Why a focus on students’ strengths beats a focus on their weaknesses
Anyone who has ever worked with me, whether a student or their parent, is familiar with focus on “strengths.”
It’s the core of what I do--in my coaching, my teaching, and my research.
We tend to be a fix-it society, obsessed with changing what seems “wrong” or missing with a student. But this view gets in the way of amplifying what’s “right” or what powerful about them, and building from there.
Instead of a fix-it view, focusing on strengths offers a powerful shift of perspective. It’s why I started coaching 5 years ago. It’s how I teach and parent. And it’s the very backbone of both my 2019 academic book and the United Nations’ 2020 World Youth Report, which I helped to write.
Why it works
Here’s why a strength-based view is so much more effective than a deficit-based view and how parents, educators, and peers can use it to help students reach big goals.
1. A strength-based view orients us to the positive. For example, I start every single coaching session with “so, what went well this week?” My new students often cocks their head and look at me funny as if to say “aren’t we supposed to be talking about everything that’s wrong with me?”
But naming the not-so-terrible parts of the week frames all the positive possibilities. It sets us on a path to more positivity.
Maybe you didn’t get all the homework for Physics done on time but you rocked all the Pre-Calc assignments...great! We can now draw from that Pre-Calc accomplishment to improve the Physics situation next time. Way more effective than just starting with “fixing” the missing homework.
2. A strength-based view taps into what’s known in the academic field of Youth Development as “spark.” Spark is something inside you that gets you excited, that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning, that gives our lives meaning (from Peter Benson’s book Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers). A list of common ones appears at the end of this blog post.
One of the best parts of my work with high-school and college students is to learn their spark and help nurture it. Even when a student comes to me really banged up by academic or personal struggles, they light up when we talk about their spark--from rock-climbing to baking to musical theater to video game programming, I’ve heard quite the variety! But the energy and joy that arises is the same for each.
Parents and educators must help nurture sparks, along with the pursuit of academic goals--grades, scores, admission criteria. It’s the core of motivation and of thriving.
3. A strength-based view gives a path to follow when life becomes uncertain...and it’s always uncertain. For example, one of my top strengths is teaching in a group. I can say that based on my own reaction over the years (I’m most energized and most happy in any classroom, real or virtual) and I get consistent feedback from others that endorses this spark in me. I have learned that without using this spark, I’m just a little less vibrant, a little less myself. So, we can remind students to turn to their sparks when the going gets tough.
(That's me using my spark--teaching--at a conference in 2016)
I’ve had students who love to paint tell me they haven’t picked up a paintbrush in 6 months, which is exactly how long they’ve been feeling down and unmotivated about their studies. Um...that’s not a coincidence. So my coaching homework to them includes painting just as much as homework. To do you best and be your best, you have to be yourself, which means embracing your strengths.
Personal Strengths for the Larger Good
My academic research underscores the importance of youth strengths for their own good, but also the good of society! I was invited by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs to help them create their 2020 World Youth Report.
This year’s topic is Youth Social Entrepreneurship, which means youth-run businesses that serve a social purpose. They flew me to their NYC UN headquarters where I brainstormed for 2 days with other experts on elements of this topic.
Want to guess what my piece is about? Yep--young people’s strengths! I wrote chapter 3 of this report, released last week. Check it out to learn more.
How to Grow Young People's Strengths
There are easy ways to grow students’ strengths whether they are nurturing a garden or working toward a mountain-biking goal or building a social enterprise (for another great example of this, check out UNBND, a clothing line started by 16-year-olds driven to help everyone to live without limits society sets for them. Thanks to their mom who told me about it in my private facebook group Your College Partner).
1. Pay attention: When does someone spend unnecessarily long amounts of time and seem “at their best”?
For my oldest it’s always been with paper and colored pencils. When she contemplated majors in college, we all knew Art & Design would have to be in the mix in order for her to thrive.
2. Ask: What’s an example of a time you were so excited about a project--in school or otherwise--that you couldn’t wait to get to it?
Even my most reserved students are able to name this one, given some prodding. The brightening of their face and energy in their voice when they tell you is worth whatever awkwardness there might be in asking.
3. Encourage: Provide opportunities for and urge use of these strengths whenever possible.
I often have coaching clients whose sparks include helping others, sometimes to the peril of completing their own schoolwork. Rather than asking them to suppress this beautiful “people-person” strength, we craft plans to engage while also prioritizing their work, such as forming study partnerships or scheduling times to help others that won’t conflict with homework.
4. Advocate: Speak up for youth to use their strengths if they can’t speak up for themselves.
“Graphic design for your wedding favors? Oh my daughter can do that!” (true story) “He thrives as a leader, so if you could please occasionally make sure he gets to do that in your 1st grade classroom it will help him thrive” (also true story and I was right. He’s now an 11th grader who voluntarily holds 3 leadership roles in high school. Nailed it, mom!) I also do this for my college students--”you need an intern who has great communication skills? I know just the person for you!”
5. Connect: Help make sure young people can see how their spark can be cultivated and grown through their lives and to the betterment of their communities and world. This gives meaning to our individual strengths!
Do this by sharing examples of “grown-ups” who use a similar spark in their work. Introduce students to role models whose stories can help inspire their paths. Be there to support them when they are using their strengths in the world, such as attending a musical performance, a sports event, volunteering alongside them, etc.
The above actions will make you a “sparks champion” (Benson’s book) and can result in many research-backed outcomes, including better grades, school attendance, physical and mental health, more volunteerism, sense of purpose, and stewardship of the environment (p. 12).
Moreover, everyone is happier, more persistent, and more effective in what they do--which makes the world a better place for them and us.
So...what went well for you this week?
Major Categories of “Sparks” and percent of youth who name it as top for them (Benson, 2008, p 61)
Creative Arts (music, drama, dance, art) 54%
Athletics (organized or informal sports) 25%
Learning academic subjects 18%
Nature, ecology, environment 14%
Helping, serving, volunteering 10%
Religion, spirituality 10%