This piece is based on our recent conversation with Chris Wejr, Elementary School Principal at James Hill Elementary in Langley, British Columbia. Chris has spent nearly two decades in British Columbia working as a teacher, vice-principal, and now principal. Chris is passionate about improving school culture and finding ways to encourage collaboration, risk-taking, and staff wellness. Chris is also one of the leading experts on implementing strengths-based education. We present his TEDx speech on the topic below. You can keep up with Chris’ latest thinking at his blog by clicking here.
We all know the importance of strong student relationships. And we’ve all been shown a plethora of techniques to help create them. But we’re willing to bet one of the most important strategies for doing this is one you haven’t spent much time thinking about.
It’s as simple as focusing on a student’s strengths! And in this piece, we provide advice and resources from Chris Wejr, one of education’s leading experts on strengths-based education, on exactly how to do it.
Strengths-Based Education – A Definition and 5 Principles
We start with the question – what is strengths-based education?
“A strengths perspective assumes that every individual has resources that can be mobilized toward success in many areas of life and is characterized by ‘efforts to label what is right’ within people and organizations . . . [It also] presupposes that capitalizing on one’s best qualities is likely to lead to greater success than would be possible by making a comparable investment of effort into overcoming personal weaknesses or deficiencies.”
The principles of strengths-based education are:
1) Measurement – augment existing student data (tests, behavioral reports, etc.) with measures of their strengths
2) Individualization – personalize a student’s learning experience to include their strengths
3) Networking – provide students an opportunity to utilize their strengths when working with classmates
4) Deliberate Application – educators should model how they leverage their own personal strengths in teaching and other domains of life and discuss strength applications with students
5) Intentional Development – educators and students actively seek our novel experiences and environments in which to practice their strengths
Putting Strengths-Based Education Into Practice
Below, we share Chris’ TEDx talk on how he learned about and implemented strengths-based education in his own classroom. He tells us:
“If you ask a kindergarten student to list the things they’re good at in school, you get a lengthy list. If you ask that same student in high school, sometimes it’s hard for them to come up with just one.
In school, we do acknowledge strengths. But we as adults narrowly define what those strengths are. And if you happen to work hard and be really good in those areas of strengths, you get more points, higher percentages, and better grades.
But my question is how many strengths are missed? How many kids go through our schools never being acknowledged for their strengths? And not being valued for who they are?”
In his talk, Chris also tells us about a few experiences he had early on in his teaching career. After his first 6 weeks in the classroom, he found himself in his principal’s office in tears. He felt like he was unable to reach his students. The principal’s response?
“Tell me about 1 student.”
Chris went on to tell her about Dom, a student he said wouldn’t read, write, or do anything in his class. Again, with a piercing question, she asked:
“What’s he good at? What are his strengths?”
This question prompted Chris to take the time to learn about Dom’s struggles and strengths. And he figured out that Dom was an excellent drummer and that he enjoyed music immensely. As a result, he encouraged Dom and a few other students to perform for the class and their music was soon incorporated in a classroom routine. And that’s when Dom opened up. He came to school with a seemingly different identity. He was becoming a leader. And he was bringing the same enthusiasm he had for music to his classwork.
8 Ideas for Implementing a Strengths-Based Educational Perspective at Your School
So we asked Chris – how do we implement this at school? He gave us the following 8 ideas.
Step 1 – Shifting Mindsets
As educators, most of us grew up in school environments that only focused on what students did wrong. Or what they could do better. The problem with this is that we can put students on a continuous “losing streak” and slowly destroy their confidence. It’s also why a number of students report that they can’t recall their last positive day at school.
Furthermore, a lot of school leaders have been promoted and placed into positions of leadership precisely because of their ability to problem-solve. They like to fix problems. Which also means they’re really good at finding them.
But implementing a strengths-based education perspective starts with the assumption that we don’t have to fix our kids. We simply begin by recognizing who they are and where their strengths lie. It also assumes that our kids possess a number of strengths beyond just their academics that are important.
Two of Chris’ favorite books for shifting mindsets are:
Step 2 - Have Staff Find Their Own Strengths
Put simply, if we can’t find our own strengths, it’s that much harder to find it in our students. Chris encourages school leaders to have their staff members find two or three of their signature strengths.
Here are a few options for doing this:
VIA Character Strengths Survey (which can be used for free)
From here, teachers should commit to spending a few weeks in an activity that utilizes those strengths. It’s important for faculty to notice the shifts that occur in themselves from spending time in areas of their strengths.
Step 3 - Start With 1 Student
When making the transition to working with students, start small. Encourage teachers to focus on just 1 student, a child that likely needs the extra attention or focus. Commit to finding that student’s strength. This can be done through conversation, observation, or the completion of a survey. Chris also recommends that you start with a character strength (like courage, curiosity, or creativity) because every student possesses them. It’s important to start small so that teachers can notice and truly appreciate the shifts that take place in that child.
Here are a few surveys that can be used with students:
VIA Character Strengths Survey (same as above, this version is free – excerpt provided below)
Step 4 - Create Time And Space For Strengths
Ensure teachers are thinking strategically about applying a student’s strengths. Chris recommends teachers place time for this on their schedules and that they do it at least 1-2 times a week. This step addresses the individualization and networking principles noted at the beginning of this piece. Here are several suggestions for this:
Greet students at start of day and ask about activities that utilized strengths
Create class roles or jobs that utilize student strengths
Modify class projects and assignments to match student strengths
Find other spaces in the school environment (library, technology labs, outside spaces, etc.) that can be utilized in the application of strengths
It also provides a graphic that classifies the 24 character strengths.
Step 5 - Don’t Use Strengths As A Carrot
The advice here is simple. Chris cautions educators that it can be devastating for a child to have something they feel is a source of strength taken away from them. We don’t threaten to take away a student’s math or reading time. And we shouldn’t do it when it comes to their areas of strength.
Step 6 - Include More Students
Once teachers have seen the power of operating from a strengths-based perspective with 1 student, they’ll likely be sold on its ability to work for all students.
In addition to having more students take the strengths surveys (or completing them with the full class), Chris provided us with several links that give educators ideas on how to utilize strengths in the classroom:
Step 7 - School Identity Day
Chris told us about his school’s recent Identity Day. Every child at school was asked to create and complete a project that featured an important aspect of their identity.
The power of this school-wide activity was that Chris could now go up to any child at his school and instantly glean from them an area of strength. In fact, on that given day, Chris spoke with over 300 of his students and made it a point to learn at least one thing that was important to them.
Chris provided us with the resources he’s used to do this at his school:
Step 8 - Balance Strength With Struggle
Chris acknowledges that many educators will hear this advice and take things too far. But to be clear, focusing on strengths does not mean we only focus on what we do well. We don’t tell everyone they’re awesome just because. We don’t give awards just for showing up.
When used correctly, the purpose of focusing on strengths is to build up a child’s resilience for times of struggle.
We want our kids to struggle. It’s part of their learning and growth. But you can’t be resilient if you don’t believe that with effort you can succeed. And this resilience comes from the confidence of experience genuine success in an area of strength.
Here again, Chris offers several pointers for striking the right balance:
Don’t allow students to opt out of struggles in favor of strengths
Use growth mindset to emphasize the process, practice, and hard work it’s taken to develop strengths
Create moments of awareness for students to appreciate areas of strength and struggle
Help students bring same mindset of strength into areas of struggle