Strengths Stories: Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center
Sara Schmidt knows her students. Some of them are experts at arranging complex situations into structure and order. Others are naturally skilled communicators, effortlessly including others in everything they do. She teaches leaders, thinkers, and do-ers. She focuses her classroom on the natural interests and abilities of her students, promoting customized learning and growth. And she does this all with students who are younger than the Apple iPod.
At the Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center, Schmidt’s preschool classroom is a prime example of strengths-based education. “It means looking at each child individually, looking at what their personality is like and adapting to the room to them, so everything in the room fits each child,” says Schmidt, “They all have things they enjoy doing, so this a way to foster their growth.”
Centering a classroom on strengths may seem like a big step, but Schmidt and her colleagues say it’s a philosophy that comes down to small alterations. Schmidt says, “Knowing the children’s strengths, we teach more on a child-initiated play and curriculum. We adapt things in the room and activities to each different personality.” For example, if Schmidt notices a child demonstrating a talent for Command, she will give them more opportunities to take other children under their wing and help to guide them through curriculum, or give them the opportunity to lead the classroom in certain activities. Children who naturally relate to others will excel if the curriculum allows them to play alongside others. They do not do as well if they have to work alone.
Candice Bromly teaches younger children at the Center. “Strengths is something I’ve just recently started teaching,” says Bromly, “A lot of it is just taking time to observe. Once I can understand their strengths, then I can set them up to succeed.” One key to her students’ success is a journal Bromly keeps for each child. She records their changing interests and scholastic milestones. These journals provide insight to parents, but also act as a vital tool in the children’s strengths-based development. “It really works well because it keeps everyone in check,” says Bromley, “I could look back to when they were nine months old to see what they were doing and what their strengths were. I can’t imagine not having it this way.”
The students at the Child Development Center may not remember life without computers, or even the days of Sesame Street, but thanks to strengths-based education, they will head to kindergarten knowing a bit about their natural abilities. At this age, centering a classroom on strengths may rely more on observation and adaptability, but it certainly is a vital part of their development. And if you ask Sara Schmidt, she’ll tell you the key to unlocking this development. “Find out your own strengths, and understand how they fit your life. Then you can look at each individual child and see what you can do differently to showcase their strengths.”