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.
    • Word Clouds – students love using wordle, tagxedo, etc to create word clouds that include their strengths and interests.
  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 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?

Originally posted on “The Wejr Board” blog.  @chriswejr

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