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Building From Children's Strengths

Author: Patricia F. Carini

BUILDING FROM CHILDREN'S STRENGTHS Author(s): Patricia F. Carini Source: The Journal of Education , 1986, Vol. 168, No. 3, THE LANDSCAPE OF CHILDHOOD AND THE POLITICS OF CARE (1986), pp. 13-24 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. Stable URL:

This essay discusses what the childhood perspective offers–and what we would lose were we deprived of it. In that context it discusses current threats to childhood and the effects of these threats on education, the strength and potential of our humanness, with special emphasis on children’s own strengths as a basis for their education and the power of collective thought, cooperative action, and, above all,human warmth and affection for developing that strength and potential. The conclusion describes an education based on children’s strengths as makers of meaning and knowledge, and ways teachers can Ian to recognize and respond to these strengths.

Material included in this article was presented at a conference entitled “Take the Initiative in Early Childhood Education” in Montpelier, Vermont, April 13, 1984.

A story told to me about eight or nine years ago by a teacher friend from the Philadelphia public school system first called my attention to a restlessness in our kind of civilization that is affecting children, our views of childhood, and our ways of responding to children. The incident occurred in her 10th year of teaching in the inner city.

As Carol Leckey, the teacher, described it, she had what on good days one calls a lively group, and on less good days, a wild one. On all days, it was a large group of about 33 demanding first graders. In particular, what interested, perplexed, and frequently exhausted this veteran teacher was the high productivity and high degree of individualism characteristic of each child. As she explained it, each one used up the classroom supplies and completed activities at a breakneck speed, and no one wanted to wait for anything or to share anything. Rather than “forty children conducting themselves as one” as Dickens said in the Christmas Carol, this was 33 children, each one acting like 40. Great amounts of the teacher’s time and energy went into slowing things down, resolving struggles over materials and turns, and renewing the classroom supplies and provisions. She tried,as she said, all the little tricks and ideas she had accrued over a decade of teaching, and of course some of them were helpful. But the tempo and rhythm of the group remained overly active and fast-paced, and the mood of the group was often irritable and restless.

The exception to this breakneck pace occurred at story time. Any story Carol read had a calming effect. However, when she began The Little House In the Big Woods, the group was transfixed. When she finished the book,they begged for more stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Carol told them more about the author and said that in each book she portrayed herself at an older age, so that the books became more difficult and harder to understand, still they wanted the next one. So she continued-in the course of the year completing three or four in the series–and the children sat in rapt attention through each one. Story time became the center of calm in this busy classroom, and the children forged stronger bonds with each other through hearing the stories together. But the bond they formed with Laura Ingalls Wilder was deeper. One day as the children were leaving the story circle, Carol overheard one boy say to another, in heartfelt tones and referring to Laura, “Do you think she’s your Grandmother!”

“Do you think she’s your Grandmother?” That is a touching question-and given the busy and complex lives of these inner city children, it is especially moving. A narrative underscoring closeness, family, and cooperative work evoked for the children quieting and strengthening images such as that of the grandmother. Those images brought calm and restfulness. The stories also did what stories always do: They strengthened memory,identity, and a sense of place and belonging.

From personal experience we know that children love family stories,and that they beg again and again for the same ones over: about when you were little, or the “olden days” or the time Daddy fell in the river, or. . . .The list is endless. In these stories and in larger, cultural stories, the child locate him-or herself in terms of particular heritage. These stories span generations and bind us together. But stories, as in this example, also have the power to put the child in touch with experiences far beyond the child’s immediate life and times–and in so doing, to place the child within the universe of human experience understandable to all of us across epochs and cultures. My teacher friend struck a powerful chord in these children-not because the story was “relevant” to their own daily lives, but because the story envisioned for them a possibility and gave form to a human yearning and longing within them for deep roots and relatedness to others.

The Threat to Childhood

This classroom episode foreshadows four ideas and issues that I will interrelate in this essay: (a) what the childhood perspective offers- and what we would lose were we deprived of it, (b) current threats to childhood and the effects of these threats on education, (c) the strength and potential of our humanness, with special emphasis on children’s own strengths as a basis for their education; and (d) the power of collective thought, cooperative”action, and above all, human warmth and affection, for developing the strength and potential.

Let me begin by saying that everywhere in lore, myth, and fairy tale,the child is the symbol of hope, aspiration, springtime, new growth and gardens, the future. A virtual metaphor for life and spirit, childhood is itself characterized by attitudes of awe, wonder, freshness, innocence, and openness to the world.

Actually to be a child, however, is not only to be full of wonder and curiosity but also, in many respects, to be powerless-prey to fears, to the actions of others, and to one’s own impulses. Vulnerability and resilience,terror and hope, wisdom and innocence are thus counterpointed in a period of life remarkable for the intensity and the vividness of its experience. Not surprisingly, literature and autobiography abound with descriptions of the immediacy and wonder and dread of the child’s first encounters with the world. Addressing that encounter, and the refrèshment of adult perception attendant upon it, Merleau-Ponty writes:

In the home into which a child is born, all objects change their significance, they begin to await some as yet indeterminate treatment at his hands, another and different person is there, a new personal history, short or long, has just been initiated,another account has been opened. (1962, p. 406)

Thus, when, as metaphor or actuality, childhood’s importance is threatened,pushed into the negligible background, or eclipsed, certain human qualities and achievements are endangered. I suggest that we are presently witnessing such a threat to childhood.

Attitudes and practices symptomatic of that threat are in evidence all around us. There is, for example, an urgency to get children to grow up fast-or at least appear to. It is a pressure signaled in the increase in the so-called “academic” kindergartens, in a proliferation of instructional toys,in the denigration of play, and in a concomitant exaltation of skills and competitive attitudes. At the same time, a sexualized environment encourages sophistication and precocity–I think I need only point to television ads to underscore this point. Parallel to the emphasis on early maturity, many adults, faced with raising their children alone and forced to shoulder heavy economic burdens as well, find it difficult to fulfill traditional parental responsibilities for ensuring the safety and future of their children. That inability is echoed in a degradation of schools, of the teaching profession, and of those whose primary societal role is the care and nurturing of children.

The neglect of our human potential underlying these attitudes is reciprocated in the aggrandizement of technical and material achievement, the neglect of the aesthetic and spiritual modes, and the exaggerated importance accorded to business and commerce, professional competitive sports, and high technology. Finally, attitudes of cynicism and coldness prevail, which by undermining the value of feeling and meaning, create the conditions for the increased depression and feelings of powerlessness reported among children and adolescents.

It is this undermining of the small daily virtues signified by warmth and affection that I wish to address further. To do so, I will draw first ona statement from the poet Howard Nemerov, quoting another important men of letters, in which both deplore the loss of warmth in the world. Nemerov writes:

Truly as Owen Barfield says, there is a spirit in the world, in the mind of the world who freezes: “His purpose is to destroy everything in human thinking which depends on a certain warmth, to replace wonder by sophistication, courtesy by vulgarity, understanding by calculation, imagination by statistics.” (1978, p. 101)

Mr. Nemerov goes on to apply Barfield’s statement to teaching:

The working of that cold spirit… is visible in a number of ways that affect us professionally as well as personally: in an ever more confirmedly angry and nihilistic posture of the … mind, in a dry and overly rationalist style of teaching that emphasizes answers at the expense of questions; and especially in this-that in an important sense our teaching seems not to work. (1978, P. 101)

Childhood in its affinity to gardens and growing things, to animals, both wild and tame, and to the rhythms and forces of nature-childhood with its questioning, wondering outlook–is weakened by this cold, dry climate. As the children’s hunger for the closeness and warmth of the Wilder stories illustrated, children need continuity of experience and a sense of belonging.

Given the attitudes currently dominant in our society, I believe that it is important–indeed, crucial–that those of us deeply concerned with children and childhood learn to be attentive to, and to draw upon, children’s strengths (and our own) in order to modify and counteract these adverse influences. This requires vigilance in guarding the rights of all children to an environment conducive to growth and to an education. It also requires the ability to observe and build from children’s strengths as thinkers,learners, and persons. Finally, it requires us to create classrooms and other environments that are responsive to the broad and diverse range of children in terms of interests, potentials, and needs. It is, I think, only from a firmly grounded knowledge of children’s strengths that we will be able to offer effective alternatives to current and proposed school practices that under-mine children’s long-term potential for growth.

Understanding Children’s Strengths

In my own observations of children, I start from the context of certain assumptions about our humanness. In the first place, I assume that most people–and most children–are not pathological, although each is unique in terms of specific outlook and perceptions. I assume too that, barring drastic damage to the organism, all people-and all children–think, seek to make sense of the world, and hold in common a questioning, wondering posture. I regard diversity of outlook and thought as our richest resource since we humans are inclined toward a communal mode of life which depends for its vitality on the strengths and contributions of individuals.

To me, it follows from these assumptions that a child has a right to come to school, and to other childcare settings, not as a “case” but as a person. Schools aren’t clinics. I would suggest that adopting medical and appreciation of the differences among us, and the contribution they make to the texture and quality of life, we can develop our capacity to describe and to draw upon those differences.

I further believe that schools have a unique opportunity to carry out this observation and description. Given the strong pressures toward more standardized and more uniform classrooms, though, it is an opportunity that needs to be carefully guarded. Among these pressures are ability tracking, screening, and preselection, leading to a variety of special programs, such as those for the gifted and the mentally handicapped, that segregate children from their peers: In terms of observation and opportunity for increased knowledge of children, when the range of children is narrowed,so is the teacher’s vision of what is possible. With perhaps even more serious consequences, these practices limit children’s own experiences and perceptions of what is possible. When the rich and variegated potential of our humanness is not available, experience and, I believe, questioning and thought, are thinned out and lose their vitality and color. A realness is lost.

However, when the child’s environment is rich with human resources and opportunities for children to express their interests and thought,teachers and child caretakers have a unique opportunity to learn about several fundamental human potentialities while these are still in their formative stages. These potentialities can be summarized as follows: (a) the human urgency to make sense of the world, (b) the human impulse to give form and shape to events and materials, and (c) the human predisposition to tell stories and thereby to lend continuity to experience.

These are all observable. For example, the story told earlier illustrates a child’s efforts to make sense of the world and to lend continuity to experience-in that instance, through hearing about someone else’s life in story form. And play is closely related to storytelling as a way of making sense of experience. In extension of the earlier example, I would suggest that attending to children’s play provides a rich access to children’s strengths and formative powers.

Edith Cobb, in her excellent book The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (1979), singles out the capacity to form worldviews as a strength evidenced and developed by children through play. This is a power that enables us humans to exceed the world as it is, and has been, in order to envision and make the world anew. In adults, when this power is highly developed, we call it genius. All children have this capacity and expressit visibly in a kind of play that distinguishes the young human from other animals. Cobb describes distinctively human play as follows:

The important distinction is that while other animals do play, the human child’s play includes the effort to be something her than what he actually is, to “act out” and to dramatize speculation. Practice play and even “pretense of a sort are to be found in animal play-as, for example, when dogs pretend to fight…. But a dog never tries to become a horse, a train, a bird, or a tree,while a child may imagine himself to be any one of these organisms or things at will. (1979, p. 29)

I might point out here that it is exactly such a speculation that was present when the child imagined that Laura Ingalls Wilder might be his or his friend’s grandmother.

Cobb points out that the other important aspect of children’s formative play is the effort to produce ever more complex structures and representations. In these efforts–drawing, block building, sewing, woodworking-children gain a fundamental understanding of the world, their making of experience and things also adds to its meaning. Cobb says:

Before experiences can become meaningful, they must be brought to a state of structure and form. The most purely human activities that produce formand structure are to be found in the iconography of play and art. These are closest to the immediacy of acts of perception. (1979, p. 78)

Therefore, she says, it should be obvious that direct work with the artsis basic to learning, and that the raw materials essential to that work should be placed in every classroom. I would add that the noticeable absence of these materials demonstrates a failure to understand the central place of the arts in the curriculum.

Finally, through a literary example, Cobb offers an illustration of the strong connection between children’s play and the invention of stories, as complementary ways to lend form and order and to envision new possibilities. Although the particular children she describes–the four Brontes-later achieved literary prominence, their play and their accompanying stories were of a kind familiar to all of us: the creation and mapping of imaginary worlds, rendered complete in all their functional and social details. The influencing conditions that surrounded the Brontes’ particular rendition of this inventive world of play included the close ties among the four children, the storytelling talents of the housekeeper charged with theircare, and a gift–a set of toy soldiers–that sparked their collective interests and opened up a whole realm of imaginative potential. Cobb depicts this confluence of homely elements as follows:

Settled around the kitchen table, ministered to by the faithful Tabitha–herself a great teller of tales-Branwell, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne constructed Angria and Gondal, two imaginary environments with euphonious and poetic names. (1979, p. 81)

She goes on to describe how the creation of these mapped and increasingly detailed imaginary lands stimulated in the children ever more complex narratives both enacted and written. Cobb notes that the narratives andmaps included contemporary figures such as the Duke of Wellington, certain political happenings of the time, and themes and characters from the books the children read. In addition, elements from the surrounding daily world such as newspapers linked this play to the social realities of early 19th-century England. In all these ways, as Cobb says, the children’s common imaginative endeavor was built on the actual social context of their lives.

In her conclusion, Cobb suggests that the invention of these imaginary environs springs from the impulse, common to all children, to form and shape a world in order to make sense of their own lives and the society around them. She suggests as well that these play activities provide a means for children to give representation and direction to their own interests and values. Thus, she says of the Brontes:

The world making of the Bronte children was the product of their imaginative search for reality… Their poetic worlds literally “grew up” or evolved to increasingly higher levels of organization… until the sequence of plot and personality in Angria and Gondal became the themes of the novels and poems.( 1979, p. 82)

What I want to highlight from this illustration is the powerful, even life-long continuity in the child’s interests and ways of making sense of the world. We are, as persons, self-consistent in terms of what we value, find interesting, and wish to pursue further. It is this consistency that teachers,parents, and other caregivers are in a position to observe and build upon the children they educate. In other words, to teach from strength is to teach in the light of the child’s preferred learning mode, according to theshape of his or her thought, and with attention to what is of deep interest and value to the child. This is observable wherever the learning environment provides the child with the opportunity to make choices and stated preferences; the opportunity to engage with a range of media and materials to which the child can give shape and form; and the opportunity to contribute ideas and raise questions that will be heard and responded to.

The Five-Year Study

I have worked a great deal with public school educators, and to some degree with parents, on the kind of observation described above. I have selections from a five-year study conducted by the Prospect Center in collaboration with the New York State Bureau of Child Development and Parent Education. The study is reported on in detail in The School Lives Of Seven Children (Carini, 1982).

The first selection has special interest because the child, Joel, had suffered a serious bout with meningitis at age 2 and it was anticipated that he would be placed in special classes. Observations such as this one made by his kindergarten teacher allowed strengths to be identified and developed so that Joel was able to remain in the regular classroom:

It occurred to me today, after watching lol play with the wooden animals and blocks yesterday, the wooden people today, and the arrangements of funnels at the water table–that a consistent theme is the ARRANGEMENT AND REARRANGEMENT of materials, shifting them in various formations.I will watch for this possible pattern in his future play. (p. 23)

This pattern did recur and awareness of it allowed Joel to build from that strength. This is underscored in a summary description of his preferred learning mode at age 8, four years after the initial observation was made:

Joel is…attracted by small manipulative objects which are open to arrangement and rearrangement or which can be connected. Pattern,replication and derivation of new patterns from old are echoed in his frequent and successful efforts to duplicate other children’s arrangements and his pleasure in hearing stories repeated or in stories that have repeating rhymes within them. The willingness to repeat, to go over, to re-work is one of Joel’s Major strengths in making sense of new experiences. (p. 79)

The particular importance of early observation in the identification of children’s strengths is also highlighted through another child in the study. This child, Kenny, was noted early on to have an interest in variation of perspectives, taking every opportunity to view things from up, down, over,through magnifying glasses, and so on. He characteristically chose to portray what he viewed in maps and drawings that also offered the viewer more than one perspective. By age 9, he was described as a wonderful problem solver, with particular talents for assembling and repairing machines. At the same time, he encountered great difficulty with decoding.It is of considerable interest, given his talents and his strong preference for mapping out large wholes and contexts, that his instruction in decoding was virtually all through phonetic analysis. Phonetic analysis depends on selection of small details and effectively strips the world of just what Kenny Looks for: context and meaning. Kenny’s school experiences offer anand preferred learning mode. At age 8, Kenny encountered a teacher who was able to take advantage of the accrued observations on his problem-solving talents and his attention to wholeness and so approached reading from the broader context and through relaxed conversation about the story’s meaning.

These examples underscore the importance of recognizing the individual learning styles of children. On the other hand, it is worthy of note that for each of the children followed in this five-year study, learning understanding, personal case, and relaxation were supported by any school experience that provided even minimal access to context, wholeness, or continuity. Among the factors contributing to these supportive experiences for the children were the following: (a) close school and parent contact and understanding. (b) linking home and family experiences with school activities and curriculum, (c) inter-age groupings, permitting a child two years with one teacher, (d) clear, orderly, flexible classroom routines under the direction of a responsible, consistent adult, (e) consistent but flexible instruction based on observation and understanding of the child’s mode of learning and (f) activities such as drama, stories, conversation, and music that involve group support for individual participation.

None of the children encountered all of these supportive experiences.Indeed, overall the most disturbing factor in their combined school lives was lack of continuity and the consequent fragmentation of the school experience. These fragmentations included frequent transitions and abrupt changes, time pressure, interruptions of the daily schedule, and instruction focused on small, unrelated details.

Enlarging on this finding, I would call attention to the emphasis of time-on-task and *efficiency” in instruction, and to the lockstep progression dictated by mandated curriculum, as an increasing threat to education asa human enterprise. These practices push uniformity and conformity in the mastery of relatively low-level skills at the expense of responding creatively to children’s questions and their innate sense of wonder. They Distort our understanding of what is possible for education to accomplish by reducing it to minimal competencies-which in turn are used as the only standard for evaluating school achievement. Evaluated by these reduced standards, children whose learning and thinking are addressed to larger questions, deeper issues, or substantive ideas are likely to be judged “unsuccessful!”

An education addressed to children’s strengths as active thinkers and learners depends on teachers who are informed and responsive to children as makers of meaning and knowledge; that is, on teachers who envision their calling as more than “filling children up” by transmitting bits and pieces of knowledge. It has been contended that teachers capable of that kind of teaching are rare, that you can’t teach that kind of teaching, andthat learning so conceived is a matter of chance-or, at least, chancy-and, hence, not a viable basis for responsible pedagogy. It does seem rather an exalted idea at a time when teaching as a profusion is held in such low regard. Indeed, in some quarters so little is expected of teachers that talk of “teacher-proof” materials is open and casual. As noted, thére is currently a considerably more widespread faith in technology than in teaching asa vehicle for learning.

Nonetheless, from my experience in working with teachers in the five-year study, and for the past 21 years in collaboration with teachers from a wide range of public-school classrooms, I know that teachers can develop their art to this degree and are invigorated by the opportunity to do so. This development comes about in large measure through increased awareness of children’s unique perspectives-including each child’s characteristic mode of learning–and through recognition of the interplay between the themes and questions enacted in children’s interests and activities and those underlying the subject-matter disciplines. In the conclusion to the five-year study just referred to, the way in which teachers can be educated to perceive and respond to a child’s perspective as a learner was summarized as follows:

Awareness, attention, and recognition are all aspects of observing, when observing is directed toward meaning and understanding….To be fully observant requires that the observer recognize the significance of the observation. For example, Joel’s teacher who noticed that his approach to any material was to arrange and rearrange it, saw the meaningful pattern amidst a seeming diversity of activity. To see the child from a variety of perspectives,in different contexts, engaged with varied materials, and most importantly,through time is the key to observations that address pattern, recurrence, points of relatedness among occurrences, and finally, meaning…

The other side of observation is remembering and reflecting. What has been observed in the immediate teaching activity gains power and articulation when it is relived, re thought, and readdressed in the context of other observations and through the perspective of other observers. Therefore, record keeping by teachers, interviews with teachers concerning curriculum and/or practice and teacher group discussions based on observations and records. ..all serve to strengthen and broaden the teacher’s capacity as an observer-and as a responsive teacher. (Carini, 1982, p. 104)

Specific recommendations to implement these conclusions emphasized the importance of bringing teachers together in a support group “preferably organized across grade levels to promote mutual responsibility among a group of teachers for the continuity of learning experiences for a cluster of children” (1982, p. 105). The creation of primary units, Pre-K Through Grade 3, organized in interage groupings and also heterogeneous with respect to ability and skills, was suggested as a possible structure for creating such a teacher support group. It was further suggested that any specialist services be incorporated within children’s home classrooms to minimize fragmentation of time and of group experience as well as to maximize the opportunities for observation and discussion among staff. A program of teacher observations and records was outlined that would “encourage brief, descriptive accounts of the growth of individual children” (1982, p. 105) to be supplemented by a program of more detailed observations to be carried out at regular intervals by administrators and ancillary staff. Use of these records and observations for individual children, the class, the school, the curriculum, and teaching practice was envisioned as the basis for regularly scheduled discussions to evaluate, not only the growth of individual students, but the educational practices of the school.


These conclusions and recommendations treat teaching as an art which, like all art, requires practice, reflection, and room for growth. They Are merely illustrative of a number of possible approaches that place persons–teachers, parents, children-at the center of the educational process. They are offered in the hope of broadening the dialogue on teacher education at a time when the profession is, on all sides, downgraded.

It is in this context that I wish to suggest a larger and more inclusive vision of our human capacity to be educated–and a broader ideal and purpose for education-than the currently advocated goal of excellence.I propose as an alternative to current formulations that we strive for education and for schools that seriously address the strength, potential,and worth of persons, both individually and collectively, and the ability of one and all to make a contribution to society. I propose, therefore, that we premise education, not on a narrow conception of intelligence, but on the broader human impulses to care, to seek worthwhile experience, and to make sense of experience. The purposes of this education would include not merely salable skills and intellectual achievement, but the capacity to make responsible and informed choices and judgments, to make and keep commitments, and to respect the ideas and beliefs of others. I believe these purposes to be consistent with the ideals of a democratic society dedicated to the inclusion and education of its diverse citizenry.

That there is power in ideas such as these, and in speaking and acting on them, I have no doubt. As Edith Cobb says, the nurturing of children,gardens, and the human spirit represents a singular human achievement-one that we cannot afford to allow to lapse. She says, reminding us that intellect is not our only, nor even our highest trait,

More than anything else, love of nature and love of the child have taught mankind to cultivate mind as well as the garden, to domesticate landscape as well as home and personality. But this thinking belongs to simpler bicultural levels than are allowed for in the present hypnotic attraction for mechanized motion and the conquest of nature. As the environment crumbles and steel and concrete take the place of earth, the spirit may crumble as well. Without the element of spirit, man becomes sheer animal while retaining the cunning of intellect. (1979, p. 74)

Let us then think and act together, in ways that are responsible to the human values that will shape our children’s lives.


Carini, P. F. (1982). The school lives of seven children. Grand Forks, ND: University Of North Dakota Press.

Cobb, E. (1979). The ecology of imagination in childhood. New York: Columbia University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). The phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Nemerov, H. (1978). Figures of thought. Boston: David R. Godine.

DMU Timestamp: September 15, 2022 13:05

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