In the realm of education, schools have traditionally focused on what students need to compensate for what they lack, whether that be knowledge, behavioral challenges, or other personal “deficits.”

While it’s a well-intentioned goal to provide children with the resources and learning they require to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically, viewing students in terms of what they lack, or their deficits, emphasizes their struggles and challenges in way that can be draining and discouraging.

Last week’s Go2s blog touched on the qualities of effective teachers, including the ability to look at students and see not their deficits but rather their individual experiences, backgrounds, and skills. This week, we will further explore what it means to leverage the cultural and personal assets of students and what the application of that idea might look like in a real-world classroom setting.

Changing the Perspective on Student Needs

Students come to the classroom as individual humans bearing a range of skills, interests, experiences, and knowledge. Additionally, they bring with them non-classroom-related life circumstances that can impact their level of engagement at school, which is a key factor in academic achievement.

In an article on KnowledgeWorks, StrivePartnership research intern Jeffrey Gaver writers that while educators can’t control the larger social, economic, neighborhood or family structures impacting students, they are in a position to either alleviate or exacerbate the stress and challenges of students while they’re in the classroom.

It all begins with teachers’ attitudes and behaviors, as well as their belief about the capacity of all students to learn. The questions then are not, how is this child lacking, or can this child succeed? Rather, the lens for learning becomes focused on, what does this child bring to the table, and how can this child succeed? The next step is meeting students where they’re at and identifying what tools and resources can help the student leverage their personal strengths and unique circumstances to succeed. Using this empowerment lens over a deficit perspective, Gaver writes, “can play a vital role in increasing classroom engagement and empowering students to succeed.”

Believing Your Students Can Learn

The deficit model not only inhibits the abilities of students to develop socially and emotionally, but it also negatively impacts their academic achievement. In an article for Edutopia, Dr. Janice Lombardi, an early college principal, provides more insight on how the perceptions harbored by teachers affect students, particularly from underserved populations.

Within a deficit-centric education model, there’s an unsubstantiated idea that if students simply worker harder, they can compensate for their socioeconomic disadvantages, improve their lives, and achieve success.  Additionally, teachers expect less from their students who face external challenges.

An empowerment lens flips the narrative. Educators who function within this framework not only truly believe all students can learn, but proactively strategize to convince their students these high expectations are attainable as well.

In tandem with setting high expectations, teachers must work toward mitigating a student’s fear of failure. Accomplishing that relies on relationship-building—knowing students by name and recognizing their strengths along with their challenges. If students feel genuinely cared about, supported, and respected, they are empowered to be resilient in the face of failure.

The next step, Lombardi writes, is creating reachable, intermediate acceleration goals that pave the way for students to meet those high expectations. Each step should be realistic and also recognized by the student.

By putting smaller goals in place, teachers can “gradually plan for short-term successes,” according to Lombardi. It’s true that success breeds success. When children—or most people, for that matter—accomplish a goal or task, no matter how small, they foster a belief in their own abilities that emboldens them to then undertake larger, more meaningful goals in the future. Again, strategically planning for those successes depends on focusing on what students can do, rather than their perceived deficits. Teachers should leverage those personal assets, in turn setting students up to persevere and accomplish their goals. Additionally, getting input from students themselves—giving them a voice in the planning process—has an immense impact on their motivation to participate and desire to own the solution, Lombardi writes.

Moving Away from the Deficit Model

Improving public education and student achievement is a multifaceted problem with numerous solutions that are each necessary, but insufficient on their own. Some of the effective solutions include social emotional learning (SEL), using an equity lens, rejecting the deficit model, and bolstering teachers to perform at their best. In next week’s blog, we will explore methods for establishing positive student-teacher relationships and the importance of garnering support from parents and community members.

Part 1: The Evolving Education Environment

Part 2: The Power of Educators’ Attitudes to Influence Student Success

Part 4: Fostering Positive Student-Teacher Relationships