Back to school time is upon us and that means back to our busy lives, sweater weather (best), fall colours and lots of thinking about the school year ahead and the intentional ways we want to guide our children and students through the next school year.
At Lakefield College School we have adopted a ‘strengths-based approach’ to our work with students. Strengths-based guru, Dr. Lea Waters, visited us last week to workshop with staff and deliver a parenting seminar for our community. What I appreciated most about this day was Dr. Waters translations of theory into practice. She had a lot of great curricular and parenting advice that one could actually use in everyday life. As you might guess, I got inspired by this method and wanted to share some of what I learned from Dr. Waters with you, whether you are a parent or teacher.
What is a ‘strengths-based’ approach? The premise behind the strengths-based approach is that reducing ill-being does not translate to well-being in an individual. Dr. Waters explained that if we were to stop here, we would end up with children in a ‘neutral’ state, where one is not in a negative state of ill-being, but is also not necessarily thriving and happy in their daily lives. Not what we want. We want our kids and students to feel like badass contributors to their communities, because, they are, for all different kinds of reasons. Enter the strengths-based approach.
A strengths-based approach allows us to abandon the socially-ingrained concept that we must focus on our weaknesses to improve as individuals. Dr. Waters explained, we must only focus on our weaknesses if they are inhibiting us from being happy or productive. Otherwise, this approach gives us permission to leave our weaknesses alone as they are never going to become our strengths. With this rationale, we now have more space in our lives to strengthen our positive qualities, as these are the parts of ourselves we can make even better.
So, in practice, we first need to see strengths. You can begin this process by completing a VIA character strength test, perusing the top 5, and reflecting with your students, children, family – a lovely, warm and fuzzy exercise all in itself. Other suggestions include keeping a diary, ‘spotting’ others strengths (in a movie, a favourite actor, etc).
I especially love this idea of ‘spotting,’ and have already put it into practice with my daughter. Yesterday she was pretty upset when she thought her little sister was about to fall down the stairs. Don’t worry, I was there and Nora could see I was there, so the concern was slightly unfounded. Nonetheless, she was yelling at the top of her lungs about it. Instead of asking her to lower her voice inside and leaving it at that, I took the opportunity to spot this display of care (a VIA character strength) and let Nora know she was a really great big sister for worrying about Margot. I plan on doing this ‘spotting’ exercise with my students, not necessarily so they can spot their own strengths (this is a great start in self-reflection on its own), but also so they can locate and verbalize those strengths in the people around them. A beautiful contribution to a community of care.
From here, you would continue to build upon these strengths, leaving a focus on weakness in the rear view. I have to admit, we have fumbled around with this language when approaching conversations about ‘dialing up’ or ‘dialing down’ a strength. For example, my daugther is, how should I say … full of ‘zest.’ This zest also comes along with persistence. She has an opinion and she will tell you very adamantly if she doesn’t like something. Nora’s ‘zest-y’ persistence is one of the best parts of who she is. She is full of life and fun and people are drawn to her because of this. Her perseverance and persistence will serve her well when she tackles big tasks later in life. I’m proud of this. But sometimes, Nora’s 3 year old self needs to ‘dial down’ her zest and persistence in certain situations, say at circle time or when she doesn’t want to get in the car but we need to go. Turning the conversation from one of discipline to one about learning how to channel this zest can be challenging, especially, when like, we need to go. But, we’re trying, and I am going to try with my students as well.
Let me know if you have any experience with this approach, I would love to hear it!
Happy back to school!