Helping Youth Discover Their Unique S.H.A.P.E.

Posted: March 12, 2013 in Monday Morning Message, Youth Development

NOTE:  This month’s article is fairly long but I think it is well worth the read.  At the end, an invitation to comment is included.  

 “As we grow as unique persons, we learn to respect the uniqueness of others.”–Robert H. Schuller   

I grew up around jigsaw puzzles. Somewhere someone has a picture of a mountain range with a peak missing! Or the signing of the Declaration of Independence without Thomas Jeffereson!   I can still remember my dad hunched over a card table in the living room trying to piece together a puzzle of a New England coastline, Mount Rushmore or some faraway exotic place. He almost always got one for Christmas. He would spend hours working on it. Sometimes he would glue all the pieces together and frame the picture. We kids would all applaud and Mom would file the picture with the rest in the back of the hall closet.  puzzle

Mom always said that working puzzles helped relax him. Maybe it was suppose to. But I could never resist sneaking into the living room, reaching up on the table when I thought he wasn’t looking, stealing a piece of the puzzle, and making a mad dash to escape unnoticed!

I would wait impatiently just around the corner, clutching my valuable treasure. Pretty soon, the puzzle would be complete except for my piece. Dad would act surprised and call out, “I can’t find the last piece of the puzzle. The most important piece of the puzzle is missing!”

I would hardly wait for him to finish before I would go running into the room, laughing gleefully, waving the missing piece of the puzzle in my hand. He was never angry or impatient. He would grab me up onto his lap and chuckle as I proudly took the last piece of the puzzle and pushed it into place.

He would always tell me I was the most important piece to him. The picture wasn’t complete without me. I guess like other kids my age I couldn’t imagine a safer place in the whole world than my father’s lap with his arms around me.

Our work in 4-H is a lot like building a puzzle. Each youth that walks through our door is unique and important. Each one brings different skills, passions and abilities to their club, project and community. We help to build an environment of safety with our youth by helping them discover their unique shape and then placing them where they fit best. The following are some highlights of a way to help that discovery process that I recently shared with a group of youth leaders in El Dorado Hills.


Lopez and Snyder (2007) define strength as “a capacity for feeling, thinking, and behaving in a way that allows optimal functioning in the pursuit of valued outcomes.”

In this way, strengths can include aspects of character, personality, talent, relational aptitude and academic proficiency.

But strengths are more than just capacities. “Your strengths are,” as Marcus Buckingham (2007) notes, “those activities that make you feel strong.” Your strengths are a strong suggestion of what you are good at but they are an even stronger indication of what gives you energy and to what you will tend to put forth extra effort.

When youth begin to discover their strengths, we are able to build a team that has individuals who are sharp and focused on what they are good at.   Tools like Clifton StrengthsFinder and StrengthsQuest can help in this discovery but also remember to consider a person’s personal abilities as well.


Heart differs from strengths in that the heart represents something a person is passionate about. In 4-H we call this your SPARK.

A Spark is something you are really passionate about, gives your life purpose. It can be an interest, skill or quality and can change over time and a person can have many Sparks.

Note: You may not be good at it yet-what matters is how you feel about it.


A person’s abilities are those things that a person is naturally good at and gravitates toward. Each person has specific abilities which they naturally bring to a team. Discovery of these abilities can make a team more efficient and productive. Some things to consider when identifying a person’s abilities are:

  • Yearnings can reveal the presence of a talent, particularly when they are felt early in life. A yearning can be described as an internal force, an almost magnetic attraction that leads you to a particular activity or environment time and again.
  •  Rapid learning reveals other traces of talent. In the context of a new challenge or a new environment, something sparks your talents. Immediately your brain seems to light up as if a whole bank of switches were suddenly flicked to “on” – and the speed at which you anticipate the steps of a new activity, acquire a new skill, or gain new knowledge provides a telltale clue to the talent’s presence and power.
  •  Satisfaction is psychological fulfillment that results when you take on and successfully meet challenges that engage your greatest talents. Pay close attention to the situations that seem to bring you these en­ergizing experiences. If you can identify them, you will be well on your way to pinpointing some of your dominant talents.
  •  Timelessness also can serve as a clue to talent. If you have ever become so engrossed in an activity that you lost all track of time, it may have been because the activity engaged you at a deep, natural level – the level of great talent.
  •  Glimpses of excellence are flashes of outstanding performance that have been observed by you or others. In these moments, the task at hand has tapped some of your greatest talents and directly displayed your potential for strength.


DISC is a theory that is used to describe 4 common behavioral characteristics that are found in all people on earth (regardless of age, gender, race, country or religion).

Research has shown that people, in terms of how they behave and communicate, demonstrate similar characteristics. One person you meet might be talkative, sociable and loud, whilst the next might be quiet, shy and methodical. Consistently, these sorts of characteristics have been grouped into 4 distinct quadrants. Called various names over time, today these 4 traits have popularly become known as ‘DISC’.

Here is a brief description of the four personality traits known as DISC:


  • Characterized by confidence
  • Good at making decisions
  • Desires immediate change
  • Fear = loss of control
  • Blind spot = moves too quicklyeverything-disc-sales-disc-map
  • Animal Identified with this trait: Lion
  • Celebrity with this trait: Donald Trump


  • People Oriented
  • Loves to talk
  • Appears disorganized
  • Fear = loss of acceptance
  • Blind spot = not following through
  • Animal Identified with this trait: Otter
  • Celebrity with this trait: President Obama


  • Works well as part of a team
  • Very dependable
  • Good at listening
  • Fears = loss of security
  • Blind spot = too slow to change
  • Animal Identified with this trait: Golden Retriever
  • Celebrity with this trait: Mr. Rogers


  • Possesses Intuitive Logic
  • Seeks perfection in every detail
  • Sensitive, Objective Thinker
  • Fear = Criticism of their work
  • Blind Spot = Too many details
  • Animal Identified with this trait: Beaver
  • Celebrity with this trait: Al Gore

Helping individuals understand their primary personality type will help in group interactions by helping people learn how to better communicate and interact with each other. This saves a lot of time in dealing with interpersonal conflicts.


Each person that comes into our club or project also brings with them unique life experiences which can add great value to the development of the group as a whole. These experiences bring relevance and practice to ideas, thoughts and actions that we are considering taking. Helping youth share their personal life experiences also brings a group closer in relationships as they find commonality and empathy with each other.

In the winter of 2011, I received a frantic phone call from my brother saying that my dad had been cleaning snow off the roof of the house and had fallen and was in the hospital unconscious with his brain swelling. I immediately began to make arrangements to go back to Connecticut to be with the family. A few hours later, my mother called me to let me know that dad had regained consciousness and wanted to talk with me. As he picked up the phone and said hello, I suddenly remembered a small boy tiptoeing into the living room and sneaking off with a piece of a puzzle that was still being completed and I knew how incomplete my life would be without him in it. “Dad, my puzzle isn’t complete without you, hang in there.”

The same is true in our clubs or projects, each youth that joins and becomes a part brings a unique shape to the 4-H puzzle and without them the puzzle isn’t complete.

Here are some resources around S.H.A.P.E. to aid you in creating a place where every 4-H youth belongs. Click on each item to take you to that resource.



  • Search Institute’s section on SPARKS


  1. Although I really like that this article focuses on the positive things we can bring out in kids, I did want to bring up a second point, which is that understanding and accepting the things particular kids need to work on is just as valuable.

    I think part of creating a space where everyone belongs is also having everyone brings their weaknesses there, too. I don’t think it’s just liking things, being good at things, or being passionate about something that has a place. A child might be seeking a sense of security or home, or another might be desperate for attention, or another for feeling strong and not weak. Youth organizations aren’t just about making you your best self all the time; they’re also about giving you a safe place for your worst self to be accepted as he or she is, because you are who you are. Only then can you really work with that. The adult leaders’ job is to figure out how to manage that (give the “bossy” kid the clip board, the insecure one reassurance, the angry one some one to take care of) in a way that keeps everyone safe.

    I went to the same resident summer camp from when I was seven years old until I was 20, working myself up from being a camper to a CIT to a counselor. I would say that every single summer I was a different version of myself. Some years, I was a better version than I had been before, and some years I was worse. In each case, the thing that I most remember about this aspect of the experience is that my camp counselors and other staff “met me where I was.” When I needed more attention, they gave me the opportunities to lead songs, for example. I was a difficult person to work with at times, especially during my second year as a CIT. They seriously considered asking me to go home, partly because I was a pushy perfectionist who had been there forever, and I kept correcting the “real counselors” on how to put kids into boats (from a sitting position, not standing), lead particular games, or handle conflict between kids.

    At 17, I didn’t have the experience, wisdom, or confidence to allow other counselors to “do it wrong.” I undermined the authority of the other counselors, and it meant that the other counselors didn’t want to work with me. Instead of sending me home, however, my camp director had me work at the day camp next door with a highly experienced counselor whom I really trusted. She gave me feedback every day on ways I could improve, and she encouraged me to ask her questions after the kids had left about any actions she took that I didn’t understand. She usually had good reasons for the things she did that I would have done differently. Other times, she acknowledged that she had made a mistake. I learned to work very well with her, and it was an important time in my life because it made me a team player for one of the first times in my life.

    Now at 35, I have a newborn and one thing I learned from being given a second shot at 17–by being given a safe place to be working on a difficult part of myself–was how to respond when my husband doesn’t make the same choices I do about how to handle our baby. If I hadn’t been trusted to stay at camp and figure out how to be a collaborative leader, maybe my current household wouldn’t be as peaceable because I’d be micromanaging my husband. Instead, I learned that teamwork and having a united front is better than “being right” or more efficient.

    So of course adults who work with children should aim to cultivate each individual’s talents, skills, and interests. On the other hand, there may never be a greater long-term gift than equally respecting the dialectic of “I accept you as you are, and will meet you where I can, and then I can help you change.” As a culture, we value achievement and expertise; youth organizations can be a place where we can also make a safe place for weakness.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s