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Maximizing Student Success: A Strength-Based Pyramid

At REEL, we are passionate about helping parents, students, and teachers build bridges in support of maximizing each child’s potential. This includes neurodivergent and twice-exceptional learners, who often fall through the cracks. When everyone works together, amazing things can happen! 

We are inspired by a graphic of Dr. Robin Schader’s which visualizes teachers, students, and parents working together towards a common goal. She starts by drawing a triangle with the teacher, student, and parent at each point. As she explains, rather than pushing and pulling against one another in a 2-dimensional triangle, the collaboration needs to be made 3-dimensional (here she draws a point up above) with everyone looking up towards the common goal of maximizing the potential of the student. REEL loves Dr. Schader’s graphic because it helps people visualize the success we can achieve when we work together. 

We wanted to take Dr. Schader’s concept a step further by placing it on top of a solid foundation of strengths & interests, interventions & accommodations: 

At the base of this foundation is an understanding of, appreciation for, and commitment to develop each child’s strengths and interests. As Kimberlee Joseph, 2e Educational Consultant and REEL team member, says: 

“When strengths and interests are attended to in the classroom,

more students will experience self confidence, enjoyment in learning,

and a greater acceptance of self and others. In addition, research

indicates that strength based approaches improve academic

performance and engagement and lower incidences of challenging behaviors, absenteeism, and tardiness. Strength-based approaches

are especially critical for the 2e, who spend a high degree of time

focused on shoring up weaknesses or struggling with environments

that are not designed for their learning profiles, but rather to a ‘norm’

that doesn’t align to their needs and strengths.”

It is critical for parents and educators to take the time to understand what lights a child up and sustains them, and then to provide each child with opportunities to spend time in those spaces every day. Making sure kids know what they’re great at, and giving them time to do it and share it builds their self-efficacy and self-confidence. Not only does it give them time to hone and improve themselves, doing something they enjoy makes them feel good. Research shows that these types of positive experiences help build a wellspring of inner resources that an individual can draw upon throughout their lives, as well as improves their ability to attend to executive function, emotional regulation, and social attention in the here and now. (For more information, see the ‘for further reading’ section at the bottom of this post.) Those good feelings buoy students against challenges in other arenas - it fills their bucket so they are better able to take on challenges in their areas of weakness. 

Which, as it happens, is the next layer of the pyramid: interventions & accommodations.

Interventions include services such as pullout support, specialized tutoring, and therapists, as well as medications that can alleviate some of the challenges the child experiences. For example, a dyslexic student might receive phonemic awareness tutoring or work with an Orton-Gillingham tutor. A student with ADHD might take stimulant medication or meet  regularly with an executive function coach. An autistic student might spend time with an occupational therapist or speech and language pathologist. 

Accommodations are the tools and supports that a child needs in order to be successful. For example, dyslexic students may use audiobooks to supplement their reading. Many autistic, ADHD, and dyslexic students benefit from dictation tools for writing. Dysgraphic students should have the option to type (rather than hand write) their work. Accommodations should never alter the core purpose of any unit and therefore never ‘lower the bar.’ They are simply alternative means for allowing all students to achieve the same goals.

Too often, though, students’ strengths and interests are left behind. Interventions and accommodations work best when a student’s strengths are incorporated and prioritized. For example, let’s imagine a 5th grade student and call her Fern. Fern is a little Egyptologist. She has studied Egypt extensively on her own, through videos, audiobooks, and websites. Plus, Fern is very creative and has a lot of ideas. She makes interesting and insightful connections in class and likes to participate in group discussions. She is dyslexic and faces challenges when reading long texts and getting her thoughts into organized, written work.

A reading specialist working with Fern could incorporate strengths by choosing readings on Egyptian gods, and adding words like ‘sarcophagus’, ‘papyrus’, or ‘scarab’ into word list practices. This same specialist should be mindful of when during the school day Fern gets pulled out for tutoring, recognizing the child’s strength priorities, and finding a time where Fern will not miss her favorite history lessons or art class (where she’s working on a model pyramid!) The specialist asks Fern for a few suggestions on good times to meet - Fern discusses it with her parents, and then suggests during Tuesday morning music class (she’s more focused then, and she takes piano after school so doesn’t mind missing this class), or during half of her Thursday afternoon double period math class (she feels that missing only half the class would leave her time to catch up when she returns). 

Fern’s reading specialist knows that she is very creative, so they make sure to leave time in their sessions for her to ask questions about any of the words she comes across, or just talk about ideas that excite and interest her. Fern enjoys all of her classes because she can tell that the teachers appreciate her contributions, but she loves history class especially. In history she has been following along with the texts and doing her own research using audiobooks and watching videos online. She has learned a lot about the economies of ancient Egypt. For her next assignment, she is going to show all that she knows about the economics of ancient Egypt without having to write an essay! (She has to work on her writing all the time in her English class.) Instead, her teacher has given students the option to propose alternative ways to show what they know, so Fern is creating a role-playing game that simulates a market bazaar for her classmates. Fern has drawn up characters, recorded a ‘background info’ video for her classmates to watch, and is excited to explain the roles, customs, and norms to her eager participants. 

You can see that Fern is actively working on shoring up her deficits: she is working with a reading specialist, and she is practicing essay writing in English. Even though she may struggle to read and write as fast and as fluently as her peers, she is valued (even in English class!) for her strengths such as her strong discussion abilities and creative out-of-the box ideas, connections, and thinking. Her interests are also allowed to shine, with several teachers enabling her to incorporate her Egyptologist interests into all sorts of activities. 

Fern, her parents, and her teachers are working together to create an environment where Fern can maximize her potential in all aspects of her academic life. And this, then, supports the big picture goal, which is to be sure Fern has the skills, knowledge, and confidence to bring her unique strengths, interests, and abilities to the world. Attending to strengths and interests on their own as well as finding ways to infuse them into a child’s interventions and accommodations can propel the learning experience for the child, aligning them with their long-term goals, increasing motivation in the here and now, and providing those positive experiences that create a strong foundation across their lifetime.



Thank you to Kimberlee Joseph and Callie Turk for their contributions to this post. 

For further reading…

Chaves, C. (2021). Wellbeing and flourishing. In M. L. Kern & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education (pp. 273–295). Springer International Publishing.

Das, K. V., Jones-Harrell, C., Fan, Y., Ramaswami, A., Orlove, B., & Botchwey, N. (2020). Understanding subjective well-being: Perspectives from psychology and public health. Public Health Reviews, 41(1), 25.

Edie, B. L., and Edie, F. F. (2012 - Updated Edition 2023). The dyslexic advantage: Unlocking the hidden potential of the dyslexic brain. Plume. 

Foss, B. (2013). The dyslexia empowerment plan. Ballantine Books.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300–319.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2007). Broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. In R. Baumeister & K. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (1st ed., pp. 126– 127). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Wood, R. (2019). Autism, intense interests and support in school: From wasted efforts to shared understandings. Educational Review, 73(1), 34–54.

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