Author: Karen Copeland
Most of us are familiar with icebergs, and that you really only see a small piece of an iceberg above the surface; there is so much more underneath. In the human services realm, the iceberg has become a metaphor for exploring deeper below the surface instead of relying solely on what we “see”.
I like this metaphor because it challenges us to be curious, particularly when it comes to understanding why someone might be showing us some unexpected behavior. We can take a step back and think about (and ask the person, too!) all the reasons why this might be happening, what is contributing, what need is perhaps not being met.
This curiousity is imperative when we are exploring reasons for behavior. If we are not curious about it, then we tend to assign our own personal motivation for the behavior. Unfortunately, our assigned motivation usually has more to do with our own anxiety and how the behavior is impacting us than anything to do with what the person is trying to communicate.
In the early years of our parenting journey, up until the not so distant past, we spent a lot of time below the surface looking for the reasons why and then thinking about and trying different ways to meet those needs. It was beneficial, yes, but I discovered we were spending a great deal of time on this. So much time in fact, that we minimized the amount of time looking for and celebrating strengths.
That’s the thing about life. We tend to notice the things that stand out, and yeah, unexpected behavior kind of does that. Additionally, when we approach systems of care the focus is on that unexpected behavior or what is wrong, with only a cursory mention of strengths. Is it time constraints that prevent us from exploring this further?
When I started thinking about it, I realized that I feel at my best when I am doing something I love to do. When I know someone believes in me. When a person I respect takes the time to let me know a specific thing I have done they think is helpful. When I am recognized and seen for who I am deep inside – my strengths, my gifts, my talents.
I started thinking about how I felt when the focus was always on what’s wrong and what can we do to address it. I felt hopeless, to be honest. This seemed like such a monumental task, and one that was constantly changing. And I started to wonder, if I felt that way, how must my child feel?
Not long after this, I happened to connect with Chris Wejr who is doing a great deal of work with strengths based education. What I admire about Chris is he is very open about his journey towards focusing on strengths. We need to hear more stories like his! Chris and I collaborated to create Start with Strengths: Change the Lens, Change the Story, an evening session for parents, educators and community members that explored the topic of strengths and how to look for and celebrate these. We also touched on home and school partnerships, presenting the parent and educator perspective alongside of one another. It was powerful.
As we were preparing for that session, I thought of the iceberg, and how we had looked below the surface for the reason why for so long. I decided we needed to re-think what we needed to be looking for below the surface! What if we started to spend as much time looking for the strengths and figuring out ways to draw these to the surface, as we did looking for the reasons?!?
The result was this image:
Challenging ourselves to look for the strengths below the surface is definitely NOT about ignoring or dismissing the challenges a child, youth or individual may be experiencing. Nor is it meant to be thought of as a “well if we just celebrate his/her strengths, all will be well”.
A solid understanding of why a behavior is occurring (and challenging others to be curious about that behavior) will always be a crucial element to our parenting, educating, etc. But it can’t be the only thing we focus on. We need to be intentional about figuring out ways to draw these strengths to the surface so they can shine and I don’t mean using them as a reward strategy for good behavior. We need to be devoting at least equal or even slightly more time to the unique strengths of our kids and helping them shine, because when they do, confidence increases, connection increases, self-esteem and resiliency increases. Our kids deserve it!
For more information about the Start with Strengths Parent and Educator session, please contact Karen and Chris.