Strengths-Based Instructional Practices

Identifying and celebrating strengths equips students to effectively adopt a growth mindset and set learning goals
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About This Strategy

We encourage students to adopt a growth mindset about their own learning, and at the same time, in support of school accountability and standards-based instruction, we are also faced with identifying learning gaps and deficits. Unfortunately, once those gaps are identified, we tend to focus on what students are not capable of. This strategy will help you to truly value students by shifting the focus to their strengths and how those assets can help students to develop further. Modeling a growth mindset by identifying, highlighting, and building on students' strengths, and authentically celebrating their successes helps students to continually focus on what's possible as they set goals, and decide next steps as they pursue learning opportunities.

Implementation Steps

  1. After reading the Words Matter article (included below) and referring to the Strengths-Based Versus Deficit-Based Thinking chart published by Starr Commonwealth, schedule a conference with each student, and record their answers to each of the following questions:

    • How do you best learn and show your understanding?

    • What conditions allow you to be successful in my class?

    • What are you good at? Where do you tend to struggle?

    • How can we do more of what you're good at as we learn together?

  2. Factor students' feedback from the conferences as well as Webb's Depth of Knowledge and Bloom's Taxonomy levels into your next assessment design (formative or summative). Provide students with flexible options for showing their understanding (presentation, designing multiple choice questions and an answer key, essay response).

  3. Before scoring the assessment, schedule a follow-up assessment conference with each student and ask:

    • Did this assessment reflect the way you prefer to show your understanding of the content? If so, how? If not, what was missing?

    • What do you think this assessment shows me about you as a learner?

    • What score would you give yourself on this assessment, and why?

    • What questions do you still have about this content?

  4. Factor student feedback into how you score the assessment and your instruction.

  5. Repeat this process at the beginning of each new unit.

Questions to Consider

When discussing student progress, ask the following questions:

  1. What is present that we can build upon in this student?

  2. What opportunities do we have with this student?

  3. What can this student offer their peers?

  4. What is their unique strength, passion, or personal power?

Coach Tips

Afrika Afeni Mills
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Explore the implications of the following terms: at-risk, drop-out, minority, low-performing, problem/failing student, troublemaker, uninterested in learning. Consider how you might change the language you use to describe students so the focus is on systemic implications and not the symptoms, "otherizing" or blaming students for the challenges they may face. Also consider how to encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Extending the Learning: Overcoming Internalized Oppression

Sometimes students from historically marginalized and oppressed groups internalize negative messages about themselves, people who share their identity, and what's possible for them. For example, when students of color are regularly informed that there's an "achievement gap" between their racial group and white students, they may believe that they are less intelligent/capable. Other messages may include the false and damaging opinion held by some that students of color are lazy, only permitted into academic spaces because of affirmative action policies, inherently more violent, and/or less interested in learning. These resources will inform you about internalized oppression, and provide you with ways to counteract the damaging impact as well as build your awareness of stereotype threat and how to respond to it.

Related Resources

Explore the "Delinquent. Drop out. At Risk. When Words Become Labels" article published by NPR to learn more about labels.

Explore the "Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education: Classroom Culture" article published by Teaching Tolerance included below to learn more about anti-bias education.