When assessing children we are looking for areas of deficits and concern that are impacting the student’s classroom performance in order to demonstrate a need in order to provide services. Although it is important in order to establish areas of difficulty a student is experiencing it is also important that when we are assessing a student that we assess the student’s areas of strength.
Taking a strengths-based approach with a student does not mean that we are ignoring or denying that a student may demonstrate areas of concern but instead are ensuring that we are focusing on the "whole-student". Recognizing students strengths can lead us to develop the "just right challenge" for our students.
Working with students in the school setting to leverage their strengths and develop adaptive responses for their areas of concern can give students tools that they will not only utilize in schools but for a lifetime. This includes opportunities to develop self-confidence, advocate for themselves, and achieve self-awareness.
As stated above, establishing strengths of our student populations allows us to develop the “just right challenge” that will foster growth in the deficit areas and/or an adaptive responses to those challenges. So how exactly do I promote a strengths based approach to my school-based occupational therapy practice? Well, it starts in the occupational therapy assessment report findings.
I will admit that in today’s world (not just the realm of education and school-based OT) it is easy and encouraged to place a large amount of attention on our own personal areas of weakness as well as focusing on the weaknesses of others. When assessing students we can get lost in figuring out the areas of weakness or concern. Most strengths can be figured out via a simple structured interview questions of the students. What are the student's favorite classes? What do they like most about school? What are the things that they feel are good at? What is it that they want to be when they grow up? What are their preferred activities and hobbies? These are the areas that light the student up when they speak about them.
During assessment I also find it valuable take note of the student's confidence on certain activities presented during classroom observations or throughout standardized testing. How was their behavior different during the class they enjoyed versus the one that was not their favorite? Did they seem confident on the timed portion of the BOT-2 manual dexterity subtest? How did that confidence improve their attention? Their overall performance? I like to make a note of this in my report because you can utilize this strength later to help boost performance skills in other areas.
Taking a strengths-based approach mean providing the student with the “just right challenge”. As OTs we want to provide the child with challenging occupational activities that promote growth that help them to learn to leverage their strengths.
At times during IEP prep it may be important to ask yourself “What can she do?” versus “What can’t she do that I need to work on or fix with her?” This will lead you to write more appropriate goals but also build capacity with the IEP team including the student herself. I can best describe how to do this with an example from my own practice.
I had a student that was considered “very low” both developmentally and functionally. I was overwhelmed by the deficits needing to be addressed; however when I thought of what this student was good at I was able get more clarity. For example I could have focused on the deficit areas such as: she can’t write her name. She can’t trace. She can’t copy. She can’t ...she can’t…. Etc. However, I looked at what she COULD do it became much easier to establish a goal and baseline. She can hold a writing implement. She knows how to utilize a writing implement. She will color within a given boundary. She imitates simple lines and body movements. She is friendly and engaged with me and classroom personnel. She has excellent behavior and she is motivated to participate. She recognizes shapes and letters. Can work on imitating shapes or letters? Yes! That's a skill I might be able to help improve.
When we look at all the ways a students may be “behind” we can lose sight of where they really are right now. When we focus on a student’s strengths we can return control to the student themselves. They learn how to utilize their strengths in order to develop adaptive responses to presented challenges as well as the self-esteem to cope with the inevitable challenges that will come their way.
I have had students who refuse to participate in the fine motor activity I presented that works on their area of concern. When this happens taking a strengths based approach has helped me to provide better treatment.
An example I can remember was a student with behavioral and attention difficulties who had Down's Syndrome. He seemed to only want to do the exact opposite of what I needed him to work on. The exasperation and feelings of failure with this student at times left me feeling defeated. At that moment I was solely focusing on his areas of deficit (the fine motor integration skill that he was "weak" in). I was ready to throw in the towel and say “no progress due to refusal etc. etc. etc.” When I took a step back however and thought about this student’s strengths. I realized after speaking with the teacher and pushing into the classroom that he had a sense of pride from cleaning up and being the classroom “helper”. I changed my approach to leverage this area of strength and began pairing him with another student whose ability level was slightly lower for OT sessions. My student who often refused began to model for the other student what and how to perform the activities. A bonus benefit was that his independence, self-confidence, and accuracy improved along with the skills of the other student in this OT group. Coming at this situation from a strengths-based approach allowed me to see new in-roads and opportunities I had not before.
When ever I have felt “stuck” on a student or there is a lack of progress I often ask myself “Am I looking at the student’s strengths or their deficits?” If I’m looking at their deficits I will go back and take an inventory of their strengths and this more often than not leads me to new solutions and strategies I may not have tried before.
Taking an inventory of strengths also gives me a more accurate assessment of the student’s present level of function, which helps me clearly define goals and next steps. I would encourage you the next time your pondering why a student hasn’t made progress or is being to take a look at their strengths and be sure you're leveraging them to their fullest capacity. While deficits may establish eligibility it is the student’s strength that is going to carry them throughout their school age years and possibly throughout their lifetime.
In what ways has looking at student strengths help you develop better goals and plans with your students? How do you leverage student strengths in your school setting? How can we encourage all school personnel to focus on student strengths?