Using a strengths-based approach to help students realize their potential
In a successful strength observation, you will ask questions, expect unconventional answers and learn about the students’ world. It may seem intuitive to look for strengths in students, but it is not. Since most of us teachers were trained to identify students’ shortcomings, we must actively work to identify their strengths. Please note the following:
- Does the student work better independently or in a group?
- When does the student show excitement, boredom, more energy or less energy, frustration or sustained focus?
- How easily do they initiate tasks, switch between tasks and stay on task?
- Do they inspire or motivate others?
- Are they creative in how they approach a given task?
- Do they use resources or social capital in a meaningful way?
- What was challenging for the student?
- What seemed easy to the student?
- What patterns did you notice throughout the observation?
After the observation, review your findings with the student. In particular, share the strengths you have identified. For example, if you observed a student during math class as they had to sustain attention for a long period of time, you might say, “Your attention to detail is strong, and you were able to focus on the entire task to get the job done.” Perhaps you observed a student who did not contribute much during the brainstorming session in the social studies group activity, yet that student captivated his peers and had them on the edge of their seats during the group presentation to the whole class.
Then ask the student to share their reflections on how they see their strengths. Ask them if they agree with your assessment. This is an opportunity to get feedback on how well your observations agree with how the student sees themselves – and it also helps students learn more about themselves!
To take this a step further, help students reflect on their strengths by asking questions such as:
- What do you think you are good at?
- What do you love to do?
- What is easy for you?
- Are there any activities that make you lose track of time?
Progress over perfection. Identifying and using strengths can be difficult because most of us are not used to utilizing our strengths. The key here is to help young people understand the importance of progress. The reality is that routinely using your strengths is a skill. LeBron James is arguably the best basketball player of our generation, and he practices his craft daily.
We can also practice finding strength every day. Some days will be more challenging than others. The key here is to make progress toward the goal, not perfection. Help your students find new ways to use their strengths and improve every day.
Opportunity to shine. When students use their strengths, it gives them a chance to shine and they are more likely to experience success. This builds self-efficacy and gives them a reason to keep going, even when the tasks are challenging.
Simply put, when students have an opportunity to use their strengths and shine, they experience positive emotions and feel good about themselves.
Imagine a child with persistence as a strength who only has one chance to succeed at a task. If they don’t succeed on the first try, that child may become frustrated and learn that you have to be perfect, which can contribute to anxiety. Imagine if a student has a characteristic strength of persistence, and you give them more chances to demonstrate mastery. The student may not succeed on the first attempt, the second attempt or even the third. But giving a student who shows persistence the opportunity to work on the task until they succeed will help them feel accomplished and keep working at it even when faced with adversity.
Creating opportunities for students to use and demonstrate their strengths is an excellent way to build confidence. Students will begin to believe in themselves, realize that they are capable, and utilize their strengths in meaningful ways. There is also value in helping students recognize and identify missed opportunities to use their strengths. The idea here is that if students can identify these missed opportunities, it can help increase their awareness of future opportunities to use strengths.
Learn, try and exploit strengths. Teach students to explicitly name their strengths. Help them build their strengths-based vocabulary and show them the power of “yet.” Instead of a student saying they are not good at math facts, please encourage them to say, “Maybe I’m not the best at math facts – YET.” Encourage young people to try their strengths in new ways. If their strength is “focus”, ask them to try a new task such as finding a solution to a problem no one has figured out yet.
Help your students find ways to leverage other people’s strengths. Why? Because the best schools, communities, teams, and organizations know how to leverage each other’s strengths—and you can help your students do the same.
This means helping students to become well-adapted to their strengths and limitations and learning to work with others with different strengths and limitations.
For example, some people are amazing at making decisions quickly and efficiently. Others are good at seeing all possible consequences of a decision. Some find inspiration in unexpected places. When you have a team that is familiar with each individual’s approach, you can create a culture where everyone feels comfortable contributing to what they do best. This leads to bigger and better ideas than if everyone was just working on their own, and it also leads to increased trust in the team — which is what makes them stronger overall.
One way to help people tap into other people’s strengths is to ask them, “How can you use one of your strengths to help someone else?”
Dr. Byron McClure, D.Ed., is a nationally certified school psychologist and founder of Lessons For SEL. He uses research and human-centered design thinking to build empathy, ideas, co-create solutions and design equitable resources that put people’s needs at the center. While previously serving as assistant director of school redesign at a high school in Southeast Washington, DC, he rediscovered social-emotional learning in an inner-city community. His work focuses on influencing systemic change and ensuring that students from high-poverty communities have access to a quality education.
Dr. McClure has extensive knowledge and expertise in mental health, social-emotional learning and behavior. He has done significant work for fair and equitable discipline practices for all students, especially for African-American boys. He has designed and implemented school-wide interventions such as SEL, Restorative Practices, MTSS, and Trauma Responsive Practices. Dr. McClure has presented as a panelist, featured speaker and keynote speaker across the country. He believes in changing from what is wrong to what is strong. Follow him on Twitter @SchoolPsychLife and Instagram @bmcclure6.
Dr. Kelsie Reed, PhD, is a nationally certified school psychologist working at the elementary level in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. She graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 2020 and received two university awards for her dissertation titled “Examining Exclusionary Discipline: Teachers, Deficit Thinking, and Root Cause Analysis.” Dr. Reed also received awards for her dissertation work through the Society for the Study of School Psychology (SSSP) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA).