Shifting Our Image of the Child: Strength-Based Models for Academic Success and Resiliency

 lbimage_041It’s necessary that we believe that the child is very intelligent, that the child is strong and beautiful and has very ambitious desires and requests.  This is the image of the child that we need to hold.

Malaguzzi, Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins

malaguzziThe Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, founded by Loris Malaguzzi in Northern Italy just after World War II, has since gained worldwide acclaim for its child-centred, social constructivist philosophy of teaching and learning. Foundational to the Reggio methodology is the teacher’s Image of the Child as a unique, curious, and capable being, with the ability to co-construct his or her own learning, and full of potential for life-long success.  The BC Early Learning Framework, a guide for early childhood and kindergarten teachers in our province, reinforces the importance of a shared, positive image of the child to “inspire people who interact with children to promote their individual strengths.”  And in the Reggio tradition, this means focusing on the strengths of every child, no matter what learning or behavioural challenges they may experience in their development.

It seems to me that this strengths-based approach to viewing children, which is actively promoted in early learning environments, should be equally reinforced for teachers working with older students, particularly those with special needs or youth who have been identified as ‘at risk’.

A Strengths-Based Model for Students with Learning Disabilities

In BC schools students with significant special needs often require additional supports to enable them to participate in educational programs. In order to receive extra Ministry funding, school districts must identify special needs students based on appropriate categories, including moderate to profound physical or intellectual disabilities, autism, intensive behavior issues, or mental illness.  The documentation and processes involved in identifying students with special needs in these categories is complex and time-consuming, and often challenges school and district-based resource teams to maintain their positive image of the child.

Whenever I participate in school-based resource team meetings, I am struck by the emphasis on negative child images – stories of students who can’t sit still, can’t do work at grade level, can’t read, have written output issues, won’t follow rules, don’t get along with classmates, have low self-esteem or poor social skills. There is little time for stories of success because the value is in painting the worst-case scenario possible for each struggling student.

It’s a Wheel of Fortune game, where consonants (Gs, Hs, Qs, and Rs) not vowels are traded up through a rigorous and onerous system of requests, referrals, and paperwork involving school and district staff, parents, and outside agencies.  The goal of the game is getting kids labeled with designations that come with extra funding, often in the form of additional Educational Assistant (EA) staffing hours. The question then becomes, what is the image of the child who is pulled out of his  classroom to work in the hallway of the school, filling out endless worksheets under the direction of an EA?


 Do we still see that child as  a curious, capable, intelligent being, capable of co-constructing his learning when we put him in situations that require him to do more and more of what he struggles with the most? Extra support for our special needs students is a good thing, but a more positive image of the child, one that is grounded in a diversity model, can provide better frameworks and possibilities for success.

148829962657174738_PuRweCuQ_222Thomas Armstrong’s article First, Discover Their Strengths published in the October 2012 issue of Educational Leadership emphasizes the need for educators to shift to a more positive, strengths-based image of children identified with special needs.

Despite our best intentions, we’ve created a system of special education based on deficits. To fashion an environment in which students with special needs can achieve their fullest potential, we need to dig deep into the roots of special education and, at the bedrock level, replace its disability paradigm with a belief system based on diversity (p. 12).

0410NL Neurodiversity layout.indd Armstrong describes a new movement called Neurodiversity that applies the same positive belief system and attitude to differences in human brains that exist in the fields of biodiversity and cultural diversity.   Neurodiversity is based on the belief that there is no “typical” or “normal” brain.  Therefore we need to look at students with special needs not in terms of their deficits, but in terms of their strengths.

“We don’t look at a calla lily and say it has ‘petal deficit disorder; we appreciate its beautiful shape.’”


Research in the field of Neurodiversity identifies the strengths of people with special needs.  For example, Armstrong quotes studies demonstrating that…

Students with autism:

  • Appear to do better on tasks focusing on small details within complex patterns
  • Tend to be systemizers who have a fascination with logical structures
  • Often score high on highly figural tests

Students with dyslexia:

  • Often demonstrate superior artistic abilities
  • Can identify complex 3D objects
  • Often show higher than average entrepreneurial ability

Students with ADHD

  • Have a tendency to seek novelty, a prerequisite for creative behavior

And the list goes on.  Armstrong’s point is that by building “strength awareness” for our special needs students we can then begin to construct the “best ecological niches” for them– learning environments that reflect their strengths and in which they can thrive.

Armstrong offers seven practical components for building positive learning environments for special needs students:

  1. Strength Awareness – putting more time and energy into detailing students’ positive attributes (rather than assessing their deficits) using research, strengths inventories, portfolios, file reviews, interviews
  2.  Positive Role Models – highlighting famous neurodiverse people as “heroes with special needs”
  3. Universal Design for Learning –curriculum design that acknowledges diversity and removes barriers to learning (e.g. assistive technology)
  4. Strengths-Based Learning Strategies – differentiated learning tailored to individual needs
  5. Enhanced Human Resources – enriching human support systems for students by strengthening positive relationships with adults and peers
  6. Affirmative Career Aspirations – constructing positive self-images and expectations for success as adults through career awareness initiatives
  7. Environmental Modifications – equipment or room set up that reduces challenges for students (earplugs, weighted vests, quiet rooms)

Recognizing Strengths and Talents in At Risk Youth


This same philosophy can also be extended to students at risk.  In Turning it Around for All Youth: From Risk to Resilience Bonnie Benard emphasizes the need to shift away from viewing children “through a deficit lens” that focuses on social issues, at risk behaviours and academic failure.  While social science research has successfully identified many of the problems that put students at risk (poverty, substance abuse, family dysfunction, etc.), and we have been able to get more services to children and families by identifying these issues, Benard points out that the process has also led to stereotyping, tracking, lowered expectations, prejudice and discrimination.  It has prevented us from developing a positive image of the these students:

“Looking at children and families through a deficit lens obscures a recognition of their capacities and strengths, as well as their individuality and uniqueness” (p. 1).

Benard cites research on resilience that disproves the deficit model and recommends practices and attitudes that promote healthy development and success for students at risk. The starting point is the positive belief among adults working with at-risk youth that all students have the potential for developing resilience. Specific considerations for this model include:

  • Caring relationships between adults and students
  • Positive, high expectations for all students
  • School-community collaborations
  • Growth opportunities for students


Nelson and Eckstein (2008) propose A Service-Learning Model for At-Risk Adolescents that expands on Benard’s school-community connections and reflects many of the core principles of Project-Based Learning. In a service-learning model students and educators collaborate in creating learning opportunities that encourage “optimum student engagement in the community, in the educational process, and in self-discovery” (p.224).  Service learning is “possibility focused rather than problem focused” (p.227), providing students with opportunities to engage in positive ways with the community in environmental initiatives, social justice campaigns, and civic responsibility projects.

drainThis type of learning that extends beyond the classroom helps students build the “developmental assets” that can lead to more positive decision making and pro-social behaviours.  A service-learning model can also contribute to improved academic achievement:

“Current research suggested that students who are involved in service-learning were more likely than students not participating in service-learning to make higher test scores and be more engaged in learning” (p.226)

Shifting from a deficit-based image of the child to one that is strength-based, enables educators to create positive learning environments and opportunities that honour diversity and recognize students’ unique skills and talents.


It is this positive image of the child that we need to hold in order to help our most vulnerable students overcome their challenges, experience success, and develop resilience.

Armstrong, T. (2012). First, discover their strengths. Educational Leadership, 70(2), 10-16.

Benard, B. (1997). Turning it around for all youth: From risk to resilience. ERIC Digest. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from:

Malaguzzi, L. (1993). Your image of the child: Where teaching begins.  Translation of a seminar presented in June 1993.  Retrieved March 15, 2013 from:

Nelson, J. & Eckstein, D. (2008). A service-learning model for at-risk adolescents. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(2), 223-237


Reflections on Designs 2013: Exploring Project-Based Learning


“Teachers are designers.  An essential act of our profession is the crafting of curriculum and learning experiences to meet specified purposes.”

-Wiggins & McTighe, 2005

Three years ago I worked with a team of instructional leaders from the North Vancouver School District  in developing an after school workshop series for educators called “Designing Curriculum for Deep Learning and Diversity“.  The goal of the series was to introduce teachers to McTigue and Wiggin’s Understanding by Design model that had been gaining momentum across the US and Canada.

41uSdFj3KUL__SL500_AA300_Another major goal for the series was to emphasize the importance of planning for diverse learners, with differentiated  instruction and assessment strategies built into every curriculum, using the Universal Design for Learning framework.


Interest in the in-service series in 2010 was high, with over 100 people registering and attending a total of five after school sessions in their school teams.  At the first workshop a secondary teacher pointed out that the name of the series was too long. He suggested we consider something shorter that could roll off people’s tongues. At the time we were living the Olympic dream in Vancouver, so everything had a catchy name ending in 2010. “How about Designs 2010?” he suggested. I  agreed and the name stuck.


Feedback from the Designs 2010 series was very positive. Teachers expressed an  interest in continuing to explore UbD as a model for curriculum design the following year. Designs 2011, developed and facilitated by teacher leaders who attended the  2010 series, offered participants the opportunity to collaborate in grade (elementary) or subject (secondary) specific groups on the development of UbD unit plans. The Designs  2011 series helped deepen educators’ understanding of backward curriculum design and led to the development of several district  UbD planning tools and shared resources.

During job action in 2012  teachers were not able to attend any district-led in-service. I wondered if it would be possible to revive the interest in curriculum design a year later.  In fall 2012, with the strike behind us, and in my new role as Director of Instruction for Learning Services, I began to notice a renewal of interest among teachers in after school in-service. It was time to start planning for Designs 2013…

The growing interest among North Vancouver teachers in the Project-Based Learning (PBL) model was hard to ignore.  A group of administrators had visited High Tech High in the spring of 2012 and had introduced their staff to PBL through photos and stories.  Some schools had even organized their own trips to HTH for their staff members in the fall of 2012.  The wave was catching on, but was still isolated to certain corners of the district.


At the same time, I was beginning my doctoral research in PBL at one of our schools.   I was interested in following the story of implementation for this group of teachers who had been asked to consider Project-Based Learning as a way of increasing student engagement and academic achievement in a secondary alternative education setting.  In particular, my research was going to focus on professional development support for the successful implementation of PBL.

The choice of Project-Based Learning as a focus for the Designs 2013 series seemed obvious to me given the emergent interest in the field and the direct links to our previous work in UbD.  Yet I still wasn’t convinced that knowledge or understanding of the PBL model had spread far enough in our school district to attract a critical mass of teachers to a three part after-school series.  It took  a strong team of teacher leaders, with a passionate interest in PBL, to develop a framework for the in-service.  In early January we sent out the Designs 2013 Poster.  We were happily surprised when, within a month, over 130 educators registered for the series!

This in-service was truly designed by teachers, for teachers.  Session 1 provided participants with an overview and frameworks for PBL, while sessions 2 and 3 focused on exploring examples and stories of PBL designs from North Vancouver classrooms, and structuring opportunities for teachers  to practise developing and fine-tuning their own PBL designs. Participants left with a list of Project Based Learning Resources that included links to PBL videos, frameworks and templates for planning. Teachers were grateful for the opportunity to do their own background reading online in between sessions.  We also created a Linoit board for participants to post questions and links to other resources.


The Designs 2013 series wrapped up this week and we are now in the process of gathering feedback from participants.  So far, the reviews have been really positive.  This is extremely satisfying for our leadership team, who worked hard to design an in-service that would be deeply meaningful and impactful for teachers.  But we are still left with the question: “Now what?”

For some reason, we have been successful in getting teachers to participate in the district “Designs” series.  Perhaps it is because the “Designs” brand really has caught on, or because the topic of curriculum design has more universal appeal for teachers than other aspects of teaching (literacy instruction, assessment, etc.)

Nonetheless, we know from research that in order for professional development to be effective and sustainable, district-level workshops are not enough.  Teachers who attended the series need to continue exploring PBL through meaningful, collaborative, and on-going learning opportunities with their colleagues, either at the school level, or through facilitated cross-district sessions.

More importantly, how do we measure the effectiveness over time of this in-service series?  Having participants  answer a few questions in a feedback form will tell us how they liked the workshops, but won’t necessarily provide evidence with respect to a change in practice in classrooms across the school district.  Nor will the feedback from the series provide any evidence of increased student achievement as a result of the implementation of PBL in classrooms.

I am reminded of Thomas Guskey’s Five Levels of Professional Development Evaluation and wonder if there is a way for us to dig deeper or reach higher in our evaluation of the Designs series. It’s a good inquiry question for us to grapple with as a leadership team.



Sergiovanni (1995) said, “ Students learn best by doing, and doing is best when it is lifelike – When it involves engagement with real or near real problem solving.”  This is also true for teachers.  They need time and support to work with colleagues on the development of new curriculum design.


Like the PBL model itself, effective curriculum design is hard work.  It requires a high level of engagement in problem solving, creativity, and collaboration with peers.   Above all, it requires support over time in order to be sustainable.

The best school systems in the world are now investing in professional development for teachers that enables them to collaborate on curriculum design.  In Finland teachers have opportunities to engage in joint curriculum planning and approve school-level curriculum.  “The importance of curriculum design in teacher practice has helped shift the focus of professional development from fragmented inservice training toward more systemic, theoretically grounded, school-wide improvement efforts” (Darling-Hammond & Rothman, 2011). 

Many of the participants in the Designs 2013 series are already asking for this kind of investment and support from the school district in implementing more inquiry and project-based designs for learning.

It behooves us to find a way to make it happen.

Darling-Hammond, L. & Rothman, R. (2011). Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High Performing Education Systems. SCOPE.

Guskey, T. R. (2000). Evaluating Professional Development, Corwin Press.

Sergiovanni, T. (1995).  The principalship:  A reflective practice perspective, Allyn & Bacon.

Wiggins, G. & McTigue, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. ASCD.