Tag Archives: Alberta Mentoring Partnership

Strength-Based Practice

Strong Kids

cc licensed (BY) Flickr photo shared by Mr Phil Price

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.

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Resiliency = Relationships

parent and teen team building

cc licensed by Flickr photo shared by mighty mighty big mac

Since my last post, my students have continued with their struggles.  While, thankfully, a number of students continue on at a steady pace, I had to call Children and Family Services twice last week. And I’ve come to the sad realization that despite much bravado and attempts at disguise from our high school outreach students, they have a basic inability to look into their future and envision goals for themselves.  So I made a promise in my last post, which obviously remains timely, to look into the notion of resiliency… here is some information and some thoughts.

Resiliency is the ability to recover readily from adversity.  Students that have the potential for low levels of resiliency in general terms are those with a trauma and/or abuse history, those from homes that struggle with addiction or mental health issues, those who have had multiple moves in their history, those in foster care. and those who have low self-esteem.  Adolescence is the time when many lifelong attitudes are developed, so helping these students form a basis of resiliency from which to work will serve them well throughout their lives.

That last insight about my students is particularly alarming as some of the articles that I’ve read recently indicate that the ability to set goals for oneself is a key factor in recognizing resiliency in youth. Feeling safe at school was another significant factor.  As well, liking school and having a caring adult in the family were other identified important factors that contribute to youth resiliency.  In one study I read, Building Resilience In Vulnerable Youth, school connectedness was the top factor that best protects vulnerable youth in 9 of 12 areas investigated to either reduce risk or increase positive behaviors related to resiliency.  All of these factors are related to students having the circumstances to be able to find relationships where they can seek support when they need it and have the opportunity to form positive relationships with their peers.

Initially I was a bit surprised that school connectedness was so significant.  With a little thought, though, it makes good sense for a couple of reasons.  Students at risk for lower levels of resiliency are quite likely to come from homes that don’t have a strong degree of support as families struggle with their own adversity, so the school needs to fill the gaps for support when families can’t.  Also, adolescents are at a place developmentally where they are attempting to find their independence in the world so may not seek out family members in times of trouble, but look toward peers whom they most often find at school.

So what is it about school connectedness?  For me the ‘safe at school’ thought was critical. Students need to feel safe with their teachers and other staff members so they can have the comfort to risk self-disclosure and seek support from a trusted adult when faced with difficulties.  Students need to feel safe in their school environment knowing that they will be treated with respect and keep their dignity in tact when dealing with both adults and their peers.  Navigating through the world of relationships is difficult for adolescents so having a safe environment to experience success and to bounce back from messed up attempts at forming and maintaining relationships is critical.  Teens need feel that they are in a place where they can pick themselves up, get a little guidance, and keep trying to connect to others in their lives. School connectedness also relates to students liking school which happens much more readily when students are feeling successful in their work and see relevance in what they are doing at school as it relates to their own lives.

This is a tall order, but I’m convinced even more now that for schools to be effective in fostering resiliency in students, we need to provide the whole package for them.

  • We must make sure that each and every student has a positive relationship with at least one adult in the building because we often don’t truly know the resiliency levels of our students and someday even the most cool, calm, and collected student may need someone to lean on.
  • We must make sure that our school environment is safe for students to interact with their peers to form relationships.  When things go well, the positive relationships that have developed should be nurtured.  And when students struggle with relationships, supports need to be in place to help them along.
  • We must educate and encourage our students to think critically about risky behaviors so that they are equipped to make positive choices in the moment and avoid personal hazards which will chip away at the resiliency they do have.
  • We must pay attention to pedagogy and practice to ensure our students are learning and feel successful and competent as they complete curricular activities.
  • Similarly we must help students to find their place in the school on a social level by creating opportunities for them to get involved and create positive relationships with peers and adults.
  • We must look through the eyes of our students to ensure that the curriculum we provide is meaningful to them so that they will feel like they have the tools they need, both academically and personally, to move successfully through school and beyond.
  • We must help families when we become aware of a need for support by helping connect them to the appropriate services.  Parenting is a hard business at the best of times nowadays.
  • Using a strength based approach in implementing all of these strategies will go a long way toward helping students and families feel that the experiences provided are a good fit with who they are and where they are at as well as fostering sustainability for them as they will already have existing personal resources that should be tailored to the experiences provided.

I found a handout contrasting strength based vs deficit based concepts from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership awhile ago that really helped me solidify in my mind what the strength based approach involves.

I am confident that we are doing many things at CFL to contribute positively to student resiliency, but given recent developments with several of our students, it’s a topic worth re-examination.  Having identified the area of student goal development, we have discussed the need to show the students that they have the foundation to work from to develop goals.  Students need to have self-esteem to be able to look forward and take the risk to create goals, so that’s what we’re working on both and instructional and personal level.  This will be followed up next year with the implementation of the Leader In Me program with some adaptations for older students.  We’ve recently completed a review of all of our students and have set up parent meetings that will be the start of bi-monthly case conference meetings where we will work with families to ensure that the students and parents have needed support services among other things.  With Christmas and exams, we haven’t had any spirit activities recently, so we need to have some fun again.  A fund raising opportunity has landed on our doorstep so we will create leadership opportunities for students to offer activities for the students to engage with each other.

It’s a start.  We need to remain focused keeping resiliency in the forefront.  This means giving students authentic opportunities to successfully access and create positive relationships.