Home All Appreciative Inquiry and Strengths in the Special Education Process

Appreciative Inquiry and Strengths in the Special Education Process

written by Sherri Fisher 5 April 2008

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

“[Appreciative Inquiry] deliberately seeks to discover people’s exceptionality – their unique gifts, strengths, and qualities. It actively searches and recognizes people for their specialties – their essential contributions and achievements. And it is based on principles of equality of voice – everyone is asked to speak about their vision of the true, the good, and the possible. Appreciative Inquiry builds momentum and success because it believes in people. It really is an invitation to a positive revolution. Its goal is to discover in all human beings the exceptional and the essential. Its goal is to create organizations that are in full voice!”—David L. Cooperrider in Cooperrider, D.L. et. al. (Eds) , Lessons from the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry, Thin Book Publishing, 2001, page 12.

Crumpled Paper

Crumpled Paper

The Situation

Lindy is in third grade. She has recently participated in neuropsychological, cognitive and achievement testing to help her family and school understand whether she has a disability which is at the root of her seeming inability to complete school work. Homework plus completing leftover work at recess and at home takes all of the time Lindy would otherwise have to play with friends, learn hip-hop dance, or take an art class, all things she misses terribly.

Her parents, believing that they are doing what is in the best interest for their child’s education, diligently take turns sitting with her at the kitchen table to be sure the work is completed, even if it means family stress and staying up until very late very often. Because of a labyrinthine set of special education laws designed to keep her in the general classroom and working through a standardized curriculum, in order to get help, Lindy will need this “disabled” labeling.

Currently Lindy shows very superior cognitive skill and average to superior achievement testing which do not qualify her for help, but as of February, she has not completed a single in-class assignment while at school. A TEAM meeting has been convened to learn the answer to the all-important and heart-breaking question: What’s wrong with Lindy?

An Appreciative Meeting

At a meeting to discuss her eligibility for special education services, the first person to speak is the classroom teacher. She explains her approach for getting the most work out of Lindy, and reviews the day’s schedule. Every explanation is punctuated by work samples, none of which is completed. There are packets with detailed drawings and exquisitely formed letters making up fabulously detailed stories, followed by many incomplete pages. “This one sheet took our entire literacy block—90 minutes,” the teacher states, paging through the remaining sheets.

“I have two questions,” I say. “First, do all of Lindy’s papers have drawings on them? Also, is this typical of her writing quality?”

“Oh, yes, she always begins every writing assignment like this,” is the teacher’s reply. “I negotiate with her to move on to the writing by offering her the chance to do something like hand out snack or feed the hamster. Her writing topics and details are very sophisticated for third grade.”

The school principal, who is also in attendance, interrupts, “But she does not complete all of her class work, ever. Isn’t that true, Mrs. Dawson?”

“Those are great strategies,” I observe, “and it sounds as if there are some patterns that you have responded to very effectively: It sounds as if Lindy performs best when her teacher helps with pacing, allows visual structuring before writing, assists with chunking amounts of work, and uses negotiation to keep Lindy feeling positive about her time in the classroom. Is that right?”

Mrs. Dawson beams. She has just heard that she does things that work, which given the nature of the meeting (a child is struggling in HER class) is rarely a topic of conversation. The principal says, “Mrs. Dawson is a very talented teacher who is particularly good at individualizing for her students.” Before long the TEAM has different energy; faces are more open, and the TEAM begins to generate ideas for Lindy’s future success.

Stay with What is Working

These things that work are just part of what will also help next year’s teachers keep Lindy on the positive learning curve. Staying with what is working—that she has excellent skills, is very creative, loves to help in the classroom, and takes great care with the work that is completed—is the approach that will help keep her engaged and progressing. This appreciative approach values the best of what has been so far, and uses it to help set the direction for what can be.

An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry involves the art and practice of asking questions that focus on strengthening positive potential. Doesn’t that sound nice: Positive Potential. Instead of making a list of the ways that a child does not measure up (though these are necessary to even get into the Special Education process at all), an AI approach asks this: What is working for this child? What has worked in the past? What would we like to work in the future?

Appreciative Inquiry begins with the discovery of what gives “life”— capability and effectiveness—to a system. It is typically applied to organizations approaching big change, but when scaled, its principles are equally at home in a conference room when working with the TEAM (system) of people creating an educational management approach for students experiencing school struggles.

Seems rather paradoxical, doesn’t it? This is a very different approach than the current one which asks the following:

  • Does the child have one or more types of disability? (9 categories apply)
  • Is the student making effective progress in the general education curriculum?
  • Is the lack of progress the result of the student’s disability?
  • Does the student require specially designed instruction to make effective progress?

Eventually the TEAM does get to student “Present Levels of Educational Performance” and even “Strengths”, providing that eligibility for special education is determined. But to get to that point a family and student will have to spend an enormous amount of time (and even money if they do not agree with the school) focusing on the negative. That’s why it is so important to begin with the best of what works, now and in the past, for the child and all of the people in the child’s “system”.

Here is what AI looks like in brief:

The 4-D Cycle:
Discovery — Appreciating & Valuing the Best of “What Is”
Dream — Envisioning “What Might Be”
Design — Dialoguing “What Should Be”
Destiny — Innovating “What Will Be”

Appreciative Inquiry while Developing an Individual Education Plan (IEP)

Discovery: Identifying patterns, themes, possibilities, strengths, passions, unique attributes. Lindy is seen as a child who is capable of learning when her unique strength set is engaged. Her current teacher can describe stories of when, where and how this works, can model it in her classroom, provide process praise for Lindy when she uses her strengths, and can share these stories with her upcoming teachers.

Dream: Creating bold statements of ideal possibilities based on what works.
Lindy is already skilled in many areas which she reveals in the individual examples of work she does complete. What is is now seen as foundational, not lacking.

Design: Co-determining what should be.
The sharing of what has been effective has unleashed incredible creativity and surprising good will. Lindy’s teacher is now feeling engaged in solutions, and her principal is supporting out-of-the-box approaches to fostering a child’s success.

Destiny: Creating a plan and both taking and sustaining action.
Lindy is not found eligible for special education. This is, paradoxically, a relief for her parents who want a focus on more of what works and less on what doesn’t. Mrs. Dawson, with the support of the school psychologist who has documented the previous steps, suggests that Lindy may not need to complete the same volume of work to learn content and build the skills expected in her classroom. In the design phase, her parents have determined that Lindy needs a positive social-emotional life. In the destiny phase, the TEAM agrees to keep homework and class work separate so that Lindy has time for playing and developing an out-of-school skill.

An Appreciative Outcome

The meeting has ended with hope. Lindy has been re-envisioned as a child of abilities. Mrs. Dawson’s successes have been lauded and her strategies documented for future teachers. The principal feels that she works with capable teachers. The parents can’t wait to do something after school besides school work. The school psychologist has a new role: “keeper of success stories”.

Lindy is a real child from my case load. The names in her story are changed here. May her story not be unique 🙂


Bascobert-Kelm, J. (2005). Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.

Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Orem, S., Binchert, J. & Clancy, A. (2007). Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change (Jossey-Bass Business & Management). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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Jeff Dustin 5 April 2008 - 11:02 am

Lindy’s story is hopeful, but I know how tough the educational world can become. It seems that some of the political stakeholders want a quick fix and don’t want to invest the resources, not just money, into realistic solutions.

Despite the best intentions sustained action is sometimes lost in the shuffle of busy-ness. How would you appreciate an approach to keeping Lindy from getting “lost”. We’ve talked about how full funding won’t solve the problem (I agree to some extent).

I must say as well that the case you chose is somewhat rosy compared to, let’s say, a child who is catatonic but still receives special education services. What are the strengths of someone who is in a perpetual slumber or “vegetative state”. Students do end up receiving Free Appropriate Public Education who cannot reasonably benefit from it.

I would call Lindy’s case a type of triage. She clearly has abilities that many students covet…artistic sense, linguistic strengths. She is one of the students who can survive a broken system and thrive with some positive perspective-taking.

I don’t worry that much about the Lindy’s. I believe that with someone like you, even just one person in her camp, she will do o.k. Its those children who are victim-class, the ones who cannot reasonably defend themselves against predation that keep me up at night. I’ve worked with some.

How do we transition children with severe mental retardation who also have comorbidities such as emotional-behavioral disorders and possible criminal histories integrate into the world without becoming prey to the darkness out there?

I’ve worked with these kids and I really don’t have an answer.

Sherri 5 April 2008 - 5:55 pm

Hi, Jeff-
Thanks for responding with many policy and population-related questions.

It is interesting that you do not really worry about kids with exceptional talent who are not doing their work when compared to other kids who may have less potential. That is what standardized testing is trying to create–a nation of kids who can all do the same things well. Yuck! It ignores creativity, strengths, what engages a student, what really jazzes someone, and worst of all, it values production over product, even at the expense of a child’s emotional life. These are the future workers of an economy that thrives on innovation, not sameness.

I believe that the talented teacher who was able to make things work in the classroom did not get this, since she had spent the first 7 months of the school year sending home unfinished work daily, in addition to 60-90 minutes of expected homework.

Kids end up referred to Special Education for many reasons. The vast majority are not learning disabled but are environmentally disabled–their placement does not meet their needs. The law that has developed to protect the kids you mention at the end of your comment unfortunately applies to all kids when a much more individualized and appreciative approach would make a huge difference.

The parents in this case had been asking the school for help and explanations since kindergarten. They had believed they were acting in her best interest by focusing on production, forgetting that Lindy was a happy, confident, sparkly child until academic mass production began to rule her life.

Kids like this give up on school, and next year she will begin to receive grades for her lack of production even though she does not need to do the volume of work required to meet the learning goals of the state curriculum frameworks.


Jeff Dustin 5 April 2008 - 9:16 pm


I do worry about the high achievers, but I realize that are not the most vulnerable population. Children with a higher IQ, all else relatively equal, will have faster and potentially broader mental resources to get themselves out of jams. It is easier for somebody not meeting his/her potential to ramp up and get out of a rut than for someone with neurological limitations to “ramp up” their IQs.

The neanderthal truth is that many workplaces don’t care if you don’t want to produce, you are a producing machine. Will we realize this is a foolhardy way to manage human beings with strengths? I hope so. Time will tell. Maybe so-called “free market” competition will force employers to rethink what production means.

I often am concerned with students with profound special needs b/c I see how tough the middle class lifestyle is to obtain and I wonder how they will manage out there…especially with lower cognitive level jobs outsourcing.

Dave Shearon 6 April 2008 - 9:47 am

Nice, Sherri! Isn’t it amazing how a subtle re-orienting strategy can transform a group’s process?

Marie-Josee Salvas 6 April 2008 - 4:15 pm

I really enjoyed your article, Sherri! Your story is engaging and drives your argument powerfully! Thank you for bringing theory to life so vividly!

Angus Skinner 7 April 2008 - 7:23 am

Dear Sherri
So glad you wrote this piece. It is such a complex area. Let us dance a little with it for that is what it needs.
Should education be for all? – of course. Is it best for all children to be educated in mainstream schools? I don’t think so. However you draw the line this is clear for some. And however we draw the line there are questions at the margin. But wherever and however they are educated an authentic concentration on building their strengths is vital. And all our bureaucratic systems are focused on deficits. You are so right.
The task of turning this around is gargantuous. Thank Goodness we have begun.
Nice one Sherri!

Jeff Dustin 7 April 2008 - 11:22 am

Angus & Sherri,

…but why are some schools bureaucratic? I think that many of the rules were created by lobbyists whose contributors wanted to change school culture. Students with special needs were not receiving equitable services compared to typically developing peers. Politicians leveraged a grassroots movement and created laws to protect these kids (and to achieve personal and party objectives).

As you know, policy is not reality. Now we have a mountain of paperwork that follows each child with special needs. In order to receive state funding for an assistive communication device, the special ed teacher must go through page after page of documentation, receive approval from the director of SPECED, chronicle the use and outcomes of the device, and keep a thick file on the technology year after year.

If you were a special educator and had the job of teaching children literacy, numeracy, social skills, personal hygience, etc., would you keep these rules in place? Probably not. Yet in order to receive funding and keep your job, you dance to the bureaucratic policies.

Even though…
…the time spend on paperwork is a full-time position
…educational technicians (ed techs) often end up teaching students in class which is not best practice
…something like half of all new hires leave after the 1st year because the burnout rate is enormous in special education
…there is a huge sentiment in the public that “teachers are not doing their jobs” and “teaching is easy & they get their summers off”

Positive psychology is about individual traits and organizational strengths. I see a lot of good teachers doing their best and achieving quality student outcomes in bad schools. I believe in public schools. Every child shoud receive a Free Appropriate Public Education. The political statement “every child can read” is bullshit. That may not form part of the child’s “strengths canvas”. Some child, despite the best practices and efforts of caring teachers, won’t read.

Schools have a literacy and numeracy fetish. I know Sherri disagrees with me on this point, but I believe that full funding would help bring more students’ strengths to play in public schools. What programs are cut from budgets first? Arts, music, physical education, drama, even sports (usually less popular ones, certainly not football!) These avenues for character development are pared away before children can explore their own gifts. For kids who can’t read and count, what is left? Would you stay in such a school or dropout?

Sherri has made the point that productivity is more than just making widgets. Modern society has given rise to a wealthy and influential creative class. The arts allow students to express multiple intelligences across a spectrum of practical subjects. The arts also support traditional learning by expressing student strengths and building self-efficacy. With full funding even traditional-minded schools could support these “fringe” programs. I think money would naturally help students develop unique strengths.

Bridget 7 April 2008 - 4:50 pm

Hi Sherri
Loved this article. I think the UK state education system has similar issues – our focus on targets leaves little room for individuality, for focussing on individual strengths. For those who lag behind, the focus is always on what they can’t do, when compared to the standard. But I agree with Angus, it’s a complex area, not one which will be solved overnight. Maybe teachers need more emphasis on this in their training – it might also help keep them motivated.


Sherri 7 April 2008 - 9:17 pm

Lots of good thoughts have been generated here-Thanks to all of you for contributing to the idea sharing.

A few thoughts of my own…
1) I have articles that specifically talk about NOT gutting arts programs. See https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sherri-fisher/20070505230 and https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sherri-fisher/20070405192

2) I am anti-NCLB. It has taken an already dry period in American education and turned it into a desert.

3) SpEd law is very complex. This article is not about overhauling it since whatever would replace the existing law would have its own gate-keeper issues. I am trying to bring a more positive and less combative approach to the meetings I do attend. AI is a natural fit, no matter the SpEd situation. The question of who pays, and how much, is part of the design phase. Hope Theory fits into the dream phase. Even in cases of profound special needs, it is good to have hope!

4) The world of special education is full of opportunity. I am a teacher and a coach, and I live for the teachable–and reachable–moment. If I spent too much time caring about all of the reasons why I might not be successful, I would be a pretty poor example of Positive Psychology. If you think that something cannot be improved, it can’t (at least not by you).

5) We have to start somewhere. Here I am!

Thanks for all of the insight and support:-)

Jeff Dustin 8 April 2008 - 1:32 am

I want you to know that my sometimes caustic style of writing isn’t intended to degrade your ideas. I just like to challenge them a bit and see where that takes us. I love the idea of a Standards movement. I don’t like the current incarnation of NCLB. It is not “there yet”.

I think Seligman put it best: “Know what you can change and what you can’t”(Or at least you can’t change right now).

Sherri 8 April 2008 - 8:49 am

Hi, Angus-

I completely agree that mainstream education is not for all.

The law in the US has evolved to its current focus on full inclusion because high-profile court cases led to new precedents allowing students to be educated with their age peers to the fullest extent possible.

There have been both positive and negative outcomes from this approach, of course. For more anyone interested in the legal side of US SpEd law, see http://www.wrightslaw.com/ which is a fabulous compendium.

There are many ways to create positive and efficacious educational and environmental opportunties for students (and teachers!). One size most certainly does not fit all, even if a legal mandate says so.

A school devoted to working with a particular population can provide all sorts of things that a mainstream school cannot, not the least of which is a heightened focus on exceptional teaching skills and deep compassion vs. standards-based production and content-focused classes.

Schools, as well as individuals, have a unique strengths set. 🙂 In our research at UPenn, Dave Shearon and I found this to be the case even when comparing what might otherwise be “apples to apples”–a national teacher data set of strengths, work orientation, happiness, and optimism to that of teachers in a large metro school district. There are statisically significant differences.


Angus Skinner 9 April 2008 - 9:11 am

Dear Jeff and Sherri
Jeff your description of the form filling and all is hilarious (except it is too painfully true) and would be true in the UK.
Education sits there between love and science. Love is about engagement (merging lives), science is about classification (the naming of parts). We ask in the west too much of education. A child’s experience is mainly their family and community – in extremis education is often a good escape, but even then not enough.

We are (US and UK) at the bottom of the UNICEF childhood Well-being list. I don’t know what the answers to this are. I doubt redoubling responsibilities laid on education is the way forward.

Best aye


Jeff Dustin 9 April 2008 - 11:20 am


The family community is the biggest influence and I’d say probably a larger factor than any other for the average child. I live in a rural Maine town. Something like 75 percent of the high school body is failing at least one course. The dropout rate has increased dramatically since last year. Think of that.

The most common reason these kids cite for faring so poorly is “because Dad and Mom work at the mill so why do I need to go to college?”

Consider this: home support can surmount poverty. I have a strong suspicion that the reason that many Asian and Jewish families tend to score well on standardized tests is because of a more academically ambitious family culture. Eastern European Jewish immigrants cracked the SAT and entered the Ivy League colleges in large measure thanks to their supportive mothers.

Talk about a positive organization! I see families as either more of a drag or more of a support academically. When I was going through the school system, my mother told me to just pass the classes. The expectation wasn’t for straight A’s and B’s.

I think teachers need to become USED CAR SALESMEN. Persuading kids to put some effort into their homework is one of the hardest and most rewarding elements to teaching. Its also the foundation of their achievement.


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