Eureka! In my last post, Resiliency = Relationships, I posted a link to a handout from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership illustrating strength-based vs. deficit-based concepts . Timing is an interesting thing sometimes. In my email last week, I received the February 2012 issue of In The Loop, a newsletter from Alberta Education. It was highlighting a new resource Strength Based Classrooms and Schools, also produced by the Alberta Mentoring Partnership. This little 24 page document is a must read for all educators!
This is a clear concise resource that gets to the heart of what education should be about, developing young people in a positive way that empowers them to use their gifts in ways that are meaningful to them. Here is a shift in thinking away from fixing problems to discovering talents, from curing vulnerabilities to maximizing personal resources. The principles of strength-based practice are discussed leading to an examination of how this will impact school culture and the importance of a holistic view of students. There are also strategies for building staff capacity included. This document is great to share with educators who might need a nudge to regain their student-centered focus. And it’s equally good for those who are ‘already there’ as it brings coherence to many of the positive things that educators are already doing to build relationships with kids. It’s short and sweet and an easy read for all.
I have always believed that teachers do not become teachers unless they have a deep personal belief that they wish to positively impact their students. Lord knows we don’t get into this business for the money and the easy ride! Strength-based practice is a framework for thinking that can reach into a teacher’s belief that they can make a difference for each student. It’s simple… look for the positive in each student and make that the starting point to address learning. Match those positives to the topic of the day, the issue to be addressed, and/or the classroom context with which you are working and you’ll create the circumstances to develop stronger relationships with students and have a greater influence on their learning and personal growth. At the same time, the student is gaining a repertoire of skills and developing character traits which are a natural fit with who they already are.
Reviewing this document again today reminded me of a young lad that was posing some issues in one of our behavior programs last year. This boy had a tough life, to say the least, leading him to the point where he was in the permanent care of Children & Family Services. The staff was at their wits end. I offered some ideas and strategies that didn’t go anywhere. He just was not engaged, his learning was regressing, he was negatively impacting his peers, and seemed to be actively sabotaging the support strategies we were putting in place. Our collective bag of tricks was empty. I dug deep and remembered being in this position before and that there was a way to reach the seemingly unreachable kid.
I advised the teacher and the EA to set this boy up for success in everything. For the next week until we met again, he was to be successful in every lesson, to be put in group situations where he would be successful each time which meant carefully selecting the peers and the activities and closely supervising so adult intervention was just seconds away, and he was to be praised and encouraged every step of the way. As well, I needed them observe his responses and take note of his positives.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived the following week was that the relationship had deepened in both directions, the school staff had renewed their commitment to this boy and he was now viewed from a positive perspective rather than the child that they were failing. And for the boy, who had a litany of failed relationships in his life, he had found positive connections based upon his authentic positive contributions to the classroom and he knew it. Following that, the staff continually shared with that boy the specific instances of positive learning and behavior that he had demonstrated to help him see his strengths and personal resources. To finish the story, the boy did a fairly quick turnaround due to the team approach from home and school and was placed in less intensive environment in a matter of months and from what we hear is continuing to be positive and successful.
So what’s my lesson? Strength-based practice! It’s about seeing the students for who they are and building upon what they have already brought to the table. My professional work is not about me digging into my education and my experience to use my judgement to come up with my plan. My professional work is to see students’ strengths and potential and figure out a way to add to that in meaningful and relevant ways so they develop greater competency academically and personally. Sometimes, in extreme cases, you have to engineer the opportunity to see the positive. But finding the student’s positive should be the starting point.
On a related note, it’s been interesting to watch how special education has been morphing in Alberta over the past several years. What initially started as a review of special education, Setting The Direction, became the Action On Inclusion project which has now been dropped as a project to just become the work that we do as educators in Alberta. We are now focusing on inclusion with the broader view of supporting all forms of diversity as an inclusive education system. So it’s no surprise that Alberta Education would be advising us about strength-based practice as pedagogical tool that would support all students.