When working with kids, we as professionals support students in many ways, but one of the most important ways to support kiddos is by highlighting individual student strengths in the classroom. We’ve all been there: feeling down about our own insecurities. That negativity impacts our mood, behavior, and the way we respond to others, including co-regulation. For kids that struggle with various areas, they may constantly be aware of how they are challenged to learn, make friends, participate in classroom activities. We as occupational therapy professionals can bring positivity and support through the simple act of highlighting the good. Our students on every ability level will thrive when using their strengths as meaningful motivation!
Here, we are talking about how to support students by identifying student strengths, understanding how to use those strengths to support the child, and how professionals can identify individual strengths for each student.
Student Strengths in the Classroom
School professionals and paraprofessionals do so much for our students, and it is not always easy. One way to bring some positivity to the classroom is to highlight all of the wonderful strengths you see.
Student strengths in the classroom environment are obviously an important aspect of school performance. We all thrive when we feel we do something well. It makes us want to learn more about the topic. Doing a job or task well makes us want to achieve because we know we are good at that particular thing.
We know that using a strengths-based approach works for Autistic learners, trauma-informed therapy interventions, specific diagnoses such as cerebral palsy, and essentially everyone!
What Are Student Strengths
Let’s start with defining exactly what are student strengths and how to facilitate functional skills and learning through the use of strength-based participation.
Student strengths are exactly that; the strengths of the individual student! So often, we talk about the challenges a student has. We see the behaviors, the deficits, and weaknesses, and the diagnosis. These negative aspects are what the student is reprimanded on. It’s what makes them stand out (in the eyes of the student) and makes them different than their peers. But when we highlight strengths, we are shifting the focus to the positive.
All students have strengths. Every one has interests, positive aspects, special skills, and abilities that make them unique. Student strengths are any personal trait that makes them who they are!
When an individual’s personal strengths are highlighted, there is a ping of dopamine that offers feedback through the nervous system. There is a feeling of “good” that travels through the brain and body. This positive feedback can support regulation, mood, emotions, behavior, communication, and participation.
When student strengths are highlighted in the classroom, students thrive.
When student strengths in classrooms are highlighted, not only do individual students thrive in academic learning but in these other areas, but the whole classroom can be impacted too. The classroom can grow and develop together as a unit when they see that each student’s special skills and abilities play a role in their teamwork. Each student brings something special to the table and when these special skills are identified, students can empathize with more understanding.
A student that struggles with attention and has physical behaviors or anger might be very talented at drawing. That special interest can be used to create a classroom poster that shows how we are all different, but all of us have some unique qualities that make us who we are as individuals.
Simple wording that highlights the positive aspects of a student go much farther than the constant barrage of negative messaging. Our students pick up on this wording. So, when we put a positive spin on the terminology or ways we describe a child’s positive qualities, we are doing a benefit for not only the student, but the whole classroom’s view of the world around them.
Highlighting student strengths can support teamwork and empathy. It develops individuals into leaders, teammates, and supports conflict resolution.
Let’s take a closer look at student strengths…
List of Student Strengths
A child may be constantly in motion, but they can also be described as active or energetic. A student might be impulsive or take risks but they can also be described as adventurous or confident. Simply putting a different, positive spin on skills and abilities can make a difference.
Some student strengths include:
- High self-esteem
- Deep thinkers
- Friendly/Makes friends easily
- Empathetic/Sensitive to the needs of others
- Sympathetic to others, including to strangers
- Great interpersonal skills
- Critical Thinker
- Problem Solver
- Great at Public Speaking
- Active Listener
You can see how this list could go on and on…and on! Highlighting the positive aspects of students in the classroom is powerful!
How to identify Student Strengths
As student supporters – whatever role that may be – we should harness those individual strengths into greater achievement for all of our students.
One easy way to identify strengths of an individual student is to think about each subject, unit, or specials class. How does the student behave in each?
What is their engagement like in music versus physical education; math compared to reading? Maybe they are the first to raise their hand during social-emotional learning or cringe when they know writing time is next. No strength is too small; maybe they are not academically achieving in any traditional subject but are a leader on the playground or in the hallway.
Let’s say our student, Charlie, loves science class for the action. They show great strength in exploring and understanding scientific concepts. However, they hate writing because they never know what to say and are not confident in their penmanship yet.
As a supporter of this student, our role is to find ways to bring their favorite aspects of one subject into their least favorite. For example, Charlie really does cringe at the idea of writing, so I try to break that down. If they present with reduced fine motor or visual motor skills and therefore handwriting is a challenge, how can we use their strength in science to increase their writing skills?
The first thing that comes to mind is to intentionally and meaningfully include writing in the science lesson. It’s technically “science” time, but guess what: we are going to be strengthening fine motor skills with eyedroppers and writing the results of our experiment!
The best part about integrating one subject into another is that it is a universal approach – all children will benefit from combined learning!
How to Use Student Strengths as Motivation
We all know how difficult it can be to motivate students. My favorite word that correlates with motivation is ‘meaningful’. If you can make something meaningful to someone else, it becomes motivating. Using a student’s strengths is a great way to create meaningful learning.
One method to ease into meaningful learning is to make a list of preferred topics.
We can use Charlie again here – you see that all of their folders are superhero-themed. They are always donning Super Mario or Minecraft and talking about their beloved cat during their free time.
Taking the time to make a list of preferred topics for each of your students may take some time, but it will be so worthwhile! Make the list of ideas accessible to all those who work with this student, and most importantly, to the student themselves.
With a list of their favorite things in hand, Charlie always has preferred options of what to write about. Even when not writing, there is always the comfort of having meaningful subjects nearby. Better yet, they are from a teacher (or another supporter) who wants to connect with them – how cool is that?
This doesn’t always have to be simply based on what a student likes; if a student is a good leader, give them more autonomy or leadership roles to produce quality work. Or if a student is a strong speller, de-scrambling words as a part of the writing process could be motivating.
The just-right challenge is often most motivating: it is just easy or familiar enough to initiate a task (using our strengths)…but just hard enough to still learn, grow, and feel accomplishment!
ENVIRONMENT: Student STRENGTHS in the Classroom Environment
A person’s environment is a big deal to occupational therapists. We participate in functional tasks in so many different environments and those places impact function in a major way.
One model of occupational therapy is called the Person-Environment-Occupation model and it is used in many different settings, including schools.
This model is exactly what it sounds like; the combination of a unique person and all their traits, PLUS the environment they are in, PLUS the occupation that they are doing. All of this results in performance. The big picture here is that the environment plays a huge role in how well we perform.
Simply put, the Person/Environment/Occupation model breaks down who we are, where we are, and what we are doing.
Unique person and all their traits + environment + occupation = performanceSimple equation using the Person-Environment-Occupation model used in occupational therapy to focus on occupational performance.
When you take a look at this performance model, and consider the use of personal strengths to support successful performance, we can help individuals thrive. Adding personal strengths to the equation supports completion of the task, buy-in, motivation, and meaning.
Strengths-based Classroom Environment-
Thinking back to our example student from above, let’s go a bit further by using this model to look at how to add student strengths into occupation:
What can we do to make Charlie’s environment optional based on their strengths and weaknesses? They are a great direction-follower and do not get distracted easily, so their seat may be best near peers that could use a positive role model. In addition to this, they have good eyesight so do not need to be placed at the front of the room.
Charlie’s room job is to turn on and off the lights, so the pathway should be clear and perhaps a seat close to the light switches may be nice. Charlie is very organized and that is apparent when you look at their desk area!
Because Charlie has reduced writing skills, placing their seat in view of the helpful visuals (wall dictionary or alphabet, grammar posters, etc.) will be important.
To increase their engagement in writing, offer various pencils or erasers in a communal spot, and bring their love of drawing (a stone’s throw away from writing) into the classroom by offering time to decorate the classroom walls or their locker.
A final note on student strengths in the classroom
Again, these recommendations are universal and can be applied to all students. There is a careful balance to be had, however, to make the environment optimal for students of varying needs and abilities.
Whenever possible, start with a student’s strengths. It can be so easy to fall into what is challenging about a student’s behaviors or grades, but dwelling on the negatives never produces many positive results. We hope to have given you a new outlook on student strengths and how to best integrate their use into day-to day school life!
Free List of Student Strengths in the Classroom
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Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.