A Strengths-based Approach to Teaching/Parenting


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My ‘zest-ful’ gal

Back to school time is upon us and that means back to our busy lives, sweater weather (best), fall colours and lots of thinking about the school year ahead and the intentional ways we want to guide our children and students through the next school year.

At Lakefield College School we have adopted a ‘strengths-based approach’ to our work with students. Strengths-based guru, Dr. Lea Waters, visited us last week to workshop with staff and deliver a parenting seminar for our community. What I appreciated most about this day was Dr. Waters translations of theory into practice. She had a lot of great curricular and parenting advice that one could actually use in everyday life. As you might guess, I got inspired by this method and wanted to share some of what I learned from Dr. Waters with you, whether you are a parent or teacher.

What is a ‘strengths-based’ approach? The premise behind the strengths-based approach is that reducing ill-being does not translate to well-being in an individual. Dr. Waters explained that if we were to stop here, we would end up with children in a ‘neutral’ state, where one is not in a negative state of ill-being, but is also not necessarily thriving and happy in their daily lives. Not what we want. We want our kids and students to feel like badass contributors to their communities, because, they are, for all different kinds of reasons. Enter the strengths-based approach.

A strengths-based approach allows us to abandon the socially-ingrained concept that we must focus on our weaknesses to improve as individuals. Dr. Waters explained, we must only focus on our weaknesses if they are inhibiting us from being happy or productive. Otherwise, this approach gives us permission to leave our weaknesses alone as they are never going to become our strengths. With this rationale, we now have more space in our lives to strengthen our positive qualities, as these are the parts of ourselves we can make even better.

So, in practice, we first need to see strengths. You can begin this process by completing a VIA character strength test, perusing the top 5, and reflecting with your students, children, family – a lovely, warm and fuzzy exercise all in itself. Other suggestions include keeping a diary, ‘spotting’ others strengths (in a movie, a favourite actor, etc).

I especially love this idea of ‘spotting,’ and have already put it into practice with my daughter. Yesterday she was pretty upset when she thought her little sister was about to fall down the stairs. Don’t worry, I was there and Nora could see I was there, so the concern was slightly unfounded. Nonetheless, she was yelling at the top of her lungs about it. Instead of asking her to lower her voice inside and leaving it at that, I took the opportunity to spot this display of care (a VIA character strength) and let Nora know she was a really great big sister for worrying about Margot. I plan on doing this ‘spotting’ exercise with my students, not necessarily so they can spot their own strengths (this is a great start in self-reflection on its own), but also so they can locate and verbalize those strengths in the people around them. A beautiful contribution to a community of care.

From here, you would continue to build upon these strengths, leaving a focus on weakness in the rear view. I have to admit, we have fumbled around with this language  when approaching conversations about ‘dialing up’ or ‘dialing down’ a strength. For example, my daugther is, how should I say … full of ‘zest.’ This zest also comes along with persistence. She has an opinion and she will tell you very adamantly if she doesn’t like something. Nora’s ‘zest-y’ persistence is one of the best parts of who she is. She is full of life and fun and people are drawn to her because of this. Her perseverance and persistence will serve her well when she tackles big tasks later in life. I’m proud of this. But sometimes, Nora’s 3 year old self needs to ‘dial down’ her zest and persistence in certain situations, say at circle time or when she doesn’t want to get in the car but we need to go. Turning the conversation from one of discipline to one about learning how to channel this zest can be challenging, especially, when like, we need to go. But, we’re trying, and I am going to try with my students as well.

Let me know if you have any experience with this approach, I would love to hear it!

Happy back to school!





“Healthy Children, above all else…”


Hello All,

I just finished an important educational read entitled, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools (Thanks AMK!). I wanted to use this post to discuss some of the useful suggestions that flow from Dr. Gealson’s years of practice and observation of young people in elite schools and to make one of my own.  Gealson contends that educators (and parents) ought to question and change (like, really change) the high pressure, high stakes school environments that many of our highly anxious, over-programed students find themselves in today. Dr. Gealson is not suggesting that this pressure is the adults fault, but, instead, he suggests that it will take the collective effort of these groups to abandon reactive approaches to student stress and move towards proactive strategies that truly help students to take a step back from it all, and simply, be kids. Oh, but this is really hard, because society demands excellence from students who attend these elite academic institutions, and well-meaning parents and teachers work tirelessly to help them get there, but, at what cost? I think my earlier Blog posts shed a light on some of these costs, so I will leave it at that.

What startled me most about Dr. Gealson’s insights is that many young people no longer even recognize the extremely stressful worlds in which they inhabit; it’s become the norm within a ‘monoculture’ of excellence. Scary stuff that can cause real damage if not addressed; sadly, I’ve witnessed this with some of my own students. There’s some really cool and applicable sociological theories that explain how we can get trapped within these worlds, how it can become the norm, and therefore, how it becomes difficult to make real change.

Pierre Bourdieu theorizes that we all live within ‘social fields.’  He also calls these invisible, but highly ‘sticky’ spaces, ‘fields of struggle.’ These social fields determine our lot in life and its hard to move from one social field into another. For example, if you hail from a working class family, the structures in your life and the fields in which you travel may inhibit you from “jumping” from this field into say, the upper classes. Bourdieu would say this happens because you do not have access to ‘social capital.’ Social capital represents a whole range of social and structural entities, such as education, skills, tastes, mannerisms, credentials, etc. Conversely, it would be difficult to try to exist in a different social field then that in which you were raised, such as in the upper class. One might feel pressure to maintain what one’s parents provided for them. Enter, pressure to perform, from a classic sociological perspective.

This seems a little grim, I know, but, there is also agency. Bourdieu argues that individuals have agency (choice and power) within the structures (schools) that circulate around them. Perhaps this is a useful sociological lens through which to view and extend Dr. Gealson’s work; the social capital that young people pursue in highly competitive schools has morphed into a competitive monoculture that is causing major stress for our young people. Most useful, is when we start to think about the interplay between structure and agency. This is where magic can happen and change can be made. I diverge from Dr. Gealson on this point; yes, structures need to change, but they must change in harmony with student agency, in that school. Without agency, students feel a loss of control; the last thing the developing adolescent mind wants.

So, how do we fix this very enmeshed social dilemma? As we know, Dr. Gealson suggests that it is time to stop telling our student to change, and to start making changes to the structures. He suggests that this will require uncomfortable moments of self-reflection on part of the adults, major scheduling changes in students daily routines (delayed school start times, no Saturday classes in boarding schools), decreases in homework expectations, recognizing and honoring the developmental stage of our students (don’t treat them like adults) and my favourite, a commitment to mindfulness meditation.

These suggestions come with years of experience and would benefit many students lives, no doubt, but my one critique of Dr. Gealson’s work, at least with respect to possible solutions, is this absence of an exploration into the power of student agency to illicit change.

Back to Bourdieu. This book is about changing structures (things that happen in these elite social fields that involve students maintaining social capital in their worlds), but I was craving a discussion of the power that students do have in shaping their own worlds. I want to hear from them; I want them to be part of the solution; I want a study where they tell us how it is and what should be done. Uncomfortable for faculty, yes. Vital for any real change, absolutely.

Thanks for reading!










Ontario’s Sex Ed Repeal

F291C7A3-7442-4833-ABC2-976157B77423Hello All,

I know I just posted, but this is a timely and important matter. Those of you who reside in Ontario most likely have heard about the repeal of the 2015 sexuality education curriculum across all grade levels. You know, the one that was super sweet and progressive and taught about important, or should I say, vital, information on consent, sex, and gender fluidity.

I am not here to plug my political affiliations, but rather, to shed some light on this policy and the implications associated with its removal, in hopes you will sign the petition I have posted below to keep it alive. We need our children and the young adults we teach to receive this education. I will provide a brief history, to ignite the fight in you, if it wasn’t already there. I will focus on this concept of consent.

The inclusion of consent in the 2015 HPE policy is credited to two young women, Lia Valente and Tessa Hill (and Kathleen Wynne too, I suppose, but I like it when kids exercise agency, so there it is). I had the pleasure to watch these two bad ass feminists speak at a conference at the University of Western, Ontario a couple of years ago. They inspired me. The students created a 20-minute documentary on rape culture as part of a media studies program in 2015 after their shock over Ontario’s 1998 HPE document’s lack of conversation about the topic. The students argued that omitting consent issues from the curriculum means kids “don’t respect their partner’s boundaries and they don’t know how to have safe sex” (CBC News, 2015). In December of 2015, they launched the We Give Consent campaign aiming to get consent made part of Ontario curriculum. Their petition to include consent in the curriculum received over 40,000 signatures and media attention across Canada (CBC News, 2015). Premier Wynne arranged a meeting to consult with the young people after hearing them on the CBC’s Metro Morning and informed them that the topic would be included in the 2015 curriculum. A beautiful back story. Fast forward to this week…

I have to say; I am appalled by the removal of this curriculum. I also just don’t get it. Are we not in the midst of a shocking ‘me too’ movement? A generation of women coming forward after years of harboring truths about sexual misconduct at the hands of those in power? The mental anguish these women must have endured over the years brings me to tears. So I ask; what if their teachers had stood at the front of the classroom and given them an unbiased perspective about saying ‘no,’ about respecting their own and others boundaries, about how their bodies worked and about gender existing on a beautiful continuum of acceptance? Better yet, what if this same lesson was delivered to their perpetrators? Their pasts might look very different.

A common theme in social justice uprisings is that one story, one protest, and one conversation can shift an ideology, even slightly. Eventually, these conversations form a larger movement that leads to thousands of people marching down Yonge Street, as they did when Trump came into power. I marched proudly in this protest. These conversations eventually lead to policy and curriculum reform and larger shifts in the collective consciousness of a country, a continent. To remove such policies that stand on foundations such as these is offensive, to say the least. I hope you will consider signing the petition (link posted below). Our kids need these lessons.







“Mommy, can we go watch the wind blow?”


It has been hot, hot, hot here in Toronto so far this summer. It was a particularly hot day this past weekend, and we were doing our best to keep our children entertained inside. My daughter approached me and said “Mommy, can we go outside and watch the wind blow?” For real, she said this. This was one of those moments where I felt so very lucky to hang out with a 3 year old everyday. Heck ya, I want to go watch the wind blow with you. But, I am a millennial mom, so my second string of  thoughts were, ‘will she get sun stroke?’ ‘She doesn’t have sunscreen on!’ ‘where’s her hat?’  and ‘where’s her water bottle?’ I fought these anxieties in that particular moment, and we went to run in the field and watch the wind blow. We got a few mosquito bites by the pond in the process and our cheeks were slightly rosy from the sun upon our return; but, it’s a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget, even though there was nothing particularly extraordinary about it.

This also inspired me to write this post, because so often I just play it safe while also trying to manufacture the fun and activity in my children’s lives. I try to avoid this urge to over-program whenever I can, but I find it very challenging and I am not always successful at it. When I think back to my childhood, however, I remember playing in fields for hours upon end; I remember climbing to the tops of trees and ‘GT-racing’ down massive hills. To be honest, I am not quite sure where my parents were when this was happening,  but I loved this free-play and was grateful they weren’t around to rain on my danger parade. Of course, later on, I took to sport on my own volition, without any pressure from adults. I don’t think our parents thought about this much, as this was just the norm in the 80s. In actuality, there were important lessons embedded in these care-free moments of free-play, including testing physical limits, developing relationships, and failing in a low-stakes environment. The research shows that this generation may be missing out on these opportunities for free-play for a variety of reasons including this pressure to over-program, parents increased concerns about their child’s safety and, you know, cell phones.

ParticipACTION releases a ‘report card’ on the physical activity patterns of children and youth each year in Canada. In 2015, the report attributed  high inactivity levels to a ‘protection paradox,’ that is, a parents intense focus on intervening in their child’s lifestyle to make sure they are healthy, safe, and happy (ParticipACTION Canada, 2015). This over-protection leads to restrictions on a child’s age-appropriate independence and coping skills, and therefore, their ability to locate their own joyful experiences all on their own. This only gets more difficult as they grow older.

Free-play is a heavily theorized concept in the world of physical education. This concept of humans moving their bodies for the sheer joy of it is a concept that Millennial parents, like myself, must work at. I see it as yet another important opportunity in a child’s life in addition to dance, soccer, piano lessons, etc. Frohlich et al. (2013) have documented the disappearance of free-play in children as critical to their development and physical health and my own research extends this finding into the activity patterns and self-surveillance of young people in their teen years. Sadly, many young people have expressed a lack of joy in moving their bodies when they reach high school years (of course, more on this later.)

So, back to free-play. Research shows that providing these opportunities for children at a young age can negate some of the anxieties associated with achieving a clear goal, a specific body, a desirable Instagram feed (just another goal) and may contribute to locating joyful experiences associated with the body. This applies to how we fuel our bodies as well; sometimes it should just be for fun.  That’s why I have decided this is going to be a ‘1980s summer’ for my family. Our days so far have been spent outside, in bathing suits, eating freezies (full sugar), swimming and running around barefoot, with no regard for day or time. It wasn’t easy to avoid over-programming, but I am loving every minute watching my kids engage in the important ‘program’ of free-play.








Deep Dive


The Canada Day long weekend is upon us here in the north, and while many will be diving off a dock into some pristine body of water (I heart Canada),  my deep dive involves a first glimpse into the very nuanced world of physical activity and access to being ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ in a North American context. It was no joke when I said that this undertaking is messy; the job of telling someone to ‘get outside,’ ‘get fit’ and ‘put down the phone’ carries a whole range of sociocultural nuances that flow through a vast network of privilege and power. It is important that I lay this foundation before digging in deeper to living a fit and healthy life through education and embodied experiences; sadly, it’s not so simple.

I will try to limit stuffy academic terms as much as possible here, but, I must share just one, and that is the concept of Healthism. Healthism, a concept introduced by Robert Crawford in the 1970’s, is the belief that health can be achieved unproblematically through individual effort and discipline (Crawford, 1970). Further to this, it represents a moral imperative to do so. Put simply, being fit and healthy depends on YOU, and its your job as a good, contributing citizen to keep it tight (or at least keep your blood pressure down and your BMI within the ‘healthy’ range – don’t get me started on BMI, people!).

Government and educational policy represent dominant forces that deliver these messages through public service announcements and school practices. Why? To keep the population healthy, out of hospital, and to take the heat off larger societal problems that may contribute to sedentary lifestyles, such as access to community resources, time, healthy food, money, and the list goes on. This is what I mean when I talk about power and how those in power can wield control over the individual in very subtle, yet powerful ways (more on Foucault later). An important study came out this week and was published in the Toronto Star that sheds light on the startling imbalances of after school opportunities for students in the poorest neighborhoods in Toronto, as an example (Students in poorer neighbourhoods may miss out on ‘vital programs,’ Toronto Star, June 25th 2018).

It starts to become clear that good health and well-being are not things one can achieve unproblematically through individual effort and discipline. I am not saying that those who have access to the best programs and schools should feel guilty, or that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds do not have the ability to achieve good health; neither of these points prove productive for anyone. Instead, I am saying that we should try to be mindful of these social determinants of health and the privilege that comes along with achieving ‘good health.’ As someone who has taught in both the public and independent school systems, I like to engage all of my students in conversation about privilege. To be honest, as soon as we get on the topic, they often bring this up anyways because this generation is super cool and committed to social justice. I’ll do another post on this later.

So, as I embark on this journey of theorizing and actualizing good health for myself and others, considering access, privilege and one’s background will shape these conversations moving forward. Happy Canada Day to all! We are peacing out to the north for 2 weeks and living our best life – without WIFI!