Professional Practice

Strengths-Based Supervision in School Psychology: Accentuate the Positive; Eliminate the Negative

By Daniel S. Newman, Meaghan C. Guiney & Arlene E. Silva

pp. 1, 21

Volume 46 Issue 1

By Daniel S. Newman, Meaghan C. Guiney & Arlene E. Silva

Supervision is increasingly recognized as a distinct and essential professional competency in health service psychology, including school psychology (American Psychological Association, 2015). The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP, 2011) “strongly promotes the professional supervision of school psychologists by school psychologists” at all levels to support effective school psychology training and practice (p. 1). Despite the fact that all trainees receive supervision during training, and approximately one third of early career practitioners have access to such support (Silva, Newman, Guiney, Valley-Gray, & Barrett, 2016), most supervisors are unlikely to have received formal supervision training (Flanagan & Grehan, 2011). As a result, supervisors may lack theoretical frameworks to guide their supervision. One approach that has emerged recently in clinical and counseling psychology is strengths-based supervision, a model built upon principles of positive psychology (Edwards, 2017; Wade & Jones, 2015). The purpose of this article is to describe a strengths-based approach to supervision in school psychology, including its application to the prevention and remediation of supervisee problems of professional competence.

Supervision in School Psychology

NASP (2011) defines supervision as an “ongoing, positive, systematic, collaborative process between the school psychologist and the school psychology supervisor” that promotes competence and benefits all parties involved (p. 1). Supervision is distinguished from related domains (e.g., consultation) by its evaluative and hierarchical nature. Goals of supervision include protecting the welfare of clients (e.g., students, family, staff) in addition to facilitating supervisee growth through teaching, serving as an emotional support for supervisees, and modeling competent supervision practices that promote the supervisee's ability to self-monitor in the future (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014).

Models of supervision in school psychology have borrowed conceptually from other health service fields such as clinical and counseling psychology (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014). Many supervision approaches are tied directly to models of psychotherapy, yet school psychologists’ roles and functions are significantly broader in scope. Scholars have begun to build school psychology specific approaches to supervision, such as Simon and Swerdlik's (2017) developmental ecological problem-solving model. Such models are still in their infancy and require further conceptual and empirical exploration.

Strengths-Based Supervision and School Psychology

We define strengths-based supervision (SBS) as a process in which supervisors and supervisees collaboratively assess and build upon supervisee strengths, including cultural assets, and in which supervisee contributions to supervision are valued. This definition aligns with NASP's (2011) description of supervision, yet deviates from some traditional supervision conceptualizations by focusing on supervisee strengths rather than deficits (e.g., reframing as “filling in the gaps”) and by happening with rather than to the supervisee. Although supervision remains hierarchical, the supervisee is viewed as a contributor to the experience. SBS can be considered a framework for supervision in and of itself, or can be applied in conjunction with other supervision approaches (Nikter & Dowda, 2017). Despite being positively oriented, SBS does not ignore supervisee challenges, problems, or weaknesses. On the contrary, the supervisory dyad works together to focus on areas in need of development, with constructive feedback articulated within the context of a trusting relationship (Nikter & Dowda, 2017).

Although strength-based orientations to clinical practice have existed for decades, the application of a strength-based approach to supervision is relatively new (e.g., Edwards, 2017; Wade & Jones, 2015). Therefore, SBS has a limited empirical base and has yet to be applied in school psychology. However, SBS is built upon foundations of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), for which there is a growing base of empirical support (e.g., Bolier et al., 2013), and has clear conceptual relevance in education (Conoley, Conoley, Spaventa-Vancil, & Lee, 2014). Several key SBS concepts are particularly applicable to professional supervision in school psychology.

Negativity bias. To avoid danger, it is adaptive for individuals to exhibit a negativity bias, or a tendency to focus on threatening aspects of events (Wade & Jones, 2015). If an event has potential negative consequences that are ignored, it may pose danger, while ignoring possible positive consequences may result in regret, but not threat (Wade & Jones, 2015). Negativity bias may explain why supervisors are quick to hone in on supervisee weaknesses, and why supervisees tend to recall what went wrong in their own work more easily than what went right. A negativity bias, whether or not supervisors or supervisees are aware of it, can orient the supervision process to focus on deficits rather than strengths.

Learned helplessness and optimism. Although a negativity bias may be helpful in the short term, it can be detrimental to long-term growth (Wade & Jones, 2015). For example, Seligman's (2002) work on learned helplessness suggests that a supervisee who receives ongoing negative, deficit-based supervisory feedback in conjunction with difficult work circumstances (e.g., challenging cases, limited training supports) may give up, believing competency is out of reach. In contrast, SBS reorients the supervisor's focus to how to foster growth by building upon what is going well. Such a focus may nurture learned optimism and help supervisees view problems as solvable and challenges as addressable setbacks (not permanent blockades) on the path to reaching goals.

Self-fulfilling prophecy. Negativity bias and learned helplessness/learned optimism intersect with the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e., the situation where behavioral expectations directly or indirectly cause behaviors to become true). A focus on supervisee deficiencies could lead to decreased expectations of the supervisee from self or supervisor, and poorer performance. Contrastingly, in a SBS framework, positive expectations from a supervisor would lead to enhanced supervisee expectations and stronger performance (Edwards, 2017). Establishing a positive self-fulfilling prophecy can occur early in the supervision process. For example, a supervisor can introduce a new supervisee to the school staff by highlighting strengths, including the reasons that individual was hired (Wade & Jones, 2015).

Broaden-and-build theory. Fredrickson's (2001) broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive emotions act to (a) widen an individual's short-term repertoire of potential thoughts and actions; (b) enhance long-term resources, strategies, well-being, and health; and (c) alleviate harmful consequences of prior negative emotional experiences. For example, consider an intern experiencing mixed results implementing a lunch bunch group. Emphasizing successes (e.g., “What went right?” or “What went well that we can build upon?”) may provide a more fruitful starting point than immediately honing in on what went wrong. A strength-based focus could help to broaden and build upon the intern's positive feelings, knowledge, skills, self-efficacy, and pragmatic next steps for the lunch bunch and other activities. Challenges are not ignored; rather, they are viewed as opportunities for growth in conjunction with building on strengths to broaden the supervisee's breadth of success.

Culturally responsive supervision. In increasingly diverse school-based settings, “the practice of the supervisee and the process of supervision must be ecologically sensitive and consider the influences of all environmental and contextual factors” (Simon & Swerdlik, 2017, p. 143). However, addressing issues of diversity in supervision is a challenging supervisory task, “raising images of a minefield to be crossed, filled with perils” (Wade & Jones, 2015, p. 127). On the contrary, in SBS, diversity is viewed as a bridge that strengthens supervision processes and outcomes (Wade & Jones, 2015). Consistent with the growth mindset, cultural responsiveness in school psychology is viewed as a journey rather than a destination (Simon & Swerdlik, 2017). This perspective can be made explicit in supervision, permitting important discussions of cultural similarities and differences, and their saliency for practice and for the supervision itself. Given hierarchical differences in the relationship, it is incumbent upon the supervisor to initiate discussions about culture and other diversity factors (Eklund, Aros-O'Malley, & Murrieta, 2014). In so doing, supervisors can highlight the value of cultural differences in fostering diverse perspectives, new insights, and flexible practices.

Reframing Problems of Professional Competence Through SBS

One might question how SBS applies when a supervisee is exhibiting problems of professional competence (PPC), or performance, behavior, or attitudes that are misaligned with professional expectations or standards given a supervisee's stage of training or practice (Elman & Forrest, 2007). These circumstances certainly pose challenges: Most training programs report dismissing at least one trainee every 3 to 5 years (Forrest, Elman, Gizara, & Vacha-Haase, 1999) and trainees themselves can identify peers with PPC (Shen-Miller et al., 2015). Although PPC are relatively infrequent in terms of overall occurrence, they can be time and energy intensive for supervisors to manage. Supervisors must balance advocating for supervisees with their evaluative role, while always protecting the welfare of clients, and they are not typically trained how to have difficult conversations with supervisees (Jacobs et al., 2011). As a result, supervisees that exhibit PPC can be moved forward like a hot potato from one supervisor to the next, without concerns being sufficiently addressed (Johnson et al., 2008).

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) assert that “psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best” (p. 7). How do supervisors build upon supervisees’ strengths and virtues, and nurture what is best when it comes to supervisees exhibiting PPC? A list of SBS supervisor actions that might support successful navigation of PPC, built upon suggestions from Wade and Jones (2015), are described in Table 1. The following brief case example further exemplifies several of these strategies.

Table 1 SBS Strategies to Support Supervisees With Problems of Professional Competence

Reframe PPC from a deficit perspective to an ecological perspective Move beyond “problematic supervisee” and consider contributions of factors such as:
  • Field and university training contexts (e.g., cases too difficult for stage of training, required skills not sufficiently addressed in coursework/practica)
  • Cultural differences (e.g., supervisee, supervisor, and clients; school culture)
  • Supervisor variables (e.g., insufficient formative feedback; lack of supervision training)
Emphasize prevention and early intervention
  • Engage in ongoing communication and collaboration between field and university.
  • Establish due process before supervision experience, including what happens if things go well and if they do not go well.
  • Set norms for discussing cultural variables and inviting supervisee feedback on the supervision process at the outset of the supervision experience.
  • Model professional behaviors and self care.
  • Engage in formative assessment, documenting strengths and areas for growth, tied to ongoing, timely, clear feedback.
Intervene within the context of a strong supervision relationship
  • Establish trust within the relationship with clear expectations (e.g., a contract, an explicit supervision framework), bi-directional feedback, and shared power.
  • Engage in developmentally appropriate teaching: “I do it” (e.g., modeling, assigned readings), “we do it” (e.g., practicing skills together), and “you do it” (e.g., supervisee application of skills with supervisor observation and feedback).
  • Teach professional behaviors as you would teach professional content knowledge and skills.
  • Acknowledge and build upon supervisee strengths, including cultural assets, and use strengths to address PPC.
  • Search for solutions rather than problems.
  • Use practical questions to facilitate supervisee growth (e.g., “What went well that you can build upon for next time?”).
  • Model strengths-based approach in interactions with supervisee, parents, staff, and students.
Engaging in ongoing self-reflection Ask questions such as:
  • “What are my blind spots? How might they influence my supervision?
  • “How might my supervisee perceive supervision differently than I intend?”
  • “What is a mistake I might be making with my supervisee? Drawing upon my strengths, how might I attain a better outcome?”
  • “What can I learn from my supervisee?”
Model for your supervisee your own periodic self-assessment of skills in growing areas, such as developing cultural responsiveness or working with specific populations.

Sbs in School Psychology: An Example

Jill was excited about the many strengths her new intern, Lilah, would bring to her internship year. During their first meeting, Jill asked Lilah to describe her training and share examples of positive feedback she had received from faculty and field supervisors. To facilitate entry to the district, Jill included Lilah in all faculty and staff events and introduced her to colleagues, enthusiastically noting Lilah's specific areas of interest and experience.

Come October, Jill had concerns. She liked Lilah, but she found it difficult to respond to her many questions each day, and observed that Lilah made scoring errors on tests and lacked confidence in her abilities. She contacted Lilah's university-based supervisor to inform her of the situation and committed herself to applying SBS principles to support Lilah's development.

During supervision the next morning, Jill stated, “Lilah, I am enjoying our work together, but I feel like I am not doing all I can to support you. I remember how stressful it was to adjust to a new role, a new school culture, and a new supervisor when I started my internship. I want to think of ways we can use your areas of strength to build your skills and help you to feel more comfortable and confident. Remember that no intern begins the year ready to be a credentialed school psychologist—if they did, there would be no need for internship! So, to start, I want you to think of three areas of strength you bring to your work as a school psychologist.” Though surprised by the question, Lilah identified three strengths. Jill discussed specific cases in which Lilah had overcome challenges to support students and families, and reframed Lilah's struggles with the technical aspects of assessment as another type of trial to work through. Jill emphasized the value of making mistakes, highlighting for Lilah how they provided opportunities to learn from constructive feedback.

Of course, Jill knew she could not simply ignore Lilah's difficulties with assessment. She also recognized that several ecological factors had affected Lilah's ability to be successful with assessment, including limited opportunities to conduct comprehensive evaluations during practicum and lack of appropriate scaffolding from Jill. They agreed to step back and use an “I do, we do, you do” approach in conjunction with a specific set of assessment objectives (e.g., “I will observe all basal and ceiling rules correctly”) that would indicate when Lilah was ready to take cases on her own. Jill also worked with Lilah to identify examples of questions that she should bring to Jill immediately and those that she could attempt to answer for herself before requesting clarification. Both parties agreed to monitor progress in these areas as a specific feature of weekly supervision sessions.

Jill made consistent efforts to praise Lilah for her ongoing improvements and shared feedback from teachers and parents who had positive impressions of their work with Lilah. Over the course of the year Lilah became competent in the assessment of students with a variety of disabilities and her confidence grew. In June, as Jill reviewed the summative evaluation form required by Lilah's university, she highlighted all the growth and progress Lilah had made during the year. Lilah attributed much of her success to Jill's patience, support, and high expectations: “Once I knew you really believed in me, I started to believe in myself.”


Professional supervision is essential for learning in school psychology. However, school psychology-specific approaches to supervision are only beginning to emerge. SBS, an approach built on the research-based foundations of positive psychology, appears relevant to inform supervision in school psychology. SBS focuses on supervisees’ strengths and positive qualities and treats them as building blocks for the development of professional competency. Although the application of SBS might require a shift in mindset for supervisors and supervisees, it is likely well worth the effort.

Daniel S. Newman, PhD, NCSP, is an assistant professor of school psychology in the department of human services at the University of Cincinnati. His research interests include school consultation practice and training, supervision, and professional issues in school psychology.. Meaghan C. Guiney, PhD, NCSP, is a clinical assistant professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey.. Arlene E. Silva, PhD, NCSP, is the school psychology department chair and an associate professor at William James College in Newton, Massachusetts. Her research and practice interests include consultee-centered consultation, culturally responsive practice, supervision and mentoring, and systems change.

© 2017, National Association of School Psychologists
September 2017, Volume 46, Number 1