George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

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.

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  - some great resources for collaboratively solving problems with kids.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I want to tattoo this:

Kids do well if they can.

on the forehead of every teacher who complains that kids just don't care, that they don't want to do well, or that they "aren't what they used to be." Kids do well if they can.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Every kid needs something. Its becoming more and more evident that American education, heck all education, needs to be individualized. I think the teachers that don't believe that "kids do well if they can" usually are matching the skills of a student to a standard or a test question, not to what the student can do, which is much more than a test question or standard can show. I often make a list of strengths and weaknesses in writing when parents are so concerned with the spelling of words. And correlate the spelling of words to writing skill. I say, "Okay, lets make a list of pros and cons."

Cons: Spelling

Pros: organization, sentence structure, voice, vocabulary, etc..

Yes, your child CAN write.

Thanks for the Post. Pretty work.

Rmooney's picture

The Ross Greene material is great. A new edition of the book was just released. Problem students demonstrate missing cognitive or social skills. A student who can do well, will. Students don't want to get into trouble, it happens when they can't do what they are being asked to do.

Stacie Isabella Turk's picture
Stacie Isabella Turk
inspirational stories and songs

I am posting this article on to share with the parents and educators that are also champions of our stories rooted in character bldg concepts as a powerful literacy tool. Am also forwarding to teachers at some of the schools I have been fortunate to go into and deliver the MACARONI AND CHEESE workshops.

Thank you!

Ali King's picture
Ali King
Kindergarden Teacher's Aid

I think this is so important to remember. It is too easy to just write a child off as a "bad kid" when really what they need is a little extra support, or maybe a different approach. It is important to stop thinking about what someone else is doing wrong, but what we can do to start making the situation better. And, as Alex points out, teachers also do well if they can. A teacher can learn as much from a challenging class as the class can learn from the teacher as long as we approach the situation with an open mind.

Owen Laughlin, JD's picture
Owen Laughlin, JD
Education Software Developer and Flight Instructor.

Great article. In the flight training world we always work to make the student believe they can. Confidence is a great motivator to further learning. Flight students normally hit a "plateau" and often think they can't improve past that self-imposed barrier. Staying with them in a positive way has ALWAYS worked . Pretty soon they're on to more complex skills with an enhanced view of themselves.

Ian the Miller's picture
Ian the Miller
Creative Director for Satyrus Jeering™, The Legendary Facemaker & Storyteller

"But I don't know how!"

This being the statement I seem to hear most often, when approaching a learning difficulty with the student. And without 1:1 engagement, a complimentary understanding of a skill seems unattainable to a student who needs direct attention to a problem.

Gaetan, you are right on point here! Teacher/student ratio is so much of our problem.

I am beginning to experiment with a system that works in part as a logic building experience and also contains a suggested 1:1 guideline for teachers to implement.

To Alex's point
Direct engagement with students at the individual level provides the space for empathy to occur. So shouldn't we then, focus on class time structure in order to provide for that space to exist?

Definitely, kids do well if they can.
(Wouldn't a tattoo of a QR code, which leads to a text string of this statement, be more engaging? Provided of course, that each viewer of that tattoo is given a scanner and set of directions for use upon viewing ;)

Lee Johnson's picture

I have had the pleasure of the implementation of Dr. Greene's approach being a core part of my previous position in a private special education school. It goes together with a trauma-informed approach as good as peanut butter and chocolate (for the Reece's fans...).


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