8 Strength-Based Activities to Kick Off the School Year
Updated: Sep 3
Finding and nurturing student strengths is a critical part of supporting twice-exceptional learners, who are both incredibly bright AND experience learning differences (e.g., autism, ADHD, dyslexia). Too often, the adults in their lives focus on shoring up their deficits, ignoring their immense talents and capabilities. Education professor M. Elizabeth Nielsen and educator L. Dennis Higgins observe “Many gifted students with disabilities view themselves as primarily disabled. So much attention has been focused on the things they cannot do well, they find it almost impossible to believe that they are bright, capable learners.”
Education leaders, teachers, and parents play a pivotal role in flipping this script. And a new school year presents a great time to start!
Strength-based activities set the stage for a positive school year. Research shows that focusing on student strengths, integrating their interests, and developing their talents will energize their motivation, help them to build self-confidence and self-determination, and create authentic ways to build skills even in areas of challenge. Plus, integrating strength-based activities can help to:
Identify ways to build students’ strengths and interests into curriculum and activities
Provide the opportunity for teachers and parents to talk about and integrate their own strengths and interests
Create a strength-based community culture for learning and growth
We’ve assembled 8 strength-based activities to uncover and tap into the strengths and interests of students. Try one and then come back and let us know how it went!
“Business Card.” Have kids create their own “business card” with their name, images, and lists of hobbies, interests, favorite things, curiosities, values, etc. Then invite them to present these to their classmates and display them so that everyone can have a sense of one another’s strengths and interests. (Adapted from Susan Baum, 2021.)
My Way Expression Style Inventory. 2e expert and strength-based leader Dr. Robin Schader noted in a recent teacher workshop that four choices in exit points can cover a wide range of talents: building, drawing, performing, and writing. Explore student preferences and strengths for showing their mastery with this worksheet from the University of Connecticut that gives students a tool to identify their favorite ways to express themselves, including written, oral, artistic, computer, audio/visual, dramatization, musical, commercial (entrepreneurial), and service.
Visualization Board. Provide a wide range of materials (such as posters, glue, magazines, photos, markers, crayons, pencils, paint, access to a computer to complete the project if desired) and have every student create a display of what their vision is for their year, including up to three goals. The board can also include representations of their interests and curiosities.
3eMe Join the Dots. Create a document or use this template with three words in a triangular shape: “Excel”; “Excited”; “Enjoy”. Ask students to create their own lists of subjects, activities, and interests for each of the three categories. Any one item can and should be included in each of the columns if the category applies. Then, ask students to look for common items and draw lines between them—those with the most connections are the highest areas of strength and interest. (Adapted from Galloway et al., 2020.)
Body Tracings. Use large pieces of paper and pens or chalk and sidewalks to trace each student’s body. Have them decorate their outlines with their strengths using images and words that resonate for them. Then do a gallery walk to see each other’s work. (Adapted from Rawana et al., 2014.)
Strengths Journal/Notebook. Taking time to notice when we are at our best, happiest, and in a state of flow, can help to build resilience and a growth mindset, as well as understand what to advocate for in our learning and work environment. Each student creates a journal (in a written notebook OR an online tool) to be used throughout the year to capture new strengths and interests, complete strength-based activities, and reflect on what they’re learning about their own strengths and talents.
Treasure Chests. Have everyone create a personal Treasure Chest or create a class Treasure Chest that includes mementoes, pictures, drawings, objects, positive and uplifting quotes, and anything else that reminds students of their own strengths, flow, creativity, and/or positive experiences. Add to the Treasure Chest throughout the year. Revisit the Treasure Chest at the start of a lesson, before a quiz/test/creative project, or when the day has been more difficult than expected. (Adapted from Eades, 2005)
Mood Boosters. Identifying strengths and interests across a group builds community as well. Work together with your children to create a list of all the books they love, the songs they like to sing or listen to, etc. UK educator and author of the book Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-Based Schools advises to “Build this resource throughout the year as you notice what they particularly enjoy, what calms them down, what cheers them up. You invite them to choose one for the start of a lesson, to prepare for learning or after a bad lesson, to repair everybody’s mood.” (Adapted from Eades, 2005)
Starting the year with strength-based activities can help educators and parents identify strengths and interests, setting the stage for growing those strengths and interests into talents. Goal-setting and planning activities, where students work with teachers to create an action plan for reaching their goals for the year, can follow many of these activities. For instance, the insights gleaned can be used to create a learning commitment from each student that lists their strengths with at least one specific, SMART learning goal based on their individual strengths. The plan can include personal goals set by the student and assigned/suggested goals from the teacher. Teachers can use this to help students create a pathway from where they are today to where they would like to be in the future, from their “Now Self” to their “Tomorrow Self.” (Adapted from Galloway et al., 2020 and Lopez & Louis, 2009.)
Sources & Additional Info:
Baum, S. M. (2021). IEC 511/611 Cognitive Diversity and Strength-based, Talent-focused Education. Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education.
Eades, J. M. (2005). Celebrating strengths: Building strengths-based schools. CAPP Press.
Galloway, R., Reynolds, B., & Williamson, J. (2020). Strengths-based teaching and learning approaches for children: Perceptions and practices. Journal of Pedagogical Research, 4(1), 31-45. https://doi.org/10.33902/jpr.2020058178
Kettle, K. E., Renzulli, J. S., & Rizza, M. G. (n.d.). My way: An expression style inventory. Renzulli Center for Creativity, Gifted Education, and Talent Development. https://gifted.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/961/2015/10/myway.pdf
Lopez, S. J., & Louis, M. C. (2009). The principles of strengths-based education. Journal of College and Character, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.2202/1940-1639.1041
Nielsen, M. E., & Higgins, L. D. (2005). The eye of the storm: Services and programs for twice-exceptional learners. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 38(1), 8-15. https://doi.org/10.1177/004005990503800102
Rawana, E., Brownlee, K., Probizanski, M., Harris, H., & Baxter, D. (2014). Reshaping school culture: Implementing a strengths-based approach in schools. The Centre of Education and Research on Positive Youth Development.
Rawana, E., Latimer, K., Whitley, J., & Probizanski, M. (2009). Strength-based classroom strategies for teachers. Canadian Teacher, 6(2), 16-17.