How my team and I promote students’ positive self-identities all year round

If I see every student as a smart, capable individual, no matter what negative narratives might be swirling around them, then I will reflect that picture back to them in our interactions. When I do that consistently, and when students can count on every adult in the building to reinforce that positive reflection, it helps students get grounded in a positive self-concept and in a sense of possibility – that their futures are open, not predetermined. That’s the power of asset-based language.

Asset-based language protects our vision for our students and helps ensure that, as the adults shaping their school experience, we remain focused on their intrinsic potential and capacity for greatness. I think of asset-based language as a vital form of compassionate communication, which will always have a crucial impact as we work towards addressing the challenges our students face. So I created this I.M.P.A.C.T. mnemonic to help me center compassionate communication with students and to share with colleagues – so we can build that consistency across the board that’s so important for supporting all students. My hope is that it can complement your efforts to promote asset-based language and approaches in your building. 

I: Intentional

Intentionally center our students. There’s a lot on our plates every day, but students are the most important reason that we’re in the building. Everything else on our to-do list is in service to them. That means it’s vital to center students’ as whole people and guard against language that positions them as issues to be solved. Instead, when we bring intentionality to putting students’ humanity first, we can focus on the supports, services and solutions we can create in our school environment to set all students up for success.

M: Mindful

I find that when we’re interacting with students, it can be very easy to forget what that interaction is actually like from their perspective. In addition to the words I say, I also need to be mindful of the messages my body language is conveying. Based on the image students are receiving from me in that moment, are they going to feel like they have my full attention? Are they going to trust that I’m actually listening and that I care about understanding what they have to say? It only takes a moment to bring attention to how I’m holding my body – where I’m actually facing for instance – and consider whether an adjustment could shift the message I’m conveying into more of an alignment with my purpose, which is to ensure that every student can feel safe, seen and supported. 

P: Pause

One of my strongest tendencies is my eagerness to find solutions. While that orientation is certainly needed in our work, I find it useful to put a pause on that eagerness during any initial conversation with students. Usually in those interactions, leading with solutions can shift the focus away from what students are actually experiencing in the moment. That risks missing a crucial opportunity to build the trust and confidence needed for students to receive and participate in enacting those solutions. In order to build students’ baseline sense of being heard, seen and accepted as they are – even in the midst of a challenging moment – I pause solutions-seeking and turn up my curiosity about what students are sharing instead.

A: Authentic

When students can bring more of their authentic selves into their school environment and into their interactions with us as adults, they allow us to develop the insights we need to serve them better and help them succeed. So I encourage students to be authentic through validating their feelings and reflecting what they’re expressing back to them to check my understanding. If I’m not understanding their experience in that moment, I can be honest with them and let them know while still affirming that I’m paying attention and working towards seeing their perspective. My goal is to keep their experience in focus and to support their willingness to communicate and be visible as their whole self.

C: Community

Every interaction with students is about creating community. As soon as our first conversation, I’m laying the foundation for students to see me as part of their community – as one of many adults who they can count on to support and look out for them. Meanwhile, students are going to be constantly assessing whether I am genuinely a safe space for them. That means I need to practice consistency in my intentionality, mindfulness, pausing and my encouragement of their authenticity. Through that consistency, I can demonstrate that our community connections are durable, trustworthy and real beyond words. 

T: Time

We face many demands on our time every day, both expected and unexpected. As I respond, pivot and reprioritize, I have to ensure that students still feel like they’re the most important part of my day. To do that, I need to communicate clearly with them about my availability and how much time and attention I realistically have in the moment. I might have only five minutes to take a walk with them before their next class. But rather than hurry along, I can offer them some transparency and choices about how they can connect with me. We can take a walk having set the expectation that classes need to resume shortly. But taking a moment for transparency on my part also respects students’ agency over their time, their voice and what they choose to share.

Together, all these reminders help my team and I make an impact through compassionate communication. They provide not just a mnemonic but helpful underlying principles to build our shared capacity for discernment and guide our use of asset-based language. Ultimately, it all boils down to centering our students and giving their experience primacy in the midst of any other daily tasks or routines, and the result is an environment where we can be more responsive and effective as a whole.