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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 121 MARCH 2009 / BACK
Listen to this


The importance of taking a strength-based perspective

Mary Beth Hewitt

Why are some people successful with students although others have given up on them? This author believes it is because they have a strength-based focus and an optimistic perspective. These educators move “out of the problem and into the solution” by exhibiting eight behaviors of strength-based teachers.

Many times when I am doing a consultation, staff members can tell me everything that a child does wrong. “He NEVER sits still.” “She’s ALWAYS talking.” “He NEVER does any work.” When I ask what the child does right, I am frequently met with blank stares. Along the same vein, adults can also tell me what the child does not like. He’s not interested in reading, rewards, et cetera. However, when I inquire as to what he/she does like, the blank stares return. Do not get me wrong, I used to sit with consultants and expand on all the problem behaviors of my students, too. It was easy to talk about the problems the child created because they were so obvious. You have probably heard that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Well, let’s face it; you NOTICE when kids are misbehaving. You also know what the child does not like because he or she tells you, saying things like “I don’t care” or “this is stupid.”

Although in some ways it is helpful to know what the child cannot do and what he does not like, focusing on it does little to solve the problem. We have a choice. We can stay stuck in the problem or we can look for the solution. Talking about what the child cannot do or does not like brings us no closer to finding out what he can do or what he does like. Nothing is ever fixed by looking at it and bemoaning the fact that it is broken or worthless.

Imagine that you are working with an individual who has severe physical challenges, who can neither speak nor move his arms or legs in a coordinated matter. You are sitting with a consultant and say, “I don’t know what to do with him. He NEVER does his work. He is ALWAYS disrupting the class by flailing around.” Ridiculous, isn’t it? I find it interesting that when people look at individuals with extreme physical challenges, the focus shifts from what they cannot do, to what they can do. A person with cerebral palsy may not be able to speak or coordinate his/her hand movements but perhaps is able to track items with his/her eyes. A computer program is then developed that allows communication via eye-movement tracking. The people working with individuals with these types of disabilities are forced to focus on the client’s STRENGTHS rather than lamenting about the person's weaknesses. They also focus on the factors that they (the staff members) can control. Furthermore, they look at how the environment can adjust to meet the needs of the client rather than expecting the client to adapt to the environment. Many people have found that the same strengthbased approach can help educators program for students with learning, emotional, and/or behavioral disabilities. A strength-based approach is an optimistic way of looking at a situation.

If the child persists in activities we do not like, we dub him obstinate, stubborn, hard-boiled, perverse, unruly or headstrong. If he persists in actions which please us, we speak of him as determined, strong-willed, resolute, brave, unflinching.
- John J. B. Morgan (2005)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is misbehavior
One day, I was observing in the classroom of a first year teacher. Before the class began, I sat down with her and she told me that her most pressing problem was a particular student, whom she said never did any work, was constantly seeking attention, was rude and defiant. The school psychologist had given her an observation checklist, which she wanted to complete, but had not had the time. She asked if I would watch the boy’s behavior. In the thirty minutes I observed, he sat in his seat, did his work, and paid attention for twenty-nine out of the thirty minutes. Once he got out of his seat to sharpen his pencil, and once he verbally stood up for a fellow classmate who was being teased, by saying, “Leave her alone. That’s not nice.” I viewed both of these as positive actions. Sharpening his pencil allowed him to keep working. Standing up for a classmate who was being teased was an act of courage.

I also noticed the teacher’s behavior. She stood at the front of the room and read from a worksheet, which the students were doing at their desks. In a thirty-minute period, she gave fifteen reprimands to various members of the group for off-task behavior and gave no recognition for positive behavior. She made three praise statements for right answers and seven reprimands for wrong answers. Interestingly, four of those reprimands for wrong answers were to one boy who was the most well behaved student.

After the students had left the room to go to another class, we had a chance to talk. “So, what do you think?” she asked. Thinking that perhaps I had observed the student in question on a particularly good day, I inquired, “Was that pretty typical behavior for him?” “Yes,” she replied, “I mean, sometimes he can be worse, but that was pretty typical. See how awful he is? He was off task, out of his seat, and was yelling at other students.”

You may wonder how two individuals can look at the same student and have such very different perceptions. While she was gathering evidence on what the student was doing to reinforce her belief that he was behaving badly, I was looking at what the boy was doing to reinforce my belief that he must be doing something right. It all has to do with what you focus on. If you focus on the negative, the negative grows. If you focus on the positive, the positive grows. This is the critical difference between optimism and pessimism.

Why do we need optimism?
If you view something as broken, useless, and beyond repair, you generally throw it away. It’s not worth your efforts to fix. However, if you view it as precious and valuable, you will go to great lengths to salvage it. We are talking about children here. They are far too valuable to throw away. Although I am writing about students with learning problems as well as behavioral disorders, I like this quote from Larry Brendtro and Arlin Ness, two leading experts in the field of strength-based interventions:

Some might argue that optimism about antisocial youth is itself a thinking error, a Pollyanna illusion that nasty kids are really little cherubs. However, pessimism is seldom useful and often leads to feelings of powerlessness, frustration, and depression. In contrast, optimism feeds a sense of efficacy and motivates coping and adaptive behavior, even in the face of difficult odds. (1995, p. 3)

We need to assume an optimistic view in order for us to feel like we can make a difference in the lives of all of our children. Furthermore, if we want our children to be resilient and optimistic, we need to model it.

Going back to the teacher with whom I was consulting, I realized that I had to shift my focus from what she was doing incorrectly to what she was doing correctly. I will admit it is a lot easier to focus on what she was doing incorrectly. However, I knew that I could not help her if I only considered her weaknesses, any more than I could expect her to help her student if she focused on his. I had to shift my focus to what she was doing right:

1. She allowed a perfect stranger to come into her classroom;
2. She asked for help;
3. For 20 out of the 30 minutes, she did not issue any reprimands;
4. She gave some praise statements;
5. She had materials prepared.

I said, “You really care about this boy.” “I do,” she replied and continued, “He is homeless and doesn’t have much stability in his life. I really want him to do well, and I’m very concerned about him. I don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m failing him. I’m constantly yelling at him.” I said, “It must be awful for you to care so much and yet the only way you know how to get his attention is by yelling at him.” “It is,” she said as she broke into tears. “I wish I knew what else to do.” I asked, “Would you like some suggestions?” and she responded affirmatively. At this point, she was willing to listen to my observations about this boy and behavioral indications that he was doing some things correctly. This was the beginning of a supportive relationship. Later that year, I saw this teacher again and she was beaming. This boy had now become her star pupil!

Because I chose to see this teacher as being committed, open-minded, caring, receptive, brave, and honest, I wanted to help her. I wonder if I had seen her as being negative, rigid, and domineering if I would have felt the same way. Taking an optimistic view does not mean you do not address problems. It means that you look for what you are able to nourish in order to overcome those problems.

The power of labels
The way you label something will make a big difference in the way you approach it. To paraphrase Ross Greene (1990) in The Explosive Child, your interpretation will drive your intervention. This is particularly important when it comes to describing students” behaviors. Labels are evidence of our interpretation. Our interpretation of the behavior can lead us to either want to disconnect and discard or reconnect and nurture.

There is a great deal of research on the dehumanizing and debilitating effects of negative labeling. As I was doing some research in preparation for writing this article, I came across a study about a woman who taught her class about how discrimination and prejudice starts (WGBH Educational Foundation, 1985). The class was divided into the “blue eyes” and the “brown eyes.” The students were told that blue eyes were good and that brown eyes were inferior. In less than one day, the performance level of the students with brown eyes dropped. Although she was trying to teach about racial prejudice, I couldn’t help but make the connection to all forms of prejudice. There is a great deal of prejudice against students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. I think this was most evident to me when I was teaching a group of 2nd graders about students with emotional disabilities. One young boy raised his hand and asked, “Are we talking about the handicapped kids or the bad kids?”

Likewise, I hear the pessimism of adults working with students with behavioral disorders in comments such as “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “What do you expect? His father is in jail,” “He lives in a trailer park,” “He’s from a broken home.” These comments are not information sharing; they are indictments. How do we expect kids to be hopeful and persistent, if the adults in their world are mired in feelings of hopelessness?

Eight behaviors of strength-based teachers
Why are some people successful working with kids although others have given up on them? I believe it is because they take an optimistic view and engage in eight behaviors that go along with a strength-based focus. As you read the examples that follow each behavior in Figure 1, note your attitude for each. Do you notice that when something is phrased negatively, you feel depressed and defeated while when the same situation is described positively you feel hopeful and energized? I truly believe that all teachers start out wanting to and believing they can make a positive difference in the lives of all of their students. However, years of being exposed to negative reports and focusing on a student’s weaknesses and misbehaviors have taken their toll. You can recapture the feeling that you can make a positive difference in the lives of ALL your students by focusing on the positive.

Behavior Flaw focus vs Strength focus
Focus on what the student can do. He cannot attend to a task for more than 5 minutes. vs He can attend to a task for 5 minutes.
Make realistic appraisals.
Avoid the use of overgeneralization.
He is always out of his seat.

She never follows directions.
vs He stayed in his seat for 28 out of thirty minutes.

She followed eight out of ten directions.
Look for and give credit for evidence of progress. Don’t minimize or discount the positive. He must have been in a good mood because he worked longer today, but that won’t last. vs He worked steadily for ten minutes.
Positively reframe behavior. She is constantly interfering in issues that don’t concern her. vs She is aware of injustice and stands up for those she believes are being mistreated.
Look for the “silver lining” in a student’s behavior and start there. He screams to get your attention when something is hard. vs He recognizes when he needs help and lets people know it.
Work with the factors that you can control. There aren’t enough aides to help him when he needs a scribe. vs I can modify the activity so that
he can work in a cooperative team and another student can take the notes.
Look at the whole picture. It is as important to focus on factors that are present when the misbehavior does not occur as when it does. When she is asked to read aloud in the classroom she throws her books. vs When she is reading to
younger students she is calm and attentive to their needs.
Be aware of the labels that you use and the projections that you make. He is stubborn and hard-boiled. He’ll end up in jail. What do you expect? He comes from a bad neighborhood.

He is a disruptive element in the classroom. He never takes anything seriously.
vs He is determined, resolute, and courageous. He has
leadership potential.

He has a quick wit and a
sense of humor.


Brendtro, L. and Ness, A. (1995). Fixing flaws or building strengths? Reclaiming Children and Youth, 4, 2. pp. 2-7.

Greene, R. (1998). The explosive child. New York: Harper Collins.

Morgan, J. J. B. (2005). In L. Brendtro, A. Ness and M. Mitchell. No disposable kids. p. 100. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

WGBH Educational Foundation. (1985). Frontline: A class divided. PBS Video.

This feature: Hewitt, Mary Beth. (2005). The importance of taking a strength-based perspective. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 14, 1. pp. 23-26.

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