Support Sings with a Strengths-Based & Invitational Focus

by Woodrós Wolford

Music pumped, lights shone, people danced… And I compared the facilitation styles of the lead singers of Dropkick Murphys and Pennywise from the balcony.

At a concert in Portland, Ore. last weekend, I found myself thinking about how nervous systems are impacted by invitational facilitation practices in a Moda Center crowd much like they are in a one-on-one interaction. The lead singer of Dropkick Murphys was exceptionally skilled at inviting the audience to participate and bringing out positive energy. He remained warm and good-humored even when discouraging–or breaking up!–fights.

Watching him, I thought, “Wow, what great classroom management! …I mean, concert management. But wow, so firm and kind and fun, all at once, avoiding power struggles and matching his words with his pitch and stance! And look how clearly and simply he articulated his inclusivity – unlike the really vague statements the Pennywise leader proclaimed grandly a few songs ago. Lots to learn here!”

Two years ago, I believe that I would still have noticed the contrast between the approaches of the two band leaders. (Pennywise’s leader ordered and then nagged the audience to participate rather than offering the encouragement and reinforcement like the lead singer of Dropkick Murphys. The first approach left my friend glaring with her arms crossed, defiant to being told to participate; the second allowed her to choose whether she opted in or not without feeling that resistance and annoyance.)  After all, I was a middle school teacher for years and a facilitator for over a decade! Now, however, I look at the difference between the two with a lens grounded in nervous system awareness and focused on invitational and strengths-based engagement.

Academic Coaching, SE, and Me

My understanding of invitational and strengths-based facilitation and awareness of nervous systems have been deepened through my experience as the Academic Coaching Coordinator for the Academic Success Center and also through the intensive Somatic Experiencing training sessions I’ve done over the past year. With that training, I have the dual goal of becoming a somatic experiencing practitioner (after two more years!) and utilizing the nervous-system-grounded lessons I learn there to support the efficacy of Academic Coaching and peer education at OSU more broadly. I’m excited (and nervous) to start sharing some of what I’m learning with you in this “opening act” you’re kindly reading now.

As I understand it, Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a healing modality based on activating the body’s and nervous system’s innate healing capacity. This is done by working with someone in an invitational and tailored way, while also providing tools, menus, and an overall structure. Academic Coaching is appointment-based, invitational, holistic, and person-centered, and these are traits that are shared with SE. Both are also one-on-one sessions (typically, although lessons & skills can be applied to groups!) In my role as coordinator, attending the SE training has allowed me to see why some elements of our long-lived, well-tested peer coaching model are so effective, and we’ve been able to prioritize those strengths to make a great program even better. We believe it’s especially important, post-COVID closures, to increase how welcoming, nervous-system-friendly, and inclusive Academic Coaching is…and I thought that some of my “lessons learned” might help highlight the strengths of others’ models of student support, too!

The thesis here is that we need access to our full brains in order to access our prior knowledge, think creatively, problem solve, etc. When a stress response is active, we have less access to those “higher brain” functions – and that can be because we’re having an off day, because we’re out of practice after being isolated in the pandemic, because of stereotype threat, because of overstimulation, because it’s an unfamiliar space… A plethora of reasons! Asking for help and doing new things is hard and takes a lot of capacity!

Moves We Can Make

So, what are some of the moves we can make?

We can practice curiosity about and make space for the other person’s knowledge to unfurl, using an invitational and strengths-based approach and creating spaces supportive of nervous systems.

To do that, I had to unlearn the way my brain responded to help-seeking. Even though I sought to approach teaching in a student-centered, strengths-based, and accommodating way, I didn’t live up to my goals and values. My mind immediately started looking for solutions to a question and, when I asked questions to help the person find a solution, I automatically generated questions that guided that person towards specific information or solutions. I knew that wasn’t great for critical thinking, but there wasn’t capacity to work on changing it.

Stay Curious & Make Space

However, for coaching and somatic experiencing, changing these habits was central. The other person has a huge dataset of their own lived experiences that I could never hope to understand fully, so the goal is to be truly curious and create space for the other person to notice and work with the data they already have: data from their own nervous system, lived experiences, meaning-making, and more.

Interrupt Automatic Responses

To make room for the others’ thinking and stay curious, we work to check our automatic assumptions and responses in our coaching model, replacing thosewith non-judgment, questions to understand and to prompt thinking, and affirmations and validations of what the student is sharing. While I worked (a lot!) on my implicit biases as a teacher, a large group setting is a difficult one for slowing down, asking questions, reflecting back what you’re hearing, and pointing out the fabulousness of the person’s learning journey. (While the Dropkick Murphys band leader did ask questions of the audience, they had to be close-ended, shorter response questions, not the open-ended ones to stimulate deepen thinking – similarly, he could praise the audience and I could praise middle school students, but not with the specificity possible in a one-on-one conversation organized to explore the other person’s knowledge and strengths.)

Center Their Strengths & Self-Knowledge

Matching the conversation to the rhythm of the person who is seeking to improve or finetune their time management or goal setting and centering that person’s self-knowledge and strengths (even when they might be reluctant initially to recognize those) is helpful for nervous system regulation and deep thinking. (Neither of which is the goal of a concert!) All too commonly, we don’t feel like we have time to connect like this or we get caught in the patterns and “autocomplete” functions of our own minds, so, typically, the coaching model requires building new skills or even – as in my case – unlearning habits for supporting others we already use. Because Academic Coaching is a 45 minute conversation in a quiet place, it’s easier to intentionally rewrite those habits there than in, say, a boisterous middle school classroom or a Moda Center concert.

Consider Options & Vibe in the Space

In Academic Coaching (and in the Academic Success Center’s drop-in space), we seek to be responsive and holistic, as well, offering Zoom as well as in-person appointments, a quieter space for the conversations, fidget toys, plants (biophilic design for the win!), and now have added gentler and more flexible lighting, tea, snacks, and art. We’ve also work on menus of grounding tools for ourselves and to share with those we work with (we’re even making a worksheet!) Academic support is by necessity more cerebral than SE practices intended to restore nervous system capacity, but we’re working to enhance our holistic approach and build out our skills.

The approaches described above all align with the way SE works, which is also based heavily on the person’s strengths and self-knowledge while also (like Academic Coaching) providing tools, practices, and pathways to shift patterns that aren’t working for the person. In SE, too, we are aware of how the physical space’s arrangement can impact someone’s experience and seek to provide options to meet folks’ sensory and psychological safety needs as they engage in growing their tools and capacity.

Offer Invitations & Choices

In both practices, we are invitational, providing genuine choices to the fabulous fellow humans we’re working with and offering example language and options when that’s helpful. In both practices, we believe that this person who we get to hold space for is Naturally Creative, Resourceful, and Whole. (As the International Coaching Federation says, read more here if you’d like!) Both in Academic Coaching and in somatic modalities, the goal is to help someone help themselves. Both are about helping people connect to their own strengths and wisdom, and to build on that.


The lead singer of Dropkick Murphys brings a level of energy and passion to his concert facilitation that I hope to emulate in my work as an Academic Coach and in my practice of somatic healing modalities. I have found these disciplines to be transformational for myself personally and for folks I have gotten to work with, much like the energy in the Moda Center was transformed when Dropkick Murphys took the stage. If you’re interested in connecting about any of this, I’d be thrilled to hear from you on Teams (email is also fine!) or in the physical or Zoom realms if we cross paths! Of course, if you’re intrigued, you can also tune in for the next “act” in this Somatic Experiencing, Academic Coaching, and Peer Education exploration!

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