The timing of last night’s Start with Strengths session could not have been better. Just three hours earlier, I was standing by my car, listening to my son’s teacher recite everything my boy had done wrong that day.
“What did he do right?” I asked her, tears threatening to spill out of my eyes, my voice tinged with desperation. Surely there was something. “Oh yes,” she said, “he participated in our class discussion, did well in English class…” and then reverted back to the ‘rap sheet’ of bad behaviour. My son sat slumped in the car, knowing full well the tone of our conversation.
I got back into the driver’s seat weary and defeated, my cheeks burning with shame. If I felt like crap, I knew that my son did too. I also knew there’s got to be a better way. Later that night, family leader Karen Copeland and Langley principal Chris Wejr confirmed that there was: a strengths based approach to education.
The session was warm and lively and involved both lecture-style with funky visuals and small group work. It was a great mix of storytelling, video and interaction. All the way home I thought about how I had failed miserably to communicate effectively with his teaching team about what’s awesome about my boy.
Learning about what makes my son’s heart sing and then building on that does not mean spoiling or giving into him. (I hate the term ‘giving in’ – it implies a constant battle. I so wish his life wasn’t such a big fight, because that always means there are winners and losers. And he usually loses).
Last night, I confirmed that the research tells us we all perform better when we focus on our strengths, not our weaknesses. We often label behaviours as negative, instead of seeing the talents they might be masking. My son often gets in trouble for blurting out how he feels – but expressing his feelings is a good thing, and I admire his talent for word play. Yesterday he angrily called a teacher ‘Trump-Lady’ which is of course not okay, but it does display his good grasp of both current events and the English language. The key is to redirect his quick wit into something productive instead.
The workshop was powerful. Chris affirmed that many kids go through school reminded of what they can’t do, not what they can do. That’s because schools (and the world) concentrate on deficits, not strengths. But if we work on our deficits all the time, we will only become okay – but if we work on our strengths, we can be outstanding.
Karen and Chris referenced a lot of great work, like Rita Pierson’s TedTalk called Every Kid Deserves a Champion. (A favourite quote: kids don’t learn from people they don’t like). This is important to work about human connection for all kids – especially for our kids who struggle with connection. They talked about helping kids to bring forth what is within.
Chris asked: how can we help kids see themselves through a different lens? So that they believe that they CAN, not that they CAN’T. Kids do not need fixing, as they are not broken and as Karen said, sometimes it starts with remembering what it is about children that brings us joy.
Kudos to Karen and Chris for a well-organized and thoughtful learning opportunity. I loved that both a parent and a principal shared the podium – it really modelled what true partnership can look like in education.
Today, I had a chance to practice what I learned. After school when the teacher started to recite my boy’s transgressions, I put up my hand. Please stop, I said. First tell me something he did well. Her tone changed and she told me about a picture of a city he’s painting in art class. Aaron’s demeanour transformed from stressed and distraught to relaxed and smiling. His relief was instantaneous. Then we were both open to hearing about more constructive feedback. As Chris said, the struggle is important – that’s where you learn. It doesn’t mean you don’t address the hard stuff – but why not start with what’s good?
I learned last night to start with www (what went well). This approach is very powerful and it can make all the difference to a child. It can also show them that they matter. And in this world of uncertainty and growing repression, we need more people to feel that they matter, to stand up for what’s right, to make a difference. That’s what’s called teaching our children well.