10 Ways to Determine the Strengths of Our Students

The job of an educator... CC image from https://flic.kr/p/saHiLy

The job of an educator… CC image from https://flic.kr/p/saHiLy

It is no secret that I am a big believer in embracing the power of a strength-based philosophy in education. I have written about the why and how, but the question that comes up in workshops is: how do I determine the strengths of my students?

An important activity is for students to understand that each and every one of them has strengths.  These can come in the form of activities (ex. dance, hockey, math, etc) and in the form of character strengths. It is also important to share what these strengths could look like in each student; strengths are not something that a student needs to be the best at but more about personal skills, qualities, traits and virtues that students have developed.  For a poster of 24 character strengths (developed by Dr. Martin Seligman) click here.  This poster can be used as a way for students to choose character strengths that may represent them.  For middle and high school students, I recommend watching the short film “The Butterfly Circus” as a way to lead to deeper dialogue on the view that every person has strengths and it depends on the perspective we choose.

Through the work of many passionate educators whom I have had the chance to work and/or learn with (in schools as well as online and in workshops), I have come across the following ideas:

  1. “All About Me” Activities – These are common in many classes and provide students with the opportunity to share a bit about who they are through a visual arts or writing process.
    • The Identity Tree – family and friends make up the roots, interests and strengths make up the trunk and character strengths/virtues make up the leaves

      Identity Trees

      Identity Trees at James Hill Elementary

    • Student Identity Crest – include family, culture, strengths and interests
    • Presentation – each student creates a slide/poster that includes important images and words of strengths and interests.
    • All About Me Book – often used for students with special needs but is something that can be used for all students.  Some of the students at our school have been doing this with the “Book Creator” app on the iPad.
    • Movies – some of our students have used iMovie to share a bit about themselves to share with peers and educators in the school.
  2. Class Survey – use a paper survey, a google form, or other online surveys (with permission) to ask questions about strengths and interests in and out of school.  You can also survey family members to provide thoughts about the student.  This would be great to be included in a student’s file.
  3. Shared Stories – through prompts, students can share stories of themselves that reveal strengths.
    • “What makes your heart sing?”
    • If I had a day to help someone/something I would…
    • I was most proud of myself when I…
  4. “Who Am I?” Flowchart – I came across the flowchart created by Leyton Schnellert (2011) and recreated it in the image below:

    Wh Are The Students? created by Leyton Schnellert (2011)

    Who Are The Students? created by Leyton Schnellert (2011)

  5. Spend Time With A Student – A 2×10 strategy can be done for students who are struggling but can also be used as a way to get to know any student. Spend 2 minutes a day for 10 days straight having a natural conversation with a student. Find out what brings out the smile and move deeper in the following days. Other teachers I know have lunch (or “tea”) with one or two students each week engaging in natural dialogue.  Something as simple as spending quality time can have a lasting impact on a child and open up our eyes to their lives beyond school.
  6. Identity Day – Although this is generally done as a school-wide event, it can also be done within a class.  During Identity Day, students plan, prepare and share a presentation about themselves.  They can present on a strength, an interest, their family, culture… anything that represents who they are.  I have been involved in two school-wide Identity Days and it is a great way for students and staff to better connect with each other on strengths and interests.  For a description of Identity Day, click here. For resources that can help you run an Identity Day click here.
  7. Create Space for Strengths to be Revealed – More and more teachers are providing time each week for students to explore and create in areas of strength and interest.  Ideas like 20% Time, Genius Hour, and Innovation Days provide opportunities for students to showcase and bring out their strengths.
  8. Strengths Chats – For educators struggling to find the strengths in one or two students, Kathy Cox has developed a strengths grid that can be used to frame individual conversations with students (called “strengths chats”).  She has divided strengths into social, academic, athletic, artistic, cultural/spiritual, and mechanical. You can view the strengths grid in her article here.
  9. Observe – Take the time to watch and listen to your students. Ask the right questions. Instead of asking “how was your weekend?”, ask “what was good about this weekend?” or be like Dora and ask “what was your favourite part?” :-).  Create space in the lessons for students to share stories that reveal skills, traits, and virtues. You can also ask family members and friends to share what they feel a student’s strengths are.  In elementary, watch a child during choice times and recess.
  10. Ask Adults – If you are struggling to see the strengths within a student, check with a former teacher, coach, family member who has observed the student in his/her element doing something that helped them to flourish in that moment. If a student had success with a former teacher, tap into this!


  • For older students, you can use the VIA Character Strengths survey to get a ranked list of 24 character strengths.
  • For intermediate students and older (including adults), Karen Copeland and I created an “Identity Tree” which is a fantastic way for people to acknowledge their strengths and realize the impact these strengths have on ourselves and those around us. You can download the PDF with instructions here.

For the vast majority of our students, it is not difficult to create the conditions for strengths to be revealed.  The challenge is often to create ways for these student strengths to be used more often within the school. For some ideas to get you started on including the strengths of students, click here. For some of our students, though, life has been a series of challenges and they often hesitate to open up to let us in.  For students with years of struggle, the fact that they come to school most days can show a real strength in resiliency, determination, or courage so this can be a starting point to embracing character strengths.

Some may be overwhelmed with the thought of trying to determine the strengths of ALL student (some high school teachers teach 200+ students during the week); my recommendation is to start with one student… use some of the aforementioned strategies to determine the strengths of one child and build from there.  The role of the principal is critical as well as they too must be involved in modeling and looking through the strength-based lens to impact school culture beyond the classrooms.

I realize many teachers already do some or many of these ideas and some do much more. I would love to hear and learn more… how do you determine the strengths of your students?

Click here for an archive of a great Edcamp35 conversation on embracing the strengths of students.

Watch my TEDx Talk on the topic of Strengths-Based Education below or by clicking here


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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Strengths are a big topic and I think you definitely did an awesome job at covering amazing ways to tap into kids strengths. I also think that knowing kids individually is really important, which you emphasized in number 5. I think knowing kids well can develop a connection with individual kids and work toward recognizing their strengths. “Sawabona” is the key to strengths I think. Every human being wants to be seen and feel worth. I wonder if we just start listening more to kids, then perhaps they will see their strengths. So I think adding number 11 as . . . Active Listen with Intentional Engagement would be worthy of the list. When I say Active Listening with Intentional Engagement I am not just talking about hearing, but with participation and hopefully encouragement. I found this definition on http://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/9054/what-is-the-difference-between-hear-and-listen: To hear is to physically experience the sense of sound. As long as one’s ear and brain are capable of processing sound waves, one can hear. To listen is to deliberately apply the ability to hear. One who listens is thinking about what is heard, what it means, how to respond, and whether to continue to listen/pay attention.

    Maybe if we engaged students through active listening with intentional engagement, then they would feel valued, and in turn believe in their strengths?

    • Great addition, Victoria. I recall hearing a story in which a child tells his father to “listen with your eyes”. When we engage in active listening, we show we see others and we value others… Sawubona.

      I keep forgetting to steal this and use it in sessions. Consider this idea stolen. 😉

      Thanks for adding a great point!

  2. I love these ideas and all of the possibilities they bring. One (of many) example in my son’s class last year (or was it the year before?) was all of the students filling out compliment books. They wrote out an anonymous compliment for all of their classmates. The teachers separated them and gave each student the compliments that the others had written. I thought this was a great way for students to see strengths they might not have previously recognized in themselves.

    • Hey Wendy – another great addition. Although it would be wonderful for a child to know his/her strengths, we all know that too often, they have trouble seeing this. Having adults create the conditions of a classroom community in which strengths are acknowledged and brought out can be transformative. The idea of peers acknowledging the gems in others has a huge impact on student identity. Thanks for adding this.

  3. Thanks for pointing out that a strength is not necessarily something we’re the “best” at but a personal quality or characteristic. This is key to understanding a strengths based philosophy 🙂

    • Hey Beverly – yes, we often find ourselves in a culture that strives to be the best… not simply strong in an area… but better than others. It is important that strength comes from within. I am not opposed to looking at others to help push us forward in our learning but if that is how we determine strengths (based on the skills and qualities of others), we have a problem. Character strengths/virtues is an area in which we can bring out the positives in students without worrying about comparisons. Some of our students with the most struggles can be the most courageous and resilient. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Chris, you know how I also feel about this topic. This post you made is so important and I just hope teachers around the world read it, print it and place it on their wall. Also point 10 is one that many simply don’t do, but is essential. I ask my kids to write me a “How you Can Reach Me” blog in September. One point in it is about teacher connections in the past. Great way to get info on who to chat with about each kid.

    Thanks Chris!

    • Hey buddy – I love the “how you can reach me” idea as that must be a driver of some great dialogue between you and the student. I also love the idea of tapping into strengths of the past. Great additions for my toolkit so thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for sharing Chris! The power of recognizing strengths can carry a person throughout their lives. I had a highschool teacher who at the end of each semester would give each student an index card with 10 strengths written on it that he noticed about each person. Thirty years later, I still have that card, and every once in a while it serves as a reminder of my gifts, talents and attitudes that continue to carry me through some of the tough times in life.

    For my classroom, I do many of the activities you have shared, but I like the tree and the flow chart. I also like your ideas for middle school students – thank you for sharing!

    My child came home with a strengths sunflower – it was very cute. A picture of the child is placed in the center and then each peer writes a strength/ appreciation on a petal and they get arranged around the student’s face creating a sunflower. It looks great in the end and the messages are great!

    • Hey Monica – I think your statement about the card that your teacher wrote speaks volumes. It is these small moments that we, as educators, often do not realize the long term power. As Victoria linked to in her comment, it is the act of truly listening and knowing the student that creates that connection. That card would not have been written if the teacher did not know his students… and the fact that he did that at a high school with more students makes that even more impressive. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This post is a great antidote to the focus on standardized testing in the news right now. I’d also add that using digital portfolios with students, and allowing them to post their out-of-school activities in them, is another great way to focus on what kids can do, not what they can’t.

  7. Chris, I love these ideas and the ones others have added. Beautiful post. One thing I have discovered over the years is that when I see former students and I talk about something I have heard about them from a current teacher or coach – the quite kid with a major role in a play, the one who volunteers to help younger kid. Or when I ask if they still like to read, write, play a certain sport, etc. The fact that I remember something specific about them always gets a smile.

  8. Chris, these ideas are fantastic and I will definitely incorporate some of them into my lesson plans. I am a special education teacher and I have done something similar to what was mentioned above. I take the name of the student and use every letter in their name to say something positive about them. I might give them out during parent teacher conferences or during a class project when we are discussing character traits. For example : Chris – C = creative H = helpful R = risk taker I = intelligent S= supportive. Thank you again for sharing!

  9. Hey Pal,

    Just wanted you to know that I dug this bit. It’s got me thinking.

    I always feel a sense of shame when I know next to nothing about the kids in my classroom. Between the grind of 130 students every day and a curriculum that is massive, it sometimes feels like I have no time to spend on getting to know the kids in my class.

    How wrong is that?

    Anyway….Hope you are well and happy — and LOVE the picture of your family in the sidebar. Made me smile.

    Rock on,

  10. I loved your Identity Tree example, and turned it into a Classkick assignment for anyone to use with their students: app.classkick.com/#/assignments/AVj5qsbLSC26gZ8_uvUqPA

      • Iam Pinkie Mchunu a natural science and technology teacher in a primary school in South Africa..Hearing about what youvare sharing about you have made me realize that as much as Iam not on spot but Iam trying. From now onwards Iam going to use most of the strategies you have supplied above.Thank you.

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