Highlighting & Building Strengths in Your Students

The 24 VIA Character Strengths are the best parts of our personality that influence how we think, feel and behave. Everyone has all 24 character strengths, some will be stronger in us than others, giving us a unique character profile. Research shows that just being aware of our character strengths can improve our well-being and perception of self. Actively using them and finding new ways to do so adds to this.

As an educator, becoming familiar with the language of strengths and practicing recognising them in ourselves is a good place to start. We can then begin to look for character strengths in our students – encouraging them to recognise what is strong in themselves, how they currently apply their strengths and exploring how they can begin to use them in different ways. The simple fact that you took the time to notice and name their strengths will boost student self-confidence and encourage active use.

Below are examples of identifying character strengths in your students and suggestions on how you could create opportunities for them to develop these further.

Strength: Kindness

Is this them? This student enjoys helping others and sharing. You notice them doing this even when they don’t think anyone is watching.

Stretch: Brainstorm acts of kindness together and set a challenge over the next week for the student to do one new act a day.

Strength: Love of Learning

Is this them? This student is absorbed in and enjoys learning. They like to ask lots of questions and look for opportunities to learn new things.

Stretch: Mind map a particular area of interest together and invite the student to begin a self-directed project which can later be shared with others.

Strength: Zest (Enthusiasm)

Is this them? This student is energetic and upbeat. They enjoy trying their best and get excited about things they’re interested in.

Stretch: Set a personal, meaningful goal together and encourage the student to use all their energy and enthusiasm to achieve this.

If you find the topic of character strengths interesting, you may wish to look at two previous posts: Developing a Child’s Strengths and Strengths Based Parenting.

The Psychology of Choice

The text below comes from an article written by Pr. Ilona Boniwell which originally appeared on her Positran consultancy website. Pr. Boniwell is an expert and leading figure in Positive Psychology and we regularly collaborate on wellbeing education projects.

It’s a commonly held belief that choice means freedom, freedom leads to well-being and that as a result, greater choice means greater well-being. On the face of it, this makes perfect sense. Some choice is good for you, it gives you autonomy and enables you to exercise control over your life, even if it’s as simple as what to wear when you get up in the morning, or as important as what career to follow. Therefore it seems logical that more choice is better.

Western industrialised societies in particular place a very high value on freedom and autonomy, and citizens are encouraged to believe that pursuing them is a sign of individual and societal well-being. But is choice always a good thing? And can we ever have too much?

Research suggests that while some choice has a beneficial effect on our well-being, too much choice is detrimental, resulting in the inability to choose, regret, raised expectations and blaming oneself when the chosen option turns out to be less than perfect.

People can be divided into two broad groups when it comes to choice. Some of us are “satisificers”, that is, we just need to get what is good enough for our requirements, so we only consider options until we find one that meets our minimum criteria and choose that one. “Maximisers” on the other hand are those of us who need to get absolutely the best deal, and so we have to look at all the possible options and compare them.

As a result, maximisers often do better than satisficers, for example, their starting salary is on average $7000 per year higher, but because they are less satisfied with their choice they feel more stressed, anxious, frustrated and unhappy.

So what can we do about choice to avoid these negative effects on our well-being? Well, here are a few tips:

  • Learn to choose only when it is worth it: discipline yourself to take time to choose carefully only when the decision is important (like choosing a career or a house, but not a new mobile phone).
  • For unimportant decisions (like choosing a shampoo or a pair of jeans) try to be satisfied with an option that is merely good enough, rather than trying to make absolutely the best choice.
  • Lower your expectations – do not expect perfection, however many choices there are.
  • Avoid comparing yourself with other people
  • Try to stick to your choices and don’t change your mind. 

Are you ready for a hybrid world?

A special inquiry into the long-term impact the accelerated reliance on digital technology over the Covid-19 pandemic may have to our well-being suggests we need to plan for a ‘hybrid world’ (UK Parliament, 2021). This future embraces the flexibility of virtual and face-to-face work, communication and connection and the benefits both can bring – it also recognises that we want and need opportunities for real human interaction.  

The call to embrace the benefits of both ‘worlds’ makes me think about how often we hear about screen time/time spent online in a negative context – the cons are emphasised; the increased sedentary lifestyle, impact on our well-being, decline in social skills and rise in anxiety and dissatisfaction with life from comparing our lot to others. Those who seem to be losing the ability to maintain eye contact, drawn by the pull of the screen in the palm of their hand are (rightfully?) judged and ‘digital detoxes’ are called for, with nostalgia for a pre-digital era.

However, the benefits of the online world are numerous, and with over 4.5 billion active internet users worldwide these benefits are diversifying and growing. The last year has highlighted how quickly we can adapt to new routines/methods of engagement with education, work, medical appointments, socialising and shopping largely moving online (with different degrees of success) for many. So how should we be addressing the topic of time spent online with youth when we’ve all increased our reliance on it?

We can start with social media. Daily social media use can impact youth both positively and negatively. Social media choice is vast – from TikTok, Twitch, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, gaming forums to the oldie’s favourites – Twitter and Facebook, the list is ever-growing.

Offering opportunities to interact with others, social media creates feelings of both closeness and disconnection; it allows adolescents a platform to express themselves but also creates concern over what others will think; access to information can inspire/interest as well as distress/overwhelm; browsing can provide entertainment and also boredom/apathy and we can admire others and be envious of them (Weinstein, 2018). Yes, issues such as low self-esteem, unhappiness with physical appearance, depression and feelings of hopelessness can be exacerbated (Crenna-Jennings, 2021). But self-confidence and self-acceptance can also be inspired by body positive or body neutral influencers, by interacting with peers who have shared experiences/identities and by engaging in social activism and having your voice heard via online platforms.

There’s no doubt we are living in a world where we increasingly move seamlessly between our online and face-to-face lives and it’s important to take a balanced approach when addressing the topic of time spent online with youth. Within our schools we should focus on developing the skills to navigate the online world in a positive and healthy way, raising awareness of both the pros and cons of online engagement, valuing the different benefits the virtual and face-to-face worlds offer us and learning when we should be switching off and looking up.

Further Reading

Crenna-Jennings, W. (2021).Young people’s mental and emotional health: trajectories and drivers in childhood and adolescence. Education Policy Institute & Prince’s Trust.

UK Parliament (2021). Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World. House of Lords, Covid-19 Committee.

Weinstein, E. (2018). The social media see-saw: Positive and negative influences on adolescents’ affective well-being. New Media & Society20(10), 3597-3623.

Developing Forgiveness in Youth

Forgiveness is closely linked to the character strength of humility and the positive emotions of empathy and compassion. The cognitive and emotional processes involved in forgiving can bring many personal benefits as well as playing an important role in maintaining healthy relationships.

Young children are still developing their cognitive skills and their ability to forgive may be limited to copying forgiving behaviour until they enter adolescence (Worthington et al., 2014). Some things are very hard to forgive because we feel hurt, betrayed and angry and this is difficult to move beyond.  Instead, we might consider revenge, avoid the person who wronged us, act out or internalise our anger, disappointment and hostility.

Building awareness in young people of why and how people forgive will help them begin to develop the essential social and emotional skills needed to navigate feelings such as anger and hurt which will inevitably occur within the ups and downs of friendships.  It’s important that children know that forgiving someone doesn’t mean we excuse the things they did to upset us or even (in some circumstances) that we will be friendly with them again. Instead, forgiveness helps us to let go of any negative feelings, thoughts and behaviour we might have towards that person. This can improve our happiness and well-being as we feel less anger, resentment and stress.

The activity below is adapted from The Happy Classrooms Programme (Arguís Rey et al., 2014; p252). This programme is freely available for use by parents and educators.

My Two Reasons

Suitable for: all ages

Objective: Developing the ability to forgive

To begin the activity, give children time to think about and discuss examples of unpleasant situations in which someone has acted wrongly, offended others or damaged something. Ask for suggestions to record on the board. Children can choose one of these suggestions to focus on in pairs or small groups.

Each child should think of and express two reasons why they would be able to forgive this behaviour. E.g.: ‘I forgive you because you are my friend and I know it is not going to happen again’; ‘I forgive you because I know that you would not want to harm me and now that you know you have done so, you feel sorry’, etc.

Afterwards, discuss all the reasons the children thought of and encourage children to share how the exercise has made them feel and if they found it useful.

The activity can be concluded by asking children to think of a situation in which they have not been able to forgive – they can compare the feelings and emotions experienced in that situation with those created by this exercise.

Notes: It is recommended that this activity is revisited and repeated with different ‘real life/everyday’ situations that children may experience.

Further Reading

Worthington, E., Wade, N & Hoyt, W. (2014). Positive Psychological Interventions for Promoting Forgiveness. In A.C. Parks & S. Schueller (eds.). The Wiley Blackwell handbook of positive psychological interventions. (pp 20-41). John Wiley & Sons.

Loneliness Runs “Like a Dark Thread”

Loneliness is a complex emotion – and although it’s likely that we have or will feel lonely at some point in life, our experiences of loneliness are personal to us. The post below is the second by Henny Syers, an experienced educator and positive psychology practitioner who is passionate about social change and the importance of human connection.  

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 

Mahatma Gandhi

Loneliness can rear its ugly head for different reasons and at different stages of our life.  Hopefully for most of us, it is no more than a passing phase, a period to endure, a stage to ‘get through.’ Sadly however, for some, loneliness persists and it can result and exacerbate more serious mental and physical health issues. 

In his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” Dr Vivek Murthy talks of loneliness as running “like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues that people brought to [his] attention like addiction, violence, anxiety, and depression.”  He refers to it as a serious public health issue and one that warrants our attention, a view with which I passionately agree.

The challenge is that – depending on the current cause of one’s loneliness, its dominating symptoms, one’s age, and personality – different solutions may be needed.  What is right for one person is not necessarily the silver bullet for another.  That being said, I ended my previous post by stating that in my next entry I would suggest one practical and positive step that is applicable to us all.  It is a step that we can all take to fight loneliness and build a stronger and more connected society.  It is guaranteed to make a positive difference regardless of your age, nationality, personality or whatever other distinguishing factor you decide to focus on.  Whilst it will take some proactivity on the individual’s part, its reward will more than make up for the initial self-initiation required.

The Importance of Purpose

As I said in my previous post, my own experience of loneliness this year has largely been down to a lack of perceived purpose, something that I have not, like some of my friends and family members, been able to carve out for myself.  Over the lockdown period, I have marvelled at the way in which some people have heroically rolled up their sleeves and turned their hands to new projects and ‘rainy day’ jobs.  Books have been written, books have been read, shirts have been made, drawers and cupboards emptied, shelves built, summer houses constructed, new recipes tried, ponds dug…  The list goes on.  On the whole, it has been my more introverted friends who have coped better with lockdown and with the lack of human contact that they have been forced to endure.

My more extrovert friends, on the other hand, have found lockdown particularly difficult which is perhaps unsurprising.  People who enjoy being around others and who get their energy from socialising will have found this period extremely draining.  Not being able to recharge by connecting with others face-to-face has, for some of my friends and close family members, been immensely challenging and has left many of them feeling low and thoroughly unmotivated.

My intention here is not to draw attention to the so-called poor coping skills of extroverts nor to put introverts on a pedestal.  Neither is it to suggest that it has been all ‘plain sailing’ for introverts.  Far from it.  However, there does seem to be something that unites those who have better coped with this challenging period: the ability to find and maintain a sense of purpose in the absence of normal social contact. 

Trying to set myself goals over the year has proved helpful to a certain extent but I have really missed the therapeutic synergy that occurs when coming together with others to achieve a common goal.  Research shows that our brains reward us neurobiologically when we join with other people to accomplish something positive.  Whether this goal be working alongside teammates to win a football tournament, harmonising with others in a choir, or working with a company team to increase sales figures, it feels good to join forces with others who reflect your sense of self and what is important to you. 

The Three Emotional Regulation Systems

However, is having a sense of purpose by working towards either an independent or a shared goal sufficient, or is there more to the story?  Does the nature of the goal also have a part to play?  In a word, “Yes.”  The reason for this becomes increasingly clear when we examine our three emotional regulation systems:

  1. The Threat-Defence System
  2. The Drive-Resources Seeking System
  3. The Care-Giver Soothing System

We switch between these systems or ‘mindsets’ to manage our emotions, thoughts, motivations, and behaviours.  Let’s now look at each in turn.

1. The Threat-Defence System is activated when we perceive danger.  Its aim is to protect us from harm and to ensure our survival.  This system is very powerful and is frequently overly activated.  It is associated with feelings of high arousal negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, hate, and sadness.

2. The Drive-Resources Seeking System is all about pursuing goals and accomplishments.  It motivates and energises us to engage with the world so that we meet our perceived needs, values, desired achievements, and wants.  As you can imagine, this system is an advertiser’s dream! 

3. The third and final system, the Care-Giver Soothing System, is the one that our modern, individualistic, and fast-paced world so often overlooks and that is so often neglected.  Unlike the Threat and Drive Systems which activate us, the Soothing System is associated with peaceful states and experiences.  It is about giving/receiving affection and care from others, kindness, encouragement, support and affiliation.  In evolutionary terms, the Soothing System is our Mammalian Care-Giving System. We now know from the research that behaviours linked to this system can weaken the sometimes toxic effects of the Threat and Drive Systems.  It is within the activation of the Care-Giver Soothing System, one that is so often both misunderstood and underutilised, that a solution to loneliness lies.

Our Need to Care

We know from experience that helping others feels good.  A wealth of research furthermore demonstrates the benefits of a range of prosocial behaviours to our physical and mental health.   Investigations into the positive effects of loving-kindness (for example, Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008), show that it promotes elevated wellbeing, heightened feelings of social support, and increased positive emotions.  Acts of altruism have furthermore been found to promote an array of health benefits, including increased physical health and longevity, reduced mortality, and reduced depression and anxiety (Post, 2005).  Volunteering is also associated with higher wellbeing (Thoits and Hewitt, 2001).  Even neuroimaging studies have shown that giving money activates the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’ (Harbaugh et al., 2007).  According to De Waal, one of the leading world experts in the biology and nature of empathy, every human is destined to be humane; our propensity to connect and empathise with others is an innate human skill.  Given all of this, why then do we not all help as readily as we perhaps should if we want to feel good, and improve our physical and mental health?

Maac (Massively Accessible Actions for Change)

Evie Rosset and her colleague, Matthieu Fouché, believe that the answer to this question lies in the fact that people don’t as yet have sufficient opportunity to act prosocially.  In direct response to this challenge, Rosset, an experimental psychologist by training, and Fouché, a clinical psychologist, set up “Maac Lab”, an organisation designed to promote “maacs ” (Massively Accessible Actions for Change).  Maacs are individual prosocial projects via which participants are given the opportunity to help others in a manner that feels authentic, meaningful, and manageable to them.

The beauty of “Maac” lies in its personalised approach.  The Maac curriculum consists of exercises based on decades of research in positive psychology, altruistic motivation and behaviour change.  Via simple group activities, people are encouraged to consider their individual qualities, interests and strengths, as well as the world causes they feel passionate about, whether they be as large-scale as climate change or relating to more localised concerns such neighbourly relations or community littering.

It seems that whilst many of us may want to help, we struggle for both ideas, means, and opportunity.  Perhaps some of us feel we don’t have the time or the necessary experience.  According to a study conducted in partnership with Ticket for Change in which they sampled the views of 2,000 respondents representative of the French population, 94% of French people want to take action to help solve our major social challenges; however, only 7% of them take action.   Maac helps in that it opens the doors and allows people to see that helping others can not only be rewarding and fun, but surprisingly easy too. 

Maac is currently focused on Maac Work (designed for businesses), Maac Social (designed for organisations in the health and human services sector) and Maac Youth (designed for schools, after-school programs, and youth centres).  I strongly believe that the product it delivers is one that we all desperately crave and need: the opportunity to help others in a way that is easy, that matters to us, and that aligns with our interests and character strengths.

The Light in the Dark

Given my experiences over this year, I was not surprised to find out that a sense of purposelessness was a risk factor for depression, risk taking behaviours, somatic complaints, and poor social relationships (Damon, Menon & Bronk, 2003).  We need to feel that our actions matter; by contributing to the welfare of someone else, they are given added purpose and meaning.  Post (2005) furthermore suggests that the reasons prosocial behaviours such as altruism and kindness are so powerful are that they help to distract the individual from their personal problems.  Within Maac lies a solution to heal the trauma of loneliness and to fulfil a need we all have but that many of us, to our own detriment, have neglected.

To close I quote a summary of Horatio Clare’s “The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal,” a very fitting analogy of the time in which we currently find ourselves, a time of darkness, challenge and introspection. As the summary goes, Winter is a time of “Seasonal sadness; winter blues; depression – such feelings are widespread in the darker months.  But by looking outwards, by being in and observing nature, we can appreciate its rhythms.” 

Now is the time to re-evaluate, to look “outwards” and to capitalise on the shared vulnerability that we have all experienced via this awful pandemic.  “By learning to see, we can find the magic, the light that burns bright at the heart of winter”.  This light is our propensity and need to connect and care for one another, “…the light that burns bright at the heart of winter: spring will come again.”  It is now up to us to welcome it with an open heart and an open mind.

Strengths Based Parenting

Building up self-awareness, confidence and resilience is a key part of positive child development. One way to do this is to make children aware of their personal strengths and how they can regularly use them. A previous post about developing children’s strengths explores how you can foster this awareness in more detail.

As children become more comfortable using the language of strengths and are familiar with their personal strengths, there are a number of activities you could use to help them develop these further. In her book The Strength Switch Dr. Lea Waters offers some practical ideas to try at home. Three of my favourite are below:

1. A Better Question Than “How Was School Today?”

Rather than asking this and getting a grunt in return, why not share the strengths you’ve used during the day and give an example of one you saw in someone else? If you notice a pattern over time, this could help to identify your core strengths. As you talk about the strengths you used/saw you’ll also learn more about each others’ day.

2. Family Strengths Poster

Stick a piece of blank paper up on a wall at home and for the next week encourage family members to write on the poster when they see others showing strengths. This activity encourages both strengths mindfulness (being in the present moment to notice strengths in other people) and can also boost family relationships.

3. Write Your Child A Strengths Letter

For one week, every day note down the strengths you see in your child and examples of when they use them. Also reflect on ‘big’ moments in their life and the strengths they showed then. Use your notes to write a letter and give it to your child. This strength-based praise celebrates what they do well and can also encourage children to build strengths they’re not using enough of. It offers an opportunity for parents to catch their children doing good things, to praise, not criticise – and can improve the parent-child relationship. You never know, if it’s a success in your home, they may want to switch roles and write one to you!

Focusing on developing your children’s strengths from a young age can help them build positive self awareness, confidence and resilience. These are all attributes which contribute to a well rounded character and a child’s social and emotional intelligence as they develop through childhood.

This is highlighted in the video clip below from the VIA Institute on Character. Their website also offers numerous articles with practical tips for parents on how to identify and encourage the use of child and teen strengths.

Further Reading

Waters, L. (2017). The strength switch: How the new science of strength-based parenting can help your child and your teen to flourish. Penguin.

5 Ways To Connect With Nature

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) suggests five ways we can connect with nature to improve our well-being.

As well as these simple tips, they also offer access to a free, in depth ‘Thriving With Nature’ guide which explores links between our well-being and the outdoors and suggests practical activities to engage with.

Loneliness Matters

Loneliness is a complex emotion – and although it’s likely that we have or will feel lonely at some point in life, our experiences of loneliness are personal to us. The post below was written by Henny Syers, an experienced educator and positive psychology practitioner based in Bali. Like all of us, Henny has been challenged and faced numerous changes to ‘normal life’ over the last year. Passionate about social change and the importance of human connection – Henny kindly agreed to share her personal experience of loneliness, drawing attention to an issue which will resonate with many of us.

With so many songs dedicated to it, so many stories, films, poems and art works inspired by it, we know that loneliness is a subject that warrants our attention.  Loneliness matters and, for obvious reasons, has recently had increased attention drawn to it. 

My blog below considers how our decreased social contact with others, as well as the lack of certainty and control that we have recently faced has resulted in many of us feeling a form of loneliness. 

Lonely in Paradise

As it has for most, this year has been a challenging one for me.  Having always in the past been someone who embraced challenges, who moved from one goal to the next, and who always had a project on the go, this year threw me off kilter.  Plans suddenly had to change and I found myself without a clear roadmap to follow.  Whilst some might have found this liberating, I found it very unsettling.  Despite living in Bali which many would regard as paradise, and despite having a devoted husband, a loving family and a close group of friends, I have felt incredibly lonely at times this year.

What has perhaps made my loneliness even more pronounced is the guilt that has accompanied it.  When witnessing the abject poverty that has tragically hit so many Balinese as a result of this awful pandemic, it is easy to regard the so-called loneliness of a privileged “bule” (a white foreigner or expatriate) as somewhat selfish.  Furthermore, those of you currently in lockdown might ask how someone surrounded by sun, sand, sea, surf, scooters and smoothie bowls could possibly say that they are feeling blue!  And yet, as it has done with many this year, loneliness has crept up on me and made itself comfortable and it has been accompanied by some  unpleasant physical effects. 

Having previously slept like a baby, I have found myself often struggling to get to sleep, tossing and turning throughout the night or waking up early and not being able to settle down again.  I have felt increasingly anxious and ‘on edge’ and simply not as ‘upbeat’ or positive about life as I was previously. 

According to researchers in the field, these physical symptoms are not to be unexpected.  When we feel lonely, our bodies react physically.  Stress hormones are released, we experience cardiovascular stress, and there is inflammation throughout the body.  Our brains and bodies react with the same threat level as if we were still living in the tundra, alone and surrounded by wild animals or alien tribes.  The late Dr John Cacioppo, whose research on loneliness helped to transform social neuroscience, stated that feeling lonely is like a physical warning signal to satisfy our need for social connection, a “biological and social imperative rooted in thousands of years of human evolution.”

Our Basic Psychological Needs

According to Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory of human motivation and personality, humans have three basic psychological needs of which “relatedness” is one.  It refers to having a sense of attachment, belonging, and closeness towards others, as well as access to help and support if needed.  It is not difficult to see how many have recently found this need wanting.  Whilst Zoom, Skype and Facetime with colleagues and loved ones has been a lifesaver over this period, most of us are finding that these technical platforms are simply not sufficient for the long-term.

The other two needs outlined by Ryan and Deci’s theory are autonomy and competence:

– Autonomy is the idea that we need to perceive that we have choices and can self-determine the actions we take; we must feel in control of our destiny and be able to make our own decisions 

– Competence refers to feeling as though we have the skills needed to succeed and achieve our goals.  Recent circumstances have also seen these two needs suffer.  Factors beyond our control have sometimes left us feeling entirely rudderless (lacking perceived autonomy) and ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead (lacking perceived competence).

The fact is, not meeting any of our three basic psychological needs can result in feelings of loneliness, a destination to which there are clearly numerous routes. 

Loneliness and Purpose

Unlike Europe, Bali has not been in full ‘lockdown’ which has meant that I have been fortunate enough to still visit cafes, sports clubs, the beach, shopping centres etc.  I have not, therefore, suffered the social isolation that many of you will have done over the past year and believe me, my heart goes out to you.  Speaking to family and friends back in the UK, I have come to appreciate my physical freedom more and more, and realise how incredibly fortunate I am to still have access to the world outside my front door. 

Ultimately, the main reason for my own loneliness this year has been my perceived lack of purpose.  After eleven years of teaching, followed by a busy year studying for a Master’s, finding myself unemployed has given me first-hand experience of how debilitating and distressing it can be to not feel useful. 

As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  Helping others not only makes us feel increasingly competent but it increases our sense of self-worth.  By affecting others positively, our actions have added meaning and this makes us feel as though we matter. 

And let’s face it, mattering to others feels good.  Whilst I am not saying that being unemployed is the route to loneliness nor that being employed necessarily protects us from it, what I would maintain is that we all crave having a sense that we matter to others and that our actions count for something beyond ourselves.  More about this in my next blog.

Whilst the cause of my own loneliness has perhaps differed from many of you this year, it has potentially helped to illustrate that whilst loneliness does not have a single root cause, the results can be equally distressing despite the initial contributing factors.  As we move forward, we must make fighting loneliness a priority.  It is, as Dr Vivek Murthy states in his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”, “an urgent mission that we can and must tackle together.” 

In a future post, I would like to suggest one practical and positive step that we can all take to fight loneliness and build a stronger and more connected society.  Yes, the present is painful for many of us but we have a valuable opportunity to capitalise on our shared vulnerability and catalyse the process of connection.  The time is now because loneliness matters.

WoW! News

When I learnt about WoW! News, I was keen to share it with you. Providing young people with opportunities to access age appropriate and balanced news is so important – WoW! News offers a platform to engage children with current affairs in a more positive and solution focused manner. It’s an invaluable tool that has been a success with children, parents and educators. Founders Catherine and Alastair tell us more…

What is WoW! News

WoW! News is the first media venture to bring solutions journalism to the very youngest consumers of news, children as young as 7 or 8.

Using texts, pictures, podcasts and video, WoW! presents news about the problems the world faces, from the climate and pollution to conflict and social exclusion, but from the point of view of people looking for, and finding, solutions to them.

Providing free articles and podcasts online, in English and in French, since 2019, WoW! News launched a quarterly illustrated magazine in late 2020 and will soon launch a subscription smartphone app that combines solutions news with a shared experience for parents and children around exploration of major news topics.

Why did you start it?

We came to a realisation that the news offered a negative picture of the state of the world. Journalists see their role as highlighting problems that society needs to address. However, the technological and economic disruption of the media in the past 20 years has increased that negative bias (bad news scores more clicks) and, due to the pervasiveness of 24-hour news, increased its impact on news consumers. Among those impacts is a tendency for some people to turn away their attention altogether and for others to experience a sense of despair and impotence in the face of a perceived accumulation of problems. As a journalist, Alastair showed people the problems in the hope they would act to fix them. But he realised that if you only talk about the problems, you may undermine people’s energy and will to take action. It is vital, therefore, to show people that there is some hope of solving problems at the same time as they are discovering problems. Hope is essential for action.

This is the basis of solutions journalism, or constructive journalism, which has been taken up by a number of adult media.

Catherine’s realisation was that she had transformed from an avid news consumer, when she worked in financial markets, to someone who had turned away from news because it was getting her down. She was also interested in how children develop and realised that this kind of negative impact of the media was having a particular impact on children. Without adult filters to question the picture of the world they draw from the media, children were prone to have a particular gloomy outlook.

Speaking to children and parents in the preteen age group, we discovered many instances of children feeling worried or anxious about the future, notably about climate change but also political conflicts. At an age when they should be starting to explore the world around them, some children were fearful of what it holds – this despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence that the world is actually getting a lot better for most people [see the work of Hans Rosling, of Factfulness fame].

So we set about finding a way to show children that for all the problems of the world there are inspiring people seeking and finding solutions and that we can all, at whatever level, even at the youngest age, contribute to solutions.

False reality?

We don’t only report ‘good’ news. In fact, we report a lot about problems in the world, and generally the same problems that dominate the rest of the media. What we add to our reporting is news about solutions or potential solutions. We also take care to show that the glass can be half full. For example, in reporting on the Covid pandemic, we ran numerous reports not only efforts to find solutions to the problem but also on things that were positive about what was happening in the world. This shows that the world is a more nuanced place. For example, we highlighted the benefits for nature of lockdowns and how this gave us concrete grounds to hope that efforts to reduce pollution and carbon emissions would help the planet recover.

Gain from WoW!

Our prime goal is to inspire children to feel confident in their own abilities to change the world for the better. We believe that hopeful and confident children will both learn better and have a more accurate understanding of the world around them and that this next generation will contribute to making the world a better place.

Feedback

We have had almost universally positive feedback. Those who have expressed doubts that solutions journalism can foster ill-founded optimism have said that, on discovering WoW! News, they have understood the rigour of our approach. We hear regularly from children who express surprise and delight at the novelty of the solutions our subjects come up with. And we hear from teachers and parents that WoW! is providing a valuable antidote to what education and health professionals say is a mounting problem of anxiety about the world among preteens.

We have received support from a number of organisations. The startup incubators Ticket for Change, Créatis and, now, SEMIA, have all backed the project to succeed. We won a La French Tech grant from France’s public investment bank, a similar grant from France’s Grand-Est region and a prestigious award for media innovation from the French Culture Ministry.

Plans, ambitions

Our priority now is to launch the WoW! app, first in French in the coming months, and in English later in the year. Viable paid-for content is vital to put WoW! on a sustainable economic footing. We are also publishing further issues of the quarterly magazine and aim to further link our paper and digital offerings, using techniques such as QR codes and novel augmented reality tools. We have developed a standalone video product aimed at distribution on educational TV platforms. We also aim to work more closely with schools on packages designed to address teachers’ needs.

And finally, we have a dream to create a “Tribe of Young Changemakers”, involving our young readers and viewers in choosing what stories we cover for them and encouraging them to share their own ideas and solutions with each other. We already have partnerships with the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots movement, for young people taking action to help the planet, and with United Schools, a trilingual global network linking classes which undertake projects to change the world.