Strengths and Strategies
Assessing and Sharing What Matters
I once met with a team of teachers who worked with a student named Jim. While Jim did not have an identified disability, it was clear from conversations between his teachers that some of them struggled to connect with him. Two of the teachers complained about Jim’s constant activity. One sighed, “He is a jackhammer- he moves constantly”. Another remarked, “He twists around so much that it distracts the other students”. While most of the teachers nodded in agreement with these assessments, two of the educators at the table seemed confused. The physical education teacher claimed that she didn’t have any problems with Jim and that, in fact, he was one of her strongest students. She saw him as an athletic student, a leader, and as an asset to her class. He participated in all activities and seemed to try hard to acquire new skills. The science teacher also described Jim as an active learner and called him “cooperative and inquisitive”.
Perhaps a conversation between members of the aforementioned team could help all teachers see and inspire the strengths in Jim. Teachers who had success with Jim might be able to share useful strategies with those who were struggling. The physical education teacher, for instance, might share her ideas on how Jim learns best. The science teacher might tell or show others about some of Jim’s best assignments or class contributions.
Why We Need More Good News: A Rationale For “Strengths & Strategies”
Jim’s story illustrates the power of perception in teaching. In this case, Jim’s teachers could have reframed and solved their problem simply by sharing their impressions of him and by listening to and learning from the ways in which other colleagues understood him. Jim’s teacher might also have learned a lot about their biases by examining how their perceptions influenced their language and how their language may have impacted their practices.
This experience was similar to one I had on my first day of teaching. That first morning of my career, I was told I would be working with a student named Jay. Then I was given dozens of files to review. I marveled at the stacks of reports, evaluations, observations, clinical assessments, work samples, and test results. I couldn’t believe a child so small could have so many “credentials”. As I reviewed the files I moved from feeling stunned to overwhelmed to terrified. Jay’s paperwork was filled with information about his inability to be a student or a learner. The documents detailed his challenging behaviors, skill deficits, and communication problems. I was devastated to read so much about this individual yet find so little about his abilities, gifts, and strengths.
As these stories illustrate, if every meeting begins with a description of a student’s struggles and if every report fails to include student strengths and gifts, it becomes hard to plan for and support that learner. The way that we talk, think, and write about our students impacts our practice. In addition, our perceptions of learners and the ways in which we communicate about them, can serve to strengthen or damage our relationships with families. A parent of a fifth-grader once told me that she was in the education system for six years before any teacher said anything genuinely kind or positive about her daughter. When the teacher off-handedly shared that Rachel, her daughter, had “a beautiful smile and great energy” the mother burst into tears, startling the teacher. After learning of the reason for the mother’s reaction, the teacher made it a point to keep sharing information about Rachel’s abilities, gifts, skills, and accomplishments throughout the school year.
For all these reasons, I began using a simple document called Strengths & Strategies Pages when I plan with teachers, families, and students. This document (co-developed with my colleague, Michele Dimon-Borowski) can help educators focus on the abilities and strengths of learners instead of only on their difficulties and areas of need.
What Are Strengths & Strategies Pages?
Strengths & Strategies Pages are lists that provide positive and useful information about a learner. One list contains a student’s strengths, interests, gifts, and talents. The other list answers the question, “What works for this student?”. This list should contain strategies for motivating, supporting, encouraging, teaching, and connecting with the learner.
When Do I Use Strengths & Strategies Pages?
Strengths & Strategies Pages can be used anytime for any purpose. I often use them to begin IEP meetings. They can also be used as an attachment to a behavior plan or as a communication tool for teams who are transitioning a student from teacher to teacher or from school to school.
Why Use Strengths & Strategies Pages?
While this tool is not complex and does not necessarily provide a team with new information, it can help teachers organize the information they have and understand it in a new way. The focus on positive language and abilities can prompt educators to think and talk about students in more proactive way. It can also help teachers make changes in planning and in their daily practice. Specifically, educators may be able to use forms to:
- plan curriculum and instruction;
- create curricular adaptations;
- develop student goals and objectives;
- design supports for challenging situations;
- work more collaboratively with and elicit concrete ideas from families; and
- collaborate and communicate with each other.
- See below for Strengths & Strategies Pages that have been completed for a student in elementary school and for worksheets that can be used to create your own pages.