Character strengths are sometimes labeled soft skills, noncognitive skills, character skills, social-emotional skills, 21st century skills, and many other terms. In addition, they’re studied in many different disciplines, from educational psychology to behavioral economics to neuropsychology. But, in the end, they all point to a constellation of personal skills, attitudes, values, and mindsets that we’re calling, collectively, character strengths.

Character strengths such as perseverance, responsibility, empathy, and communications are critical for students’ success in school and in life. These strengths are “caught” more than they’re “taught” through the ways teachers, other staff, parents, and peers connect with young people. They’re also nurtured in a school or program culture that expects, encourages, and reinforces these strengths as part of education.

Character Strengths in Youth

According to Search Institute surveys of 89,000 U.S. middle and high school students, here are percentages of young people who report key character strengths:

    75% Positive view of the future
    71% Integrity, or acting on convictions and standing up for one’s beliefs
    67% Responsibility
    63% Sense of purpose
    48% Interpersonal competence, including empathy, sensitivity, and friendship skills
    33% Planning and decision making

Conversation Starters on Character Strengths

Character strengths can be hard to talk about in the abstract, so here are some provocative questions and examples that stimulate hypothetical conversations that unpack character strengths and how young people think about them. These can be used as icebreakers in classrooms or groups, during transitions between activities, or in informal conversations.

What if . . .

  1. You won $1 million. What would you do with it? How would it affect who you are and how you see yourself?
  2. A friend asked you to shoplift a loaf of bread to give to a homeless person. What would you do? Why?
  3. You could give a Nobel Prize to the person you most admire. Who would you give the award to? Why?
  4. You could have three superpowers. What would you pick? Why?
  5. You suddenly moved to a different continent. How would you adapt to that change?
  6. You were asked to plan a visit by the U.S. president to your school. How would you start?
  7. You were going to spend the next year on an uninhabited tropical island. Who would you want to go with you? Why?
  8. You learned you had only three weeks to live. What would be most important for you to do?
  9. You had a chance to create a video game that shows your approach to life. What features would it include? What obstacles would you create?
  10. The whole world would listen to you for one minute. What would you say?
  11. You could meet one person you most admire from the past or present. Who would you want to meet? Why? What would you say?
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