The Strengths Mentality

I started reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman (high brow stuff, right?  I know you’re impressed).  It was witty and wildly imaginative, but man, was it giving me the most bizarre dreams.

So now I am sticking to the safer choice, Count Me In!  Including Learners with Special Needs in Mathematics Classrooms by Judy Storeygard (summary here).  (And my husband, who is, literally, tired of my sleepless nights, has told me I’m not allowed to read before bedtime.)

One point that resonated with me in Count Me In! is the way Judy describes the “deficit mentality” children and parents often face.  She shares the experiences of parents of special needs children whose parent-teacher conferences are dominated by discussions of their children’s needs, but never their strengths.  An autistic student, for instance, has many math-related skills.  He’s great at solving puzzles, building with legos, and remembering directions.  But, his teacher’s expectations of him in the math classroom are very low.  Frustrated with hearing about her child’s limitations, his parent asks, “How can his skills be used to build math knowledge?”

This reminded me of one of my first-ever parent conferences.  I’m gonna say it plain: the student was a pain in the butt.  And as a new teacher, I was having a hard time managing his behavior.  I don’t know what I wanted from his mom, but I do remember — after most of the conference had already gone by — she interrupted me and said, “Alright, I got it.  Can we talk about academics already?”

I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of the “deficit mentality.”  When something’s going wrong, it can be so frustrating, and we want to know why.  Why is this student having trouble?  We want to diagnose and label the problem.  But what we often need instead is to take a step back and see all the things that are going right.  What are all the things the student can do well in math?  And, most important, how can we build upon those strengths with strategies that will help the student succeed?

Using what students know and can do to launch them to their next step is crucial in daily classroom practice.  It’s also really important during a child study or special education process.  The deficit mentality can become part of group think, too, and if we let it, it can become the prevailing attitude in a school.  (This is not the attitude in my current school, where I am surrounded by stellar educators.  But I’ve seen it in other places, and it’s incredibly hurtful to children.)

So Judy has me thinking more about keeping up my “strengths mentality” this school year, especially when it comes to my role on our school’s child study team.  And — as someone who is a really harsh self-critic — I’m going to try to practice it more on myself, too.

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2 thoughts on “The Strengths Mentality

  1. This post hit a chord in me. (A little weepy I must admit.) As a mom of a child who struggles behaviorally, I see and know that I can get caught up in focusing on trying to fix the problems. I think even when I am speaking positively it still is around the ‘issues’ that she has been working on.

    I know I need to change my thinking around. I think that there can be something subtle, yet strong in the shift of thinking that you are bringing up. The ‘deficit mentality’ does not have to look like a complete negative nag of bad energy. I think it can look and be more quieter than this.

    I am working real hard at being calm through the hard times and being in that moment.
    And celebrating all who she is and giving her room to continue to grow and develop.
    I am going to sit with your question..
    “How can we build upon those strengths with strategies that will help the student succeed?”

    At home and in my classroom I have small cards that have my mission statement for that place.
    At school it says: “I am a central person in each child’s life. What have I done today to make each child feel special? What have I done today to help each child move to his/her next step?” It sits right near the spot that I sit and stand the most. It just reminds me during the challenging moments.
    The home one is longer and in a framed picture frame. Part of it says: “I will connect myself each morning to being there for my daughter, to celebrate who she is and her life’s journey. To recognize that this in not about me….it is about helping B develop into and celebrate the wonderful and unique person and spirit that she is. She should see me as her biggest cheerleader.”

    • Christine, when I read the first sentence and a half of your comment, I thought I knew what it was going to be about. I thought, Christine has probably had experiences with teachers who have this deficit mentality about B. it is yet another testament to what an amazing mom and educator you are that instead, your post was a self-reflection.

      We are definitely swimming against the current here. Society pushes us towards labeling kids (really, what don’t we label?) and identifying what makes them differ from normal. I think it’s part of how we’re wired. I agree completely, it doesn’t always look all negative. And I don’t think we can stop ourselves from saying, wow, here’s an issue we need to work on. But then I think the key is that we turn it around. The issue becomes a goal, and we recognize all of the strengths the child has that support reaching that goal. We recognize how far they’ve already come, and that no matter what the problem is, they’re never starting from scratch. Every child comes equipped with powerful tools for success. It’s just that every child’s toolset is different.

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