ‘I can’t do this’
  • ‘this is too much for me’
  • ‘nobody cares’
  • ‘life is completely dreadful’

Open-mindedness is the antidote to jumping to conclusions because it helps us to withhold an immediate snap judgement and look again, more clearly, more thoughtfully. Open-mindedness looks at different sides of a situation, or a person, and is willing to change its mind in the face of evidence or persuasion.

Open-mindedness says

  • ‘I might be able to do this with the right tools’
  • ‘Perhaps I do have the strength to cope with this’
  • ‘I do have friends and people who care’
  • ‘life might be difficult but it’s not ALL bad’

Essentially, open-mindedness sees clearly and most situations and most people are a bit of a mixture!

So, open-mindedness in action:

  • listening to other opinions
  • finding out about different people
  • finding out about different cultures
  • looking for, and enjoying, similarities and differences

What can we do to encourage open-mindedness in our classrooms?

Firstly, try to practise it ourselves. Children and young people learn most by example. Think about how often YOU jump to conclusions or make snap judgements and challenge yourself to think again.

Then you could try this ‘Strengths Builder’ to encourage an awareness of how people think, believe and act differently.

A Strengths Builder for open-mindedness: Same or Different?

The sign from British Sign Language for ‘the same’ is both index fingers placed together. The sign for ‘different’ is the same two fingers placed together and then moved apart. Teach this to the students first.

Younger students can do this activity in pairs. They need to talk with their partner and find some way they are the same and some way they are different. Then they share this with the class. When a few pairs have had a chance to share, everyone moves around and finds a new partner and the process is repeated.

You could follow up with a class display of ‘Similarities’ and ‘Differences’.

Older students can work in bigger groups and make lists of the ways their group is similar or different.

(This activity is taken from Character Strengths Activity Ideas Box

Character Strengths, Storytelling, Well-being in education

A Character Strengths in Action Story for Friendship or kindness: One of my geese is missing

My version of the legend of St Werburga: One of my geese is missing 

Werburga was a saint, everybody said so, and they told stories about her kindness. But Werburga said she just looked and listened and noticed the important things in life. Like the children who played in the fields next to her cornfield. Werburga smiled when she saw them and when, one day, a little boy lost his favourite wooden horse in a clump of grass, Werburga noticed and helped him to look for it and stayed with him until it was found and his tears had dried up and he was smiling again. Werburga thought children were important and ought to be noticed

Werburga was a saint, everybody said so, and they told stories about her kindness. But Werburga said she just looked and listened and noticed the important things in life. Like the animals and birds who lived in and around her cornfield. Werburga smiled when she saw them and when, one day, a sparrow hurt its wing and couldn’t fly, Werburga noticed and picked it up and fed it until its wing was healed and it could fly away. Werburga thought sparrows were important and ought to be noticed.

Werburga was a saint, everybody said so, and they told stories about her kindness. But Werburga said she just looked and listened and noticed the important things in life. But when, one evening, she noticed a flock of geese trampling her corn with their great, webbed feet, as they settled down to sleep, she didn’t smile at all. Even saints have their limit and Werburga frowned, and called a neighbour and told him to tell the geese they could sleep in her barn instead.

Werburga never said very much. Mostly she looked and listened but people said she was a saint so when she did say something, people paid attention. And the neighbour did as she asked, though he thought the geese would ignore him and only hiss at him and honk at him and shake their great long snake like necks at him. And when the neighbour told the geese to follow him to Werburga’s barn, they did hiss at him and honk at him and shake their great long snake like necks at him, but they followed him all the same.

The next morning, Werburga went to the barn and opened the door. She looked and listened as the geese waddled out of the barn hissing and honking and shaking their great long snake like necks and then Werburga noticed something. She noticed that the geese were hissing more sadly than usual. She noticed that their honks were not as loud and fierce as they usually were. She noticed that they were shaking their great long snake like necks from side to side as if they were trying to tell her something. And then she noticed that one of the geese was missing.

She called her neighbour and asked him where the missing goose had gone. The neighbour hung his head in shame. He had thought no one would notice if he took one of the geese. He had thought no one would notice if he killed that goose and ate it for his supper. But the geese had noticed, and so had Werburga. Werburga looked and listened and noticed things.

Werburga told her neighbour to fetch the bones of the goose he had eaten. And then she prayed, hard, because Werburga thought geese were important and ought to be noticed and God must have thought so too because, as she prayed, the bones started to move and fit together, and as she prayed some more, flesh began to cover the bones and, as she prayed some more, feathers began to sprout out of the flesh and soon there was a live, hissing, honking goose waving its great long snake like neck at her, where before there had only been a pile of bones.

And the goose lowered its great long, snake like neck and bowed to Werburga, to thank her for her kindness in noticing that it was missing. And all the other geese did the same. And then they spread their wings and with a last great honk they launched themselves into the air and flew away.

So when you see geese flying overhead, and hear their honks filling the air, remember Werburga who looked and listened and noticed the important things in life.

A story for thinking about friendship, kindness, love, spirituality, wisdom…….

PrintYou can hear me talk about character strengths in action stories and tell this story here

One of my geese is missing – the story of St Werburga

You can find more of my stories here:

PS00402_1_largeor here PS00511_small

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character Strengths in schools: friendship and storytelling, mental health and well-being

Over the past few weeks it has been my pleasure to pay 3 visits to a lovely primary school called #Thomas Gray in #Bootle.

I have been working to introduce staff and pupils to the ideas of thinking and talking about #character strengths, telling stories together, and celebrating what’s good in life on a regular basis.

In the face of increasing concerns about child and adolescent #mental health, schools like Thomas Gray  are working hard to make sure that they create a school environment that supports the development of positive mental health, also referred to as well-being or resilience. And thinking about your character strengths – and how you can use them to make the world a better place – is an important part of that process.

The children are not really encouraged to think about how their use of character strengths can make themselves happier – though this will probably happen. Rather, they are encouraged to think about how using them can help others and enrich their classroom and their school, how their strengths can contribute to their community. Children, in my experience, like thinking about ‘character strengths and virtues’ – and engaging in deep philosophical discussions about them – because children are intensely ethical and often altruistic people, who want to save the world and think about others.

We see growing signs of emotional distress in young people today, as shown by the growth in self-harming. I suspect one of the many factors that may contribute to this is what academics call ‘individualisation’ or the ‘turn to self’. If me and my happiness and what I look like and me owning stuff and having stuff are all that matter, life is actually rather barren. And if I am not ‘happy’ after all, what use is life at all?

In a tiny way, thinking together about #friendship, #love and #kindness, as we have been doing together at Thomas Gray, and telling the story of The Elephant and His Mother and St Werburga, are our way of saying to ourselves and to the children, ‘there is more to life than ipads and ipods’ and more to education than exams and league tables and more to well-being than money. Other people matter, you matter because you are valuable – not for what you earn or will earn or possess but because you are an extraordinary human being NOW and you CAN and DO make the world a better place and you CAN and WILL do so in the future.

We hope we are laying the foundations, with these primary school children, for resilience and well-being in later life. And I suspect that real well-being has more to do with being able to forget about yourself than it has with spending your whole time thinking about ‘you’.

The Elephant and His Mother and the story of St Werburga (my retelling is called ‘One of my geese is missing) can be found here:


Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character Strengths in Education: Friendship

When did school become so competitive? Competition is fine, but I’d rather keep it to the sport’s field or the Monopoly Board. Academic endeavour, I think, is the wrong place to compete. We learn best when we learn from and with one another. A head teacher of an international school in Geneva, who had previously led a prestigious girls’ private school in the UK, commented in the press recently that in Geneva pupils were less competitive and were treated with more respect than in the UK.

American educator Marva Collins has some views on education I don’t necessarily agree with.  However, what I LOVED in her approach was the way that she got ALL her pupils working as a team. Success was something everybody celebrated and if you’d finished your work or found something easy, you helped somebody else.

SO…..after half term I’m off to Bootle, to the wonderful Thomas Gray Primary, to focus on storytelling, as always, and on the #character strength of #friendship. I’ll be telling a Buddhist tale, The Elephant and His Mother, which you can find here

Featured image

And here is a great picture from #Frodingham Infant School of the same story

Featured image

I’ll also tell one based on a beautiful book by Jane Yolen, Rainbow Rider.

My version is here

Featured image

We will talk about, think about, be silent together and reflect on #friendship. And if I can, I’ll post videos here soon of the stories I tell.

Watch this space.

Yolen, J. 1975 Rainbow Rider, London: Collins

Collins, M & Tamarkin, C. 1982 Marva Collins’ Way, New York: Penguin Putnam Inc

Character Strengths, Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being in education

Character Strength of the day : spirituality – the season of advent


Today, with the help of my pupil project team, I led the first Advent assembly at St Paul’s Poynton (ok, a little early, Advent starts this Sunday!).

The children came into a dark hall. They listened and watched as we started to tell the story of the Road to Bethlehem, hearing ancient words from the prophet Isaiah, ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’.

We lit a candle, for Isaiah, to light the road to Bethlehem. We sat in silence, by the light of that candle, enjoying the silence, enjoying the beauty of a moment with nothing to do, nowhere to go, just quietly waiting – waiting and watching.

Why did we ‘waste time’ like this this morning? Why were the children not cramming an extra 5 minutes of literacy or numeracy into their day? Why bother with a difficult character strength like ‘spirituality’ and why bother with advent in a multi-cultural society?

Well, when I first developed the Road to Bethlehem story with Riddings Infants School, in Scunthorpe, in 2004, we felt that 5 minutes silence, stillness and beauty was an important experience for today’s children – and for today’s teachers, too. We wanted the children to learn to read and write – and to be able to be still and reflect, to notice the beauty of the world around them. We wanted the staff to have a moment of stillness to reflect and breath.

So I invited the staff to explore the ancient Christian festival of ‘Advent’ – a time of preparation and waiting – in the run up to Christmas. During the weeks of our Advent Festival there were moments to be still, moments to pause from the rush and the busyness of the Christmas term, moments to think that perhaps there might be more to life than numeracy and literacy, valuable though these are. Waiting is not a priority today – we want everything to be ‘now’ and ‘instant’ – but in the past, people valued the skill of waiting and we wanted the children to experience it for themselves.

And we wanted the children, the pupils of Riddings Infants, to have magical memories of school, of beautiful moments, so that when they become parents, they will feel positive about their own children’s schools, perhaps breaking a cycle of fear and mistrust about education that can be handed down the generations.

Spirituality is a difficult word to define; it is about things of the spirit, the spiritual life. I sometimes say it is to do with thinking about things ‘bigger’ than ourselves. It points us to something beyond ourselves, beyond our own desires and wishes.

This morning it was my privilege to tell, with my fellow #pupil #storytellers, the first part of an ancient story that we will continue over the coming weeks; to sit, with children, in silence and wait for something magical, something spiritual – the birth of a child; to remember the ancient story of the Road to Bethlehem and to look forward, in hope, to the weeks ahead.

We didn’t talk about religion, we shared an ancient story and we enjoyed a moment of silence together.

We practiced ‘spirituality’ rather than worrying about what it meant. And we did a very unfashionable and counter-cultural thing – we waited….

My version of the story, The Road to Bethlehem, was inspired by Young Children and Worship by S. Steward and J. Berryman, 1989, London: Westminster John Knox Press

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character strength of the day: love in education


What has love got to do with education? Surely, education is all about ‘efficiency’, about ‘what works’ about achieving skills and knowledge? ‘Love’ has nothing to do with it! Only trendy, lefty progressives speak about soft things like ‘love’ in the context of education.

Well, one such ‘trendy, lefty progressive’ was the eminent professor of anatomy and anthropologist Raymond Dart. I first came across Dart on my 1st year physical anthropology reading list at Cambridge University. He discovered and named our hominid ancestor, Australopithecus.  More recently, I have re-discovered him as an advocate and enthusiast for the Alexander Technique, an embodied contemplative practice and educational philosophy I have spent 3 years learning to practice and teach. And according to Dart, love has everything to do with education.

Discussing the acquisition of skills and knowledge in education, Dart wrote in his 1934 lecture, The Significance of Skill, that ‘only love can evoke intelligent concentration on the nature of the movement involved and the will or determination to remember those movements,’ (1934) and he went onto say, ‘Unless our educational methods arouse, maintain and increase enthusiasm, they are worse than useless. They destroy instead of construct,’.

So, for Dart, love is an essential emotion, producing the necessary attention to enable us to learn, ‘Such attention is the outcome only of desire or love of the work,’.

If pupils need ‘love or desire’ to learn, it follows that teachers need to love their subjects in order to teach, to transmit that enthusiasm for learning that will excite young learners and stay with them for the rest of their lives, long after the details or facts that they learned have been forgotten. Sadly, teachers too often work, in the UK and elsewhere in the world, in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust and externally imposed targets and measures. I do not see that as an atmosphere in which love – or any other virtue come to that – can thrive.

Does fear produce good learning? Personally I doubt it. Love produces good learning, love and enjoyment and delight – all those fluffy terms that politicians are so rude about. In my opinion, considering the importance of love in education is not fluffy – it does not mean sacrificing excellence; it is fundamental to the achievement of excellence in any sphere.

wlove frodingham

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character Strength of the day: love of learning


This morning I led an assembly at St Paul’s Primary School, Poynton on ‘Love of Learning’ – one of my favorite character strengths and the reason we are in school at all. And I told the story, also a personal favorite, of Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom.

We used our #creativity and our #love of #learning together to create a new prayer, in British Sign Language that incorporated the theme of the assembly. And I left them a VERY long piece of paper to fill up with what they learn this week! Oh, I also added in the strength of #gratitude – because I asked them to remember to THANK their teacher every time they learn something new.

Very excitingly, after the assembly, I had my first meeting with my new project team. Six pupils, years 3, 4 and 5, are going to be my project team and my research team at St Paul’s. Because, as I’ve developed and worked with Celebrating Strengths over the past 10 years it has dawned on me, slowly (yes, I am a SLOW learner!), that this project works best when children are included as collaborators and innovators. This year, for the first time, I am also including them as researchers. Their tasks are to find out how other schools use Celebrating Strengths and what they feel the benefits have been; to help to innovate and adapt it for St Paul’s AND to notice what, if anything changes – what is different because of this project? Together, we will be asking the key question of educational research – does this make learning better?

And, from my perspective, it makes sense to bring research and love of learning together because I think that learning just IS research – thoughtful, observant activity – and research IS learning – finding out something I didn’t know before or clarifying something I sort of half knew.

So, together, my team and I will try out new things, and learn new things – and do research and education together.

Frodingham Infant School Scunthorpe UK

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character Strengths of the Day: Creativity and a Strengths Display Board


All schools aim to promote good character. Of course they do. While some commentators suggest character education is pointless, personally I would see any education that does not extend to character as pointless – and even dangerous. People with skills, knowledge and no moral compass rarely make the world a better place.

I want children to think about, focus on and debate vigorously what is right and wrong, what makes for a good life, what it is worth living and working for. And to be surrounded by teachers who do the same.

When I trained to teach, we were taught that the environment is an essential teaching tool – another teacher, in fact. To that end, I think it is essential that the environment in which children are educated reflects character as well as the finer points of the correct use of the semi-colon. And by environment I mean what the children can SEE and what they can HEAR. I would like them to hear and talk about concepts like love and kindness, courage and honesty, as well as to hear and discuss algebra and music, literature and history.

So, how do you embed that ephemeral concept, #character, not just into the curriculum, but into the ENVIRONMENT of the school? In other words, how do we put #theory into #practice?

One suggestion is to have a dedicated place in the school environment where #strengths are highlighted and featured in words and pictures – a #Strengths Display Board, if you like. That is what Downshall Primary in Ilford are planning to do.

So, what might a Strengths Display Board look like?

Here’s one suggestion

Strength of the week: Creativity

This week we spotted the following people being CREATIVE – well done them! 

Kevin, Ahmed, Lisa….Mrs Brown

Creativity is one of my favorite strengths and here’s how I use it ….

Jenny: I use it to think of stories to write

Ian: I use it in maths to work out new ways to get the right answer

Mr Brown: I use it to think of new games to teach music

Whole School Strengths Practice – ‘Strange Uses’ (from Character Strengths Assemblies, p. 11) – who’s done it?

Fred, Ginger, Mrs Brown, Jenny the caretaker……

The ‘Whole School Strengths Practice’ idea can be found (shameless resource plug) in here


The idea is to get EVERYONE in the school thinking about and having a go at the same simple strengths practice and to sign the Strengths Display Board when they’ve done it.

We get more of what we focus on!

I think that the visible and audible presence of #character strengths in schools is not only desirable, but is essential for a school that takes seriously its moral purpose, as well as the goal of getting them to read, write and add up. The Strengths Display Board is one way to do that.

Fox Eades, Jenny 2013 Character Strengths Assemblies. Notts: TTS available here

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Character Strength of the day: teamwork, children as researchers

Teamwork tts

I am feeling quietly excited by my new research team! The children of Downshall Primary in Ilford and St Paul’s Primary School in Poynton are helping me to research Celebrating Strengths – in their schools. Together, we are asking the key educational question – does this help us learn better? Does story telling help us learn better? Does a focus on character strengths help us learn better? Do celebrations and learning to play with and enjoy silence, help us to learn better?

We will be engaging in collaborative research – research together, with pupils.

Whitehead and McNiff define research as thoughtful, reflective activity. This week it has been my pleasure to engage in ‘thoughtful, reflective activity’ with primary school pupils. We played ‘silence games’; we set ‘Strengths Intentions’, using thoughtful movement as part of our thinking activity; we listened to, commented on and coached each other as we tried telling a well known traditional story.

And I am always amazed, and always wonder why I am amazed, at the insight, maturity and observational skills that children bring to their learning. They always do this. Often, we don’t give them the time or opportunity to tell us what they think or notice. I have lots to learn in researching with children – and one of the things I need to learn is to listen more and talk less!!

Some quotes from this week, ‘if I think about teamwork when I’m working it helps me share better’; ‘storytelling helps me be more creative’ ‘I think I’ve listened better today’ ‘I learned from this story to think before I do something’ ‘I really liked the Silence game because some people like being quiet’ (he was 5!!!).

I am quietly excited!

Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J., 2006. Action Research, Living Theory. London : Sage Publications .

Character Strengths, Well-being in education

character strength of the day: creativity


This morning I told the story of The God Who Sneezed, an ancient Egyptian creation myth (Jenny Fox Eades 2013) at St Paul’s Catholic Primary school in Poynton, as part of an assembly where we thought about ‘creativity’. It is a strange story, a story from a faith tradition we no longer understand. But two things struck me as I told the story. Firstly, there was the fact that the act of creativity emerged against a backdrop of silence – there was ‘nothing to hear but the slow, sloosh of the primeval river flowing past’. Creativity needs stillness, it needs space and moments of silence for reflection, what I call ‘sinking in time’ – as well as noise and buzz, discussion and the exchange of ideas.

The second thing that struck me was the playfulness, or humour of the story – the god, Atum, sneezes creation out of its nose! And creativity just IS playfulness – playing with ideas, playing with materials, playing with words or musical notes or numbers. Too much seriousness, too much focus on ‘the right answer’ or ‘getting it right’, on deadlines and rules and regulations, is a sure way to stifle creativity.

The god in the story needed stillness and silence and playfulness to create – and so do we.

And during the assembly there were moments of complete stillness and silence – yes, children can and do enjoy silence! And there was time to be noisy, to play with ideas and to chat and think aloud.

The children and teachers at St Paul’s said that they thought creativity involved ‘making things’, ‘making ideas’, ‘originality or uniqueness’, ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘linking’. One person raised the idea that you could be creative with friendships and relationships – I was surprised at first but her thought is growing on me!

I asked them to ‘be creative’ in the week ahead because psychologists tell us that the simple instruction, ‘be creative’ does actually produce a rise in creativity – perhaps because we need permission to be playful and not to try to get it ‘right’ first time!

When I go back in on Thursday, I shall ask them how they have got on. Watch this space………..

Fox Eades, Jenny 2013 Character Strengths Assemblies. Kirkby-in-Ashfield: TTS