D.N.A (Dreams, Needs, Abilities) Inventories and Their Power in the Classroom

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Please enjoy this blog post I originally wrote in 2018 and have recently updated to reflect how we use this process in our classroom.

Meet Little Laurie and Little Cody.

Me and my husband.

As 4 year olds.

Ready for Kindergarten.

These pictures hang next to my computer and are my constant reminder of what is truly important in our classroom… that I have the absolute privilege of spending my days with someone’s everything.

Someone’s E V E R Y T H I N G.

My life changed in so many when I became Mom and my classroom was not immune to the changes. The biggest change was my mindset as a teacher. It became crystal clear to me that I needed to adjust my path and prioritize connections and relationships.

When I thought of how I would want my OWN children to be treated, I knew that there was no possible way I could continue on the path I was on with other people’s children. I wanted the best for my kids and their school experiences. I wanted for every teacher they get to be their “favourite” teacher. And as my own kids headed to school for the first time, I knew that it wasn’t only MY kids that deserve this but ALL kids that deserve this.

I want great things for my own kids. For Little Laurie and Little Cody. I want for ALL kids to feel heard, cared for and wanted. I was searching for a way to pull all of this together and create a classroom culture where our kids felt valued and cared for. And then, along came Tom Hierck.

In 2016, I had the pleasure of attending a PD session with Tom Hierck (@thierck). I left that day with some strong messages. First and foremost, the message that EVERY student is a success story waiting to be told. He challenged us with the idea that successful learning environments are all about the choices we make and that we need to question our methods and try new approaches for learners who aren’t ready “yet”.

But the biggest takeaway for me was the whole notion that the best way to build relationships with our students is to know their dreams, needs and abilities and to base their experience in our classrooms around this information.

In his book “Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom”, Tom explains that all students arrive in our classrooms with their own dreams, needs and abilities. He suggests “the more teachers can tap into what motivates students and what students bring to the classroom each day, the more they can target instruction to those needs” (p. 41).

And this is where the idea of using DNA inventories in my classroom was born.

I knew immediately that I wanted to incorporate DNA inventories into my classroom. As a Kindergarten teacher and as the first person meeting these kids in our school, I knew that knowing our learner’s DNA would be a game changer when it came to building new relationships with new students in our school.

Even though the year was almost done after seeing Tom at that PD session, I went back to the school first thing Monday morning and set aside time for one on one conversations for each and every student. Part of me felt sad and disappointed in myself for not collecting this relationship GOLD before this point. But another part of me thought “Know better. Do better” and got incredibly excited about collecting this data from each learner.

You see, I prided myself on relationships with these kids. I felt like I really knew them. I could tell you about their families and their backgrounds and many of their interests. I knew their favourite colours and animals… I thought I had it licked! But nothing really prepared me that day for the immense sense of connection I felt with our kids. I was overwhelmed by their responses.

(These pictures are from that actual Monday when I first gathered DNA information from our students).

I shared this information with anyone who worked in our classroom. Specialists and volunteers and educational assistants and administrators… anyone who would listen! I preached about the importance of knowing your learners DNA and what a powerful tool it was in our classroom. I was overjoyed with knowing this precious information about our kids.

After reflecting on Tom’s message some more, I knew just KNOWING this information wasn’t enough. I needed to do more. Tom says in his book “It’s clear that using the skill of relationship building (that is discovering every student’s DNA) allows teachers to take the next steps in designing high-quality instruction for ALL students”. 

At this point, I was starting a new year with a new group of kids. I knew I needed to take the idea of DNA inventories to the next level. I wanted a visual representation of their DNA. I needed it as a reminder for me of what was REALLY important in our class each day. I needed it to send a strong message to anyone who entered our room. I needed it to show the kids that THEY were the ones who mattered most in our room.

This board is the first thing you see when you walk in our room. It invites people to get to know our kid’s DNA. The picture is taken on the first day of school for a very purposeful reason. It is a constant reminder of GROWTH. It is taken on a day that the kids are vulnerable/nervous/anxious/excited to start a new adventure. It is taken at the same time that our Little Laurie and Little Cody pictures were taken. My reminder again, that they do not belong to me. They are merely loaned to me by people that love them so much.

The word on the picture is a word chosen by their family that “best represents” them. I love to read over the words and reflect on how they are seen by the ones who love them most.

Now, starting off with DNA questions right off the bat in Kindergarten would be hard to say the least. They do not know me. They do not trust me. And I know that I would get a bunch of “I don’t knows” and silence if I were to try and ask these questions on the first day. So, for the first month, these pictures hand with a list of each child’s “likes”. Favourite colours, songs, animals, games, books… all of the super important facts when you are 4 and 5. As the year progresses, usually within the first month, I move on to DNA for each student. I prefer to ask the questions face to face. I want to see their eyes. I want to hear the passion. I want to high five them for being brave enough to share such vulnerable information.

But our use of DNA inventories doesn’t stop there! I now use the information for planning whole group and targeted instruction for our learners. You dream about speaking Spanish in Spain? Let’s learn some! You love to draw rainbows? Teach us! You need help with scissor skills? Let’s practice! You want to learn the parts of a monster truck/become a Disney princess/name Australian animals…? Let’s do it!

I find that knowing this information and applying it in various ways throughout our year together builds a sense of community within our classroom and allows us to meet student needs in a whole new way.

DNA inventories have changed my focus, my energy and my connection with my learners. This precious information and the ways it is used in the classroom allows us to value their dreams, examine their needs without judgement and to focus on their abilities and the gifts they can share with others. It allows them to feel comfortable and cared for so that they can learn effectively. It provides a sense of being heard, loved and wanted in our classroom. It builds our classroom culture and sends the message that they are someone’s everything and that it is a privilege to get to spend this time with them.

2020 UPDATE:

Looking for more information on how to ask these important questions? I use the following 4 books to start the discussion when I believe the kids are ready:

As far as the questions go?

Dreams: What do you wonder about? What do you hope to learn about in kindergarten? Where do you want to go in your life?

Needs: How can I help you? How can I be a better teacher for you?

Abilities: What are you AMAZING at?

The answers always astound me. And are incredibly valuable in deciding where we need to go next on their learning journey.