It has now been over a month since completing the Berry Street Education Model course. It stands as one of the most valuable professional development opportunities I have had to date. A huge credit to Tom Brunzell and the education team at the Berry Street Childhood Institute. Hundreds of strategies were offered during the course but I’m going to focus my reflection on three big revelations I had over the four days that I feel have the potential to shift the paradigm for teachers who are working with vulnerable young people in mainstream school settings.
Before you begin reading…
Please note that these are my personal reflections. I strongly suggest checking out the rigorous evidence-base that forms the Berry Street Education Model as a next step if you’re interested in looking deeper into any of the ideas I touch on in these posts: http://www.childhoodinstitute.org.au/educationmodel.
Revelation number three: Start with Strengths
My third revelation focuses on how starting with strengths in the learning environment can bring out the best in all students.
The Berry Street Education Model integrates positive psychology with the trauma-informed approach touched on in my previous posts, to support students to heal their psychological needs at school while simultaneously growing their psychological strengths.
Strengths-based approaches to wellbeing have evolved as an alternative to interventions that highlight deficits in young people. Berry Street’s approach shows that students who have experienced trauma are not only capable of academic achievement with the right support but can also become transformative, positive contributors in their communities.
Strengths in learning
Students without a caring support network are unlikely to have had the opportunity to determine their values or articulate their strengths in a sustained way. As the foundation of our belief systems, our values are a compass towards a more meaningful life. For students, knowing their values can be an important starting place in helping them to make choices and pursue goals that are closely aligned with who they want to be.
The way we act on and live into our values are known as ‘character strengths’ in positive psychology. Because our values are so deeply important to who we are, displaying character strengths feels intrinsically good, putting us in a state of ‘flow’, which can be a motivating force for learning like no other.
Educational researcher Alfie Kohn emphasises the importance of framing lessons in a context and for a purpose to enhance the depth of learning and student engagement. Supporting students to be able to identify and make meaning of their character strengths through their learning provides both a strong context and purpose for any lesson.
For instance, in my English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes last term, students began the unit exploring their own character strengths, finding out how they relate to their hopes and dreams. They went on to use this self-learning to identify the character strengths in Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani educational rights activist and Rita O’Grady, an English women’s equal pay advocate in the 1960s, exploring how these women used their strengths to make a lasting positive impact on the world.
Here are some reflections my students made:
Student 1: “The purpose of writing about important values, such as hope, equality, and courage is to teach us the importance of equal rights and education in our lives, and that we should never stop fighting for them.”
Student 2: “She did give up on one occasion, however she was encouraged by her friends and she decided to keep on going. The author has used courage to inspire the reader to never give up if we want to achieve our goal.”
Strengths in restorative conversations
Once students have experienced the feeling of identifying and acting on their character strengths, they are more likely to make decisions from a place of self-awareness.
After a student has de-escalated from a stress-response trigger, teachers can support students to move to the rational thinking brain by appealing to their strengths and values. Restorative conversations that start with questions around what’s important to the student, rather than simply appealing to ‘school rules’, sets a caring tone and balances the power dynamic between child and adult; rather than being ‘told off’ the student is coached to get back in control and self-regulate.
These types of restorative conversations might begin with the following:
“You usually show lots of [courage] here. Could you tell me what was different about today?”
“We have talked a lot about how you value [equality]. How did today’s circumstance show that?”
Strengths in contribution
While discovering and acting on character strengths is an important pathway to student self-development, it can also be a valuable way for students to support the wellbeing of the communities to which they belong.
The conversation around character strengths in schools rarely goes beyond how they can be harnessed to support successful individual learning and growth. Yet strengths are most powerful, even transformative, when they are directed in service of others.
Northview High School (USA), a school with a high population of students in foster care, observed big changes when they began explicitly teaching character strengths through service learning:
“Teachers overheard students talking about being responsible and respectful. Kids who ordinarily kept quiet in class volunteered frequently, and more stepped up to help their classmates. The service learning also had a dramatic impact… Students took pleasure in helping others, and recognized that they had abilities worth sharing.”
Students, like those at Northview High School, who believe in developing their strengths in order to make valuable contributions to their community, fundamentally share a Benefit Mindset.
Developing a Benefit Mindset opens up new opportunities for students who may be seen as ‘at-risk’ to become leaders within their school settings. By working on sharing their strengths through every day acts, students can play a unique and valuable role in the healthy functioning of one another, supporting cultures of well being to emerge at school.
Starting with strengths moves beyond deficit approaches to wellbeing, enabling young people to become transformative contributors to the communities they belong. Berry Street’s strengths-based approach to the learning environment “empowers teachers to structure trajectory-shifting learning that enables posttraumatic growth, psychological wellbeing, and academic aspirations for all students.”