Taking a Strengths-Based Perspective

Helping children with disabilities by supporting families

In my first years as a special education teacher, I taught a sixth grade student with Down Syndrome to tie her shoes. When her parent came to pick her up one afternoon, the student and I shared the good news. The parent’s face turned red, she clenched her fists, and replied, “Why?! What am I going to do now?!”

Needless to say, I was in complete shock that this student’s mother was anything but elated. I became angry and frustrated because the student and I worked every single day to move closer and closer to her independence. I watched my student try and fail hundreds of times. I showed videos, laminated step-by-step pictures, and broke down the steps over and over again. I had no conceivable understanding my student’s mother did not want her child to succeed.

At the time, it never occurred to me what I was trained to teach a student, and what families want or expect for their child, may be different. The mother wasn’t upset her daughter could tie her shoes, there was so much more going on, and instead of me taking the time to learn how to work with the parent, I judged her instead.

William C. Healey, chair of the Department of Special Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas shares there is a grieving process and an adjustment phase for parents once they learn their child has a disability. Parents may be in shock and denial and even get angry at a diagnosis. They may lash out at whoever is in front of them, and educators need to show compassion as parents experience these feelings.

Educators can focus on supporting parents as they go through these stages and prepare to help parents adjust to their new “normal.” As families are able to accept and move forward, educators again can be available as support for not only the student, but also the parents.

Imagine a parent learning their child has a terminal illness, the stages of grief would be similar. School personnel have an opportunity to show compassion and help families through the process, especially since parents and educators working together create the ideal conditions for student success.

Families also have expectations based on their previous experiences. Likewise, teachers have expectations based on their experiences. How then do we shift common expectations toward solutions?

Some parents think I can walk on water, some don’t communicate with me at all, while others inform me daily about everything I’m doing wrong and how I should be teaching their child to their expectations. I can’t control the families of the students I teach, nor do I want to. Once a child reaches their teens, parents may have several negative experiences with the education system and teachers need to remember that. We all have expectations as a result of our past experiences, and the parents of children with disabilities are no different.

What teachers do want is for parents to remember all the things their children can do. A child may have a disability, but they also have some amazing strengths. What if perspectives were shifted to a strength-based approach?

Mary Beth Hewitt shares the benefits of taking a strength-based perspective and how some teachers move, “out of the problem and into the solution.” Hewitt is careful to remind us, “Taking an optimistic view does not mean you do not address problems. It means that you look for what you are able to nourish in order to overcome those problems.”

In my classroom, I focus on students’ strengths while keeping in mind their needs. Reflecting on my teaching strategies and the specific interventions to use helps remind me how to best meet the needs of my students. I also want my students to learn to advocate for themselves. How empowering might it be for them to be able to ask for more time, explain they can show proficiency in the content if they were able to share their knowledge in a different way? Do parents view teachers as negative, rigid, and domineering? Do teachers see parents the same way? Could we shift our perspectives to see each other as caring, open-minded, and committed instead?

I also never considered that parents and families of children with disabilities didn’t necessarily sign up for the challenges associated with it. Teachers need to understand a parent’s perspective and the potential phases they go through, especially as they progress through the education system.

I believe teachers and parents truly want to help children. We both want to see them make gains and succeed not only in the classroom, but also in life. We both want children to have meaning and a purpose in life. We both want them to build on their strengths while working on their needs.

The mother of my student who learned to tie her shoes independently now has an extra 15 minutes in the morning to make breakfast together and teach her yet another set of independent skills. Those skills can be built upon in the classroom where teachers can provide supports as well. Using a strength-based approach reminds us all how much these individuals can do by helping each other keep our focus on the individual’s strengths and potential.