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10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

I sometimes struggle with the volume of posts that give lists of  “5 ways…” or “10 reasons…” but I have recently been asked a few times how schools could get started using a strength-based model with students.  This list is by no means the end but more about the start; these are thoughts that have worked in schools I have had the privilege of working in; however, the context of your school is different so the ideas will vary depending on the school.  If you have further ideas or examples, I would love to read them (and steal them) so please leave them in the comments below.

Shifting the lens in schools to a focus on strengths rather than deficits… a focus on CAN rather than cannot… has been one of the most significant changes for me as an educator, formal leader and parent.  Where do we start?  What can we do this month? This year?  (there are links embedded in the list if you would like further detail on some of the stories and ideas).

  1. Shift from MY students to OUR students.  A previous teacher or a teacher in a different subject area can have knowledge of a child’s strengths and a positive relationship with the child.  Do we embrace this relationship or do we shut it out?  If we shift our focus from being classroom teachers or subject teachers to school teachers, can we better tap into the strengths of other adults in our building? Relationships are not zero-sum in that if one person has a strong relationship, it does not mean that others cannot as well.  Students need at least 2-3 strong, positive relationships with adults in the building.  These strong relationships often come with the knowledge of a student’s strengths… embrace these.
  2. Make the first contact about the strengths.  Make that first contact a positive one.  When we start the year, inquire into the strengths of our students – inside and outside of school and tap into these throughout the year.  Run a class or school Identity Day. Make the first contact with parents a positive one.  It doesn’t have to be about something the student has done but more about sharing that we value him/her and we know who they are.
  3. Schedule in time for a child to use his/her strengths in school.  If a child has a strength in the arts, technology, or with helping younger students (for example), provide time in the day or week for this to happen.  A student who struggles will often flourish when given a purpose or an opportunity for leadership beyond the classroom.  The important thing is to not use this as a punishment or reward.  If it is important to help change the story, schedule it in… but do not use a child’s strength as a carrot/stick to have them do the things we want them to do.  If we use it as a reward, we may get some short term compliance but the student will soon figure out that his/her strength is not valued.  Having said this, I do know that students will try to get out of doing the things they do not want to do and things in which they are not successful (adults do this too).  This is why it is scheduled in to the day/week/month so the students have to continue to work on areas of struggle AND they continue to get opportunities to use their strengths in a way that helps the school community.
  4. Teach parts of the curriculum through the strengths/interests.  Start with one lesson or one unit and ask how we can include the strengths and interests of our students.  It doesn’t have to be a big shift like Genius Hour but can be smaller shifts that include the curriculum like guided inquiry, writing assignments, reading reflections, and different ways of demonstrating student learning.
  5. In meetings, start with the bright spots.  If we are having a meeting about a child, start with the positives and see how these can be built upon. We need to acknowledge the struggles and look to how we can tap into the strengths to build confidence and change the story.  As principals, we can model this in staff meetings as we start each meeting/topic on sharing the bright spots.
  6. Start the conversation on how we honour students in schools.  Are there certain strengths we honour over others?  How do we honour the strengths of students that fall beyond the traditional awards and honour roll? Are traditional awards ceremonies the best we can do?
  7. Reflect on our assessment practices.  In our assessments, do we build on what students CAN do or do we focus more on what they cannot do?  Do our assessment practices build confidence or strip it away?  I know it is not a black/white practice as we need to support the challenges too but we need to reflect on the balance of strengths/deficits in our assessment practices.
  8. Watch those labels.  Do the designations of our students define them?  I realize there is a need for designations but I wonder if sometimes these work to put lids on kids.  A designation should come with a plan on how to embrace the strengths of the child and help us to support the deficits; it should not BE the story for our students.
  9. Start with strengths of staff and the school community.  Are we embracing the strengths of the adults in the building?  Do we tap into the strengths of parents and families in the school community? Once we know a child’s strength, how can we use the aligned strengths in our school community to help?
  10. Share the stories.  Share the stories of strength in your classroom and schools.  When you look for the bright spots and you share these beyond the classroom walls, you shift the culture of the school.

We find what we are looking for. When we start with strengths, we change the lens we look through and see the strengths in our students more than the deficits. When we change this lens, we change the stories of our students at school.  For many, this change in story can be life changing.

In BC, we have many schools that are already making this shift and we have a golden opportunity to create more space for us to bring in the strengths. This list is just a start.  If you have other ideas, please write them in the section below.  Hopefully, I can tap into YOUR strengths which will help me and others through the stories and the comments you share.

Click here to access a FORCE society “In The Know” series webinar on the topic.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, assessment, and human motivation.

11 Comments

  1. Starting with Strengths…I have been a believer in this for my own child for so many years, and I love that you have taken this concept and are shouting it from the rooftops! My hope is that many, many people will be inspired and guided by your words and incorporate this into their practice.

    Thinking about my child’s experiences, I can clearly remember our grade four teacher and the difference he made in our son’s trajectory. He realized that our son was seeking to belong, where others had considered him to simply be annoying. He understood that a strength our son had was his willingness to share his learning with his peers, but also to learn from his peers – our son might not always do it in the best possible way or at the most convenient time, but this was something he loved to do.

    Recognizing this, his teacher became more mindful to those moments and created opportunities to encourage those connections between my son and his classmates. When the teacher would see my son starting to become overwhelmed with a task, he would capitalize on the opportunity to connect him with one of his peers to work on the task with our son. Doing so would bring our son back to a state of calm and he would be able to complete the task.

    His teacher also took the time to learn about our son’s interests and provided opportunities for our son to be creative in how he showed his learning. So while other students might be writing full paragraphs, our son would show his learning through creating a posterboard with photos and information.

    This was still a really tough year for our son in many ways, but we and he always felt like his teacher “got him”. This teacher retired at the end of my son’s year with him. He still reaches out to our family to check in and see how our son is doing. I can’t even begin to describe what that means to us.

    When we look at and value the strengths of the child (and of the family and educator!), those challenges become a little bit easier to bear. Thank you for being a champion, Chris!

    • Wow… what a powerful story of connection. Thank you for sharing yet another example of the impact of the impact of a strength-based lens.

  2. Starting with strengths sets the right tone and is a positive spin to perpetuate throughout the whole year.

    Firstly, how about the teacher saying that they have the ‘strength’ to pick up a student every time they fall or stumble in their low-risk environment classroom. I find this approach empowering and pushes students to try harder and do something outside their comfort zone if they know that if it doesn’t work out, there’s always another chance. One of my catch phrases is “nothing in here is a one shot deal.” It’s always good to remind students, “I will always pick you up when you fall.” I like sharing the notion with them that they WILL find things difficult sometimes and that’s ok. That’s learning. If it was easy, why would you be here??? It put the onus on them to try and for the teacher to support.

    Secondly, in regards to your comments about labels. Every student’s right is to ask for adaptations. IEP’s are helpful, but what about the (unidentified) kid who needs extra time in Socials but not Math? Or who has anxiety about being neat and is slowed down by that? These are all things that require a teacher to adapt regularly. Another great ‘strength’ phrase is “what can I do to help your learning?” As a student becomes more aware of their needs and can advocate for themselves, hopefully a conversation can occur with their teacher so that they can get the adaptations they need to do their best learning.

    And perhaps the biggest umbrella over all of this is that by starting with strengths, students can feel like they are part of school (and connected with it) rather than having school done to them. (a lengthy conversation piece here no doubt!)

    • Great additions, Jane… and even better that I know you walk the talk. The lens of assessment can be so great when considering adaptations, differentiation, confidence, resilience, etc. The fact that in your class “nothing is a one shot deal” and “I will always pick you up” gives students the feeling they are safe to grow.

      You are bag on with the adaptations… so much of what we do is about adapting to meet the needs of the students, finding out how we can best assess their learning, and then coaching with effective feedback.

      Keep pushing for change… it is an honour to be a colleague with you in Langley!

  3. Chris you are spot on again! I love point 5, starting meetings with positives. Related are calls home. I make sure that positive phone calls home happen way more than negative ones. The students who really need a lift, I sometimes call home to brag about them every couple of weeks! Your whole concept of starting with strengths is the best concept out there. I think of it all the time, in all situations.
    Thank you Chris!

  4. I think it is all about stories. Just wondering if truly strong schools foster passion more effectively? Wondering if currently there is too much of an emphasis on academics, and less emphasis on passions? I think passions are a basis for a strong schools because when we celebrate our passions (Points 2,3,4, and 5) then it automatically flows into their learning. Why is it by middle school and high school there seems to me be a lessening of excitement about learning? Does it end up being more hoop jumping through academics and less about the passions? When kids are in primary and a teacher looks out of the window and sees snowflakes and the kids are so excited about it, then they generate excitement from their current interest (aka passion). I’m reading a book right now called “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris, he addresses the disconnection we have in a so called connected world. I believe there is a disconnect in schools – where people assume there is connection. Perhaps if schools were fuelled more by passions, then there would be less disconnect, and more passionate strong schools? Something to think about.

    • Well look who stopped by! Thanks so much for the comment, Victoria. You bring up an additional angle on the importance of passions in school. The challenge for schools is to find the balance of doing what you love and doing what you need to do. Too often, the focus is on the latter and we need to shift to the former… would love to provide more white space for this at our school!

  5. Hey Pal,

    First, here’s to hoping that you are well and happy and looking forward to the holidays! Know that I am grateful for your thoughts and your friendship. You challenge me — and that’s cool.

    Second, this is the line that I’ll personally wrestle with:

    “In our assessments, do we build on what students CAN do or do we focus more on what they cannot do? ”

    That has to change in my practice.

    Rock right on,
    Bill

  6. Great post Chris. I don’t think that ‘lists’ are ever the silver bullet, but they are a great device for generating thought. My only addition is to focus on learning rather than discipline (http://readwriterespond.com/?p=330), not sure if that counts as a ‘strength’, but thought I’d put it out there.

  7. Hi Chris,
    A parent and I pondered how to introduce strengths in a school system where principals and teachers are just trying to survive and tread water. She came up with what seems to be a great idea – start a student strengths club run by students and supported by parents. Below is a strategy for starting up such a club but have not found some parents to work it yet.
    Step 1: Develop awareness and ownership of your Top Five Talents
    Take the assessment
    Attend intro work shop
    Club will continue to affirm their talents with lots of individual and fun group activities (being developed)
    Step 2: Apply and develop talents
    Explore applying talents in academic work (StrengthsQuest book has guidance – http://www.strengthsquest.com)
    Explore applying talents in school activities and volunteer activities
    Step 3: Identify potential roles/jobs/careers aligned with your talents
    Strengths Quest Career Planning Chapter
    Use SQ online tools
    Use counselor office advisory resources
    Begin identifying careers and their associated academic majors that appear to engage your talents
    Bring in professionals to talk about their jobs; have club collectively develop informational interview questions for guest professionals to develop the skills for informational interviewing
    Step 4: Conduct informational interviews and job shadowing opportunities to target potential areas and begin narrowing down the possibilities
    Club members conduct their own interviews and share their informational interview experiences and their job shadowing experiences with the club
    Mentors can assist in lining up informational interviews and job shadowing experiences
    Step 4: Decide on post high school academic path – Begin contacting community colleges and universities to explore their programs based on areas of interest
    What kind of careers does each field of study (degree) offer ?
    What are the placement rates for each degree ?
    Ask for alumni contacts in the careers of interest so you can do informational interviews
    Ask about internships and mentorships the school offers
    Step 5: During college years pursue internship and mentoring opportunities to further experience the level of talent engagement to fine tune your education and career plans
    Step 6: Pursue a lifelong career guided by your talents so that you get the opportunity to do what you do best every day.
    Geof

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