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A Strengths-Based Approach to Imperfect Classroom Moments

Being a teacher is no easy feat. There are challenging and imperfect moments daily. The pressures teachers are under to support each student and meet educational goals, can cause stress, and this stress can cause us to remain in a more serious headspace. That’s why, when these challenging moments occur, sometimes we miss the positive part of it. Or even the humor! 

It’s easy to see the successes and strengths when students are meeting expectations and following rules in the classroom… but what about all the other moments? Some moments are not so delightful or easy. But what if we were able to see the positive in those moments too? What if we could see through the disruption or misbehavior to the student’s inherent strengths? How might this shift our view of this student? How might a strengths-based view of this student help our ability to connect with them and teach them? 

Here are some examples of positive reframes on behaviors in the classroom and ways to reflect the message back to the student: 

Negative Behavior

Positive Reframe 

I appreciate your...

A student refuses to do work 

What a strong advocate this student is of their own feelings and desires

...Strong will 

A student makes a huge mess during an art project

Look how enthused and creative this student is being 


A student is goofing around and making their classmates laugh

What a pro-social skill to show this connection to peers. What a great sense of humor this student has (-maybe not MY type of humor). 

...sense of humor

A student cries for a long time at drop-off

How amazing that this child feels safe and comfortable enough to express their feelings here

...self expression

A student drawing/doodling during instruction 

Look at how creative and artistic this child is


Students benefit from hearing these positive statements outloud. Some students don’t experience this in any other place in their lives. To have someone see their strengths, even in the difficult moments is so powerful for a young person. Did anyone ever do this for you as a child? How were your difficult moments responded to? If negatively, what might have changed for you if you were seen differently in that moment?  Children need us to do this. They need us to see their inherent strengths and goodness through the challenges. This helps them build self-confidence and see themselves in a positive light. 

Does seeing the positive in the moment, mean that we just let students do whatever they want? Of course not! Continue to set consistent limits as normal. But notice how shifting your mindset around the behavior shifts your approach and emotion behind the boundary setting. You may notice that children show increased compliance in these moments, when we can remain calm and in positive connection with them when these situations occur. 

Here's another thing… thinking this way isn’t just for our students, we can do it with ourselves too! The more we practice reframing the imperfect moments, the better we get at it. Here are some examples of how to practice this on ourselves. 

I didn’t get through all my lessons today… I APPRECIATE how adaptable I was today to shift to emerging classroom needs. 

Ugg, I forgot to do that thing… I APPRECIATE how human I am, and how willing I am to accept my mistakes and learn from them

I feel badly that showed my frustration today… I APPRECIATE my authenticity and willingness to take responsibility for my emotions and repair with students. 

I feel guilty that I didn’t get caught up on my work this weekend… I APPRECIATE my ability to find balance in life and appreciate things outside of my role at work. 

What are some things you are especially hard on yourself for?  What would it look like and feel like to find the positive in that moment? Learning to re-frame things can feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. That’s normal. Teachers know, better than most, how learning something new helps us develop new neural pathways in the brain. The more we strengthen those pathways (by practicing the new skill) the stronger the pathways get. Eventually this way of thinking will come without much effort. Try practicing this type of thinking when in a calm and relaxed state (the best state for learning new things). When you are ready, try this exercise: 

Step 1: Write down three students in your class with challenging behaviors. 

Step 2: Write down one strength demonstrated by each behavior 

Step 3: Notice your feelings about these students after reframing behaviors

Begin to notice what shifts as you utilize this approach more often. Does it become easier? Does your mood shift in the classroom or around this student? Are there still some challenges in implementing this approach? Try reflecting on what the barrier is to thinking in this way. What is the most difficult behavior to see the positive in? What about that behavior feels triggering to you? Did you ever show this behavior as a child? How were you responded to as a child if/when you showed this behavior? Many times we internalize the beliefs and responses from the adult in our own lives and carry these on. Shifting our thinking around these behaviors and seeing the positive can be a way of breaking the cycle, and allowing students to shine brightly in their own unique ways. 

When choosing to use a strength-based approach in the classroom, you are not only choosing to meet children where they are at, but you are helping them to develop a more positive concept. When shifting your view of a child’s behavior, you're inviting that child to shift their view of themselves. Even if nothing else changes other than our perspective, appreciation for students feels differently than blame or criticism. Try using these moments as a time to connect with individual students. Empower them and help create opportunities for them to use these strengths in positive ways.


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