Positive feedback Citadel mentors young students with SMART Strengths

Older students at Charleston Development Academy presented youth issues to younger students as part of the SMART Strengths program.

Has anyone taken the time lately to tell you how great you are? Many students are told what their weaknesses are, but the SMART Strengths program wants to empower youths by pointing out the positives.

Dr. Conway Saylor, a psychology professor and director of service learning at The Citadel, first heard about the SMART Strengths method at a conference on positive psychology.

The program assesses students’ positive characteristics and values with a questionnaire, then works with them on how they can use those strengths in everyday life.

“A big theme of positive psychology is that we all have strengths, and if we can identify them and mobilize them, it can help us in our relationships, our academics and help us be healthier people,” Saylor said.

SMART stands for Spotting strengths in self and others; Managing your strengths as a family of traits that can be used (and over-used) together; Advocating for yourself and others using your strengths; Relating to others, even when different strengths put you in conflict; and Training others to spot and manage strengths, advocate for themselves, and relate to others.

Saylor and her service learning students have been trained by John M. Yeager, one of the authors of “SMART Strengths,” and adopted the program from the book written by Yeager, Sherri W. Fisher and David N. Shearon.

Saylor said The Citadel has students in several Charleston County schools and, most recently, Charleston Development Academy.

“We’re so close. This is such a neighborhood. It was natural,” said Dr. Katherine Houghton, arts integration specialist at Charleston Development, about Saylor contacting her to start the program there.

Houghton, known as Dr. K (she said the silent letters are confusing for students), said that since Citadel students Pierce Weller and Brad Lefort started the weekly one-hour program with the seventh- and eighth-graders last semester, her students have grown.

“I have seen them make connections and are much more outward looking. They’re viewing the world from many angles. I’ve seen them blossom. They see their futures with more confidence,” Houghton said.

The program allows the students to use their strengths with service projects, too. Earlier this month, the students decided to make presentations to teach the fourth-graders about issues like saying no to drugs and bullying.

They also wrote inspirational notes to put in hygiene packs for Crisis Ministries and most recently wrote cards for the residents of Boston, where Houghton is from.

The students were very concerned about Houghton and the city after the Boston Marathon bombings and wanted to do something about it. She said Weller was the first person to call her to make sure she and her family were all right.

“The cadets are phenomenal. They are heartfelt and all about service. Not just service learning, but service to our country,” Houghton said.

Weller is a senior and an active duty Navy psychology major in the Seaman-to-Admiral 21 program who has been volunteering with SMART Strengths for three years. He will become an officer in the Navy when he graduates this semester and is the 2013 recipient of the South Carolina Student Service Achievement Award. He has developed manuals and trained other students such as Lefort, a junior psychology major, who will carry on the program after Weller graduates.

Lefort said helping students find their strengths will help them in their careers and help them ward off peer pressure.

“It’s not easy to get that you’re good at something. They need to look inward to identify how they can make a difference outward,” Weller said.

Saylor said they hope to expand SMART Strengths to other schools and that the book’s authors are “ready and willing to train groups.”

“I hope this will help (students) envision themselves as people who can go all the way through school, make a difference somewhere and understand they can and should have optimistic goals — and they have strengths to make that vision a reality,” Saylor said.

Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or jmcduffie@postandcourier.com.