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21 Ideas for Developing the Motivational Character Strengths

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image- Motivational Character Strengths IdeasIn “The Character Strengths and Motivation,” I laid out the 4.5 character strengths that I consider motivational in nature, and, at the end of the post, I laid out an example of the kind of “self-experimentation” we can use to learn how to teach our students to develop the “motivational strengths” in themselves (because marshaling one's motivational energy is part of being ready to flourish in the long-term; motivating me is, most controllably, my job, not anyone else's).

But what else can we do to develop the motivational character strengths in our students?

Here are some ideas, organized by strength. Many of them I've drawn from Character Lab's strengths page (which you can access from here); I've denoted Character Lab's ideas with italics.

Building the passion component of grit [1]

1. Help students discover nascent passions. The tricky thing with all of these is that, for many of my students, passion is nascent. Sure, they have things they really like to do — riding dirt bikes, playing video games, reading novels — but these strong affinities are really just the seeds of the kind of passion that makes a person persist at something for the long term. The trick, then, is in helping our students identify which of their affinities may be worth developing into true, “I really have a hard time not thinking about this” passions.

Once a passion is discovered (or simply when students really understand the difference between something they like and a passion), the following strategies are useful.

2. Reflect on the role passion has played in one's achievements, or in the achievements of those who have been successful. (Taken from Character Lab's grit page.)

3. Look for the gritty side of success stories. (E.g., this MJ quote.) (Taken from Character Lab's grit page.)

4. While doing the hard work of deliberate practice, picture the fruits of your passion's realization. What will it feel like to become an author? How's it going to look when you win the foot race? This kind of visualization isn't loosey-goosey head gibberish; learn more about the powerful WOOP framework through this free Character Lab toolkit, which relies in part on visualization.

Building purpose

5. Affirm the strengths you see in students. When we pull a kid aside and call them out for witnessed potential — “Hey, I've noticed that you're really good at [acting with kindness, or compassion; working hard; expressing gratitude; writing; asking questions; etc]. That's not common; that's a major asset to your life as a student and your life in general. I want you to keep using that and think about how that asset might be a part of not just your future, but also the futures of all the others who you could benefit with that strength. I'm so glad I get to teach you.” — I think it borders on magic. It's magic because it makes us (teachers) better, more affirming human beings; it's magic because it takes 40 seconds of work and can yield 40 years of results (another example of small time investments yielding huge returns); and it's magic because it can help a student discover a purpose for themselves.

6. Talk to kids about their lives. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a common question, but it may not be the right one. Instead, try asking questions such as “What kind of person do you want to be?” and “What kind of impact do you want to have?” (Taken from Character Lab's purpose page.)

7. Encourage non-academic purpose, too. If a student has a seemingly non-academic purpose (say, becoming a dad or becoming a makeup artist), find a way to connect these goals to what you’re teaching in class, too. (Taken from Character Lab's purpose page.)

8. Connect learning to goals. Help students connect their everyday work to their aspirations through a quick journal exercise or reflection before you begin a lesson. (Taken from Character Lab's purpose page.)

Building curiosity

9. Carry around an index card and write questions that occur to you throughout the day. At day's end, spend 10 minutes exploring a question or two using the Internet or a textbook.

10. Explore curiosity in journal / free-writing exercises. (Taken from Character Lab's curiosity page.)

11. Use any extra minutes at the end of a lesson to have students ask you great questions. I love saying to my students, “Okay guys, three minutes to make me earn my pay: ask me some hard questions about today's [reading, lesson, etc.]!”

12. Explain the difference between fruitful curiosity (curiosity that we efficiently act upon as we're studying a subject, and that therein makes us master a subject more fully) and fruitless curiosity (curiosity that enters our minds and leaves without ever being explored [sad face]).

13. Try using a Curiosity Board. (See Fig. 1, and keep an eye on Character Lab for more information about curiosity boards as Tracie and Vanessa's Teacher Innovator Grant project progresses!)

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Figure 1

Building gratitude

14. Use a simple gratitude warm-up exercise. Prompts like “If it weren't for ________, I would not be where I am today because _________” can help students refocus on positive people and factors in their lives.

15. Write three-minute thank you notes each day for a week. Thank you notes can be written on lined paper, repurposed scrap paper, or as emails if you have access to technology.

16. Model gratitude. Say thank you—and mean it—frequently in your classroom. Make it a practice to leave your students notes of gratitude on their desk or pull them aside to thank them. (Taken from Character Lab's gratitude page.)

17. Have students write thank you notes to funded DonorsChoose projects. (Woot!) Before they write, speak with them about how one cultivates gratitude toward the generosity of strangers.

18. Show gratitude as a class. Write notes of appreciation to your janitorial staff on the whiteboard at the end of the day, sing a song of thanks to the bus driver on your field trips, or write a class note to the teacher who got the ball from the roof at recess. (Taken from Character Lab's gratitude page.)

Building optimism

19. Connect the “one step at a time” reality of success to something students can relate to. How does one catch a fish? Row a canoe? Run a race? Complete a computer program? All of these things happen one cast, stroke, footstep, or keystroke at a time, and a big component of optimism is remembering that difficult, seemingly insignificant steps now contribute to success in the future.

20. Be mindful of negative feedback. Instead of saying, “You never pay attention!” be specific about the instance, and encourage improvement. For example, you might say, “I noticed you were not paying attention during the math lesson today. Let's try again tomorrow. Would it be helpful if you sat in the front row?” (Taken from Character Lab's optimism page.)

21. Read hopeful narratives. Being optimistic includes feeling hopeful about the future. Expose your students to stories with positive outcomes, especially those in which the main character does something to turn his or her luck around. Discuss the themes of hope and agency with your students. (Taken from Character Lab's optimism page.)


  1. Grit is .5 of a motivational strength because it is defined as sustained passion plus persistence for long-term goals. Passion is the motivational element — passion makes teachers stick to it, and artists, and engineers, and parents, and priests, and social workers. Persistence, on the other hand, isn't motivation — it's the product of motivation. Gritty people use passion to produce persistence toward long-term ends.

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4 Responses to 21 Ideas for Developing the Motivational Character Strengths

  1. Ronnie Phillips September 29, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    Dave, may I use this information to do a screencast required for a graduate course I am taking. I think it would be pertinent for everyone. Love how you have organized it for us. Ronnie

    • davestuartjr September 29, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

      Of course, Ronnie — please do! Give my regards to the class.

  2. James September 29, 2015 at 11:50 am #

    Hi David – I really enjoyed your posts on Article of the Week and have been implementing article of the week into my classes and I did this article this week:


    He tried to commit suicide when he was 12 (I think), but within five years had come to decide it was his job to find motivation and passion for his life (growth mindset).

    Also, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that you are approaching education in such a holistic way (you are not simply posting how to better teach English or History subject matter). Character strengths are obviously not just something you are adding to your responsibilities to teach English and History, but that you see that your success in teaching English and History rely on your students developing these crucial character strengths. Thanks for taking the time for these posts – this is the best year of professional development yet – and it’s coming daily through your posts.

    • davestuartjr September 29, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

      James, I love Vujicic’s story — so inspirational. Also, you’ve pegged me pretty good — my mind is wired to pursue the integrated life; less about masterfully unified and technical units and lesson plans, more about cohesive, unified messages to students as we go through a year’s worth of curriculum together.

      I hope you and your beautiful family are well!

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