How strength-based assessments help students discover growth areas

The strength-based assessment approach turns a long-standing assumption on its head: that the only way kids will improve in the classroom, and even in areas like behavior or social engagement, is by honing in on their weaknesses.

The reasoning behind this is relatively simple. Regardless of whatever is being targeted, students tend to perform to the best of their abilities when they have sufficient positive reinforcements around them, and on a more fundamental level, when it is clear teachers and other members of the education team believe in them. 

Indeed, research evidence in learning settings points to substantive positive feedback having a positive correlation with improved performance. Other studies suggest that strategically honing in on a student’s strengths can even boost grades. “Substantive,” of course, is the key. A focus on strengths needs to be proportionate, concrete, and about the task – not the person, even if that praise is well-meaning and speciously positive (e.g., “You’re such a math whiz!”).

An authentic, honest focus on a child’s strengths in the classroom and other school settings yields similar benefits. In order to make this approach substantive, strength-based assessments can help in several key ways. 

Strength-based assessments augment the “discrepancy model”

At Psyched Services, our professionals have typically examined strength-based assessments within the framework of a pattern of strengths and weaknesses, or PSW for short. This works in lieu of the so-called discrepancy model, which tells assessors whether or not a student is performing more poorly than they would otherwise be expected to. By comparison, the PSW model tries to understand the why behind a student’s performance.

School psychologists can use a strength-based assessment approach regardless of the assessment method used for identifying a specific learning disability. 

Let’s briefly look at this in practice. A school psychologist gives an IQ test. They take the scores and then compare them to tests of reading, writing, math, and other skills, working under the theory that a student’s IQ score should be roughly predictive of those academic scores. If not, the assessor concludes the student has a learning disability.

There are a few issues with that approach. Plenty of things can cause a student to perform poorly in school, only a small part of which is IQ. 

The discrepancy model, if taken alone, doesn’t consider things like academic background and skill gaps, adverse personal or family situations, behavioral health challenges and more. As a result, any support that comes from this type of assessment will be incomplete, by nature. 

It offers an actionable, easy-to-follow framework

In general, strength-based assessments are relatively easy for psychologists to carry out, because they are centered on a few core principles:

  • Written or verbal feedback that is grounded in a student’s best performance areas.
  • Focusing on skills, not on the person. As mentioned earlier, while it can be tempting to see praising the “math whiz” as something that builds their self-esteem, this can also discourage a student from seeing their skills as fluid and able to be developed. Also, in periods where they do struggle with a curriculum, this praise can put extra pressure on them, or sound insincere. 
  • Helping a student stay at the center of their own learning and progression, by allowing them to see the next steps to progress on a strength or skill
  • Supporting all of the above by harnessing a positive or encouraging attitude and tone when discussing strengths.

The quality of educator-teacher relationships is raised 

Strength-based assessments have the added advantage of allowing students to see that the education team is “in their corner,” instead of seeming critical, discouraging, or as though they are labeling the student. All of these negatives can create more distance between the child and education team, decreasing information reach. 

At Psyched Services, our learning and behavior experts are here to empower you with the knowledge you need to help students thrive. For additional support on student assessments and other areas, sign up for our Learn.Do course updates, and we'll send you our Crisis Intervention Guide.

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