VIA Character Strengths and understanding our qualities

At the Beach Center on Disability and Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities on Disability at the University of Kansas with support from the VIA Institute on Character, we have been working on a project to use the VIA-Youth, an assessment of character strengths available online at www.viacharacter.org with youth with intellectual disability. The VIA-Youth was developed by researchers to enable people to understand their character strengths – those qualities that are at the core of who we are. As we understand our character strengths better, we realize that these are parts of our identity that make us unique and that we can learn to effectively leverage in order to grow, build our happiness, improve our relationships, and accomplish more in our work and life.

Perceptions of intellectual disability

“My students loved being able to share about themselves…it was neat to see them identify how they perceive themselves compared to how others perceive them. It was a lot of fun to do this work!”
-Special Education Teacher

Assessing character strengths of those with an intellectual disability

Although assessments of character strength have been available for a number of years in the general public, they have not been used with people with intellectual disability. This is likely the result of the ongoing focus on deficit-based assessment and intervention that is all too common in this population. However, a first step in moving toward a strengths-based approach in the intellectual disability field is making sure there are assessments that can be used to understand and build on character strengths in youth with intellectual disability.

In our work, we have gone to schools and worked with special education teachers asking them to work with their students to complete the VIA-Youth. We have found in our research that with the right individualized supports, youth with intellectual disability can meaningfully respond to the VIA-Youth survey and learn about their character strengths.

  • Many of the youth benefit from having their teachers provide definitions or concrete examples of some of the words used on the VIA-Youth. In other words, taking abstract concepts and making them more concrete.
  • Other youth spread out their completion of the VIA-Youth over a few sessions or had people read the questions out loud.
  • Other students, because answers are provided on a 5 point rating scale, benefited from having supports to understand the ratings. For example, we printed the rating scale and used pictures like a smiling face to represent the response “very much like me” and a frowning face to represent the response “not very much like me.” We tried to stay consistent with what youth used to communicate their feelings on a regular basis or as part of their communication system.

Findings of taking VIA Character Strengths Survey

Overall, we found that the VIA-Youth can be used reliably with youth with intellectual disability, and that it can provide an opportunity for meaningful discussions about strengths of character. Teachers found substantial benefit. Teachers talked about how when completing the scale, students began to learn about character strengths they never thought of before, and didn’t realize they had. Teachers also said they learned new things about their students and identified ways that they could use this knowledge in the classroom to understand the ways that students responded and the types of learning opportunities that might be most meaningful for them now and in the future.

One of the troubling findings, though, was that across all character strengths, youth with intellectual disability tended to rate themselves lower than their peers without disabilities. This likely results from the lack of discussion and knowledge of character strengths in youth with intellectual disability, because of the traditional focus on deficit-based assessments. Overall, if the field wants to shift to building strengths-based supports and interventions for people with intellectual disability, we need assessment tools that can help us move forward and we need strategies to figure out how to do this.

Supporting a person with intellectual disability

We have developed a supplement for teachers, parents, counselors, and other support staff summarizing how to support a person with an intellectual disability to complete the VIA-Youth that will be available on the VIA website – www.viacharacter.org . We hope this will be helpful as we continue to move forward on strengths-based approaches and that more and more people who support youth with intellectual disability can use this as an opportunity to begin conversations about strengths and incorporate an understanding of character strengths into planning for the future.

Shogren, K. A., Wehmeyer, M. L., Forber-Pratt, A. J., & Palmer, S. B. (2015). VIA Inventory of Strengths for Youth (VIA-Youth): Supplement for use when supporting youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities to complete the VIA-Youth. Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities.
Shogren, K. A., Wehmeyer, M. L., Lang, R., & Niemiec, R. M. (2015). The application of the VIA Classification of Strengths to youth with and without disabilities. Manuscript submitted for publication.

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