What strategies support a strengths-based approach?
In this article, we discuss some strategies for using a strengths-based approach in our classroom practice so that English learners, like Javier, and all students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress experience a real sense of being safe, valued, capable of learning, and worthy contributory members of their classroom communities. We consider these four essential experiences to be the basis for creating a strengths-based classroom that is inclusive and responsive to all students, and particularly to those living with trauma, violence and chronic stress.
Take time to build positive, asset-based student-teacher relationships
Working with students living with trauma, violence, or chronic stress requires us to be empathetic educators who care about our students and seek to support them. Nevertheless, we must take it a step further and strive to be asset-based teachers as well. That is, seeking, reflecting back, and honoring the many inherent attributes, values, and qualities our students (and families) possess. But it doesn't stop there. We must support them in drawing from these strengths and capacities to develop the skills, competencies, and confidence to be active learners, independent and critical thinkers, and contributory members of their learning community.
In Javier's story, his teacher was able to cultivate a positive relationship by helping Javier see his intrinsic assets and strengths and by capitalizing on them to engage Javier in learning. He observed Javier's curiosity and eagerness to solve problems and drew from these qualities to cultivate self-monitoring and leadership skills.
There are many strategies that we can use to identify students' strengths and assets and build trusting relationships with them based on these, including:
- Gather as much information as we can about our students.
- Use this background information to build and strengthen our relationships with students by personalizing our interactions using the strengths and assets that we continuously identify.
An example, that can be adapted with support in a students' home language, is a high school teacher who asks students to complete questions on an index card during their first day of school. The front of the card asks them to write their name and nickname. The back asks the following, "What activities, such as sports, music, and work, are you involved or would like to be involved outside of our high school?" He meets first with individual students who leave the activity question blank and supports them in joining an after-school club, obtaining work, and/or engaging in an activity of their interest. He also takes time to visit students after school where they are participating in a sport or are at work. His sole goal is to help them see that they belong to a classroom community and that they are valued and capable individuals who have many personal strengths and assets worthy of recognition.
- Use consistent positive, asset-based language when communicating with students.
An example is a teacher who greets a student with personalized messages such as "Good morning, Lilliana, great to see you after that tough basketball game last night. I heard you were very determined on the court" shows that he understands what is important to the student, and at the same time, he's naming the attribute she is demonstrating (determination) which is one of her strengths. Or, in the case of Javier, his teacher took the opportunity to observe him during independent work and noticed that he had a solid capacity for abstract thinking and that he was strong in algebra. The way he reflected back these personal assets to Javier was by saying, "Javier, you're such a strong problem solver and algebra thinker! I noticed that you can see patterns and break down the parts until you solve the problem." This type of positive energy and language is one of the biggest assets that those of us that work with English learners and all students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress can bring to the classroom.
Construct a physical environment that is conducive for communication and cooperation
Learning spaces have the ability to positively or negatively affect students' learning and morale. From the selection and arrangement of desks, tables and chairs, to the attention we pay to what we place on the classroom walls, every detail counts toward our efforts to keeping students engaged and maximizing their cooperation and creativity. To do this, we have to consider how to:
- Create a physical environment that encourages students' sharing, participation and ownership of their physical classroom space.
- Co-create (with students) an environment that facilitates their empowerment and voice and reinforces the skills necessary to be successful in a global society that demands constant communication, collaboration, teamwork, and innovation.
- Foster unconditional acceptance, a sense of being safe, and of feeling valued and capable of learning.
Students living with traumatic situations, including those who may be English learners, are likely to experience loss of control and sense of powerlessness to various degrees. As such, regaining control is crucial to coping with traumatic stressors (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). In the classroom, this translates to implementing practices that value and encourage all students' participation in decisions that matter to them.
For example, some groups of students may wish to work at their desks in the corner of a room, others may prefer to work on the floor, and others may want to stand at the white board. What's key is co-creating a space where students have a voice in arranging their desks, tables, and chairs and displaying (e.g., on classroom walls or tablemats) their shared ideas, opinions, and concepts to demonstrate a shared ownership of learning.
Classroom environments that promote this type of empowerment do so by building the confidence and capacity of English learners and all students to speak up, to present and address issues of their concern, to make changes, and to take risks. Students are more likely to encounter success in this process when adults become partners and provide active support.
Use predictable classroom routines and practices
Using routines and practices that are consistent and predictable have been found to be essential when working with students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress (Blaustein, 2013).
The following questions help to form the routine responses that students need at the beginning of the school year or when a new student enrolls in our schools:
- What time does school actually start and should they arrive?
- What should students do if there is a delayed opening or closing of school (e.g., a delay due to inclement weather)
- If there is a delay, should students go directly into the school or wait on the playground?
- Where should students go if they arrive at school late?
- Where do they put their coats and backpacks when they enter their classroom? Where does their homework go?
- What should they be doing while they are waiting for the rest of the class to arrive?
- Who will be my teacher and what's his/her name?
According to Blaustein (2013), using the same routines and rituals in our classroom activities allows students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress to downshift from a fearful state where unpredictability takes control, to a calmer and more positive one where events happen in a predictable manner. These include the ways in which we:
- Start class
- Start the lessons
- Sequence the lessons
- Transition students from one task to the next during the lesson
- End the lessons
- Support students during non-instructional time
Here are some suggestions:
- Welcome students positively by letting them know that they are welcomed and valuable members of our classroom community.
- Engage students in a sharing activity about special news such as the arrival of a new sibling, an event, and/or occasion such as a birthday or a school event or sports, performance, or curricular activity. Create routines for this sharing activity to help it to be a predictable social activity.
- Provide information about the day or class' schedule so that students know what to expect during the school day or class period.
- Conduct a short academic or social learning experience. For example, during one meeting, a teacher asked for a student volunteer to share with his/her peers the process that students should follow when leaving from and returning to the classroom for small group instruction. His teaching goal was to support his students in making transitions and empower students in making good choices.
- Support students to transition from the opening meeting to the next classroom activity by noticing and acknowledging those who show readiness.
Apprentice students in social and emotional communicative skills
While paired and groupwork are important methods in any classroom, an important means to support the method working more successfully is the level of trust that we create with and among all of our students. Classroom settings are ideal places for students to acquire the social and emotional communication skills that they need to work cooperatively. All students need this type of instruction so that everyone feels safe, competent, valued, and a sense of belonging. Our instruction must involve supporting students in the development and use of the following:
- Listening skills
- Social and emotional language that is needed to express their feelings to their peers and others
- Attention to their own and their peers' values, assets, and strengths
- Mediating their own emotions
- Resolving conflict in a productive way.
Design pair and group work with plans that explicitly and intentionally support students in the development and strengthening of these skills. Look for opportunities within these groups to recognize the many ways in which students, overtly or covertly, demonstrate their personal assets. Some examples of the type of language/communication that is helpful to acknowledge students' efforts and help them acknowledge others is the following: