George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Kids Do Well If They Can: A Strength-Based Approach

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Kids do well if they can.

This statement is foundational to supporting students from a place of empathy. Said another way, children use the skills they possess, and when a situation asks them to use more skills than they possess, they compensate through strategies that may not work well for themselves or others.  

An example: a student will do well with a math problem if he/she knows how to solve the math problem. If she hasn’t yet learned the foundational skill, he/she might guess, make up an answer, or skip the problem.

A more challenging example: a student will tell you they are frustrated if they have the skill to regulate their emotions in order to respectfully say “I’m frustrated.” That’s a teachable skill, and if the student hasn’t yet learned that foundational skill, he/she might swear, storm out, or become silent.  

Kids do well if they can. And they can, when we teach them how. When we operate from belief in this, we develop a strengths-based stance in which we believe that every student can succeed. We shift from saying, “that kid just won’t learn” to “that kid hasn’t mastered that skill yet.” We begin to wonder, “what skill is lacking?” rather than “why won’t he stop acting out?” We start to say, “let me help you,” instead of getting frustrated or giving up.

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We can also turn this same empathy and positive belief toward ourselves. Teachers also do well when they can. As we grow as professionals, and as we collaborate with one another, let’s remember that we, too, need support around skill development.  

When things aren’t going well for me, in my class planning or interpersonal relationships within the school, I might look at where my own skills or the skills of those around me are lacking. I can turn “she just doesn’t get my teaching style!” into, “I wonder how I can better communicate my intentions with her.” I can transform, “they never let me take initiative” into “How can I better advocate for my ideas?” I can view a negative staff culture as an opportunity to intentionally develop all of our skills around how to positively be in community.

 We all do well if we can. By starting from a place of strength, possibility, and openness, we make space to learn skills together, and we all do better.  

*The phrase “kids do well if they can” is borrowed from Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model, which I’d encourage people to check out at livesinthebalance.org  - some great resources for collaboratively solving problems with kids.

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