Pyramids of Power: Character Strengths in the Classroom

Pyramids of Power: Character Strengths in the Classroom

VIA Strengths come alive in fifth-graders’ pyramids of power.

Recently I was visiting with a friend who has taught elementary for 34 years. Jay is gifted at what he does. Every year, he works to encourage conscious awareness of interpersonal relationships and personal growth among his students. He was describing to me what he has been doing this year to integrate the VIA character strengths into his fourth-grade classroom. It gave me goose bumps.

The VIA Classification of Character Strengths describes 24 positive personality traits that account for a lot of what's best about us and the lives we build with one another. Among them are simpler words like "creativity," and more difficult terms such as "social intelligence" and "appreciation ofbeauty and excellence." Jay has never been one to underestimate the capabilities of 10-year-olds, so he assigned the 24 terms as "spelling words." Of course, there's little reason to know how to spell a word if you don't understand what it means and how to use it, so the students learned the meanings of each character strength through rich group discussions. After becoming familiar with the terms, they began considering how these strengths reside within themselves. To help them in this process, Jay introduced the Pyramid of Power.The Pyramid has three levels. At the bottom are 3 foundation blocks, then 2 on top of those, and then the pinnacle piece. That's six blocks on each of four sides, resulting in a full pyramid of 24 strengths! In his classroom, Jay has focused on one side of the pyramid. He asked each child to place at the base of their pyramid the foundational strengths that the child identifies as "most like me"- what at VIA we refer to as "signature strengths." In the middle are strengths the child sees as less prominent. At the pinnacle are one or more strengths that the child identifies as wishing to build towards.

I think the structure of this is brilliant. At the bottom are the foundational strengths and above them are ones to which the child aspires towards, with the ones at top being those they think are most important for their personal growth. And, to boot, he has them use their favorite colors "for their foundation blocks."

I was privileged to see the students' drawings of their Pyramids of Power and on the back of the pages, their descriptions of why they placed each of the strengths where they did. My heart swelled as I read their thoughtful descriptions and as I listened to Jay describe how this now has become a tool in the classroom that works all day - from aiding learning to managing interpersonal conflict on the playground. I envisioned the remainder of the school year and how many times each child would refer back to their Pyramid to find their way in learning and being compassionate with others.

I felt so uplifted as I imagined them carrying this self-knowledge forward in their lives, and how it would help them navigate well the twists and turns of life, in ways true to their core. And I smiled thinking of the parent-teacher conferences and the rich discussions between parent and child about the child's pyramid - and perhaps even the parents' pyramids, too.

Every year Jay tells me about former students who return or write to tell him what a positive and lasting impact on their lives he made when he taught them in the fifth grade. Every year parents form a line to get their children into Jay's class. And, every year, Jay's students outperform other students on standardized achievement tests.

And one more thing. EVERY year Jay tells me it was probably his best year ever!

Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D.

Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D.

Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D., is the founder and Chairman of the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character. He instigated the creation of the VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues by calling Dr. Martin Seligman in 1998 to discuss how Seligman's ideas about positive psychology might be used to help inner-city kids. Ultimately, with the addition of Dr. Christopher Peterson to the team, their talks led to the VIA Classification and VIA Survey of Character.

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