Through my work in promoting a strengths-based education and culture in schools, the question often gets raised: where do we to start? People often agree that to bring out the best in people, shifting our lens to a strengths-based approach is where we want and need to go but the thought of working to embrace the strengths of all of our students can be a bit overwhelming.
My challenge to people is to start with strengths by starting with ONE. Find one student who you observe to lack connection and that possibly has strengths of skill and/or character that might not being revealed and embraced at school. Take the TIME to get to know this student at a deeper level and work to determine his/her strengths. A few minutes a day of focused time to simply listen can build trust and provide an opportunity to learn and tap into the strengths of a student (think of the difference this would make in a school If every staff member started with one). When we take the time to listen and determine the strengths, we build strong connections and a clearer understanding of how to better engage the child in school.
One of my favourite analogies about starting with one is from Rachel Macy Stafford. She writes about how, in schools, we often see the butterflies. They are easy to spot and see their strengths; they fly beautifully in school. She challenges us to find the fireflies – those students who only shine under the right conditions – and to work to create the conditions for these students to shine more often.
When we start with the strengths of one student, that one firefly, we can make a huge difference to this student. If everyone starts with one, we slowly shift the culture of a school to a strengths-based culture; a culture in which fewer students’ strengths go unnoticed and an environment in which our fireflies have a chance to truly shine.
Start with one. #StartWithStrengths. Find your firefly.
For a deeper look into a strengths-based approach to education and leadership, check out my recent TEDx talk here and below.
Note: this story of inclusion is shared with the encouragement and permission of Logan’s mother.
Logan has been at James Hill Elementary since kindergarten. During this time, it has been easy to pick out all of his challenges – his struggles to read and write, self-regulate emotions, say the right things (and not swear), and his struggles to build real friendships. He has Autism and Tourette Syndrome and the journey n school has been a roller coast of emotions for Logan and his family as he faced a few good days combined with many, many challenging ones. (There was a time when we almost made the mistake of planning a half-day program because he was not having successful afternoons – thankfully, we listened to his family andworked together to create an afternoon plan that tapped into his strengths and interests and created success.)
As Logan has grown, his interests in things like animals (particularly reptiles and insects) were noted and encouraged by staff and his family to be used in school through a variety of projects. One of his grade 3 teachers saw a snake she had never seen before near her home so she took note of the characteristics, came in to the school on the following day and ran it by our expert, Logan, and he was able to identify they type of snake it was. Another staff member embraced his love of animals and ran a school-wide fundraiser, led by Logan, to bring in Canadian Tire money to donate to the Langley Animal Protection Society to help out local rescued cats. During this fundraiser, Logan went around to all the classrooms to share details about the initiative. Because Logan had struggles in communication, he used an iPad to read out the information to the students.
Fast-forward to grade 5. In the past few years, although Logan still has a love for Kingdom Animalia, he has developed a keen interest in communicable diseases, nuclear disasters, and safety from these and all sorts of disasters that can be harmful to humans. His parents have embraced this and Logan can often be seen walking around the grocery store or the school with a gas mask and hazmat suit. He has almost become our leader in pest control at the school. Although Logan has been physically floating in and out of the classroom, his participation in class has been fairly minimal… up until a few months ago. At this time, his teachers and support staff started to notice that his strengths and passions could be used in the classroom more often.
Although there has been much effort over the years to include Logan more effectively in the class, during a unit on communicable diseases, Logan’s experience at school shifted to a much more active, positive experience. He then became a classroom expert on the topic. He participated more in class discussions, he was engaged in the tasks, and walked with more of a “swagger” at school. One of his teachers, Colleen Giddings, then asked him if he wanted to share his vast knowledge of viruses with the class. The next day, Logan waited patiently and then when it was time, brought out his iPad and didn’t just share a few bits of information, he actually taught a mini-lesson on viruses! He walked around with his iPad and showed pictures and shared his knowledge and passion for the topic. Rather than trying to get him to participate, the challenge then became how to teach him timing – when and where to share his knowledge!
As the class is a shared classroom, his other teacher, Kathy Lambert, continued to chat with Logan about other areas of interest and asked him if he wanted to bring his hazmat suit in to share his knowledge about safety. Not only did he just bring in his suit… he taught a full 30 minute lesson on nuclear disaster and radiation safety! He lectured and shared his knowledge, asked questions, answered questions from peers and also used a variety of tools like pictures, maps, stories, and even finished with a historical video on nuclear safety. This same student that struggled to be in class, speak to peers, read, write, self-regulate emotions… gave a 30-minute engaging lesson to his classmates. Logan is on a new streak and for the past few months, showed his story and identity at school has changed.
Inclusion is not just about helping certain students be more involved in a class; it is a mindset about how we do things. Over the years, Logan’s family and staff at his school have embraced who he is and what he loves. They have started with his strengths and when these strengths were brought into the school, he became more confident, active and engaged in class. His struggles are still there but these have been overshadowed by his strengths.
When we start with strengths, students flourish.
When we start with strengths, we use these to build on our struggles.
When we start with strengths, we work to INCLUDE.
Thank you to Logan, his family, as well as the staff and students at James Hill for showing the power of using strengths in inclusion.
Check out the 3-minute video clip below of Logan in his element… teaching his classmates about nuclear disasters and radiation safety.
I recently had the honour or being asked to come back to work with the passionate educators of the Fort Nelson School district to continue our conversation in strengths-based education. For the keynote, we wanted to back up a bit and look at the importance of connection… the importance of relationships.
We know we cannot teach a child without a connection. Talking about the importance of relationships is nothing new but sometimes we need a reminder of our WHY. With the high volume of tasks, checklists and day to day duties in schools, our why (larger purpose) of making a difference through relationships can somehow get lost. The session in Fort Nelson was designed to be a summary and a reminder of what is truly important in education.
CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik
Connecting with students who are disengaged, acting out, absent, closed down, or have almost given up in school can be very challenging. Sometimes students, no matter how much we seem to try, will continually shut us out and/or push us away. As Russell Barkley writes, “The kids who need the most LOVE will often ask for it in the most unloving ways.” We must remember our why, stay the path through the bad and the good to connect with our kids that need it the most.
Connecting is more important now than ever. According to a 2011 study of youth done by the Public Health Agency of Canada, just over half of our grade 10 students feel that they belong and have a teacher that cares about them in school. It is difficult for me to hear this as I know how hard we work in education. How can almost half of our students not feel cared for and a sense of belonging? The question must me asked… knowing this, now what? We know the links between positive school environment and mental health and we know the impact we CAN have on our students so what are we doing about this as educators, schools and as a society?
I know there are many more but here are my “6 Keys To Connecting” – these keys are designed to create connections, moments, memories, and an overall positive school experience.
Be Interested.Make the time. Listen. Build trust. Josh Shipp tells us that “To a child, trust is spelled T-I-M-E”. We need to make the time to listen, get to know students, and build trust… and we must make this a priority. Spending just a few casual minutes a day or per class with a student that lacks connection can go a long way. Greet every child, every day. As students enter our schools and classrooms, acknowledge them. Say their name. Value them. Let them know “they matter”. Greeting a student is something that takes zero additional time but can have a lasting impact when done over time. Listen – truly listen. My kids remind me to “Listen with your eyes, Daddy”. Take a moment to not listen to simply respond or solve something but to listen to… just listen. When you make the time, you listen, and show you care, you will build trust. When you have this trust, students will let you in to their stories and you can then better understand their behaviours and where they are coming from. This helps to meet them where they are at and help from there. We know we are busy but we must always make time to be interested.
Start With Strengths.Theirs and yours. I have written extensively on this topic as I truly believe it can create significant transformations in school culture (watch a recent TEDx Talk from me on this). If we find what we are looking for, what ARE we looking for? What do we see? Look for both the character strengths and the strengths of skill and then tap into these with our students. I believe that the best way to connect with a child is through his/her strengths. Rachel Macy Stafford reminds us that we have many butterflies in our school – those students who we regularly see fly and are beautiful in what they do. The challenge is to find the fireflies – those students who only shine under the right conditions. It is our job to create the conditions for these fireflies to also shine and show their beauty. When we know students’ strengths, we can tap into this and even place them in leadership roles to help bring out the best. Not only do we need to look for the strengths in our students but we also need to use the strengths of ourselves. It is no secret that when people spend time in an area of strength, they are less depressed, less anxious, and have more joy in life. This is true in school as well – for students and staff. I encourage people to bring in their strengths to their lessons and also volunteer their time once in a while at lunch or before/after school with kids in an area of strength. There are few stronger connections you will make with kids than when you and the students are engaged in activities in an area of strength.
Celebrate and Build on Sucess. Many of our students who lack connection have gone through their school life on a “losing streak”. They have not experienced success for months or years. The thing about a losing streak is that it only takes one “win” to snap it. When we seek out the good and then find, capture, and share it, we can snap the streak and sometimes even start a new positive one. I am not a huge fan of public acknowledgement. I know it works for some people but I prefer a more private moment. When you see a positive in a student, acknowledge it privately with feedback and a pat on the back, a fist bump or just a message saying thank you and you appreciate the effort. With the access to technology, we can also capture this in a photo or video and share it with the student, his/her family and, depending on the student (as well as permissions), with a larger audience.
Be Interesting. Be relevant. Be engaging. George Couros asks us, “Would YOU want to be in your class?”. Telling kids they will “need this in the ‘real world'” doesn’t cut it. It needs to relevant right now and connected to their lives. This is the same for adults – it is very difficult to learn anything when we are disconnected from the purpose. We often take ourselves too seriously when we need to be more vulnerable, share who we are, and bring joy and passion into the classrooms (and other learning environments). As I have been told by my kids, it is time to “let it go” – laugh, smile, and take risks with our kids. I know there is a needed balance but the “never let them see you smile before Christmas” simply pushes kids away. In addition to making our own classrooms more relevant and engaging, we can look to doing more school-wide events that make overall school life more engaging for kids. We can also develop programs that are purposeful and relevant for students (ex. trades, arts, etc) that also tap into the strengths of students and staff. Students often see us as “teachers” or “principals” rather than who we are. Being an educator is a huge part of who I am but it does not define me – it is part of my story. By sharing my love of dogs, I always have kids bringing their dogs and new puppies to meet me. This is a connection developed just because I shared a little of who I am through a video when I started at my school.
Create a Sense of Belonging. Include. Value. Belonging and being part of a community is a need for ALL of us. Do all our kids feel they belong? Do all kids feel they are included for who they are (regardless of ability, gender, sexual orientation, colour, race, religion, income level, etc)? How do we know? An inclusive school culture is so important and it is not simply about students with disabilities – inclusion is for all of us. Many behaviours are a result of a drive to belong. Work to create safe, inclusive environments in our schools. (Do we REALLY believe in inclusion?)
Lead with the heart.Teach with an ethic of care. Students may not always be listening but they are always watching. How we teach becomes what we teach – we are always modeling what we believe through our words and actions. I understand the challenges we face but we must always do our best to ensure that the decisions we make must comes from the angle of what we believe is best for kids. As the late Rita Pierson said in her TED talk, “Every Child Needs a Champion”. Why not you?
In the end, we need to start with these keys as individuals and also combine this with ideas and events that create more of positive culture as a school. We cannot do this alone but we can start with one. We can start with just one of our students who seems to lack connection and make the time, learn his/her strengths, build on success, make it relevant, ensure they are included… all the while by leading with our heart.