A “strengths-based” perspective is one in which instead, of focusing on peoples’ deficiencies and problems, we highlight their abilities, talents, and resources. Sounds easy enough. But in practice, how can we ensure we are always accentuating the positive for our students no matter how seemingly dire the deficit?
Everyone has something
Students who have endured repeated struggle or failure academically often lose hope or begin to expect further struggle, creating a vicious cycle. How often, for instance, do we hear students say “I’m a bad test-taker,” or “I can’t comprehend what I’m reading.” It’s not that these students are being untruthful, however, it’s certainly possible that they have become so accustomed to the struggles that they simply expect them to continue. Yes, you may have had poor test results in the past but that does not guarantee future failure. Uncovering student strengths is a way to begin building self-sufficiency in young people. This type of perspective doesn’t try to measure how “weak” you are at this or that subject; rather, it asks what are you good at? Helping students see their strengths can create confidence across their academic lives.
Humans are resilient
Beethoven, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Hellen Keller, Anne Frank: you better believe people are inherently strong. Concluding a study of Holocaust survivors, one writer put it this way: “it is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.” Unless you have an IQ near 200 like Albert Einstein—which most of us don’t—you will endure normal challenges like learning statistics or a new language or reading old literature. The resiliency of humans allows us to fall down again and again but still get up. There are varying thoughts on what constitutes human resiliency, but one thing is constant: it’s a trait we all have. Fran Norris, a social psychologist, sees it as “not an outcome, but a process; a positive trajectory.” Dennis Charney, a biological psychiatrist, concisely described it as “bouncing back,” whereas Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard sees it as “inner strength, freedom, and peace,” not unlike a cat always landing on its feet. Read more about the nature of human resiliency here.
When we tell ourselves positive truths, we give ourselves the strength to endure. Telling yourself something like “I celebrate all my successes, large and small” can set the tone for the day, no matter what obstacles you might face. The student who labels himself a “bad test-taker” can celebrate even a small victory like doing well on one practice passage or getting a difficult SAT math question right. In practice, we so often focus on the questions we get wrong; after all, those are the ones we review. But what about the ones you got right? Taking 15 seconds to celebrate the right answers can remind us of our abilities, not our deficits. Before you say affirmations are just cheesy sayings, know that scientifically, affirmations can actually rearrange neurons in the brain to form new clusters of “positive thought.” Affirmations are all over the internet, but here is a good starting point to find some useful ones.
The strengths-based perspective must extend beyond the school or the home in order to really have a lasting impact. Says social policy activist Peter Benson, we need to emphasize “the family, neighborhood, school, youth organization, places of work, and congregations,” again with the goal of redirecting the focus from negative developmental deficiencies to a more strengths-based perspective. Success is everywhere; we need only to pay attention to it and embrace it.
A new way of looking at your abilities can start right now: Today, I abandon my old habits and take up new, more positive ones.
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