Today Show VA-Tech Tragedy Signals Needs For Strengths in Schools

by Jenifer Fox

Today, NBC aired a segment on the Today Show about how we can use strengths. This notion will change our schools if you will speak up.

Over the past several days, a plethora of theories has arisen about who is to blame for the tragedy at Virginia Tech. The college? The friends and teachers who didn’t heed to warning signs? The budget cuts in mental health care? Immigration laws? The perpetrator’s genetic make-up? Our nations’ gun laws? Exposure to violence on television and computers? Perhaps the searching out and assignment of blame is a first step in moving from ineffable shock to verbal comprehension. Blame, though, is a curious tool. We jump immediately to trying to discover who or what is to blame as though if we are able to pinpoint a cause, we will simplify the situation enough to look it squarely in the face and know what we are looking at. If only we can figure out the reason, we will prevent this from happening again. A great deal of airtime has been devoted to arguing one theory over another; everyone is an expert; everyone has a solution, “if only…”. All of these theories and arguments have elements of truth in them because life is layered, complex and complicated. There are not easy solutions or answers to the most important things happening in our society – how we raise our children, how we govern our land, how we care for people, how we interact. We cannot continue to examine the complexity of these issues only in the wake of tragedy. As a society, there needs to be ongoing societal commitment to discovering ways to refocus our national attention from blame to accepting responsibility. Whose fault is what happened at Virginia Tech? It is all of our fault. Society rises and falls on collective shoulders, not a single crisis plan, or a burgeoning mental health budget, or a gun control law, or a monitoring of violence on television. All of those things are but threads in a much larger societal cloth. It is time to step back and look at the cloth rather than arguing over the threads. The cloth is not the important ingredient in this example – it is the eyes, the lens, the perspective, and the paradigm we use when viewing it that will make all the difference.

On Tuesday, April 17th, Tiki Barber was scheduled to debut his first big story on the Today Show. It is about Marcus Buckingham and the Strengths Movement. In this story, there is a feature on the Purnell School, the school where I am the Head, a school that practices what Marcus preaches – “that building on human strengths is what creates lives worth living. The story was naturally bumped because of the Virginia Tech story. The story, as I recall in the filming, is a feel good story. I received many emails yesterday from people telling me they were sorry the story was lost because of the tragedy. I watched the television much of the day yesterday, and with every interview, every image of loss, confusion, shock and sadness, I was more and more convinced that the story of developing human strengths, especially in young people in our schools and in homes is so very much more than a feel good story; it is the before and after story of the Virginia Tech shooting; it is not a lost, bumped or replaced story; indeed, it is part of the school shooting story – it is the lens through which we should begin to view other people in order to lessen the odds of more school shootings. Developing strengths in schools is about developing the kinds of positive emotions that sustain people through conflict; development of strengths in children leads to better self image, better relationships, better working situations, and better lives for everyone. The place to begin this development is in our young people. Positive emotions and positive psychology are not “fluff” or “feel goods”. They are the developmental lens that will help to lessen – not prevent – but lessen the odds of more school shootings. Developing strengths in children is serious business. It is not about happiness – which can be classified as a mood. Developing strengths is about broadening a young person’s cognition. Research shows that negative emotions and focusing on the negative result in anxiety, depression and failure. It narrows a person’s ability to be attentive to a variety of things and causes people to narrowly and obsessively focus on a few things, missing the forest for the tress. Focusing on strengths broadens ones view, opens ones mind, and presents people with options.

The story of developing strengths in young people may be tomorrow’s story made ever more serious and important by the events of the past few days. Tomorrow’s story has shifted in my mind – from “feel good” to absolute necessity. In many ways, I sense the possibility of a national awakening. After 9-11, you could say that the country became cynical, afraid, and uncertain. What I witnessed was different. I saw a very sad and tragic event cause people to come together. It was the union of people’s strengths that led to a resilience that allowed our country to rebound. It was the piling up of one person’s strength on top of another’s that allowed us to form a fortress of national resilience. In the next few days, over the next few months, that is what will emerge from the tragedy on the Virginia Tech campus. People will join their strengths together in an effort to overcome the darkness and see the way past the tragedy. My ultimate hope is that this is not simply a means of crossing through darkness, but a new light on the future.

Read Comments

  1. Patrick F. Bassett, NAIS President Reply

    The experience of independent schools in general aligns with the strengths movement and can be the antidote to the ills behind the VA Tech tragegy (and Columbine and all of its sad successors): when children are loved and known in schools, they develop skills, attitudes, and values that make them successful. When they’re not, they don’t.

  2. Jean Luedtke Reply

    Thank you. You’ve nailed it.

    There literally is no end to the good or the harm our attitudes can bring. Time to stop posturing and start sharing love and commitment to the welfare of all of our planet.

  3. Kathleen Sahm Reply

    Developing and identifying students’ strengths is a critical component of developing successful adults. I am an educator at the first Multiple Intelligences school, the Key Learning Community, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Since we opened our doors twenty years ago, we have focused upon developing students’ strengths and guiding them to discover their own strengths. Our school is a K-12 public school which offers educational opportunities across all eight intelligences. We enrich their strengths with additional classes during school and in an extended school day. We also invite adults in our community to visit and speak with our students about their jobs and professions. This provides a role model with similar strengths for many students. We teach students how to identify their strengths and to utilize their strengths daily and in their major projects each semester. We are greatly encouraged that others are speaking of identifying strengths of students and the success and happiness that it brings. Please keep up this important work in education. We are leaving too many children behind!

  4. Janet Schijns Reply

    I agree that all children need to develop their strengths and find the positive in themselves and in their surrounding environments. So much focus today is spent on how much students can attain prior to graduation, how many different skills or sports they can excel at, how they compare to everyone else, how well they do “things” and how well they can follow an ever changing set of societal rules that it is a wonder they can find any positive emotions at all after 15+ years of schooling. The focus seems to be on production and improving where they “fail” vs. quality and growing where they are strong. We truly need to find a way to show kids that it is not about quantity or some kind of scorecard; it’s about them doing the things they love in a way that benefits the world around them. If we can achieve that we will help to provide our youth with the strengths they need to be happy, caring, productive and concerned citizens. I applaud the strength movements efforts to help us attain that goal

  5. Rich Bobby Reply

    Well said Jenifer. Working in a residential treatment center for children who have suffered severe abuse and neglect by their families, and who have repeated psychiatric hospitalizations due to threats and/or attempts to hurt themselves or others, I’ve always been curious about what makes a child resilient. What I have personally discovered is children who are consistently guided to playing to their strengths by someone who is nurturing, loving, and hopeful for them helps lead them to the path of resiliency. Without this guidance, the same children are in a constant state of emotional pain, so much pain they have asked to leave this earth or threatened to take others with them. Jenifer’s message is profound, and after watching the “Today” show clip, I believe Jenifer and Marcus planted many seeds. The next step is for all of us who work with children to continue planting these seeds and water them regularly, not just with children, but with all levels of government until our society as a whole learns to focus on playing to our children’s strengths so they may grow to be their best-selves. Thank you for your message Jenifer.

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