​​​​​​​Focusing on Strengths

Q&A with Director of Health & Wellness Ginny Fendell

Prior to joining Whitfield in 2013, Ginny Fendell worked for nearly a decade as a mental health counselor and health promotion associate at Washington University in St. Louis. As a licensed clinical social worker she provided individual counseling and ran workshops in stress management, positive psychology, and mindfulness skills training. She heard from countless college students “I could have really used these skills in middle school and high school!” so coming to Whitfield to work with students in a college preparatory setting seemed like a natural evolution in her career. She helps Whitfield students develop the social emotional skills they will need to succeed in college and beyond.

In her role as Director of Health & Wellness, Mrs. Fendell oversees the social emotional learning aspects of Whitfield’s Advisory program and partners with teachers across all grade levels to implement and strengthen the Habits of Heart & Mind curriculum, including administering the VIA Character Strengths survey.

What are the VIA Character Strengths?

VIA, pronounced "vee-ah" stands for Values in Action. The VIA Classification of Character Strengths is the result of years of work by a team of more than 50 scientists led by scholars Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman. It consists of 24 positive traits that are valued universally (across cultures, religions, nations, and belief systems) and describe what is best about human beings.

We begin each year in Advisory with some interaction with the VIA survey and character strengths. Some students are taking the survey for the first time, while others are reviewing their results and list of character strengths to reestablish and refocus. 

Why do we use the VIA Survey of Character Strengths?

At Whitfield, we start from a position of what is strong instead of what is wrong. All character strengths are ‘buildable’ and with deliberate practice can be strengthened over time—particularly as we employ our growth mindsets. Students practice noticing when, where, and how they use their strengths, and eventually how to “dial up” or “dial down” strengths in different contexts.

This self-assessment has been taken by millions of people worldwide and is offered free of charge and in many different languages. The survey results provide a common language for recognizing and developing what is best in ourselves and others.

How are survey results used?

I often ask people to look at their results and look over the descriptions and pick the ones with which they most connect. Whatever a student decides is the strength they feel the most connected to/the one they use most, that goes on the list of their top five signature strengths.

With this common language in place at the start of the year, it gives us the ability to see and express what is best in ourselves and to honor and recognize what is best in others. We can connect simply by having an appreciation for another person’s character strengths. When we witness someone authentically exhibiting a strength, it is uplifting and inspires us as humans.

How much do results change from year to year?

Many people find that a few “core” strengths remain consistent from year to year, but there are always a few that move up or down as a reflection of how you have been living. Comparing the results from year to year helps students reflect on how they have been living. It’s great to see students come back to say ‘look forgiveness moved way up this year…I was really trying!’ They see that their efforts toward building that strength have paid off - that what they do matters.

We noticed a shift this year in middle school – humor has traditionally been one of the highest strengths collectively and this year it’s gratitude. We have heard from so many of our students how grateful they are to be back in the building this school year.

What is the connection between character strengths and the Habits?

Taking the VIA Character Strengths survey and understanding one’s character strengths is the foundation for the Habits curriculum. You will notice that character strengths and growth mindset are at the very center of our Habits of Mind & Heart diagram. We want our students to understand that the way they interact or access any of the Habits is through their own unique character strengths. And, we want them to understand that their character is not fixed. It’s through deliberate practice that you can grow any of your character strengths.

What does this approach mean for Whitfield students?

Young people are so used to hearing about what’s wrong, what they need to work on, what they need to develop. At Whitfield, we shift the conversation away from ‘what’s wrong’ toward ‘what’s strong.’ Because we know that even as adults, we need to leverage our strengths to shore up our weaknesses, to take what is abundant and what’s best about us to help us work on other areas.

How are character strengths woven into the curriculum?

We use human strengths of character as a common language to help guide discussions and activities related to personal values, academic goal setting, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. We want to provide every Whitfield student with ongoing opportunities to discover who they are and how they want to contribute to their group, their community, and the world.

In Middle School, there’s a focus on discovering what’s best about yourself and learning to identify strengths in others. In sixth grade students are introduced the language and get comfortable with the definitions of each of the character strengths. In seventh grade, students practice ‘strengths spotting’ which is noticing when others display a particular strength and letting them know they recognized it by giving them a card or note. In eighth grade, students collaborate to create ‘strength skits’ where they act out a particular strength without explicitly naming it.

In Upper School, there is more of a focus on the development of character strengths. Students start to see the connection between their strengths and how they are living in the world and how they are doing in school. In ninth grade we might have students start thinking about what strengths they need to use to achieve academic goals. Sophomores create a ‘my best self’ story in which they learn to recall times in their life when they are at their best and realize those are times when they are expressing some of their top strengths. Juniors do an overuse/underuse activity in which they look at how too much of any one strength can be a problem.

Finally in twelfth grade, it really all comes together. Students use their character strengths with their college counselors as they start to develop their personal essays and applications. By the end of their Whitfield careers, I feel like our students can walk away with an authentic sense of who they are and can talk about themselves in a positive way which we know is difficult for a lot of humans to do. Being able to confidently express what positive qualities you can contribute is a necessary skill not only in the college application process, but in any future job interview as well. It’s also essential to empathy. We need to be able to identify, accept, and appreciate what is best in ourselves before we can even possibly begin to do that for other people.

Why is this important in a college prep school?

We realize that no matter what definition of ‘success’ you use, being a happy, successful, well-adjusted human requires more than just being able to pass an exam. The skills that are most often associated with someone’s success at any measure are those skills of character. If we are preparing students not only for college but for life, then they are going to need to understand what is best about themselves because it’s through those strengths that they will contribute most to this world.