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Building Strengths in High Risk Youth

written by John Yeager 11 July 2008

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

I have spent a good amount of time helping build strengths among well-adjusted adolescents – young people who are at a “plus” level in their lives. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with high risk youth, ages 12-20, who are members of a residential treatment center. These boys/young men grew up in a life of abuse and eventually have become violent abusers themselves. At face value, these boys appear to be healthy, but as you hang out with them, you begin to see the pain in their eyes. Each one has already been involved in the department of corrections. As part of their program, they are strictly supervised by counselors. All boys must remain in the sight of a counselor at all times due to impulse control issues. Trust issues are huge and the program they are in provides them with pathways to better cope and function with moment-to-moment living.

All of the boys grew up in an environment that didn’t foster trust; and they defaulted to the crisis side of Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development. This included a shame based climate that has led to immense degrees of guilt and inferiority.

These young people come from deficit family models and after being cast away at very young ages, were eventually adjudicated and sent to residential treatment This is the last stop before jail! If your only tool is hammer, you treat everything and everyone else as a nail. This metaphor is, unfortunately, very appropriate.

Ropes Course

Ropes Course

As part of our three day program, we brought the boys through a variety of group and individual challenges. These activities were designed to magnify trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry. When we started working on the challenge course (collaborative games and eventually the low and high ropes courses), I observed some of the “crisis” pieces coming out in some of their behaviors, but also witnessed bits of trust, initiative, and industry.

After exposure to the ropes challenges, I met with the boys to chat about their signature strengths (Each of the boys had previously completed the VIA-Youth). It was very interesting to review the individual and collective results of their “signature strengths.” The majority of the boys had “spirituality” as one of their top strengths. Prior to the ropes activities, we took them through our campus, and I was taken by several boys who were visibly moved by the architecture of the inside of the chapel. This house of worship is a safe haven for many of them. That evening, we discussed how spirituality was a leading strength for the majority of the boys. They remarked how this characteristic comes alive daily for each of them. Later, one young man said that his belief in God is similar to the “belayer on the ropes course” – always protecting him from falling and other dangers.

The intention of the strengths discussion was to help the boys know their strengths and see ways that they can express the strengths they want more of. It is a fertile environment to expose these young people to what they know to be a signature strength. Having knowledge of what their strengths look like in action – when they come alive, can be a valuable instrument in their tool box of life skills. By knowing what particular traits look like when they come alive, they may be instructive and informative for young people.

They then have the cues to pull out the strength when they want or need to. The more that the strength is habituated, the greater the odds that that it will be realized as an outcome in healthy behaviors. However, this is asking a lot of a young person who been exposed neglect and abuse. Nansook Park and Chris Peterson (2006) claim that “being able to put a name to what one does well is intriguing and even empowering.”

It was interesting to compile the lesser strengths of the adolescents. The strengths that were least endorsed were caution, prudence; humility and modesty. This correlates strongly in that these characteristics are just being developed through the modeling, dialogue and consequences process while they in this program.

The boys were divided into several groups and were instructed to complete graphic representations of their strengths (strength trees). They were provided with a large piece of “newsprint-butcher block” paper and a variety of markers. The most challenging aspect of the activity was having them try to link their strengths to others in their respective groups. They are at a point in their lives where it is still difficult to see the relationship between the influence of their actions/behaviors on others, and the ability to trust others to be part of their lives. One boy’s “appreciation of beauty and excellence” came out in a wonderful graphic representation with his group. He was extremely proud of his “drawing” and I helped him see how he could use this strength even more in moment-to-moment living.

We noticed in the groups how the “shadow’ or excess side to their top strengths could create problems. Another boy, who had “leadership” as his top strength, was having difficulty motivating his small group to get rolling on their strengths representation. He was getting very frustrated and I could see the shadow side of his leadership defaulting to biting sarcasm with other group members. With some timely prompting by the residential staff, he gradually got the rest on board and their final product was quite good. In fact they were the only group to draw strong connections between each other strengths in the development of a “team.”

Robert Quinn, the author of Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, says, “When we change ourselves, we change how others see us and respond to us. When we change ourselves, we change the world.” These young men are certainly “re-building their own bridges” and with a focus on strengths, they may indeed make it. I hope and pray they do!

Editor’s Note: This article appears in part 2 on applications of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.



Erickson, E. (1968, 1994). Identity: Youth and Crisis (Austen Riggs Monograph). W. W. Norton.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Woodruff Boy Scout Summer Camp 2009 Jeff on COPE course-3 courtesy of johntrainor

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Christine Duvivier 11 July 2008 - 3:58 pm


Thanks for sharing an elevating story! It sounds as if you made an important difference in these boys’ lives in just a few days– congratulations! I was fascinated by their spirituality. Not what one would expect at first glance.

One question for you: how did you compile the strengths for the whole group? Manually or do you have a way of pulling them together with technology?
Christine Duvivier

Kathryn Britton 11 July 2008 - 11:09 pm


Great post!

It reminds me of a study that we read about doing our MAPP service learning project with the Footlights after-school program based on performance arts in inner city Hartford (Service learning project documented here: http://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_slp/1/ )

The study by Tracy Steen, L. Kachorek, and Chris Peterson involved focus group discussions of VIA strengths with 459 high school students. The students participated readily and openly, demonstrating not only the ability to understand the character strengths but also that they consider them worthwhile. The strengths they particularly valued included wisdom, leadership, social intelligence, spirituality, and capacity to love and be loved. Teachers commented afterwards that many times the students who spoke most readily were not the ones they usually see leading discussions. Here’s the reference if you want to follow up.

Steen, T.A, Kachorek, L.V. & Peterson, C. (2003). Character strengths among youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 32(1), 5-16.

I think you have been doing incredibly important work and I hope it is “catching.” THANK YOU for reporting on it.


John Yeager 14 July 2008 - 8:19 am

Christine: Thanks for your thoughts on “high risk youth.”
It was quite interesting to see the strength of spirituality be such highly endorsed by the group. To answer your question, I compiled the strengths manually and then eye-balled the lesser top and lesser traits.


John Yeager 14 July 2008 - 8:21 am

Thanks, Kathryn, for your kind words. I will take a look at Steen et al.’s article to supplement what we are doing at Culver.


Angus Skinner 21 July 2008 - 3:05 am

HI John
What a moving experience – it ain’t easy and you recognise so well that there are no quick fixes. The value of humanity comes starkly across in your thoughtful perception of the youngsters sensibility to spirituality. Maslow swiftly abandoned his ‘hierarchy of needs’ but it still pervades much common thought. Here again you report evidence of people’s search for meaning. You have so much to offer in this field – and it takes resilience. I hope you will persist.
Best aye

Sha-En 25 July 2008 - 7:22 am

Dear John,

I read with great interest how strengths have helped high-risk youth and I agree totally that focusing on building trust to replace the fear and guilt they have is the right approach! I thought, more importantly, that the focus on strengths was actually a way to build a bond with the youth; a connection they sorely lack with a significant other. The value in your presence is to be that significant other and reach out to them.

I am heartened by your work and look forward to reading more of your articles.

Sha-En (fr Singapore)


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