All students (and adults) have strengths and weaknesses. In K-12 education, student weaknesses and areas of concern are sometimes more apparent, while strengths can fade into the background. Over the past decade, there has been a movement in education to be more explicit in addressing student strengths and encouraging the use of instructional practices to promote growth in areas that might need improvement. The MTSS framework provides an excellent opportunity for educators to shift their instruction, problem-solving, and planning to include student strengths in addition to areas of needed support. Below we outline the difference between the strengths and deficit lens, how focusing on strengths benefits all key stakeholders in education, and specific guidance on using a strengths-based approach in MTSS.
Strength vs. Deficit Lens
In many ways, an effective MTSS practice is synonymous with a strengths-based approach. MTSS is inherently a preventative model where student needs are identified, and the goal is to intervene early to prevent students from falling further behind. But educators can still get stuck focusing on student deficits, even when trying to support students within an MTSS framework. There are different definitions, interpretations, and degrees of strengths-based instruction. Still, the critical underlying component is that educators use a strength-based approach to view and analyze student learning and development instead of focusing on student deficits. By undertaking this strength-based lens, all educators have an articulated effort to focus on student strengths and development of skills, use positive language, and highlight growth areas.
Benefits of Focusing on Student Strengths
Strength-based instruction and learning can also benefit teachers, students, parents/guardians, and the community. Focusing on student strengths and growth is motivating for students. It can also help them develop a growth mindset, where they see themselves as having the ability to grow and improve across all areas, rather than seeing their skills and abilities as fixed traits. It is also essential for students' sense of self-efficacy to help them become aware of their strengths and the areas within the school they are good at and enjoy. Sometimes highlighting strengths can help students understand the areas where more growth is possible. For example, if a student excels in athletics, drawing a comparison between applying the same focus they utilize when competing in a sport to an academic area of need can help the student to finish a school project or progress to an educational milestone.
Strength-based instruction can also motivate teachers by bringing their attention to things their students are good at and where they have made growth. This approach can also help teachers become more aware of student strengths and the skills they should focus on more during instruction. Understanding students' strengths and areas of need is a vital part of MTSS, where skill-based goals should be the basis of all intervention plans. Understanding student strengths can also help educators develop strategies and support plans that will be effective for students. For example, if a student works well with peers and has strong social skills, a peer-based mentoring program or intervention may be impactful. Finally, focusing on students' strengths also pushes educators to provide more individualized instruction tailored to their student's specific needs. Once teachers become more aware of student strengths and where they excel, they can adapt their instructional approaches and expectations to set them up for success.
Finally, a focus on student strengths can also help engage parents and family members in student learning. It can be overwhelming and discouraging for caregivers to only hear about how their child is struggling and the issues they are experiencing in the classroom. Sharing strengths with families also shows that teachers are trying to take a whole-child approach and are not targeting certain students based on demographic characteristics. Sharing both strengths and areas of growth with parents can also give them more hope and not feel like they are fighting an uphill battle. Families also might feel more motivated to help students at home when they know what their child can achieve.
There are several ways that educators can embed a strengths-based approach into their existing MTSS framework and practices. An excellent place to start is during MTSS grade-level meetings, where teachers often review student data and make decisions about plans and next steps. Educators should make a consistent and conscious effort to use positive, strength-based language when discussing students. If students are struggling, try to discuss the skill that needs development and not just the deficits or problems they are displaying. Teachers should also make an effort to discuss strategies and approaches that have been effective or might be effective, rather than only things that haven't worked.
Another shift in language should be the way that MTSS tier levels are discussed and described. Within MTSS, three tiers define the support levels needed for each student and do not define the students themselves. For example, instead of saying "Tommy is Tier 2 for reading," say "Tommy requires Tier 2 level of support to be successful." This shift is essential, and all stakeholders should be aware during meetings, written/required forms, emails, documentation, and all other forms of communication.
Whenever possible, schools and districts should use a strengths-based assessment approach to measure student competencies and growth. Using this approach is especially important when assessing students' social-emotional and behavioral skills. Schools that rely on deficit-based behavior measures, such as the number of behavior incidents, suspensions, or absences, will likely have difficulty identifying the skills educators need to focus on developing to reduce some of these problematic behaviors.
It is essential to be aware that many deficit-focused assessments/measures may lead to biased reporting, as they are based upon student demographic characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, and special education status. Social-emotional assessments that highlight student strengths, such as the DESSA, can help protect against some of these biases by bringing teachers' attention towards strengths and skills rather than problems and deficits. In addition, using academic and social-emotional assessments that measure multiple areas and subdomains can help teachers identify skills that students may be doing well in, even if their overall scores signal a need for support.
Finally, SMART goal setting is one of the most important and most challenging components of the problem-solving approach in MTSS. SMART goals for students receiving Tier 2 and 3 levels of support should always be strength-based and articulate the specific skill or behavior that will be the focus within the intervention plan. The goal should always be stated in positive terms and describe the desired behavioral outcome. For example, instead of saying "Mia will stop calling out" or "Michael will stop skipping unknown words," the goal should state that "Mia will raise her hand when she has a question" or "Michael will sound out unknown words." Having these types of positively worded goals helps educators measure progress and focus on the specific skill they should be working on with students.
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Branching Minds makes MTSS easy, efficient, and effective by bringing together all of the components of MTSS so teachers can collaboratively problem-solve and support all students’ holistic needs. Our system-level solution helps schools improve students’ outcomes across academics, behavior, and SEL equitably.
Our platform supports teachers with Behavior and SEL in the following ways:
✅ Assessing SEL Needs with the DESSA ✅ Understand Students Perception of their Own SEL Competence with the SECA ✅ Leveraging SEL Screeners for Tiering ✅ More effective problem-solving ✅ Finding the Right Evidence-based Interventions & Accommodations for Each Learner ✅ Creating Intervention Plans and Monitoring Daily & Weekly Progress in Behavior/SEL ✅ Logging & Monitoring Behavior Incidents ✅ Pattern Matching Behavior Incidents Across Groups
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.