Start with Strengths (in Education)

Author: Karen Copeland

I have stolen the title of this blog post from Chris Wejr, an Elementary school Principal in Langley  BC. Chris recently recorded a webinar for The F.O.R.C.E. Society for Kids’ Mental Health on this very topic. You can view the webinar here: Start with Strengths.

As you can probably imagine, and as many parents/caregivers can likely relate to, our school experiences have not always been the greatest. For a period of time, our experience was incredibly difficult, and these events shaped the way I viewed the education system and the people within it. I harboured a great amount of hurt and distrust. It was hard to look beyond our own family experience and try to muster up some hope that there might actually be educators out there who were making a difference. In fact, I hadn’t really ventured outside the nice little box I had created for our family to even explore what might actually be happening in other school communities. Sometimes we feel safe inside those little boxes of security we have created, other times we need to tear down the sides and discover what else is out there.

Somehow I got involved with twitter. I think a parent had emailed me about a tweetchat called #bcedchat, and they were going to be discussing mental health in schools. Well, that was certainly a topic I could relate to! I don’t think I actually even participated in that chat, but I did sign up for a twitter account. By some stroke of good fortune I discovered Chris Wejr and his blog. He had written a post about inclusion called Modelling and Teaching our Kids to Reach Out and INCLUDE. Towards the end of this post, Chris writes:

As we move into another school year, my challenge to parents (including me) is for us to reach out and include students beyond our children’s typical friendship circles.  If it is a new student in the class, set up an after school activity for a day.  For birthdays, start by reaching out to one child that needs a friend… and if our children disagree, this gives us the perfect opportunity to embrace a teachable moment about empathy and care.  If it is a student that struggles with some behaviours or disabilities that require support, invite the child to come over with the parent so you can truly understand the challenges that both the child and the family face.  Raising a child with a disability and/or a child that requires significant behaviour support can also be very difficult for the parents. They, too, can be left feeling alone and negatively judged as “bad parents” when it is often a condition that is not about parenting and more about extra support, empathy, and understanding.”

Inspired by Chris’ understanding of the family experience, I clicked “follow”. Little did I know that this would be the start of me tearing down the walls of my comfy, cozy little box of hurt and frustration. As I began to read more of Chris’ work, as well as the work of those he retweeted (many of them educators), I began to learn about some of the really amazing things educators and administrators are doing in their practice across this province, nationally, and internationally.

I remember participating in my first #bcedchat. I was happy to share a parent perspective in response to the questions being asked, and it was easier because I was relatively “unknown”, it was a safe place to start learning, being more curious, asking questions. It honestly astounded me how welcoming everyone was! I had tweets sent my way thanking me for bringing a valuable parent perspective to the chat. I participated in a few more chats, clicked the “follow” button a LOT, and my network began to grow and continues to grow to this day.

I have to say, I have developed some really amazing connections within the education realm through twitter. It is exciting and encouraging to see the initiatives (and curiousity!) relating to mental health, anxiety, self regulation and parent engagement. This morning I read about a school in Surrey that has shifted away from “late” slips to “welcome” slips. Imagine how powerful that might be for the kid who desperately struggles to get to school due to anxiety or other challenges! There are a group of educators who are so curious about anxiety, they started their own monthly tweet chat (#anxietyined) where there are discussions about different resources and strategies they can try for students who have anxiety. There is a tweet chat dedicated to parent and teacher communication. There are educators out there promoting #goodcallshome – recognizing the value of positive calls home instead of traditionally only calling when there is a problem. With all of these, parent input is welcomed and embraced.

Why is all of this important? Well, yes, there are definitely challenges within our current education system that need major attention. We have children, families AND educators who are struggling greatly within the system. It serves no purpose to ignore those challenges or not talk about these. We must continue these conversations.

However, as Chris stated so well in his webinar, there is also a time to start with strengths, to recognize and value and KNOW the really good things that are happening in our school communities. How do we build on these? How do we support these educators and administrators in their initiatives? How do we make more parents aware of these? How do we share our successes?

How did discovering these strengths in the system help me? I wrote this last spring after I attended an Edcamp hosted by the Langley School District:

“When I started following educators and administrators on twitter, when I stumbled upon the #bcedchat, the conversations I was seeing happening gave me hope. It was encouraging to see the many, many great things happening across the province in education. There are amazing, honest, self-reflective and open educators and administrators that are working hard to ensure students and families are supported. It demonstrated to me the shift in thinking that is happening for people within the education system, the commitment to relationship development and understanding. I share this hope and knowledge with the families I connect with who are struggling. It helps us to continue on our journey, and makes some of the “not so good stuff” fade a little bit further into the background. Thank you for having these conversations. Thank you for being curious. Please don’t ever stop!”

Sure, the challenges still exist, but I feel much more capable of meeting these head on, knowing there are others out there who “get it”, who understand and who are taking steps to demonstrate how they are making a difference for children, youth and families. If we only focus on the challenges we risk becoming mired in negative emotions and thought processes. It is easy to ruminate on all that is wrong with the system, but these educators have given us a gift. When we start with strengths, when we acknowledge and celebrate the good things that are happening, when we get inspired by what others are doing, we begin to have hope. We begin to believe that even though we may be having challenges right here, right now, it maybe won’t always be that way. It makes advocating for change a bit easier too – we have a sense of direction, what we hope to accomplish.

Gratitude to all the champions I have met in education. Thank you for standing up, for taking risks to do things differently. I appreciate and support you.

I would love to hear from you about more great things happening in education! Please feel free to share in the comments.

Read Start with Strengths (in Education) Part 2


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