A Strength-Based Approach to Graduate School: Benefits, Strategies, and Applications

Volume 44 Issue 1

By Danielle Balaghi

As school psychologists in training, we are encouraged to use a strength-based approach in our practice. This strength-based approach allows school psychologists to focus on students' competencies and strengths, rather than weaknesses or deficits, in order to promote positive outcomes (Jimerson, Sharkey, Cyborg, & Furlong, 2004). Although we use this approach with children, we often do not apply this approach to ourselves. All too often, we get encumbered with critical feedback that makes us focus on what we cannot do. While critical feedback is helpful and allows us to grow personally and professionally, it can often leave our minds focused solely on our weaknesses, which can wreak havoc on our motivation, self-esteem, and performance (Dodgson & Wood, 1998). In contrast, focusing on strengths has been shown to promote motivation, engagement, and well-being, even in students in higher education (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Quinlan, Swain, Cameron, & Vella-Brodrick, 2015; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Additionally, just as a strength-based approach helps school psychologists inform appropriate interventions (Jimerson et al., 2004), it can help graduate students identify personal interventions to help us improve upon our weaknesses. Thus, it is important for graduate students to take time to implement a strength-based approach in our daily lives, particularly as we launch the new school year in September.

Benefits for Graduate Students

Although there is research that has identified the advantages of a strength-based approach for K-12 students (Quinlan et al., 2015), well-founded research about applying it in higher education is limited, especially studies investigating graduate students. However, those studies that have investigated strength-based approaches in higher education have found results very similar to the studies that have focused on K-12 students, such as better student self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, and overall well-being (Barlow, Tobin, & Schmidt, 2009; Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Grant, 2012; Lyubomirsky, Sousa, & Dickerhoof, 2006; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). For instance, a study has shown that increasing gratitude (e.g., counting your blessings) can lead to greater motivation (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). All of these characteristics are essential components for a successful graduate school career. The strength-based approach can be further fortified by taking a culture-specific approach-an approach especially important for minority graduate students, who can highlight the strengths of their culture and what they bring to the graduate-school table (Castellanos & Gloria, 2007). For example, minority graduate students can use their cultural world view to inform professional areas, such as research questions, methodology, consultation, and collaboration (Henning-Stout & Meyers, 2000). Whether a graduate student takes on a general approach or a culture- specific approach to strength-based practices, the commonalities are clear: They both promote beneficial outcomes, such as positive professional development, efficacy, and self-esteem (Barlow et al., 2009; Castellanos & Gloria, 2007).

Ways to Recognize Our Own Strengths

To reap the benefits of a strength-based approach, we have to learn how to appropriately identify our strengths. For instance, for the school psychology awareness campaign in 2012, NASP promoted the theme of strength-based approaches to life by encouraging students to: "Know your own strengths. Discover them. Share them. Celebrate them." Clearly, this message can also be readily applied to graduate students. Along these lines, positive psychologists (Louis, 2011; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005) have developed strategies that promote the identification of strengths:

  • Reflect. Take some time out of your day to reflect on your competencies and how they have informed your achievements.
  • Discuss strengths with others. Identify and discuss these strengths with a trusted colleague. Generate connections between strengths and graduate-level expectations.
  • Think of three good things in life. Write down three events or things that went well each day, whether that was in class, research lab, or at your practicum site, and pick out your strengths that helped those three good things occur.
  • Create lists. Set aside some time in your day to make a list of your strengths. Pick the top five and rank order them.

These strategies not only promote the identification of personal strengths, but also subsequently inform well-being and academic performance (Barlow et al., 2009; Seligman et al., 2005). Identifying strengths is just the first step toward these aforementioned positive outcomes; the next step is applying them to our daily lives.

Implementing Strength-Based Approaches in Graduate School

Researchers with clinical psychology, social justice, and positive psychology perspectives have outlined ways to implement a strength-based approach in one's life by utilizing one's unique strengths, skills, and knowledge (Falender & Shafranske, 2004; Seligman et al., 2005; Shin, 2008). These include:

  • Use strengths more often. Play to your strengths and make a cognitive effort to use them more often each week.
  • Use strengths differently. To avoid falling into a habitual routine, challenge yourself to use them differently each day or week.
  • Collaboratively identify strengths with your advisor. Some researchers claim that using this collaborative identification with a supervisor or advisor can help a student stay engaged in this self-reflective process while offering a sense of support.
  • Advocate for yourself. Just as we are trained to advocate for children, we should learn to advocate for ourselves in a diplomatic yet effective manner. Make sure to advocate for your skills, knowledge, and unique strengths, as this will help you feel empowered, making you a stronger advocate for others.


Using a strength-based approach promotes greater well-being, motivation, and empowerment, which can lead to greater professional development and performance. During my own journey through graduate school I discovered the benefits of cultivating a strength-based approach and a positive attitude, and these have served me well. At first, I often felt overwhelmed by the critical feedback I received, often focusing only on my weaknesses. I soon felt unmotivated and disengaged; therefore, I realized that I needed a change. Using a strength-based approach has helped me develop a deeper understanding of myself. Although understanding areas of improvement is critical for growth, so is understanding areas of strength. I have pushed myself to use my strengths as vehicles to address my weaknesses. Focusing on my strengths has provided me with a greater sense of self, self-esteem, and motivation. The lesson here is that we should strive to "practice what we preach." As soon as we start focusing on our strengths and using them effectively, we will be on track for a more positive and successful graduate school experience.


Barlow, P. J., Tobin, D. J., & Schmidt, M. M. (2009). Social interest and positive psychology: Positively aligned. Journal of Individual Psychology, 65, 191-202.

Castellanos, J., & Gloria, A. M. (2007). Research considerations and theoretical application for best practices in higher education: Latina/os achieving success. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 6, 378-396. doi:10.1177/1538192707305347

Dodgson, P. G., & Wood, J. V. (1998). Self-esteem and the cognitive accessibility of strengths and weaknesses after failure.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 178-197.

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,84, 377. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

Falender, C. A., & Shafranske, E. P. (2004). Clinical supervision: A competency-based approach (pp. 37-58). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Grant, A. M. (2012). Making positive change: A randomized study comparing solution-focused vs. problem-focused coaching questions. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 31, 21-35. doi:10.1521/jsyt.2012.31.2.21

Henning-Stout, M., & Meyers, J. (2000). Consultation and human diversity: First things first. School Psychology Review, 29, 419.

Jimerson, S. R., Sharkey, J. D., Nyborg, V., & Furlong, M. J. (2004). Strength-based assessment and school psychology: A summary and synthesis. The California School Psychologist, 9, 9-19. doi:10.1007/BF03340903

Louis, M. C. (2011). Strengths interventions in higher education: The effect of identification versus development approaches on implicit self-theory. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 204-215. doi:10.1080/17439760.2011.570366

Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., & Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life's triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 692. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.90.4.692

National Association of School Psychologists. (2012). Know your own strengths: Discover them. Share them. Celebrate them. [Public Relations Slogan]. Retrieved from

Quinlan, D. M., Swain, N., Cameron, C., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2015). How "other people matter" in a classroom-based strengths intervention: Exploring interpersonal strategies and classroom outcomes. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 77-89. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.920407

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73-82. doi:10.1080/17439760500510676

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410

Shin, R. Q. (2008). Advocating for social justice in academia through recruitment, retention, admissions, and professional survival. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 36, 180-191. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1912.2008.tb00081.x


NASP Positive Psychology Interest Group,

Danielle Balagh is a fourth-year doctoral student in Michigan State University's School Psychology Program. Her areas of professional interest include ethnic identity, perceived discrimination, and psychological well-being in minority students