Skip Navigation
We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience, provide ads, analyze site traffic, and personalize content. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies.
NEA News

New Focus on Strength-Based Learning

Instead of finding and filling gaps in learning, says expert, schools should do more to identify what students know, or what they can do, and build on that knowledge.
strength-based learning
Published: 06/09/2022

Key Takeaways

  1. Schools are taking a fresh look at strength-based education, an idea that has been around for decades.
  2. Educators should not only help students identify their strengths, but apply them to their learning.
  3. According to the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, "a strengths-based approach can help build student confidence, encourage efficacious behaviors, and support life-long learning pursuits.”

While the concept has been around for decades and the idea comes intuitively to most educators, strength-based education is getting renewed attention as schools look for new ways to individualize learning and broadly evaluate and support students and adults in positive ways.  

It also may be particularly important for students whose first language is not English and who too often are limited by assumptions made about them concerning deficits.  

The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Louis University describes it this way: 

“Strengths-based education is a learner-centered approach to teaching that helps students identify, articulate and apply their individual skills relevant to their learning needs. Based on research from social work, positive psychology and business, a strengths-based approach can help build student confidence, encourage efficacious behaviors, and support life-long learning pursuits.” 

It is a far-reaching but logical change in thinking about student learning, says Jamie Lipp, a former classroom teacher and now professor at Ohio State University who specializes in teacher education and literacy instruction and has written about strength-based approaches in reading specifically.   

“It is the antithesis of finding gaps in learning then trying to fill them, which is the sort of deficit-based instruction we have done too often,” she says. “With a strength-based approach we identify what a student does know, or what they can do, and build on it. Success builds success.” 

Research has shown that identifying student assets in the classroom, which is also known as positive education or asset-based learning, improves engagement and perseverance and increases achievement and well-being. Focusing continually on skills they lack can reduce enthusiasm and discourage students, Lipp says. 

Strength-Based Learning in Schools

It is important, experts point out, however, for educators not only to help students identify their strengths, but apply them to their learning

Researchers in New Zealand found that the approach requires:

  • processes for identifying strengths involving the recognition and acknowledgment of preferences, abilities and passions.
  • processes for applying strengths with teachers encouraging students to “be aware of how they can use those strengths to achieve, accomplish and overcome”.
  • processes for further developing strengths to enable students to improve known competencies.

It can be used in schools in a variety of ways, including in evaluations of staff members or in student disciplinary meetings where building on positive actions can be instructive.

Laura DuPre, a bilingual educator at Maie Ellis Elementary School in Fallbrook, CA, and a founding member and now chair of the NEA Multilingual Learners Caucus, was one of the authors of a new business item for NEA requesting more information be provided to members about strength-based approaches.

She says it is particularly important for educators to use them with students learning English and to apply them in “embracing the linguistical and cultural diversity of our members and the students that we serve”.

Currently, federal legislation uses the term English Learners (ELs), but the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators and NEA’s Multilingual Learners Caucus (formerly the English Learner Caucus) would like to see the terms “multilingual learners” and "multilingual communities" used to celebrate the identities of all students. We recognize that “EL” is the convenient and often-used word when we talk about "students who receive EL services”, but we would like to see the asset-based terminology used whenever possible.”

A student might have limited English skills but have a knowledge of math beyond their grade level, for instance, or a student may be a very strong writer or understand text at a high level – but in their own language. Often those students advance quickly once their English skills grow but too often other strengths aren’t recognized or built on until that takes place.

“I think what we are trying to do is build an appreciation for what students who have English as a second or third language come with. They come with a rich language, sometimes two, and culture,” DuPre says.

Different Models

A deficit approach is often used for various other students who are already struggling with challenges, Lipp says, including those identified as receiving special education services or other interventions.

It helps teachers avoid allowing the deficits or unknowns about a student dominate plans for them and affect their attitudes about learning,” she says, noting that students know if they are struggling and may become discouraged by continual reminders of their challenges.

She displays a student writing sample with misspellings and incorrectly formed letters.  But she notes that the student did spell a few words correctly, clearly used sound analysis to write a few more, and knew how to form a new line of words and create a sentence. By building on the words that were correct the student might recognize how they grasped and used them or how the formation of the sentence is a correct fundamental structure for writing, paving a way to a description of its structure.

She says teachers can improve student strengths through “If-Then” models. When a teacher has identified a strength, it becomes the “if” portion of the model. The “then” portion becomes the new learning that can be linked to and taught from the current strength.

“Teachers identify the strength and then pair it with all the new learning that can be taught from recognizing, praising, practicing, and scaffolding that particular strength. These If-Then models then become visual webs of the known to the not-yet-known. 

That sort of thinking can be used in any subject and particularly as educators at any level assess students and look at data, considering successes no matter how limited.

“One activity to consider is to look carefully at an assessment with the expectation of spending a short, set amount of time recording only the strengths found within the assessment results,” Lipp has written.

Galt  (CA) Joint Union Elementary School District has developed a broad approach to strength-based learning, using things like 10 "talent themes," or strengths such as like "Caring," "Competing", "Confidence" and, importantly, “presence” in personalized learning plans somewhat like a report card that show a student’s strengths and efforts to improve them.

school bus facemasks

Education News Relevant to You

Read the latest on our advocacy, our members, and the education trends we’re watching.
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.