How to Use a Strengths-Based Approach With Youth at Risk of Violence -- It Really Is Rocket Science!

I want to start off with a rhetorical question, and then lead you through a transformative process to use with your most at-risk elementary or secondary level students (or even college students as well). The rhetorical question is this: How do astronauts get into a spaceship; do they enter from the top or bottom?

The method to be shared in this article is actually great for all types of students, not just those at risk of violence. But I wanted to get the attention of some administrators that urgently need this kind of help for a current situation.

The picture linked here, courtesy of NASA, shows the access arm for the Space Shuttle when it was in operation. In the Apollo days, it was also called a gantry arm. This horizontal stretch of scaffolding including a "white room" at the end was intended as the single entry point for the shuttle. It was even a potential exit point if an evacuation was necessary - which was an unfortunate lesson from a tragedy during the Apollo 1 mission.

But I would ask the reader: have you ever heard of an astronaut who climbed up into flight deck of a rocket by entering through the engines on the bottom?

The answer, of course, is no - but surprisingly we often try to use this faulty logic lots of times in education when we are correcting students. Think for a moment about the negative nature of the rule systems in some schools. "Don't do this, don't do that"... students are continually painted a picture that helps them avoid undesirable behaviors. And don't get me wrong (no pun intended), this is needed, but students need positive motivations much more than negative ones.

And if we are using the negative mindset, here is what happens when students are corrected. We often launch in with a motto of "You shouldn't have done that, next time do it differently." But in a way, this continual focus on what children should not be doing plays a role in driving these unwanted behaviors deeper into hearts and minds of the young people who make missteps at times.

Of course, there is a better way.

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Instead of trying to reach under a behavior in order to correct it, consider the method of using a student's strengths. Even while Howard Gardner first operationalized this idea under the code name, Multiple Intelligences, educators and educational institutions have long been finding ways to incorporate and lead students using the skills they are already good at. It's a really useful and positive approach to many situations that come up with students.

Consider a simple example. A student had stolen something from a teacher's desk, and it is the second offense. A typical school response might include meetings with the parents/guardians as well as a longer suspension if the first offense had resulted in a day out of school but had not corrected the behavior. The guiding notion of traditional discipline is that if a student is excluded from their peer environment for enough time, they will come to their senses and make the changes that are needed. And it sometimes works, but again - there is a better way.

Instead of giving this student another couple days outside of school (where access to basketball courts and malls might be both tempting and available), why not try the finding the educational rocketship's access arm to positive behavior: a student's strengths?

Gallup, Inc. has had a great deal of success with Strengths-Based Leadership for business leaders. The influential book on this topic by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie (Strengths Based Leadership, 2008) is a runaway best seller for business and educational leaders.

Strengths-Based Leadership was created by the work of the late Dr. Donald O. Clifton through interviews with 10,000 leading CEOs. What resulted through these interviews and similar ones with the people the CEOs led was the creation of an online tool of 34 strengths in four domains, executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking.

From this important work, a couple of recommended takeaway points are:

  • The most effective leaders are always investing in strengths.
  • The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team.
  • The most effective leaders understand their followers' needs.

But I would ask every educator out there:

Can't we consider that students should also have a chance to become leaders - and especially students who are at risk of any sort of disengagement from their education?

After all, wouldn't we want students to be maximizing the effectiveness of teams of peers that they engage in each day (their friends) and then be learning to understand the needs of people with whom they are sharing their newfound strengths? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

In fact, Gallup built a tool called Strengths Explorer, www.strengths-explorer.com which ascertains strengths for students aged 10-14.

But before we create a working model for students, ages 10 through college, actually, let's explore one more point from Gallup's research and see if there is an application in education. Gallup found that when the leaders of an organization or business focused on the strengths of their employees, then the employees were 8 times as likely to be engaged in their work (it was a 9% level of engagement in non-strengths-focused workplaces compared with 73% in workplaces that focused on strengths). Wow, what a difference in engagement and the potential connections to each organization's mission and goals!

So let's play this out in our schools. If we could encourage teachers and school leaders with proven ways of connecting student's to the individual strengths that each possess, then something amazing can take place. I would actually call this another revolution in education because what would happen is that student engagement levels could skyrocket.

Here's how it works.

Method for Implementing Strength with Students who are At-Risk, as well as all other Students (ages 10-24)

There are five steps to a Strengths-Based school module, and each aims at a deeper understanding of strengths in the context of the individual staff member's work experience. The goals of this module are personal excellence and also organizational excellence.

For students aged 10-16, purchase surveys from www.strengths-explorer.com. Even though this tool is geared slightly for an age 14 student, I would submit that 15 and 16-year-olds need to understand these strengths too before they could benefit from the adult version. (*To do this a free way, you can use any of the free online tools for multiple intelligences and then adapt the materials below.)

For students aged 17-24, purchase copies of the book, Strengths-Based Leadership (Rath & Conchie, 2008) for each student and set up a meeting (below) to give out these books.

  • Meeting 1 (20-30 minutes): Explain the strengths-based leadership process and what this can lend to students in a school. During this time, school leaders can explain that strengths are like learning and climbing up the scaffolding to get into a rocketship. They represent the high road instead of the low road. Books will be given to each person in this meeting. Also, if there are staff members in the school who are interested in knowing their strengths as well, this would be a great time to include them too.
  • Homework to do before Meeting 2 (due in 2 weeks):

    (a) Students will meet together to discuss what finding out their strengths might do. It can be an exploratory discussion. Younger students can also review a shorter book, How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids. Also, older and more mature students (and staff) can review pages 1-99 of the book, Strengths-Based Leadership.

    (b) Everyone should consider what they might do or do better if they knew their strengths. The four key areas are executing (getting things done), influencing (helping people get things done), relationship building (working effectively with others), strategic thinking (working effectively with ideas).

  • Meeting 2 (30-45 minutes): The second meeting has two goals. First, students will be reminded of the goals of learning their strengths, and what those strengths might look like. Second, in a quiet location (without any interruptions) they will take their strengths tests and print out a certificate with their top 3 (if aged 10-16) or top 5 (if aged 17-24) strengths.
  • Extended Homework (as adapted by each institution): students will think about their newly found strengths and the materials provided that describe each of their strengths.
  • Meeting 3 (30-45 minutes): Depending on group size, the final meeting is constructed to help students understand what their strength will mean in their school. With groups of students that are 15 or more, students can be put in groups of 3-4 to discuss what they think about their strengths.
  • In this setting, it is ideal for students to discuss positive parts of their lives, both at school and outside of school. It is not important, initially, for them to think of a disciplinary reason for learning their strengths. Remember the metaphor of the rocket ship and how no astronaut ever enters through the engine in order to get to the flight desk.

    By building strengths-based teams in schools, leaders can maximize the engagement that has often been a difficult quality to nurture in young people who are at risk of many types of educational failure.

    I would encourage school leaders that try this out to connect with me and share the results of their hard work and dedication to student strengths. It's an awesome opportunity to scaffold upward to the highest potential of young people and give them a rocket's eye view of the world that they live in.

    After all, rather than sink in the sea of discipline, why not give strengths-based education a try? It couldn't hurt, and it could only help your students and your school. After all, finding a student's strengths should be the norm in education, helping students to blast off to new heights; it really is Rocket Science!

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    Jonathan J. Doll is an educator, author, and safety advocate. His work in advocacy with strengths stems from learning them personally and as a result envisioning a similar benefit for students who struggle. With regard to preventing severe forms of school violence, he wrote the book, Ending School Shootings (2015).