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Why is building on strengths and aspirations so important for students with additional learning needs?

A diagnosis tells us something about a student with additional learning needs, providing some understanding for the student, their family, and those who support them. However, it may not tell us much about their strengths and aspirations. In many ways, students with additional needs are at greater risk of people focusing on what they can’t do and overlooking their capabilities and dreams. Everyone should actively challenge low expectations for any student, regardless of who holds them. (In some contexts, this may include members of their whānau.)

All students have a right to express themselves in a non-judgmental, safe environment in which they feel their aspirations are valued. It is essential that they are supported in planning for what they want to achieve. Building on their strengths, prior knowledge, and interests will then engage and motivate them as they work towards realising these plans. 

If we are to recognise every student as an active learner, we need to get to know them in order to understand and reflect back their strengths and aspirations. When teachers, peers, the student, and whānau work together to achieve this, the student will see their learning as purposeful and of use to them in becoming contributing, active members of their communities.

Regular conversations provide opportunities for a student and those in their network of support to share their understandings of the student’s strengths, passions, and interests and the changes in these over time. They are an important forum for exploring ways of supporting aspirations and addressing challenges or barriers.


The following table outlines the benefits of collaborative conversations for a student, their whānau and teachers, and others in the student’s network of support. Working in pairs, choose 2–3 rows and identify examples of how they are seen in practice in your school.

Collaborative conversations support...

...students to:

...whānau, teachers, and others to:

  • share their aspirations, their preferences for learning, their strengths, and their knowledge
  • share their specific knowledge of the student
  • develop relationships with their teacher, peers, and others supporting them
  • build relationships with both the student and one another
  • feel welcomed into a new class or school and know that their needs will be met
  • understand the context for support and the strengths of the school community
  • talk about what helps them to learn
  • discuss and agree on appropriate differentiations and adaptations in the classroom
  • have a say in what happens for them and where they are heading
  • use the knowledge and skills that others bring to agree with the student on what is best for them and where they are heading
  • know that the school recognises them as a learner within the school community
  • know that they are part of an effective network of support for the student and their teacher
  • identify the key people working with them, who they are, and what they do
  • identify the key people and their roles in the family, the school, and other agencies providing support
  • plan for working together in the future.
  • plan for working together in the future.

Paora, a year 8 student, is a non-verbal student who uses a communication device effectively and independently. Recently at a student-led conference, he shared how he was interested in learning te reo Māori in order to be able to communicate on his marae. His teacher, Ms Scott, discussed how they could programme his communication device in English and Māori so that he could work independently and with his peers and specialist support to learn the language. Paora’s whānau commented that they hoped this strategy would also support Paora to gain NCEA Level 2 in te reo in the future. They asked whether the collaborative team (including Paora) could plan a pathway that would help Paora to achieve this.


As a group, view the video clip My Dreams and Future Plans and discuss how the school is supporting Katrina to work towards fulfilling her dreams. 

Then consider how, in your school, you:

  • support students to share their aspirations with others
  • develop interim goals that support these aspirations
  • provide experiences for students that relate to their aspirations.

Next – Family and whānau aspirations for their children

Published on: 24 May 2016