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Know your own strength and your child’s; Children, Inc. researchers note impact of character strengths

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By Vicki Prichard
Northern Kentucky Tribune reporter

What if focusing on the negative side of every situation could have a toxic impact on those around you, particularly children, much in the same way that secondhand smoke is harmful to those in the same breathing space? Would you change your perspective?

Tom Lottman, senior director of research-to-practice at Children, Inc. points out that the comparison is not a stretch.

Back in 1998, as part of a $206 billion dollar settlement, major tobacco companies agreed to pay for advertising campaigns to educated consumers about the dangers of tobacco. But, says Lottman, it wasn’t until research on secondhand smoke surfaced, showing the impact of cigarette smoke on nonsmokers – to children – did real change come about.

So, what about the toxicity of stress and negativity, and the impact on those in its wake?

Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman identified key character strengths that are critical in the study of Character Science.

“We know that things that happen negatively to a child early in life have lifelong health effects, not just on behavior but also physical – much greater increase for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and more,” says Lottman. “So there’s a whole public health focus on these social determinants of health.”

Awareness of character strengths, he says, can offset the toxic stress that is experienced with Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.

“If you, as a parent, are focusing on the negative, know that that’s impacting your kids,” says Lottman.

Along with his colleague, Sarah Zawally, lead coach and research-to-practice coordinator at Children, Inc., Lottman suggests looking through a new lens that views character strengths, and can be transformative in how one calibrates their own radar around positive and negative emotions.

“I think what’s transformative for parents is really getting a new lens to look at their kids,” he says. “It’s important not just for understanding your child’s strengths, or understanding your child in a new way, but also helping to prevent what we call secondhand stress.”

The science of happiness

Through their study of social emotional learning in education, Lottman and Zawaly noted the concept of resilience as a way to mold an understanding of social/emotional learning. They felt that resilience was perhaps misunderstood within education and the research community.

“About 15 years ago, Marty Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association and he basically changed the field and said, “We’ve put a great deal of rigor into understanding what goes wrong with people; we haven’t put the same rigor into what goes right with people.”

The question that surfaced was what needs to be done to understand a life that leads to happiness and meaning? Such was the birth of a broader field called positive psychology.

As it emerged, says Lottman, the field of positive psychology had “three legs” to it school of thought, and among them was character science, which investigates the enduring psychological and personality variables which lead to a meaningful, happy, and fulfilling life, and which he and Zawaly have focused on as their field of study.

So, just as there is a classification system for psychopathology for mental illness, virtues and character strengths needed their own classification, says Lottman. Seligman led a team of 53 researchers to scour 5500 years of literature on character science and determined key character virtues that lead to a fulfilling life.

Over the last ten years, as Lottman and Zawaly worked with teachers to help them understand their own strengths and how to employ those strengths in the classroom, they discovered a daunting fact.

“One of the things that was puzzling, and weighed a little heavy on us, was that largely there are women in this field, in their 30s, 40s, and maybe even 50s, and what we heard almost universally was, “Nobody’s ever talked to me about my strengths before. I didn’t have a language to talk about strengths,”” says Lottman.

Delving into the details of character

What drove their work over the last few years, says Lottman, was the ability to come to understand how character strengths emerge in early childhood, and to get a developmental perspective on how strengths develop. How exactly, does honesty, humility, creativity, and fairness — to name a few, develop?

It turns out, he says, there are very few, if any others, looking at character strengths from a developmental perspective, and for Lottman, that presented a big “What if.”

“What if we could raise a generation of children for whom the adults in their lives understood the idea of character strengths – could spot emerging character strengths in young kids and could promote those strengths?” says Lottman.

The work of Children Inc.’s Tom Lottman and Sarah Zawaly, along with VIA Institute of Character’s Ryan Niemiec, is featured in Carmel Proctor’s comprehensive look at positive psychology practices throughout the world. Their’s is in one of two chapters from the United States.

Working to help parents and teachers do exactly that, he and Zawaly, in collaboration with Beech Acres Parenting Center and the Mayerson Academy, are in the process of piloting a curriculum they’ve developed which looks at character strengths and will be in pilot schools in the fall in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

The two have also begun a research project to explore how to help parents reminisce with children about their character strengths.

“We know, for example, that from as early as age three, kids are very good at organizing episodic memories,” says Zawaly. “They can recall events, they can talk about those events in an organized way.”

Around age five, she says, children not only recall an event but can also recall that it happened to them, and their thoughts and feelings about the event. It’s those autobiographical memories that become the basis for narrative identity, or narrative self.

“It’s how do I explain myself to myself?” says Zawaly. “How do I see a constancy of me from the past, present and future?”

She and Lottman suggest that from the very beginning of that emerging identity, or sense of ‘me,’ that the adults in a child’s life help them maintain those memories that become a theme in their identity.

“So, instead of waiting until your 40s or 50s, until someone like Sarah talks about your strengths, from the very beginning you see that, say, ‘kindness is a key of who I am,’ sort of thing,” says Lottman.

Their research on the subject is featured in Carmel Proctor’s new book, Positive Psychology Interventions in Practice, which takes a global look at state of the art positive psychology. Comprised of ten chapters from ten different countries, Lottman, Zawaly,and Ryan Niemiec, of the VIA Institute on Character in Cincinnati, authored a chapter, Well being and well-doing: bringing mindfulness and character strengths to the early childhood classroom and home, which is one of two chapters from the United States.

Social/emotional education

A particular challenge the two uncovered was the current nature of social/emotional learning in education.

“What do we mean by social/emotional learning?” says Lottman. “A kid’s got to have certain knowledge sets about what emotions are.

They have to have certain skill sets – from self-regulation to perseverance.”

What’s happened, they feel, is that social/emotional learning has been constrained to certain proscribed skills sets. Lottman and Zawaly would also like to see the creation of an environment that understands where positive beliefs come from.

“When you talk to teachers or researchers about social/emotional learning and education, it’s how kids learn grit, or determination, or how they learn self-regulation of impulses,” says Lottman. “And what we’re saying is that in addition to knowledge and skill sets is that we have to think intentionally about how kids develop positive beliefs about themselves and other people of the world.

The experience+memory+feeling equation

Lottman says that the fields of neuroscience and brain development show that a negativity bias is built into the brain.

“Kids really focus longer on negative events than positive ones – they’re much more likely to code them into memory,” says Lottman.

Being intentional about orchestrating positive events for children in the classroom is essential, but how, they asked, does one evolve from a positive event, to a positive experience, and ultimately to a positive memory?

“A memory has to be rehearsed and self-taught to become a belief,” says Lottman.

At Children Inc., they’ve produced recordings in their studio of research-based songs for children that promote that positive social/emotional development.

“We have strategies that we call “moment making, “memory making,” and “mindset making,” and that’s what we’re trying to build into this curriculum,” says Lottman.

What are your character icons? Children Inc. receives requests from organizations around the globe to use the VIA icons that correspond with each of the 24 character strengths.

Zawaly explains that’s it’s truly about turning around a belief system for kids and the people around them.

“We always think of it as helping them switch from the lens of what’s wrong, or what they need to fix, to switching it to a strength lens,” says Zawaly.

Typically, says Zawaly, we talk about conflict with a child, but don’t focus on the strength they drew upon to get them through the conflict. If a child can name that strength, they’ll know they can rely upon it again and it becomes part of their mindset, the next time an issue or conflict emerges they can use that strength to solve a problem on their own.

She says this new lens is helpful to teachers and parents, not only discovering strengths in the children, but also a few ‘aha’ moments for them as they discover their own strengths.

Assessing one’s strengths and supporting them

One way to get in touch with your own character strengths, says Lottman, is by taking a character assessment survey at VIA Character.

Developed by Seligman and Christopher Peterson, the free survey reveals 24 character strengths and top signature strengths, and offer both adult and child versions.

Putting a face on those strengths, a Children, Inc. research assistant created icons for the individual strengths, and they’re getting international attention. Recently, a youth development program asked for permission to turn the character strength icons into tattoos so that kids could wear their signature strengths and spot one another and talk about their strengths.

“I’ve been asked for those images as far as Australia and Eastern Europe,” says Elizabeth Fricke, director of public relations at Children, Inc.

In addition to Lottman’s and Zawaly’s scope of work — the book chapter, the curriculum, and the research on autobiographical memories, they’re developing a parenting app that will include a brief video which can be downloaded on a smartphone, along with a cueing system to remind parents to incorporate the social and emotional development in their parenting.

“I think we know that what we focus on grows, and it grows in our brain, and it grows in the children’s mind,” says Zawaly. “So when we can focus on the positive, and what’s going right, and what their strengths are, that’s what will grow. The research shows that and proves that.”

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