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Student agency and student empowerment

Most educators would agree that this is the dual aim of our individual and collective efforts. How then do we move from aspiration to action? If students are to become agentive, we need to create the conditions for their authentic voices to emerge. Authenticity is the outcome of being one’s true self, which results from self-awareness. Students feel safe to express their authentic selves when they believe that they are known and valued.

The core resource for transforming our schools into vibrant learning environments brimming with curiosity and creativity is sitting right in front of us: our students. When we value students as partners with us, we unleash limitlessness potential. Recognizing this, the principal at a high school in East Los Angeles posed a question: “What would happen if we empowered our students not just as learners but as learning facilitators?

The principal, Dr. Faatiai, at the Engineering and Technology Academy on the Esteban E. Torres High School campus launched a two-day professional development workshop for twenty-five students who would learn how to facilitate their Advisory classes. The students were a heterogeneous group comprised of both student body leadership and those who struggle with self-management. At the end of the workshop, all students were ready to lead an Advisory grounded by an authentic desire to know every student’s strengths and aspirations in the school.

Students took Thrively’s Strengths Assessment during the workshop, which was designed for young people to increase self-awareness and surface their top five of twenty-three strengths. After the assessment, students discovered themselves and saw their peers in a new light. The facilitator began to call out each strength and asked students to stand and say, “Like me!” when they heard one of their top five strengths. The facilitator began, “One of my strengths is compassion.” Three students stood up and said, “Like me!” “One of my strengths is creativity!” Five students stood up: “Like me! With each new affirmation, new bonds were formed.


When the twenty-three strengths were shared, students were asked to reflect. An 11th-grade student said, “It’s pretty hard to tease a kid who has compassion as a strength.” One of the more tentative students in the workshop added: “Individually, our strengths make us awesome, but when we put our strengths together, we’re unstoppable!”

Live Oak Elementary School educators do not leave student empowerment to chance

When students feel known and valued, they feel safe speaking out in front of their peers and speaking up when confronted with a challenge. Live Oak educators help students amplify their voices by showing them how their strengths and particular intelligence make them uniquely powerful. This approach has increased the effectiveness of peer collaboration as well as conflict resolution.

The school year begins with inviting students to share their strengths with their parents. Teacher Kim Yerkes explains the effect: “I have been amazed at the connection it provides for the family and how appreciative the parents are to see and hear about their child’s gifts.”

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Yerkes and her colleagues believe that families want to understand their child’s strengths and how the child is demonstrating growth based upon these strengths. When this strengths-based approach is established at the beginning of the school year, it becomes a means of motivating children and addressing challenges that may arise. When parents understand their child’s strengths that can inspire them to build off of those strengths to experience success. At Live Oak, the teacher, parent, and child are working collaboratively around a common purpose and with a shared understanding of strengths and intelligences.

This penchant for collaboration isn’t reserved for the adults; Yerkes analyzes Thrively strengths data to “better understand the dynamics” of her class. She establishes cooperative groups that build on each child’s assets, enabling all to work together to solve problems and work more effectively as a team. Yerkes uses student journal reflections as formative data to better understand how her students are processing what they’ve learned.

Thrively 24 Strengths

Down the hall, Yerkes’ colleague, counselor Sarah Latham, is building rapport with 1,000 students at a time. Latham is the counselor for two schools with more than 500 students each. She uses Thrively to get to know each student’s strengths and multiple intelligences. Latham recounts a time when two students, despite conferencing and other supports, could not resolve a conflict. “I had two students that I was struggling with. I looked at their strengths and before I began, I said, ‘I want to show you your profiles on Thrively.’ They both had problem-solving as a strength and as soon as I told them this, their demeanor changed and they were more open to solving their conflict. Each took responsibility for their actions.”

When students are acknowledged and celebrated for what they and their peers bring to the learning environment, they experience a comfort level that allows them to trust that they will be heard. The educators at Live Oak reinforce this each day by seeing and honoring the whole child.

Future innovators gain inspiration for aspirations in Chula Vista

With ground-breaking public-private partnerships, Chula Vista Elementary School District is cultivating young dreamers and innovators whose understanding of their own strengths guides authentic inquiry and discovery. Michael Bruder, Chula Vista Instructional Services Coordinator in the Innovation and Instruction Department, and his team of educators are creating immersive, industry-aligned learning experiences that ignite the imaginations of 4th through 6th-grade students.

Students begin their adventure by using Thrively to unlock their strengths, share their interests, and reveal their aspirations. “Our Station experiences are enriched by being able to use Thrively to connect with students on a deeper level, so that we can unpack their strengths and interests with them and build more meaningful relationships in the time that we are with them. In addition, students become more engaged with the experience when we are able to customize it around their personal strengths, interests, and career aspirations.”

These young innovators then embark on a journey of discovery where they explore their region’s priority sectors: health care, energy/ construction/ utilities, and information and communication technologies/digital media. They learn about the work activities and requisite skills for each career pathway and have a chance to watch day-in-the-life videos about real practitioners. Before students participate in these STEAM experiences at the Innovation, Energy, Hydro, or Health Stations, their classroom teachers launch them on a path of self-discovery. We wanted our students to be able to name their strengths and claim them. Thrively gives us confidence that their strengths are surfaced with accuracy,” explained Bruder.

This accuracy is the result of decades of research conducted by pediatric neuropsychologists Jonine Biesman and Jayme Neiman-Kimel, who designed and then tested the Thrively Strengths Assessment for three years before it was launched.

“Our aim has always been to help students explore their strengths, interests and values. When we discovered Thrively, we found the perfect opportunity to align our objectives with a research-based assessment,” stated Bruder.

Career exploration, informed by self-awareness, has been wildly successful in Chula Vista. When students have an opportunity to explore passions, take intellectual risks, and engage in discovery, they are embodying the core values that drive the work of their industry-sector partners. “When students have the opportunity to explore their interests and find their passion, it helps our team to connect them with careers that they might be interested in,” shared Bruder. Once student interests are known, the innovation team helps students to create and pursue goals. Bruder sees goal orientation as a key component to helping young people pursue “what they love” and work towards their goals. 

“Being able to differentiate our instruction based on the information provided from the Thrively Strengths Assessment not only shapes our interactions with our students, it also allows us to customize it to best fit them. This makes all the difference for our most important stakeholder, our students!”

Supporting English Language Learners in a Distance Environment

Approximately 5 million K-12 students in the US are English-language learners. Prior to distance learning, this important and growing subgroup was a top priority when addressing the opportunity and equity gap. Distance learning has only intensified the level of urgency.

How do we increase face-to-face interactions without increasing anxiety so that these students stay cognitively and emotionally engaged?

San Mateo teachers and counselors in grades 4-8 implemented Thrively lessons as a way to place greater emphasis on social-emotional learning (SEL) for their larger English learner population. Prior to the summer, students had only been exposed to social-emotional learning on a limited basis. “Providing social-emotional learning experiences once a week wasn’t nearly enough to meet the needs of our students. Our team used the summer to weave SEL into the structure of the day,” explained lead counselor Jennifer Ramberg.

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Teachers found surprising opportunities to use Thrively SEL lessons. They were finding that students were eager to use Thrively, so teachers allowed students who had completed an assignment early to explore Thrively’s career pathways and curated websites. While these students maintained intense focus, others had trouble concentrating. “When we found that a student was having trouble staying on task, we assigned Thrively lessons in mindfulness.”

“Our English learners found the read-aloud options in the lessons helpful, which is not only less anxiety-producing, but it builds their listening skills as well. Thrively made it easy for teachers and counselors to record video and audio feedback, which our students appreciated.”

As teachers went deeper into the platform, they saw that it was so much more than SEL. “We began to explore goal development and career pathways. We told our students, ‘you don’t have to decide what you want to be, just focus on what you’re good at.’ That was really empowering for our students.”

Thrively SEL

“In the fall, we’re going to pull parents into the loop. We’ll meet with parents in Spanish and English and share the Thrively assessment data in both languages. Parents will be able to use the information with their children to deepen understanding and build on their strengths.” We’re also excited to show parents Thrively content and know they’ll find it a safer place to be than just YouTube,” explained Ramberg.

What’s next for San Mateo: Increased student-to-student interactions using Thrively’s collaboration resource and authentic projects. English learners will collaborate in small groups and comment on and discuss one another’s ideas. “We’re looking forward to increasing the cognitive demand for this student group while putting them at ease with their peers,” said Ramberg.

Thrively is thrilled to partner with San Mateo as they continue to make learning engaging and relevant for all learners while providing extra support for English learners.

Strengths-driven culture in the Fullerton School District

The Fullerton School District prides itself on anticipating their students’ needs from social-emotional learning to preparing middle school students for the rigors of high school Advanced Placement classes, Fullerton makes sure that students begin their learning journey from a position of strength.

Middle school teacher, Dr. Tricia Gee, has not only embraced the strengths-based culture at Fullerton but has also deepened her district and her union’s work by using her doctoral scholarship to advance the movement. “Nel Noddings’ life’s work resulted in a philosophy called ‘the ethic of care;’ this informed the premise of my study and it undergirds my work today,” explained Gee. “Trusting relationships are the key to all we do as educators. They are what encourage our students to strive and grow and they are what hold educators accountable to our students and to one another. This is what I call ‘relational learning’,” she added.

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For Gee, each new year begins with understanding her students’ strengths: “When we create relationships with students, it’s more likely that we’re going to help them tap into and leverage their strengths. I start my year asking my students to take the Thrively Strengths Assessment. Each student discovers their strengths and begins their year of academic and social-emotional learning on solid footing.”

Gee explained that her dissertation also looked at self-efficacy and the confidence that children build through mastery experiences–a seamless alignment with Thrively. “It all connected perfectly,” she said. “At the beginning of the school year, I told parents ‘from this point forward–and for 185 days–I will look at your children through the lens of their strengths and talents.’”

After having printed out each student’s Thrively Strengths Certificate, Gee was surprised by her students’ excitement at knowing their strengths. “I was standing in my classroom one day, and I noticed that several of my kids had displayed their Thrively certificates in their clear-view binders to customize their covers–funny, it not only helped me know their names but also supported my knowledge about their strengths and talents. That simple gesture was precious to my students and me as we were all reminded–each day–that we need to be a strengths-driven classroom.” (1).jpg

Towards the middle of the fall semester, when Gee was conferencing with students regarding midterm grades, she asked an especially struggling student (for this article we will call him Jared), to her podium. “I said, ‘We both know that your grades are Ds and Fs in all of your classes. I don’t want to give you a D or an F. You are so much more than grades.’ He had his head down and said, ‘I know. I know. I gotta do the work if I’m going to get anywhere in life.’ ‘No’, I replied, ‘we can figure this out, I can give you assignments that fit your . . .’ Before I could finish my thought, he looked up wide-eyed to say, rather enthusiastically, ‘Thrively said I’m good at creativity!’ The fact that Thrively said it, and it wasn’t a teacher or parent, was somehow more credible for Jared. We invited Jared to a parent meeting where he talked about how his creativity led him to that very parent meeting, and how he enjoyed the differentiation and being honored and valued for his talents. This changed the way he saw himself–he started to thrive in the way he knew he could; he was an excellent presenter, by the way. As a school, we ensured that his oral language assignments were wrapped around his talent with public speaking. I saw a happier, more positive student in him,” shared Gee.

As the year came to a close, the exclamation mark on Fullerton’s strengths-driven culture began in the form of a commencement address at graduation. “Before COVID, every 8th-grader in our district who graduated from one of our five junior high schools received a Thrively Strengths Certificate in addition to their diploma. At the Parks’ commencement ceremony, one of our graduates who had recently emigrated from South Korea said during his commencement speech, ‘When you go to high school and things get rough and you’re not sure where you’re going, always remember to check your strengths certificate and use the strengths!’

Thrively is absolutely fundamental to our PATHfinder (Personal Actions to Happiness) program in Fullerton. Students are not empty repositories, waiting for our erudition. They come to us fully formed, with values, interests, aspirations and strengths. When we build off their assets, we help them soar.