Supporting Student Strengths in the Classroom

student strengths in the classroom

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!

Student strengths in the classroom to support learning and classroom tasks using student's personal strengths

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:

  • Artistic
  • Accepting
  • Confident
  • Self-assured
  • High self-esteem
  • Friendly
  • Sociable
  • Outgoing
  • Creative
  • Imaginative
  • Capable
  • Insightful
  • Perceptive
  • Talented
  • Intellectual
  • Deep thinkers
  • Daring
  • Energetic
  • Honest
  • Friendly/Makes friends easily
  • Talkative
  • Articulate
  • Kind
  • Loving
  • Empathetic/Sensitive to the needs of others
  • Affectionate
  • Fun-loving
  • Active
  • Loyal
  • Determined
  • Organized
  • Resilient
  • Humble
  • Caring
  • Helpful
  • Introspective
  • Reserved
  • Thoughtful
  • Altruistic
  • Trusting
  • Modest
  • Affectionate
  • Warm
  • Sympathetic to others, including to strangers
  • Benevolent
  • Predictable
  • Thorough
  • Ambitious
  • Consistent
  • Grateful
  • Forgiving
  • Patient
  • Original
  • Innovative
  • Clever
  • Curious
  • Strong
  • Tactful
  • Brave
  • Calm
  • Optimistic
  • Funny/humorous
  • Polite
  • Loyal
  • Persistent
  • Conscientious
  • Self-disciplined
  • Leader
  • Reliable
  • Resourceful
  • Hard-working
  • Persevering
  • Controlled
  • Goal-oriented
  • Unselfish
  • Mindful
  • Amiable
  • Considerate
  • Happy/cheerful
  • Great interpersonal skills
  • Communicator
  • Critical Thinker
  • Problem Solver
  • Great at Public Speaking
  • Teamwork
  • Collaborator
  • Accountable
  • Active Listener
  • Adaptable
  • Decision-maker

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 = performance 

Simple 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! 

List of student strengths in the classroom handout

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.

    How to do “Push In” Occupational Therapy

    Push-In Occupational Therapy in school based OT

    Are you a new school based occupational therapist wondering how to implement a “push in” therapy service delivery model?  Perhaps you have been practicing for a while and are looking for some tips to transition your services from your therapy space to the classroom. For additional reading, the OT Toolbox has a comprehensive post on occupational therapy in school system.

    How to implement push in occupational therapy and push in therapy services in school based occupational therapy interventions.

    What is Push-in occupational therapy in schools?  

    Push in” services is a term used to describe school based occupational therapy services provided when students are participating in their natural environments. 

    At school, these environments can include the classroom, the cafeteria, the playground, or any other setting that a student accesses during the school day.  

    Push-in Occupational Therapy Services

    Changes in legislation with the addition of the No Child Left Behind law, began a shift in service delivery models for school-based occupationlal therapy over the last 20 years.  This shift has refocused school based therapists on inclusion, providing services in the natural environment.  

    While occupational therapy in schools has always had it’s fair share of challenges (schedules and caseloads to name a few), shifting our focus to providing therapy services in the student’s natural environment, is supported by research and highlights our strengths as occupational therapists.

    This challenge is a good change for related services.

    Change is hard, and some stakeholders might question a change to the way occupational therapy services are delivered in school, especially if it’s always been done a certain way.  We can rely on evidence, but what does it say about push in services in the school environment? 

    What are Push In therapy services? Wondering what push in occupational therapy looks like for the school-based OT? This resource explains how to implement OT services right in the classroom.

    Are push in services as effective as pull out?

    Yes! Push in services can be just as effective, or even more so, than pull out. Several studies (Reid et al, Villeneuve) have examined school-based services and the effectiveness of collaborative consultation. 

    Not only do students make progress at a faster rate, teachers and parents report improved satisfaction as well.  Many occupational therapists can probably relate to the experience of having a teacher ask you what “magic” you performed with a student while in a pull out therapy session. 

    One of the huge benefits of push in therapy, is doing that “magic”  in context so other educators can see it happening in real time!

    As a school based occupational therapist, it might feel easier or more effective to pull your students out of class into a controlled therapy room to provide intense one on one therapy.

    While your session might feel successful, it is not realistic. The difficulties your student is having is within the classroom, not the self contained therapy room.

    How do you make the shift from pull out to push in?  First, you need the support of your special education team – the parents, administrators, and teachers.  Get this support by teaching and showing them what you know, and the benefits of being in the classroom.

    It will take time to earn their trust, as you are seen as an intruder in their classroom.

    Conducting Observations during Push-In Therapy

    The first step is conducting observations of your students during the evaluation process.  These observations should take place across school environments where they are engaged in occupations and activities of daily living.  

    This can include the playground, cafeteria, mainstream class, special education, resource, art, computer, library, or all of the above.

    It is important to try to gather information from the teacher and parents to narrow your focus and understand their concerns, before deciding when and how to observe a student. 

    Depending on the areas of difficulty, you may need to observe transitions, work time, managing clothing at arrival/dismissal, the lunch routine in the cafeteria, or their ability to access the playground at recess.

    Push-in Services and Goals

    Once your evaluation is complete and you are recommending occupational therapy services in the natural environment to the team, how do you get teacher and parent buy-in?  This may take time, and more importantly, it will take data collection.  

    Here is a breakdown of the fine motor skills needed at school to help with your goals setting and data collection.

    One of the most important factors in success will be writing goals and objectives that are clear enough for anyone to observe the skills and collect data

    Clear, measurable, observable behaviors and/or skills need to be documented in your IEP goals.  It needs to be measurable, relevant, and doable!  

    Check out the SMART goals ladder worksheet on the OT Toolbox for information on creating goals.

    The OT Toolbox has a great resource available for Occupational Therapy documentation in the school setting.

    When educators feel empowered to carry out OT interventions, the success of the students will increase.  Additionally, when parents can easily observe skills at home, they will be more supportive of the therapy model. 

    When the skills being addressed are supported throughout the school day and at home, students have a much greater possibility of generalizing those skills across all environments. 

    OT Collaboration in the classroom

    As you begin to provide push in occupational therapy services for your students, it is important to collaborate with the team.

    While the Occupational Therapist provides services in the natural environment teachers and/or paraeducators can observe, ask questions, and get feedback from the therapist.  The entire team will be the ones implementing your interventions and collecting data when you are not there. 

    It is essential they feel confident in executing your interventions.

    Ways to build collaboration as a school-based OT:

    1. Set the tone through open and reciprocal communication that all members of the team are valued and equal. Get input from all members of the team including; teachers, paraeducators, parents, and the student.
    2. Provide modeling for staff.  Advocate to administrators it is critical for staff involved to observe you working with a student on their occupations.  
    3. Provide coaching to the educators implementing your plan.  Once you have been able to model for staff, spend time observing and coaching them while they are working with the student.
    4. Make data collection easy and doable.  Develop simple, easy to use data collection forms that do not require time and/or effort to complete.  It could be as simple as a tally mark or checking a box on a chart.
    5. Check back in with the team frequently to monitor how it’s going and to make changes to the plan if needed.

    One final thought… keep the focus on participation and occupation! The team will see results and your students will find success.  Don’t be afraid to let your school community see the value occupational therapy adds to your student’s participation in school!

    Katherine Cook is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience primarily working in schools with students from preschool through Grade 12.  Katherine graduated from Boston University in 2001 and completed her Master’s degree and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study at Tufts University in 2010.  Katherine’s school based experience includes working in integrated preschool programs, supporting students in the inclusion setting, as well as program development and providing consultation to students in substantially separate programs.  Katherine has a passion for fostering the play skills of children and supporting their occupations in school. 


    Reid, D., Chiu, T. Sinclair, G, Wehrmann, S., Naseer, Z. Outcomes of an occupational therapy school-based consultation service for students with fine motor difficulties. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2006; 73: 215-224.

    Villeneuve M. A critical examination of school-based occupational therapy collaborative consultation. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2009;76(1_suppl):206-218. 

    Productivity Hacks for Occupational Therapists

    productivity for occupational therapy

    These hacks for productivity for occupational therapy professionals are easy ways to make your life easier. School based Occupational Therapists are busy bees!  The jobs of a school based OT are many: supporting academic, lunchtime success, development of skills needed throughout the day, social skills development, math, reading and writing (i.e., literacy), behavior management, recess participation, participation in sports, organization and executive functioning skills, self-help skills, prevocational/
    vocational participation, transportation, and more.

    One of the biggest strategies to improve productivity is organization for the school based occupational therapist.  The ideas listed below are designed to help with organization in order to help the school based OT through their day.

    Productivity for occupational therapists

    Most school based OTs have a full caseload that involves several or many school buildings within a school district and/or a variety of school districts.  Each building has it’s own schedule, lunch times, special events, and holidays that must be tracked.

    Within each building, the students who receive therapy services have a schedule of classes, special scheduling needs, and teacher preferences that require specific scheduled OT treatment timing.  parents, school principals, and other professionals have input into therapy scheduling as well.

    Scheduling for the school based OT is a yearly nightmare of charts, calendars, lists, erasers, and crumbled papers.

    Once schedules are finished, it’s time to begin treatment as each week and month brings new intervention minute requirements.  However, there are school delays, special assemblies, and sick kids to keep in mind.  Fitting make-up times into those already jammed schedules is a continual round of nightmares!

    Some school based OTs are lucky to have a designated space to house all of their supplies, tools, charting, and supplies.  Others need to cart their intervention from school to school and work from the trunk of their vehicle as they think ahead to the needs of that particular day’s student needs.  Then they drop their supplies at a hidden desk in the stairwell and make their way through the schedule, pushing into classrooms, intervening in gym class, or addressing needs in the lunchroom or playground.

    The school based OT’s day is never the same and always changing.

    With all of these scheduling, planning, equipment, and space issues that interfere with productivity standards, any hack that makes us more organized can help!

    These tools for productivity may help keep the school based OT organized and on track for a successful school year..  They are intervention strategies, productivity ideas, and generally tricks to help the school based OT get through their day in an easier way.

    School based Occupational Therapists can use these productivity hacks to help with organization and productivity during the school day when treating students in the school environment.

    Tools for Getting Organized as a School Based OT

    Organization Tricks for the School Based OT A therapist who travels from classroom to classroom or building to building needs to stay organized! Try these tricks to stay sane.

    Use Google Drive to create folders for each student as a way for students to save multiple documents to a folder in Google drive.

    Create an organized caseload list and adjust to fit workload with time for consult services.

    Create tracking tools for therapy attendance, contact information, assessment dates, consult records, daily and weekly schedules, school contact information (secretaries, teacher extension numbers and emails), equipment records, data sheets, goal sheets, etc.  Use Google Docs to create record sheets that meet specific needs.

    These Google Sheets Caseload Management, Lesson Planning, and Data collection were made for SLP, but they could work for the OT, too. 

    Printable Sheets for the School Based OT:

    Create a file of regularly used printable sheets like:

    Visual Processing Problems School Checklist

    Tools for help the school based Occupational Therapist with monitoring goal achievement:

    Amazon affiliate links:

    Using Rubrics to Monitor Outcomes in Occupational Therapy  -Improve Critical Thinking and Clinical Reasoning by Adding Rubrics to Assess Goal Progress with this book to improve data collection methods and documentation style with teachers in order to enable concise development of the IEP and goals targeted toward the student’s individual needs.  

    The book provides rubrics but also shows how to design your own for improved organization planning and data collection. When annual review time comes around, goal progress is also easy to report.

    Sensory Strategies for the School Based Occupational Therapist:

    Provide parents, teachers, and paraprofessionals with this Sensory Processing Disorder information packet (free printable)

    A Buffet of Sensory Interventions provides solutions for older children in middle school and high school age ranges.  The book emphasizes the importance of fostering independence, self-advocacy and self-regulation in a period of growth that transitions into adulthood. 

    Free Sensorimotor Classroom Activities (free printable)

    Handwriting Tools for the School Based Occupational Therapist:

    Handwriting Speed Norms by Grade Level

    Keyboarding Speed Norms

    The Ultimate Free List of Printable Adaptive Paper

    Google Chrome Extensions for Struggling and Special Needs Students

    Activities for Handwriting Problems– Tons of creative ideas to work on handwriting skills 

    Additional Information for the School Based OT:

    School Based OT Resources from AOTA

    Productivity Tricks for the School Based OT on scheduling from Tx Source

    Caseload to Workload from AOTA

    School based Occupational Therapists can use these productivity hacks to help with organization and productivity during the school day when treating students in the school environment.

    Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to