Guide Teens Toward Discovering Their Identity

Identity formation is a huge part of the adolescent experience.


Once teens discover their identity, they become less likely to engage in many of the risk factors from which we try so hard to protect them. 

According to James Marcia’s theory of identity formation, identity boils down to two factors: exploration and commitment. Adolescents who haven’t explored or committed to an identity are more likely to “flounder,” (e.g. Abuse drugs and alcohol and suffer from depression.) Those who are committed to their identity but have had little say in it—Maybe their parents have already picked a career for them—are likely to suffer from anxiety and develop an unhealthy relationship with video games or the Internet, where they have power to create an identity for themselves.  

While we want to give students time to explore different identities, helping them acknowledge their unique set of strengths will bolster their self-esteem as they make pivotal decisions that can impact their health.

Here are some tips that will help you guide students toward realizing their character strengths.

1. Take the online survey at VIA Institute of Character.

Character strengths are often referred to as the backbone of positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes us thrive. The 15-minute online Via survey lists 24 character strengths in order as they apply to each participant.

My school’s students take the survey in sixth grade and then again in eighth. It’s interesting to see how they have changed over the course of middle school. For example, a student who put up with bullying in sixth grade now has perseverance in his top five strengths, and another student has improved her self-regulation over the last two years.

Seeing how their core strengths grow and shift through times of adversity is a powerful motivator for the kids.

2. Create a “Strengths Shield.”

To help our sixth graders learn core strengths vocabulary, we provide a printable template of a shield divided into four quarters and ask students to use each quadrant to draw a picture of themselves demonstrating a top strength. Students with teamwork might draw a picture of themselves playing soccer, and the ones with curiosity or love of learning might draw a picture of a computer screen.

I encourage students to work together and ask their friends about times they might have seen each other using their strengths.

3. Discuss each other’s unique combination of strengths.

One of my favorite parts about uncovering character strengths in class is that the kids’ combinations are almost always unique. In my eighth grade class, where the kids know each other and themselves a little better, we discuss how these combinations appear in their personalities and passions. 

For example, my students pointed out that one of their classmates whose survey results showed that he has the combination of “perseverance” and “love of learning” is really into playing strategy games, and the one who got “appreciation of beauty and excellence” and “teamwork” loves to harmonize in choir with her friends.

This class discussion bolsters self-esteem in a way that generic self-esteem lessons just can’t. When students hear their peers compliment them on their inner strengths, it makes them feel like they’re really being seen.

4. Finish with the The Character Strengths Project.

In the past, we had our eighth graders create a poster that described how they demonstrate their top strengths. While it was a good activity, it didn’t really give the kids a chance to shine.

Last semester, they were given the option to use any medium they liked. I had a student with humor write a funny story and read it to the class, a DJ with bravery create a song, and a goofy duo with teamwork and zest record a podcast that brought a smile to all of their classmates’ faces.

I’m excited to see what they’ll come up with this semester. And a little scared. Apparently my student with creativity and humor as his top two strengths is really into pulling pranks…

For more on how to make your class happier and healthier, check out these ideas for Positive Psychology in the Health Class