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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Look at ‘What’s Strong, Not What’s Wrong’ With Our Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 22, 2019 25 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What can teachers do to help highlight student assets and not their deficits? In other words, what can teachers do to help create that mindset for themselves when they look at students and what can they do to help students develop the same view?

In Part One, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Dr. Larry J. Walker, Carmen Nguyen, Julie Jee, Shawna Coppola, Kevin Parr, and Andrew Sharos shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Adeyemi, Larry, and Carmen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Lisa Westman, Salome Thomas El, T.J. Vari, Amber Chandler, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Rita Platt, Cheryl Mizerny, and Adria Klein, Ph.D., contributed their commentaries.

In Part Three, Elizabeth Stein, Beth Kobett, Ed.D., Carol Pelletier Radford, Dr. Noah Prince, Michael Hart, Ph.D., Jenny Edwards, and Keisha Rembert offered their answers.

Today, Dr. Alison J. Mello, Rhonda Precourt, Gen Arcovio, Michelle Knight-Manuel, Joanne Marciano, Dr. Christi Bergin, Kelly Chandler-Olcott, J. Stuart Ablon, Alisha Pollastri, and Signe Whitson provide even more suggestions.

Response From Dr. Alison J. Mello

Dr. Alison J. Mello has been in education for over 25 years as a classroom teacher, math specialist, director of curriculum, and is currently the assistant superintendent of the Foxborough public schools in Massachusetts. She holds an Ed.D. in educational leadership, and her research focuses on classroom learning environment and relationship to mathematical disposition. In addition to her work in the district, Alison is a national speaker, math consultant, and graduate instructor of in-service teachers:

As educators, we are in relentless pursuit of data. This data comes in many forms, and at the risk of oversimplifying, is typically intended to inform us about what students know and what they still need to learn. This helps us to plan and hopefully to teach more effectively. Makes sense, but how do students perceive this? Are we so busy focusing on what students can’t do that we are not seeing or valuing what they can?

The importance of this distinction became clear to me when interviewing a 3rd grader about math. She had one of the most outstanding teachers I knew, yet as she told me about her experiences, I watched her burst into tears as she shared how the teacher often made her feel stupid. When I probed, she explained that the teacher regularly pointed out what she did not know and what she did wrong. Of course, I knew that this came from a place of the teacher wanting to clarify and correct misconceptions and guide the student toward proficiency. Unfortunately, this was not how it was received. Instead, it led to the student perceiving herself as “bad” at math. What was worse was the student had become fearful of answering questions, frequently avoided school, and refrained from interacting with peers in the classroom. When I shared this with the teacher, she was stunned. She shared that the student was one of the strongest in her class.

If we hope to highlight student strengths, we must understand what a deficit mindset looks and sounds like and move away from it with intentionality. We must be willing to make a commitment to focus on “what’s strong, not what’s wrong.” Below are some simple strategies to begin to make this important shift.

  • When providing feedback on work that has multiple parts (think math problem, science procedure, writing piece), focus comments on the parts that are done correctly. Help the student see these parts by posing questions that draw their attention to what is good about their work. From there, pose questions about where they may be stuck and provide small scaffolds to move them to the next step.

  • Pose questions that have more than one solution. These are often referred to as low-floor/high-ceiling tasks or open-ended tasks. These allow multiple entry points and foster a culture where all students can make valuable contributions.

  • If you are not using standards-based grades, swap out a “score” on top of a paper for a fraction. This removes the tendency of students to classify their achievement based on a percent. Resist the urge to mark up everything that is wrong. Keep the focus on the learning by allowing error analysis and take time to celebrate growth.

  • Help students to set goals and monitor their own progress. In this way, they will own their learning and be attuned to their improvements.

  • Avoid moving on too fast from a student who is struggling to respond. While it may seem kind to ask if they would like help from a friend, it may also inadvertently say, “I don’t think you can do this.” Instead, reframe the question or see if they know some part of what you are looking for—and then validate that.

  • Create a Wall of Fame where students can display work that they are proud of.

  • Fail forward in front of your students. Be cognizant of your own self-talk, how you react when you don’t know something, and how you characterize your own weaknesses. Be vulnerable and show your students that you make mistakes and are always learning, just like them.

  • Embrace the Power of Yet. When students say, “I can’t do this,” be there to add YET to the sentence!

While the above suggestions may appear simple, their power cannot be overstated. All students possess strengths, and we have the opportunity and privilege to recognize them and leverage them on the pathway to proficiency. What are we waiting for?

Response From Rhonda Precourt & Gen Arcovio

Rhonda Precourt and Gen Arcovio are literacy specialists in western New York. They are co-owners of the Literacy Pages blog:

Most educators would agree that students who have a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, will be more successful in the long run. Researcher and psychologist Carole Dweck found that when subjects believed that their brains could grow, they achieved higher rates of success than those who did not believe that they could become smarter (“Decades of Scientific,” 2017). If we agree that students should feel that way about themselves, then doesn’t it also make sense for us, as educators, to think of them in that same way? We propose that when educators focus too intently on what a child can’t do, we limit our own ability to clearly see the child’s assets and use them to propel the child forward into higher levels of achievement.

The question then becomes how do we have this positive outlook for all of our students while also being real about what they need to learn?

Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl (2016), authors of The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, define reframing as, “finding the better storyline in your children and other people.” Reframing focuses on using supportive language to place less importance on negativity thus creating a happier and more productive environment for ourselves and our children. Using limiting language such as, “She is so low in math,” labels a child and can become a self-fulfilled prophecy. Simply thinking about a student with this type of language limits you, as the child’s teacher, just as much as it would limit the child if you were to say it to him.

A simple way that you can begin reframing is to add the word “yet” to everything you think about a student.

“He can’t read grade-level text ... yet.”

“She doesn’t know world geography ... yet.”

“This group doesn’t have number sense ... yet.”

Adding this simple word to your sentence every time you are talking about what students can’t do will automatically shift you to a growth mindset about the child. Your change in mindset is necessary for students to develop a growth mindset for themselves. “Walk the walk and talk the talk” as they say.

The next step is to add the word “but” to your sentence. By adding this simple word to your sentence, you obligate yourself to look at the student’s assets in relation to the perceived deficit. This will make analyzing the next steps for teaching the child much easier.

“He can’t read grade-level text yet...but he can read books at the grade-level below.”

“She doesn’t know world geography yet...but she does know the difference between continents and countries.”

“This group doesn’t have number sense yet...but they do know how to count to 20.”

Many educators use assessment tools to find out what a student still can’t do. I challenge you to use assessments differently. As you look at students’ errors add “yet” to each thought. Then call upon yourself to find the asset within the error. When educators use reframing and require themselves to look for students’ assets they increase both student and teacher achievement.


Decades of Scientific Research That Started a Growth Mindset Revolution (2017). Retrieved from https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/

Alexander, J. J., & Sandahl, I. D. (2016). The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

Response From Michelle Knight-Manuel & Joanne Marciano

Michelle Knight-Manuel and Joanne Marciano are co-authors of the books Classroom Cultures: Equitable Schooling for Racially Diverse Youth (Teachers College Press, 2019) and College Ready: Preparing Black and Latino Youth for Higher Education (Teachers College Press, 2013).

Michelle is an associate dean and professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research is grounded in the intersections of teaching and learning in varied educational context (e.g., schools, community-based organizations, and after-school clubs), with an emphasis on equity.

Joanne is an assistant professor of English education in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. Joanne’s research engages qualitative participatory methodologies to examine opportunities for supporting culturally and linguistically diverse youths’ literacy learning across contexts of secondary English education, urban education, and teacher education. She previously taught secondary English for 13 years in a N.Y.C. public high school:

In our book, Classroom Cultures: Equitable Schooling for Racially Diverse Youth, we share insights gained from our work with more than 500 educators across 28 New York City public high schools who participated in the Culturally Relevant Education Professional Development initiative (CRE-PD) we designed and facilitated during a three-year period. We draw from those insights in our response to the question above.

In our work, we’ve found that perhaps the most important thing educators can do to transform their teaching is to build from students’ strengths. When we collaborate alongside students, their families, and their communities—and really listen to what they tell us about their experiences and perspectives—we can more clearly see the assets they bring into our classrooms and schools. Once we see those assets, we can work to create structures and practices that build from and extend students’ strengths to create more equitable learning opportunities across grade levels, subject areas, and schools in urban, suburban, and rural school communities.

To do this work, educators need to be willing to collaborate in ways that may initially be uncomfortable for them. It can be hard to challenge our assumptions and understand we may unintentionally hold deficit perspectives of students. For example, one educator we worked with was a white female who noted that the black and Latino young men she taught didn’t have role models other than Barack Obama, Jay-Z, or LeBron James. She said she didn’t mean anything against the boys, but they just didn’t see any other examples in their culture. We worked with her to challenge this assumption by considering specific students she worked with and the many role models of color they encounter across their daily experiences, including black and Latino men who are members of their families and communities.

When another educator said they brought in “random adults” to talk with students during their school’s career day, we offered an alternative. We encouraged them to talk to their students about who they considered role models—and then bring those people in as speakers to share their experiences and perspectives. It’s important to guide educators in thinking about how they may not realize they are holding and enacting negative assumptions about their students, while also challenging them to change their way of thinking to build on students’ strengths. We encourage educators to take time to learn about what their students’ lives are actually like, rather than rely on stereotypes about youth culture. Understanding what students watch on television, the things they enjoy doing with their families, the music artists they listen to, the sports they participate in after school, the things they do with their friends for fun, and the kinds of after-school jobs they hold makes it easier for educators to connect curriculum and teaching to those interests in ways that highlight students’ assets. When those assets are highlighted across collaborative learning opportunities, such as group projects that recognize and affirm students’ strengths and interests, additional opportunities emerge for assisting students in seeing one another’s assets.

For example, as a high school teacher in New York City, Joanne invited students to form their own groups across sections of the 11th grade English classes she taught to complete a video project documenting their visit to a local college campus. One particular group of black and Latino adolescent boys chose to work together and encouraged one another to complete aspects of the project that reflected their strengths. One student enjoyed taking photographs, so he contributed still images to the digital video composition. Another student worked on editing the photographs alongside video clips to tell the story of their college tour, while a third student selected a song with meaningful lyrics to play as the soundtrack for the video. When the completed video was highlighted as an exemplar by an audience of classmates and educators, the students’ academic identities were celebrated. The acknowledgement was particularly notable as the young men often encountered deficit assumptions about their ability to achieve academically. This is just one example demonstrating how coming together in conversation and in action to examine our curriculum and teaching in relation to students’ strengths may lead to more equitable schooling opportunities for all students.

Response From Dr. Christi Bergin

Dr. Christi Bergin is the associate dean for research & innovation at the University of Missouri College of Education and co-founder of the Network for Educator Effectiveness. She conducts research on teaching effectiveness, particularly as it relates to social-emotional learning in students. She is the author of Designing a Prosocial Classroom: Fostering Collaboration in Students from PreK-12 with the Curriculum You Already Use:

Each student is a richly complex person. If you focus on the whole child, you will find assets in every student (although you will find this easier for some students). You can create this mindset for yourself by deliberately, intentionally identifying assets in each of your students. In my book, Designing a Prosocial Classroom, I tell of Mr. Szyperski, a middle school teacher. He set aside 30 minutes after school almost every day to phone a portion of his students’ parents, working his way through his class roster. He would tell them what he liked about having their child in his class. This activity forced him into the mindset of focusing on at least one asset each student brought to his class. As you can imagine, Mr. Szyperski was a beloved teacher whose students worked hard to please him.

You can help students focus on their assets rather than deficits by telling them the strengths that you see in them:

“You are capable.” “You are warm-hearted.” “You are a hard worker.” “You are persistent.” “You see things in interesting ways.” “If you practice, you will master this.” “Other students look to you for leadership.” “You have a contagious smile.”

Students believe the stories you tell them about themselves—for good or ill. They adopt those stories as their own. Many adults can tell you about a childhood teacher who changed their lives by simply pointing out an asset in them that they didn’t know they had. For example, Mr. Ogden told a teenager who was failing his anatomy class (along with other classes) that he thought she was “college material” if she would just study occasionally. Today she is a teacher—the first in her family to go to college. She credits her career path to Mr. Ogden because he changed the way she saw herself.

It is important to tell students about their strengths in front of their classmates. Your students’ attitudes about each other are powerfully affected by your attitude. You can harm a student’s reputation by focusing classmates’ attention on deficits, or you can enhance a student’s reputation by focusing on assets.

Praising students is one way that you communicate their assets. Say “thank you” generously when students do the right thing, rather than criticize them for doing the wrong thing. “Thanks for catching that mistake. You have a good eye.” However, some kinds of praise are more effective than other kinds. In Designing a Prosocial Classroom, I explain what the research says about how to use praise effectively. Research has found that when teachers focus on students’ assets, the teacher-student relationship becomes stronger. These strong relationships, in turn, produce a cascade of positive outcomes. Students become more motivated and work harder academically. They become kinder and more cooperative with each other. And as a bonus for you, teachers enjoy teaching more. These effects tend to be strongest for students whose risk for academic failure is linked to behavior problems, low income, minority status, or low self-control. The effect of teacher-student relationships on tests and grades is large. Developing mutually positive relationships with each student has a powerful influence.

Response From Kelly Chandler-Olcott

Kelly Chandler-Olcott is the Laura J. & L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence in the Syracuse University School of Education, where she teaches literacy-methods courses. Her latest book is A Good Fit for All Kids: Collaborating to Teach Writing in Diverse, Inclusive Settings (Harvard Education Press, 2019):

“Going Positive” with Planned Writing Conferences

For 25 years, I’ve asked teachers in classes and professional-development sessions to examine varied samples of writing by adolescents. When teacher-readers, regardless of their experience level, share their noticings about these texts, most begin by identifying deficiencies in grammar, mechanics, and spelling. The more mistakes they perceive in a piece, the less likely they are to focus on other features. When it comes to writing, most educators immediately go negative—to borrow a term from electoral politics—often without noticing it.

For me, this pattern speaks to the durability of some of the discourses in education around teachers as gatekeepers of tradition and standards. These discourses can get in the way of our appreciating and augmenting the writing resources that students, particularly those from groups historically underserved by school, bring to our classrooms. To increase all writers’ competence and engagement, we need to acknowledge and interrupt our unproductive tendencies as a field.

One way to challenge a deficit mindset around writing is to plan for one-to-one conferences with a structured, strengths-based protocol. I saw the benefits of such an approach most clearly when directing the Robinson Summer Writing Institute, an enrichment program intended to support youths’ transition to high school while building adult capacity to teach writing in diverse, inclusive classrooms. Our instructional priorities in the program included promoting student choice around topics, making genre conventions explicit, and increasing collaborative talk about writer’s craft.

Conferences were key to achieving all of these goals, and the protocol we designed as a team was simple but powerful. Before conferring with students, we reviewed their drafts to identify one strength, typically recorded on a sticky note with a plus sign, and one “next step,” recorded with a future-facing arrow. Our use of these symbols was meant to reinforce the value of continuous improvement through revision, and we sought to support transferable skills in areas such as idea development, organization, and clarity, rather than to excise error. When a conference commenced, either by our invitation or student initiation, we always shared the strength first, before the suggestion, to ensure that the interaction was grounded in specific, positive feedback. This approach preserved more student autonomy over the text than extensive teacher commentary in the margins, and it generated more thoughtful responses than we were often able to muster in more improvisational conferences, without preparation. Much like a sentence frame supports the mastery of syntax in a new academic genre, the predictable protocol, combined with multiple peer models of co-teachers using it in the institute’s shared instructional space, helped us to learn new habits that were more generative than overcorrection.

A conference protocol doesn’t just keep teachers honest, however. It also helps students learn to challenge a deficit mindset themselves. First-day surveys and subsequent interactions revealed that many participants in the Robinson institute struggled to identify their own strengths as writers. Without grades to communicate their teachers’ approval or censure, they weren’t sure how to calibrate the quality of their efforts. As youths conferred over time with adults who consistently and concretely named aspects that were working about their drafts—even the drafts that were the roughest and most emergent—students gained confidence in their ability to enhance their writing. As they internalized the elements of the protocol, many began to recognize good qualities of their writing and to suggest strategies for further improvement without our prompting. They learned to “go positive” with themselves in ways that neither undermined their agency nor encouraged their complacency.

Response From J. Stuart Ablon & Alisha Pollastri

Stuart Ablon and Alisha Pollastri are authors of The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach:

When helping students to develop skills in areas in which they struggle, it is imperative to leverage the skills that they possess. When working with skills with behavioral challenges, for example, even the most challenging students have areas of strength. Spotting and leveraging those areas of strength can be critical when it comes to remediating areas of difficulty.

We work with students who struggle with their behavior due to deficits in skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. Some of those students might have great areas of strength in areas like language and communication skills. A teacher can use those strengths to engage students to role play problem solving, which builds the lagging skills like flexibility.

How can an educator do a quick assessment of common skills strengths and struggles to make sure they are using a students’ assets to help accommodate and build areas in which they are having trouble? We have developed and validated a measure of skills in domains like this. It is called the Thinking Skills Inventory, or TSI, and is free and available on thinkkids.org. The TSI has been shown to effectively identify the skills with which students struggle, and it provides an opportunity for teachers to reflect on the students’ strengths as well. Doing so can help teachers create and maintain a growth mindset when it comes to their students and provide an action plan to use skill strengths to remediate skill difficulties.

Response From Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson, C-SSWS, is chief operating officer of the LSCI Institute and author of The 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Program for Kids & Tweens: Putting the Keys Into Action at Home & School:

Glance at problems; gaze at strengths. —Dr. J.C. Chambers

Not long ago, a teacher came to my office to vent. As the school counselor, I aim to be a sounding board and safe place for students and faculty alike, both of whom benefit from support as they navigate the school day. On this particular day, however, the teacher unloaded with a litany of complaints about a particular student:

  • He never stops moving.
  • He constantly interrupts and blurts out answers.
  • He won’t pay attention or focus for longer than 30 seconds.
  • He is lazy and completely unmotivated.
  • He hasn’t even started his long-term project yet.
  • He has forgotten more homework assignments than he has turned in.
  • If he taps his pencil on the desk once more, I swear I’m going to scream.

She was frustrated and frazzled, exhausted and out of empathy. I found myself simultaneously desperate to plead the case for this young student whose classic ADHD symptoms posed more of a daily struggle for him than they would ever pose to her and to give the teacher an affirming hug, knowing how draining it can be to consistently manage the challenges of this student while still attending to the needs of other young learners.

Being a teacher is hard. So is being a student.

As Rita Pierson pointed out in her famous Ted Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like (Pierson, 2013). To take her wisdom a step further, I contend that kids tend not to like teachers who don’t like them. In my years as a therapist and school counselor, I have noticed that the more challenging the child, the more finely attuned he/she is to perceived rejection and dislike by adults.

And so, at the intersection of my urges to vigorously defend the student and empathically support his teacher, I decided to try to be a helper. I started with a simple affirmation of the teacher’s feelings (something along the lines of “It’s OK to feel overwhelmed by what’s happening in your classroom. This student is really having a hard time right now, and you are in the thick of it.”) Then, I posed a simple request:

Tell me some of the things that you like about this student.

She looked at me like I was crazy for a solid five seconds, but I held her gaze and I actually saw her stiff posture soften. Without further hesitation, she said:

  • He is so loving.
  • He has the kindest heart of anyone in the class.
  • He is so creative; his mind is just incredible.
  • He is also really generous. He’s the first person to share his snack or lunch if anyone forgets or is still hungry.

And with those statements made, her entire demeanor completely changed. From all-out venting to near-gushing in under 30 seconds, a simple change of focus from the student’s deficits to his strengths created a dramatic shift in his teacher’s mindset. Just like that, the groundwork was set for her and me to move on to discuss practical strategies to support the young person in her classroom. In a career spanning more than 20 years, I’m way past magic-wand-type-fixes for challenging behavior problems, but the power inherent in changing the way we think about kids in order to more effectively connect with them is as close to magic as it gets.

It’s hard to teach students that we don’t like. It’s easy to take their challenging behaviors personally. To change the inevitably negative outcomes that result from these emotional traps, it’s a professional imperative to be aware of our thoughts and consistently refocus them away from a student’s deficits and onto a young person’s strengths.

Thanks to Rhonda, Gen, Alison, Michelle, Joanne, Christi, Kelly, Stuart, Alisha, and Signe for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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