What is Strength-Based Intervention
Strength-Based Intervention/Practice is such a buzzword, not only in the therapy world but also in the special education realm. The idea is using a person’s interests as a way to help increase learning and overall engagement.
Compare it to ice-cream: the generic brand and Ben & Jerry’s. Same core thing, both loaded with sugar, too much dairy, but none the less I will still eat either regardless. However, which one would you be more inclined to eat if you could only pick one? I would guess the Ben & Jerry’s. Strength-Based Intervention to me is similar. We are taking the same core and making it special by making it more individualized for the student.
I have worked in multiple districts across the country and what I have found is that often, we use a student’s interests as a way to persuade, control, and coerce them to complete a task. We find ourselves saying things like, “First complete Math, Then Paw Patrol” “First complete put in task, Then trains”. When we as educators and practitioners take our students’ intrinsic love and interest and use it as a reward, we are taking away the foundations for the building and development of autonomy.
I started to incorporate strength-based intervention into my practice after reading an article by Dr. Kristie Patten Koenig, Ph.D., OT/L, FAOTA. In her 2020 article, she noted research she had completed in 2017
“Patten Koenig & Williams (2017) surveyed 80 autistic adults as to how they characterized and utilized interests both as children and now as adults, and while 87% of the participants wished that teachers and professionals would have used their interests in the classroom, only 12% reported that their teachers actually did use their interests as strengths to support learning.”Patten Koenig, K. & Hough, L. (2017) Characterization and utilization of preferred interests: A survey of adults on the autism spectrum, Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 33:2, 129-140, DOI: 10.1080/0164212X.2016.1248877
87%. To me, the percentage speaks volumes. It was that percentage that made me switch gears. Strength-based intervention is very personalized and tailored to each student. Most likely your whole class is not going to like buses or the show Color Crew but the growth you will see and the overall engagement in learning is beautiful. To me, strength base intervention is a direct branch of an individualized education plan.
Strength-Based Intervention in Action
I work with a little boy who has a medical diagnosis of developmental delay. The goals and objectives that I was working on with him were (1) prewriting strokes, (2) bilateral hand coordination/hand manipulation skills to complete (a) play activities, and (b) clothing management. If you read my last blog post, Why I Do Not Use Hand over Hand, you know I believe that the first step is independent task initiation. This is where I was really struggling with him during this period of virtual learning we are in.
Virtual learning poses difficulties for any student, especially young preschoolers. Our 15-minute sessions were mainly composed of his mom trying to get him to attend to the screen and or complete the adult-directed activity. He wasn’t demonstrating growth and more importantly, I wasn’t giving him an outlet to demonstrate growth.
The little boy loved this show called “Color Crew’. He had the plush character and would act out his favorite scenes. The crayons that were out during sessions, that we hoped he would color with, he would act out scenes and songs from the show.
In our next session, I incorporated the ‘Color Crew’. I had pictures of the characters and I sang the theme song and key phrases and hummed the repetitive instrumental segments of the show.
What happened next was amazing! While singing the theme song of the show and asking if ‘green crayon’ could help, he was able to not only initiate the task independently but he was able to demonstrate the skill. I had worked with the little boy for weeks and he wasn’t able to demonstrate the ability to complete pre-writing strokes. Magically, once I incorporated a highly preferred interest in our session, he was able to make all the developmentally appropriate patterns. It was like seeing the first tip of a sprout breaking through the ground. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we want? A happy and engaged learner. In the next session, he independently stated, “hello Ms. Taylor” while sitting in front of the computer! Color Crew?”. It made my day and just made me so proud and happy.
I recently implemented strength-based intervention for a 2nd grader on my caseload. I had been working on the student’s overall fine motor and visual-motor skills along with supporting the writing mechanics goal. He needed increased prompting and redirection to tasks. The student would frequently shut down and become upset. As his Occupational therapist, I was having trouble finding just the right challenge. My goal was to find a way to engage him in sessions to see what his overall strengths and needs were.
He has a deep love and interest in Transformers. I knew this because he would frequently talk about them in great detail. I started creating writing prompts and visual motor activities with Transformers. Let me tell you, there are so many different Transformers to chose from!
He was so happy and excited. He was eager to start the session and to me, as his therapist, presented as a totally different student. It made me sad, that I hadn’t done this sooner, that I hadn’t seen this beautiful side to him before.
His writing readability increased. Likewise, we were able to target and address specific visual-motor skills because he was more engaged in the tasks. And lastly, he was able to attend to a 30-minute session without redirection and prompts. Every week for our sessions, I tweak the activity to integrate his interest. That extra time it took me to individualize the lesson, saved me time in the long run. I am getting reliable and valid data; I am getting data that demonstrate progress and a student that is eager to learn.
Where to Start
I know you are probably thinking “I can’t do that for every student all day long and for every activity” The thing is every activity doesn’t have to be 100% that interest. Let’s talk about how to incorporate strength-based intervention easily into academics.
1. Use the show language or songs during the academic activity/task
- “Red, Red, Red. Color fire truck red”
- Play the theme song or instrumental music soundtrack
2. Adding a picture or a sticker of the preferred interest on the academic activity/worksheet
- Putting a clipart image of the train on the bottom of the writing worksheet
- Put a Lightning McQueen sticker on the top and a speech bubble that say hello (student’s name) on the math sheet your class is completing,
3. Adapting the directions to focus on the interest
- “Help Optimus Prime solve the mutilation problems before he can battle the Deceptions
- The Color Crew needs Purple Crayon’s help to find and color the circles
4. Adapting the problem or the text to fit the interest
This one takes an increase in time but for our older students, I think it is really beneficial.
When I was practicing out west, I had a student that loved buses. He knew so much about them. He could name all the models, what fabric was used for the seats, the engine models, and the bus routes from Seattle to LA.
Middle school was really hard for him. He was struggling to attend to tasks and to engage. When buses were integrated into his academics, he flourished and he was so vibrant. Math word problems focused on buses, life skill tasks focused on skills a bus driver might need (counting money, preparing snacks that ‘could be eaten on a lunch break’ filling out ‘order forms’), writing mechanics and typing skills integrated his interest.
His IEP goals didn’t need to be changed, it was just how they were presented.
One of my close friends, who is like a brother, is autistic. He is amazing. He can tell you everything about the Oscars. Who won the best actor in 1994. Who won the best screenplay in 1956. The list goes on and on. The Oscars and movies in general bring him so much pleasure and happiness.
If he were back in school, a way to integrate strength-based intervention could be working on reading skills by reading an adapted winning speech or reading a list of the nominations of best actresses. A worksheet with a picture of the Oscar award. A math problem that is something like “If Leonardo DiCaprio had won an Oscar for his role in Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wallstreet, How many total Oscars would he have?”
What to Remember
I think the important thing to remember about strength-based intervention is it is not a First/Then scenario. It’s not, ‘do this activity and then I’ll give you your interest’. That’s sort of like giving someone a burger bun and saying, “eat this bun, and then you can have the burger”. Strength-based intervention is all about that burger!
Combine the good and the academics; it doesn’t have to be either-or. Intense interest and love for something should be celebrated and be a part of the solution to increase academic engagement. It’s not a problem or something we as professionals should try to repress.
Patten Koenig, K. (2020) Authentic strength-based practice: Can neurotypical professionals make a paradigm shift?. Autism Spectrum News. https://autismspectrumnews.org/authentic-strength-based-practice-can-neurotypical-professionals-make-a-paradigm-shift/