Move Students Forward with a Focus on Strengths

Kathy Oropallo

In Brief

8-Minute Read

It is an educator’s mission to keep students engaged and accelerate learning. Education leaders strive to create the best learning environments for student success. They want to help low performers excel and progress. It is time to pause and ask what is really being done to focus on strengths and progress. How can leaders ensure that educators have the right mindset to drive the work?


  • Use an asset-based approach by focusing on what is right instead of what is wrong (deficit-based) to help students and teams improve.

  • Student achievement starts from the top and replicates through the system.

  • Focusing solely on at-risk behaviors is reactive and not proactive. If the goal is student learning and growth, schools should focus on identifying and building up students’ assets to create positive development.

Use an asset-based approach for positive development

Student progress and achievement is often approached with a deficit mindset. Education systems typically focus on rigorous achievement standards or narrowing the gap between students who are succeeding and those who are not. However, in What Doesn’t Work in Education, John Hattie explains that focusing on these areas doesn’t generate real solutions. School leaders are often distracted by fixing the infrastructure, students, teachers and schools. Instead, Hattie encourages educators to concentrate on getting all students to improve, not just those who may be behind.

We help all students improve with a perspective that views every person as valuable and having potential. To help people make progress, start with what is known, not with what is unknown. That is how to improve using an asset-based mindset.

Support, but don’t overwhelm

Erwin Middle School: Recovery Packets Table

For example, Erwin Middle School (EMS) in Birmingham, Alabama recognized that students couldn’t make up every assignment that was missed. EMS educators determined a reasonable amount of work to attain the necessary learning standards and prepared recovery packets for students to use. If EMS tried to force those students to make up everything, those students would have quickly disengaged.

This approach helped Erwin Middle School students progress and reduced the need for recovery packets every nine weeks. As a result, seventh graders reduce the number of F’s from 54 to 19 between the first and third nine weeks of the school year.

Erwin Middle School: 7th Grade Academic Data Chart

Lately, parents and educators have been bombarded by messages emphasizing learning loss and regression due to distance and hybrid learning models. Despite this uptick in the media, schools are still faced with the same learning gaps prior to COVID-19 that they are facing with the disruption. If we really want to achieve equity in our schools, we can do so by prioritizing an asset-based approach rather than deficit-based.

Prioritize assets over deficits

It’s common to focus our attention on what’s broken and how it can be fixed. Approaching problems in this manner uses a deficit mindset—a mindset of scarcity. Instead, leaders should shift thinking to an asset-based approach—how can we help people progress? A deficit model works reactively, while an asset model works proactively to notice what’s right instead of what is wrong and build from there.

In Shifting the Paradigm, authors Renkly and Bertolini share, “When schools focus solely on at-risk behaviors exhibited by students, they tend to work reactively rather than proactively. Within a school, where the ultimate goal must be student learning and growth, this method is wildly unsuccessful. Rather, schools must focus on identifying and building up students’ assets to create positive development. This positive development emphasizes strengths over weaknesses, resilience over risk and assets over deficits.”

When working from a deficit model, it’s implied that students are failing because they’re not trying hard enough. Therefore, the emerging practices and assumptions often cover up the abilities of students and teachers. “On the other hand, an asset model, or abundance model, focuses on what a student can do: their strengths, skills, talents, interests and competencies,” concludes Renkly and Bertolini.


  • Here is where you excel…
  • Can you tell me what you learned from this experience?
  • What do you enjoy learning about?
  • Let’s set a goal to help you grow your strengths.


  • Here is where you are behind others in your class…
  • Your questions in class are disruptive.
  • What do you think you did wrong here?
  • If you focus harder, you will perform better.

Think about it. Would you rather discuss what you did wrong and where you struggle or what your strengths are and where you excel?

When concentrating on where students, teachers or systems are lacking, it can unintentionally create emotional harm. Deficit thinking can negatively impact one’s self-esteem and encourage negative thought patterns in individuals. This is not a mindset conducive to learning.

The foundations for asset model learning

Within every individual in an organization is untapped resources and abilities waiting to be developed. To reach these untapped talents effectively, it is essential that leadership supports students and staff through planning an asset-based approach to the organization’s mission, vision and values. Student achievement starts from the top and replicates through the system.

Albert Bandura, a Stanford University psychologist, revealed that a group’s confidence in its abilities seemed to be associated with greater success. Researchers have since replicated this across many domains. Bandura named this human behavior pattern, “collective efficacy.” He found that “in schools, when educators believe in their combined ability to influence student outcomes, there are significantly higher levels of academic achievement.”

John Hattie’s synthesis of more than 1,500 meta-analyses, Visible Learning Insights, also found collective teacher efficacy is greater than three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status. It’s more effective than prior achievement, home environment and parental involvement. Collective efficacy is more predictive of student achievement than student motivation and concentration, persistence and engagement.

Equity, accelerate learning and increase engagement in school systems can be achieved. Using an asset-based approach increases positive student interactions with adults and harvests wins, not challenges. Start with empathy and use hope as a strategy and feedback to an advantage.

Increased empathy

Remember, students and staff are human beings, not outputs. Although performance can be measured, humans aren’t systems and numbers. Humans are a complicated mix of emotions. People can only handle so much stress at once. Humans have a surge capacity, or a collection of mental and physical systems that are drawn upon for short-term survival. However, this pandemic is different. The stressful situation has been stretched indefinitely. In times of chronic stress, people become exhausted, have mixed emotions and even experience periods of burnout. This chronic, prolonged emergency requires leaders to lean into empathy and compassion. Maslow before Bloom. As we continue to learn what the new normal will become, meeting the needs of people is a top priority.

Hope as a strategy

Psychologist Charles Richard Synder was a specialist in positive psychology. From Snyder’s work, others have conducted studies linking levels of hope to academic performance and physical health and well-being. Snyder’s Hope Theory works to help people stay motivated while following a path to the desired destination. According to Synder, there are at least three components that people relate to hope. The more a person believes they can achieve these, the greater chance they will develop a feeling of hope:

  1. Have focused thoughts.
  2. Develop strategies in advance to achieve the goal.
  3. Have the motivation to make the effort required to actually reach the goal.

Positive Feedback

With the purpose of replicating and expanding Hattie’s Visible Learning research from meta-synthesis, The Power of Feedback Revisited is a comprehensive analysis of educational feedback. This research finds that feedback is more effective for cognitive and physical outcomes measures than for motivational and behavioral criteria. The authors explain that a possible explanation of motivation theory is that feedback can have negative effects on motivation when it is controlling, negative and uninformative. Hattie and Timperley also share that “rewards significantly undermine intrinsic motivation and feedback administered in a controlling way caused negative effects, taking away responsibility from learners for motivating or regulating themselves.”

It is important to consider the implications of asset and deficit-based thinking when providing feedback. Giving feedback from a deficit mindset is likely to cause harm to the receiver. However, focusing on providing feedback with a positive lens can help people identify and develop their strengths.

Return to learn with a positive approach

Challenges continue and disruption has only brought forth the vast need to solve the following questions for students:

  • How can opportunities be created to pursue knowledge, goals and pathways for the future of each individual?
  • In what ways are students who have mental health, socio-emotional and developmental needs supported?
  • What can be done for students who need support with basic needs?

There is an amazing opportunity to reimagine the role district and school leaders play in creating a stronger, more agile and inclusive system. We don’t need to have all the answers; however, we do have to focus on the strengths teams and individuals have to fulfill our purposes.


In order to move students forward with a focus on strengths, education leaders must:
  • Think differently.
    Consider the implications of asset and deficit-based thinking when providing feedback to teams and students.
  • Plan differently.
    Focus on identifying and building up students’ assets to create positive development.
  • Act differently.
    Lean into empathy and compassion.

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