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HomeFeaturesMultilingual LearnersDrawing from Strengths

Drawing from Strengths

Debbie Zacarian urges administrators to make the move from deficit-based to strengths-based language assistance policies

Alina moved to the US from Irpin, Ukraine, when she was eleven years old. The Russian invasion resulted in Alina witnessing the destruction of her city and the death of family members. She arrived in the US with her mother and younger brother, and they now live with distant relatives. At enrollment, we learn that Alina has never been exposed to English and has missed about six months of school.

Take a moment to consider Alina and the type of language assistance program that you believe would be the most effective. During the past few decades, I have been providing policy analysis, strategic planning, and professional development for educators who work with pre-K–university-aged multilingual learners (MLs) at the local, state, and national levels across the US. I have asked thousands of policy makers and educators to respond to scenarios like this one. Most respond with something like, “Alina doesn’t speak English, has missed a lot of school, and experienced a high degree of adversity.” Each of these responses has generally led to more dialogue about what Alina is missing and the depth of trauma she has experienced. Additionally, many educators have expressed feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in supporting MLs like Alina to succeed. Have you found yourself feeling this way? Most of us respond with a resounding “yes.”

The Urgency for Strengths-Based Policies and Practices
From a policy and practice perspective, research demonstrates the urgency for us to move swiftly away from having a deficit-based stance to fully embracing a strengths-based one (Seligman, 2006; Gonzalez et al., 2005; Dweck et al., 2014; Maslow, 1999). While we shouldn’t ignore the circumstances of multilingual learners and their families, including the adversities that an epic number have experienced or are experiencing, we should pay as much if not more attention to the vast strengths and assets that they possess inherently or as a result of facing adversity, and the assets that we possess, too.

For years, the fields of psychology and social work looked at what was wrong to treat “the problem.” However, research on using this approach found that it did not have the lasting effects that were needed. The same has been true in education. When we applied remedies to what we perceive is wrong and needs to be corrected (e.g., they don’t speak English, they have not had prior schooling, their parents are too busy to help), we have not had positive results. In the 1990s, pioneer psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed to the importance of moving our lens to the strengths, capacities, and qualities of human potential. This was followed with large bodies of research in the fields of psychotherapy and positive psychology (Selig­man et al., 2006), psychology (Dweck et al., 2014; Dweck, 2006), positive youth development (Floyd and McKenna, 2003; Lerner et al., 2005), and educational research in diversity and equity (Biswas-Dienera et al., 2011; González et al., 2006; Steele, 2010), which resoundingly demonstrated the positives of using a strengths-based approach.

One of the most exciting and even inspiring aspects of being a state or local policy maker, district superintendent, school principal, teacher, specialist, counselor, or other stakeholder is seeing multilingual learners as capable and competent and their families as our partners. Renowned researcher and scholar Carol Dweck (2006) shows us the positives that can be realized when we focus on our students’, schools’, and communities’ strengths and support our students in seeing these in themselves and others. The same findings have been demonstrated about the importance of building from strengths to create strong, sustained, co-powered partnerships with families on behalf of their children’s success in school and in their lives (Epstein et al., 2019; Robles de Mélendez and Beck, 2019; Gonzalez et al., 2005). We must move from seeing children and families as broken pieces of glass to seeing them as the beautiful mosaic that is uniquely theirs, and we must capitalize on this view to build language assistance models that work (Zacarian, 2023).

Bringing Out the Best in the Laws and Regulations
Many historic actions have been taken to improve the outcomes of multilingual learners. The iconic 1964 photo of President Johnson kneeling on the steps of a rural cabin in Kentucky depicts the war on poverty that led to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to overcome years of educational inequities. It also led to many court cases on behalf of the nation’s MLs, including Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Serna v. Portales, Aspira v. Board of Education of the City of New York, and the two most seminal of all, Lau v. Nichols and Castañeda v. Pickard. It is impossible to imagine the bravery and courage of the families who agreed to bring legal suits against their school systems and battle for their children’s rights at the local, state, and national levels. For example, Castañeda v. Pickard claimed that multilingual learners were being segregated and isolated from their peers. While Roy Castañeda and the families who brought the suit lost the court case at the local level, they appealed all the way to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That court ruled in favor of Castañeda and ordered that all language assistance programs nationwide be based on sound research, properly resourced, and proven to work. Regardless of where we work, we stand on the shoulders of heroic families like the Castañedas and others to ensure that our language assistance programs work.

Fifty years after the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Lau v. Nichols, the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent a letter to every state education agency and every school and district in the nation reinforcing the laws and regulations. Why did they send that letter in January 2015? Investigations by these two departments found that many districts across our nation were not following the regulations governing:
the identification and education of multilingual learners, and parents’ rights to have equal and meaningful access to the same school information as all parents do and to receive information about their child’s language assistance programming.

In December of the same year, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reinforced the nation’s long-standing commitment to equal opportunity for all students. It stipulated that all multilingual learners:
have meaningful access to grade-level content and state education agencies monitor local schools and districts to make sure this occurs;
progress in learning English;
engage in programming that includes English proficiency benchmarks to ensure that they are progressing in learning English, and steps must be taken if they aren’t;
be monitored for a period of two years after demonstrating the capacity to do ordinary work in English and receive remedies when needed.

It also requires each school to report the number and percentage of former MLs meeting academic standards for a period of four years. One approach for attending to the regulations is to pore over the regulations and seek ways to comply with them. A second and much more effective approach is to view the regulations through the lens of how we can draw from MLs’ and their families’ strengths to support their being empowered as partners with us.

Seek Ways to Support Strengths-Based Partnerships with Students and Families
A great example of a partnership that is mutually beneficial and empowering is the K–5 Manthala George, Jr. Global Studies School in Brockton, Massachusetts. Graduates from its dual language programs attend parent meetings of potential enrollees to share the benefits of the language assistance program. Imagine being empowered as a graduate of this program and engaging in these important activities! A second example is the Douglas County School District in Colorado. Multilingual parents attend workshops to learn about their children’s schools. They are also empowered to lead workshops. Some parents/guardians have taken these opportunities further and become advocates for strengthening the district’s policies to better ensure the success of all students.

The laws and regulations governing the education of MLs should really be a stepping-off point for creating strengths-based practices with students and families (as opposed to for them). Here are some questions to guide us in the type of strengths-based and co-powered partnerships that help in obtaining more successful results. (While there are additional questions that are important to include, remember that the starting point should always be to take a strengths-based stance.)

What steps have we taken to ensure that we are learning about the interests and special qualities of each ML and their parents/guardians and infusing these in all we do? For example, think of the empowering activities that the George Global Studies School does to demonstrate the multilingual and leadership competencies of its graduates by engaging them in recruiting future parents.

What activities are we engaging in to empower parents/guardians in their children’s education and draw from their strengths and assets?
What documents, forms, and protocols are we using to demonstrate that what we do to learn about MLs’ and their families interests and special qualities are integrated in the language assistance programming we are providing?
What might we do to strengthen what we are doing?
What professional readings or school/district documents should be included?
What type of professional growth activities do we need to support our efforts?

Together, as policy makers and district-, school-, and state-level educators, we can overcome inequities by shifting our patterns of thinking and operating to the many assets and competencies that MLs, their families, and we possess to build language assistance programming that works.

Biswas-Dienera, R., Kashdan, R.B. & Gurpal, M. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention.  Journal of Positive Psychology. 6(2)., 106-118. González, N., Moll, L.C., Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in household, communities, and classrooms.  Lawrence Erlbaum.
Dweck, C., Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.
Epstein, J. L., Greenfeld, M. D., Hutchins, D. J., Williams, K. J., & Sanders, M. G. (2019). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action (4th ed.). Corwin.
Floyd, D.T., & McKenna, I., (2003).  National youth organizations in the United States: Contributions to civil society.  In D. Wertlieb, F. Jacobs, & R.M. Lerner (Eds.), Promoting positive youth and family development: Community systems, citizenship, an civil society; Vol. 3.  Handbook of applied development science: Promoting positive child, adolescent, and family development through research, policies, and programs.  (p. 11-26).  Thousand Oaks: Sage. 
Lerner, R.M., Almerigi, J.B., Theokas, C. & Lerner, J.V. (2005). Positive youth development: A view of the issues. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1), 10-16.
Maslow, A. H. (1999). Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Robles de Mélendez, W., & Beck, V. (2019). Teaching young children in multicultural classrooms: Issues, concepts, and strategies (5th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A.C. (2006).  Positive psychotherapy.  American Psychologist. 61(8)., 774-788.
Steele, C., (2010). Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us.  NY: W.W. Norton.
Zacarian, Debbie. (2023). Transforming Schools for Multilingual Learners: a comprehensive guide for educators (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.

Debbie Zacarian brings 3+ decades of combined experience as a university faculty, educational service agency leader, and district administrator. With scholarship in strengths-based leadership, instructional, and family-school practices with multicultural, multilingual populations, her most recent book includes Transforming Schools for Multilingual Learners, a comprehensive guide for educators (2nd ed.).

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