Several weeks ago, I engaged with junior and high school students exploring their school experiences and aspirations for their future. I discovered a consistent theme that regardless of their specific school experiences they expected those experiences to have an impact on their lives. That is not to say that all their school experiences were positive rather that they truly felt those experiences would impact their lives.
One of the questions I asked the students was “What things do you want your teachers and principal to know about you and your abilities? “ Here are some of their responses:
- I want people to know what I value and believe, for example I value education and want to have a career in the medical field and thus believe it important they understand I want to help people and assist them to help themselves.
- I am helpful and want people to take care of each other and not just focus on themselves; I want others to know that I am smart and confident and not afraid to say that, I also believe respect is important and I want to respect others and have them respect me; and I can focus on topics, issues and things that are important to me and others.
- I am a passionate person in things I believe in and the things I enjoy; I am motivated if I feel something is worth doing I will drive myself to achieve it; I am a strong believer in personal values.
- I am willing to create relationships that are genuine and trusting and enjoy sharing my experiences with others and learning from their experiences.
- I trust others.
- I am able to address and help solve conflicts; I can communicate well and collaborate with others to achieve goals.
- I love people and want to work with people I am outgoing and unafraid to talk with others and am able to make others comfortable.
Their responses reminded me of a blog I wrote last year encouraging schools to focus on the assets of students (their interests, talents and gifts) rather than a deficit approach focusing students’ needs. I suggested utilizing strategies associated with an early warning system that schools could use to identify students at highest risk of dropout.
These early warning systems analyze information on several student factors (e.g., attendance and course performance) and corresponding indicators (e.g., absences, grade point average and credits earned). The earlier these factors/indicators are discovered the greater the opportunity schools can target specific interventions.
Early warning systems are first steps to address the problem of high school dropouts and potential challenges students encounter during their high school years.
Establishing a school system approach to early identification of students at highest risk of dropping out is a good strategy.
Given the interview responses I shared earlier and other interactions with elementary, middle and high school students I suggest schools develop and implement school early warning systems to identify the strengths, talents and interests of students?
Instead of factors and indicators that lead schools to identify students most at risk, what if schools developed a system to identify each students’ attributes and interests. For example asking students:
- “What do you do well?” and “what interests do you have?” provides teachers the opportunities to understand each student’s strengths rather than a focus on their areas of risk.
- “When you are doing your best in school what is happening?” informs teachers, staff and school leaders of the conditions that support students’ success rather than identifying areas where they struggle focusing on those challenges.
- “What about this class/course do you find most interesting?” encourages teachers to inspire and motivate their students from an area of interest rather than from a prescribed scope and sequence.
I believe a strengths-based early warning system increases the opportunity for students to engage in classes in ways relevant to them, rather than feeling disengaged from the teaching/learning process.
This strengths-based orientation flips a negative for a positive and better meets the students where they are. It helps students fully develop their competencies, rather than a singular focus on reducing or eliminating negative factors that impede students’ progress and success.
As the students indicated during their interviews they want people to know about their values and beliefs as well as their attributes. This suggests that schools should not be afraid to ask about students’ values, beliefs and feelings when they want to fully understand the contributions they can make to their development, the development of other students and the school’s quality and character.
Each student has attributes that can guide teachers to assist them to understand the relevancy of their school experiences; the first step is to ask the students questions like those suggested above. The key is not to merely ask the questions but to take seriously students’ responses to maximize their contributions now and in the future.