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Essays On Strengths Perspective

This Insight provides an overview of the research evidence on effective strengths based approaches for working with individuals and presents selected illustrative examples, written by Lisa Pattoni.

Key points

  • Strengths-based approaches value the capacity, skills, knowledge, connections and potential in individuals and communities.
  • Focusing on strengths does not mean ignoring challenges, or spinning struggles into strengths.
  • Practitioners working in this way have to work in collaboration - helping people to do things for themselves. In this way, people can become co-producers of support, not passive consumers of support.
  • The evidence for strengths-based approaches is difficult to synthesise because of the different populations and problem areas that are examined in the literature.
  • The strengths approach to practice has broad applicability across a number of practice settings and a wide range of populations.
  • There is some evidence to suggest that strengths-based approaches can improve retention in treatment programmes for those who misuse substances.
  • There is also evidence that use of a strengths-based approach can improve social networks and enhance well-being.

Why strengths-based practice, and why now?

With the growing focus on self-directed support (Scottish Government, 2010a), self-management of illness and long term conditions (Scottish Government, 2008a), and working together to achieve better outcomes (Christie, 2011), there is increasing interest in identifying and building on the strengths and capacities of those supported by services, as a means to help them resolve problems and deliver their own solutions. Strengths-based approaches concentrate on the inherent strengths of individuals, families, groups and organisations, deploying personal strengths to aid recovery and empowerment. In essence, to focus on health and well-being is to embrace an asset-based approach where the goal is to promote the positive.

Many are of the view that use of strengths-based approaches will be instrumental in successfully shifting the balance of care, and develop services that are focused on prevention and independence (Scottish Government, 2010b). This will challenge social services' historical focus on clients' deficiencies to a focus on possibilities and solutions (Saleebey, 2006). In effect, the strengths perspective is the social work equivalent of Antonovsky's salutogenesis which highlights the factors that create and support human health rather than those that cause disease (Antonovsky, 1987). Both emphasise the origins of strength and resilience and argue against the dominance of a problem-focused perspective.

Often, in traditional practice, the patient or client's role is often no more than the repository of the disease or the holder of the diagnosis: their personal characteristics or individual decisions are rarely considered, except where these support diagnosis (eg Type A personality in cardiac care) or impede treatment (eg non-adherence to medication) (Badenoch, 2006). Research by Hook and Andrews (2005) suggests that a person seeking support contributes as much to the chances of a successful outcome in an intervention as either the practitioner or their technique. Therefore, personal factors may predict more of the outcome than therapeutic rapport and intervention combined. This furthers the argument for routinely considering the individual's contribution (strengths) to the effectiveness of therapies, rather than treating the person as a passive recipient.

What is strengths-based practice?

Strengths-based practice is a collaborative process between the person supported by services and those supporting them, allowing them to work together to determine an outcome that draws on the person's strengths and assets. As such, it concerns itself principally with the quality of the relationship that develops between those providing and being supported, as well as the elements that the person seeking support brings to the process (Duncan and Hubble, 2000). Working in a collaborative way promotes the opportunity for individuals to be co-producers of services and support rather than solely consumers of those services (Morgan and Ziglio, 2007).

Some researchers have criticised strengths-based approaches citing that they are not in fact new or different from many other traditional approaches (McMillen, Morris and Sherraden, 2004) and that they are not based on evidence of efficacy (Staudt, Howard and Drake, 2001). Indeed, as interest has grown in this perspective, members of different disciplines in the sector are trying more positive approaches and using different words to describe it. For example, in mental health there is a strong focus on recovery and positive psychology - an inherently strengths-based perspective (Petersen and Seligman, 2004). In community development, the term 'asset-based' is used to describe communities as areas of potential rather than areas that are lacking (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993). Prevention practitioners use words such as 'resilience' to describe an individual's ability to function well and achieve goals despite overbearing stresses or challenges.
For practitioners, these differences in terminology can often lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Indeed, even if people understand the approach, it does not mean that they will necessarily feel happy or confident in applying it in practice. Rapp, Saleebey and Sullivan (2008) offer six standards for judging what constitutes a strengths-based approach. Practitioners may like to use the following list to consider their own practice. The standards include:

  1. Goal orientation: Strengths-based practice is goal oriented. The central and most crucial element of any approach is the extent to which people themselves set goals they would like to achieve in their lives.
  2. Strengths assessment: The primary focus is not on problems or deficits, and the individual is supported to recognise the inherent resources they have at their disposal which they can use to counteract any difficulty or condition.
  3. Resources from the environment: Strengths proponents believe that in every environment there are individuals, associations, groups and institutions who have something to give, that others may find useful, and that it may be the practitioner's role to enable links to these resources.
  4. Explicit methods are used for identifying client and environmental strengths for goal attainment: These methods will be different for each of the strengths-based approaches. For example, in solution-focused therapy clients will be assisted to set goals before the identification of strengths, whilst in strengths-based case management, individuals will go through a specific 'strengths assessment'.
  5. The relationship is hope-inducing: A strengths-based approach aims to increase the hopefulness of the client. Further, hope can be realised through strengthened relationships with people, communities and culture.
  6. Meaningful choice: Strengths proponents highlight a collaborative stance where people are experts in their own lives and the practitioner's role is to increase and explain choices and encourage people to make their own decisions and informed choices.

Different types of approaches

Strengths-based approaches can work on a number of different levels - from individuals, associations and organisations right through to communities (Foot and Hopkins, 2010). There are rapidly burgeoning methods of practice being developed that are related to, and build upon, the fundamental building blocks of the strengths perspective. Some of these methods can and will be used alongside others, and some may be used in isolation. The focus of this insight is to better understand the use of a strengths perspective for transforming relationships between practitioners and people who are supported by services. The Insight will provide an overview of the evidence of the methods that align most closely to this focus, and will present selected illustrative examples.

Solution Focused Therapy (SFT) focuses on what people want to achieve rather than on the problem(s) that made them seek help. Encouraging people who are supported by services to focus on determining their own pathways and solutions to reach their goals can lead to dramatically different actions and thoughts than when pursuing answers to problems. In fact, research has shown that there is less than 5% correlation between goals related to problems and goals related to solutions (deShazer, 2004). As a consequence, the approach is centred on future aspirations and concentrates attention on 'life without the problem'.

SFT (and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT)) has been used in family service and mental health settings, in public social services and child welfare, in prisons and residential treatment centres and in schools and hospitals (Miller, Hubble and Duncan, 1996).

Strengths-Based Case Management combines a focus on individual's strengths with three other principles: promoting the use of informal supportive networks; offering assertive community involvement by case managers; and emphasising the relationship between the client and case manager. It is an approach that helps participants achieve specific desired outcomes.

Implementation of Strengths-Based Case Management has been attempted in a variety of fields such as substance abuse, mental health, school counselling, older people and children and young people and families (Rapp, 2008).

Narrative has been used by practitioners to help elucidate strengths of individuals and communities. Practitioners using this approach assume that hidden inside any 'problem' narrative is a story of strength and resilience. This will often require re-framing of the situation to highlight any unique instances of strengths into a story of resilience.

The practice of narrative is founded on the principle that people live their lives by stories or narratives that they have created through their experiences, and which then serve to shape their further life experience. Practitioners using this approach will often never deal directly with the problem being presented, but will find ways to strengthen the ability of the person to be resilient in the face of the problem, thereby reducing it. A key part of this approach is recognising that some people may think of a problem as an integral part of their character. Separating this problem from the person by externalising it allows them to begin to deal with it in a constructive way (Epston and White, 1992).

Family support services are frequently thought of as at the opposite end of the spectrum from child protection and are often equated with preventative services offered to families before their difficulties become too severe. The aims of family support include: responding in a supportive manner to families where children's welfare is under threat, reducing risk to children by enhancing family life and developing existing strengths of parents. Practitioners using this approach believe that strengths-based practice benefits families by influencing their engagement in the program, by increasing family efficacy and empowerment and by enhancing their social support networks (Green, McAllister and Tarte, 2004).

The evidence about what works

Although strength-based approaches offer an appealing alternative to traditional expert, deficit-based models, the evidence about the effectiveness of these practices is just beginning to emerge. As recently as 2009, there has been comment about the apparent dearth of research evaluating the efficacy of strengths-based practice of any kind (Lietz, 2009). Further, the evidence for strengths-based approaches is difficult to synthesise because of the different populations and problem areas that are examined in the literature. Emerging outcomes will be listed here, however, practitioners should note, that to date, there is not a strong evidence base for some strengths-based approaches.

Improving social connections

By building on the skills of local people, the power of local associations and the supportive functions of local institutions and services, strengths-based community development approaches draw upon existing strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities. Researchers have found that by encouraging pride in achievements and a realisation of what people have to contribute, communities generate increased confidence in their ability to be producers not recipients of development (Foot and Hopkins, 2010).

Similarly, Gilchrist (2009) argues the importance and value of building networks within communities that results in individual, families and the wider community building a 'resilience' which leads to a sense of well-being and greater quality of life. 'Go Well' is one example of a research and learning programme that uses an assets approach to investigate the impact of investment in housing, regeneration and neighbourhood renewal on the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities over a ten-year period (Scottish Government, 2008b). Preliminary findings report increases in social harmony community empowerment and adult employment (Mclean, 2011).

On an individual level, strengths-based case managers often build on family and community interactions and knowledge. This practice is based on the recognition that networks often have more influence over an individual reaching a goal than any external person, including the case manager. Proponents of this model assert that people within social networks can provide unparalleled insight into the strengths, talents and challenges of a loved one, as well as advice about how best to connect with that individual. Family justice research using this model has shown to reduce drug use, lower rates of arrest and conviction and improve higher levels of social functioning (Shapiro, 1996).

Enhancing well-being

Empirical research suggests that strengths-based interventions have a positive psychological impact, particularly in enhancing individual well-being through development of hope. In a pilot study of people with serious mental health issues, people were asked to identify the factors that they saw as critical to recovery. The most important elements identified included the ability to have hope, as well as developing trust in one's own thoughts and judgments (Ralph, Lambric and Steele, 1996). One of the aims of strengths-based practice is to enable people to look beyond their immediate and real problems and dare to conceive a future that inspires them, providing hope that things can improve. Strength-based approaches are shown to be effective in developing and maintaining hope in individuals, and consequently many studies cite evidence for enhanced well-being (Smock, Weltchler, McCollum et al, 2008). Through having high expectations for individuals, strengths-based practitioners create a climate of optimism, hope, and possibility, which has been shown to have successful outcomes, particularly in work with families (Hopps, Pinderhughes, and Shankar, 1995).

Much strengths-based practice has an internal component, which is therapeutic in nature, and which involves locating, articulating and building upon individual's assets or capabilities. It also aims to assist with finding solutions for current problems based on currently available resources. Working to enhance an individual's awareness and understanding of their own strengths and capabilities has been shown to promote an increased sense of well-being (Park and Peterson, 2009). Furthermore, there is evidence that the use of personal narratives adds to the process of a positive re-framing of personal identity for people who use mental health services (Altenberger and Mackay, 2006).

Children, young people and families

There is emerging evidence of the use of strengths-based approaches with children, young people and families. The literature has identified an association between personal strengths in young people and academic success, self-determination and life satisfaction (Park and Peterson, 2006; Arnold et al, 2007; Lounsbury et al, 2009). Early and Glenmaye (2000) found that the use of the strengths perspective in families not only helped the family identify resources for coping, but also helped them use existing strengths to sustain hope and a sense of purpose by setting and achieving goals in line with their personal aspirations, capabilities, and visions of a possible life. Similarly, MacLeod and Nelson (2000), in a review of 56 programmes, found evidence to support the view that an empowerment approach is critical in interventions for vulnerable families. A strengths perspective shows how the practitioner can work positively towards partnership, by building on what parents already possess.

Seagram (1997) also found positive effects of solution-focused therapy undertaken by adolescents who had offended. Young people who had received therapy recorded significantly more optimism for the future, greater empathy and higher confidence in their ability to make changes in their lives. This highlights that eliciting and reinforcing a person's belief in their ability to successfully achieve a goal is a useful component of change.

Furthermore, a recent review of the use of Solution Focused Brief Therapy with children and families has suggested its effectiveness in asserting improvements in children's externalising behavior problems such as aggression, and children's internalisng problems such as anxiety and depression (Woods et al, 2011). However, the researchers of this review do caution at the limitations of the emerging evidence base with this group of people and state clearly that the evidence of effectiveness of solution focused brief therapy is insufficient to 'provide a mandate for its general use to facilitate positive change in parenting where children are considered to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm' (Woods et al, 2011).

Improving retention in treatment programmes for those who misuse substances

Some empirical analyses have begun to suggest that the value of strengths-based approaches may lie in encouraging people to stay involved in treatment programmes, most notably for those with substance misuse problems. For instance, Siegal and colleagues looked at 632 people with substance abuse issues and found that providing strengths-based case management was associated with retention in aftercare treatment. Additionally, in a follow-up study, a relationship between case management, improved retention and severity of drug use was found in the same group, as well as improved employability outcomes (Rapp et al, 1998). However, the relationship between SBCM and improved outcomes was not direct, but mediated by the apparent ability of strengths-based case managers to encourage retention in aftercare.

In a review of individuals participating in Strengths Based Case Management, people also identified feeling free to talk about both strengths and weaknesses as important for helping them to set goals that they wanted to achieve and to make changes to their lives (Brun and Rapp, 2001). As such, researchers have postulated that the value of setting self-defined goals may simply be that they are more likely to be completed, as the individuals themselves have been involved in their development.

As with other client groups, many of the positive outcomes are often attributed to the development of positive relationships between those being supported and those providing support, which is a finding similar to most therapeutic effects compared to not treatment (Lambert and Bergin, 1994).

Implications for practice

There are dangers of practitioners from any agency polarising their practice into either 'risk assessment' or 'strengths-based approaches'. What may be in most people's interests is to develop approaches that look at the whole picture of a person's life. There is nothing in the strengths approach that instructs the discounting of the problems of life that people bring. In fact, the values of social work - which emphasise service user choice and empowerment - are consistent with those of a strengths-based approach. As Graybeal (2001) explains, 'the identification of strengths is not the antithesis of the identification of problems. Instead, it is a large part of the solution' (p234). In reality, therefore, both approaches are vitally important despite evidence suggesting that further work would be useful to redress the balance between the more dominant deficits approach and the emerging and less well known and understood strengths perspective.

Assessment

Strengths proponents believe that anything that assists an individual in dealing with the challenges of life should be regarded as a strength. Strengths will vary from person to person and, as such, it can be difficult to draw up an exhaustive list of strengths. Many researchers note that assessment tools in the field are still too often focused on deficits and inadequacies, and whilst there have been significant efforts to create and use assessment tools which incorporate strengths elements (Cowger and Snively, 2002; Early, 2001; Saleebey, 2001), these are still in the minority.

There are numerous guidelines to assist practitioners undertaking assessment and although they invariably differ in content, their commonalities often include the authors emphasis on the reality of the client, and the view that there should be a dialogue and partnership between them and the practitioner. It follows then that assessment should be couched in a broader dialogue that includes:

...meaningful questions that will combat the relentless pursuit of pathology, and ones that will help discover hidden strengths that contain the seeds to construct solutions to otherwise unsolvable problems (Graybeal, 2001, p.235)

Tools such as the ROPES (identifying: Resources, Opportunities, Possibilities, Exceptions, and Solutions) (Graybeal, 2001) model has been developed to guide practitioners in a broader process of continually drawing on strengths. Using frameworks focused on strengths and weaknesses encourages a holistic and balanced assessment of the strengths and problems of an individual within a specific situation.

Practitioner role

Current policy and legislative developments in Scotland have increasingly focused on working collaboratively with people to exercise choice and control over any support they may need. For many staff and professionals this represents a new way of working, and training and skills development will be required. Relationships are the cornerstone of this approach, as Davis puts it:

Regardless of the theories you have been trained in or the therapeutic tools you use with the persons who come to you for help, the only thing we know for sure is that the quality of the relationship between the person receiving or seeking help and the person offering help is a key to what kinds of outcomes are achieved (Davis, 1996, p. 423).

The experience of working in a strengths-based way may be difficult for practitioners, particularly because they may need to re-examine the way they work to being more focused on the future than on the past, to focus on strengths instead of weaknesses and from thinking about problems to considering solutions. Some emerging evidence suggests that this demonstrates the need to build the personal resilience of staff to a high level (C4EO, 2011).

The role of the professional becomes less about being a 'fixer' of problems and more about being a co-facilitator of solutions. This involves recognising that being professional does not always mean having all the answers and that in opening up discussions with individuals, an opportunity is created for them to contribute (Boyle et al, 2010). Seeing practitioners learn alongside individuals and reflecting on practice together can have a positive and lasting effect on service development (O'Neil, 2003). A facilitator will actively recognise and engage the things people are able to do or are interested in. In doing so, they will naturally focus on the things that are working well to create positive experiences driven by the person's intrinsic goals and aspirations. Therefore, a strengths-based approach is not simply about different tools or methods that are used with people who use services; it is about different concepts, structures and relationships that we build in our support services.

References

  • Altenberger I and Mackay R (2008) What matters with personal narratives?: An exploration as to how personal narratives are used in the promotion of recovery and social inclusion by mental health service users in Scotland (PDF)
  • Antonovsky, A (1987) Unraveling the mystery of health - How people manage stress and stay well, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers
  • Arnold EM, et al (2007) Strengths-based case management: Implementation with high-risk youth, Families in Society-The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 88 (1), 86-94
  • Badenoch D (2006) Nice therapist, shame about the symptoms
  • Berg CJ (2009) A comprehensive framework for conducting client assessments: Highlighting strengths, environmental factors and hope, Journal of Practical Consulting, 3 (2), 9-13
  • Boyle D, Slay J and Stephens L (2010) Public services inside out: Putting co-production into practice, London: NESTA
  • Brun and Rapp (2001) Strengths-based case management: Individuals' perspectives on strengths and the case manager relationship, Social Work 46(3), 278-88
  • C4EO (2011) Participle: Swindon Family LIFE.
  • Cowger CD and Snively CA (2002) Assessing client strengths: Individual, family, and community empowerment, in D. Saleebey, The strengths perspective in social work practice (3rd ed),106-123,Boston: Allyn and Bacon
  • Duncan, B L and Miller S D (2000) The Heroic Client: Doing Client-Directed Outcome-Informed Therapy, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Early TJ (2001) Measures for practice with families from a strengths perspective, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 82, 225-232
  • Early TJ and Glenmaye LF (2000) Valuing families: Social work practice with families from a strengths perspective, Social Work, 45, 118-130
  • Epston D and White M (1992) Experience, contradiction, narrative and imagination: Selected papers of David Epston and Michael White, 1989-1991, Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre
  • Foot J and Hopkins T (2010) A glass half full: How an asset approach can improve community health and wellbeing, London: Improvement and Development Agency
  • Gilchrist A (2009) The well-connected community: a networking approach to community development, Bristol: Policy Press
  • Graybeal C (2001) Strengths-based social work assessment: Transforming the dominant paradigm, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 82, 233-242
  • Green BL, McAllister CL and Tarte JM (2004) The strengths-based practices inventory: A tool for measuring strengths-based service delivery in early childhood and family support programs, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 85 (3), 326- 335
  • Hook A and Andrews B (2005) The relationship of non-disclosure in therapy to shame and depression, British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44, 425-438
  • Hopps J, Pinderhughes E and Shankar R (1995) The power to care: Clinical practice effectiveness with overwhelmed clients, in Early TJ and Glenmaye LF (2000) Valuing families: Social work practice with families from a strengths perspective, Social Work, 45, 118-130
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  • Lounsbury JW, et al (2009) An investigation of character strengths in relation to the academic success of college students, Individual Differences Research, 7(1), 52-69.
  • Macleod J and Nelson G (2000) Programs for the promotion of family wellness and the prevention of child maltreatment: a meta-analytic review, Child Abuse and Neglect, 24 (9), 1127-49
  • Mathie A and Cunningham G (2002) From clients to citizens: Asset based community development as a strategy from community driven development, The Cody International Institute, Occasional Paper Series 4
  • McLean J (2011) Asset based approaches for health improvement: redressing the balance, Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for Population Health
  • McMillen JC, Morris L and Sherraden M (2004) Ending social work's grudge match: Problems versus strengths, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 85(3), 317-325
  • Morgan A and Ziglio E (2007) Revitalising the evidence base for public health: An assets model, International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, Supplement 2,17-22
  • O'Neil D (2003) Clients as researchers: The benefits of strengths-based research, in Munford R and Sanders J (Eds) Making a difference in families: research that creates change (113-129) Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin
  • Park N and Peterson C (2006) Moral competence and character strengths among adolescents: The development and validation of the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth, Journal of Adolescence, 29, 891-910
  • Petersen C and Seligman MEP (2004) Character strengths and virtues: A handbook of classification, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Ralph RO, Lambric TM and Steele RB (1996) Recovery issues in a consumer developed evaluation of the mental health system. Presentation at 6th Annual Mental Health Services Research and Evaluation Conference, Arlington, VA, February, 1-13
  • Rapp C, Saleebey D and Sullivan PW (2008) The future of strengths-based social work practice, in Saleebey D (ed) (2006) The strengths perspective in social work practice, (4th Ed) Boston: Pearson Education
  • Rapp RC, et al (1998) Predicting post-primary treatment services and drug use outcome: A multivariate analysis, American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 24, 603-615
  • Seagram B C (1997) The efficacy of solution-focused therapy with young offenders. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, York University, New York, Ontario, in Kim JS (2008) Examining the effectiveness of Solution Focused Brief Therapy: A meta-analysis, Research on Social Work Practice, 18(2), 107-116
  • Saleebey D (ed) (2001) Practicing the strengths perspective: Everyday tools and resources, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 82, 221-222
  • Saleebey D (ed) (2006) The strengths perspective in social work practice, (4th Ed) Boston: Pearson Education
  • Scottish Government (2008a) Equally well. Report of the Ministerial Task Force on Health Inequalities, Scottish Government, Edinburgh
  • Scottish Government (2008b) "Gaunyersel" The self management strategy for long term conditions in Scotland
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  • Smock SA, et al (2008) Solution-focused group therapy for Level I substance abusers, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34 (1), 107-120
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  • White M (1992) Deconstruction and therapy, in Epston D and White M (1992) Experience, contradiction, narrative and imagination: selected papers of David Epston and Michael White, 1989-1991, Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre
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Acknowledgements

This Insight was reviewed by Fiona Garven (Scottish Community Development Centre), John Davis (Edinburgh University), Neil Macleod (Scottish Social Services Council), Helen Albutt (NHS Education for Scotland), Murray Lough (NHS Education for Scotland), Peter Ashe (NHS Scotland), Coryn Barclay (Fife Council), Steven Marwick (Evaluation Support Scotland).

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

The strengths perspective and strengths-based approaches  offer service providers ways of working that focus on strengths, abilities and potential rather than problems, deficits and pathologies (Chapin, 1995; Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Saleebey, 1992d; Weick et al., 1989). Since the mid 1980’s the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare and others have been developing and testing the strengths perspective (Cohen, 1999; Rapp, 1992; Saleebey, 1992d) which Saleebey (1992c, p15) suggests is not a model of practice but rather a “collation of principles, ideas and techniques” (p15).

The following are seven important principles of the strengths perspective (Chapin, 1995; Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Kisthardt, 1992; Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Rapp, 1992; Saleebey, 1992c; Sullivan & Rapp, 1994; Weick et al., 1989):

  1. People are recognised as having many strengths and the capacity to continue to learn, grow and change.
  2. The focus of intervention is on the strengths and aspirations of the people we work with.
  3. Communities and social environments are seen as being full of resources.
  4. Service providers collaborate with the people they work with.
  5. Interventions are based on self-determination.
  6. There is a commitment to empowerment.
  7. Problems are seen as the result of interactions between individuals, organisations or structures rather than deficits within individuals, organisations or structures.

People are recognised as having many strengths and the capacity to continue to learn, grow and change

Weick (1992) suggests that an essential assumption of the strengths perspective is that “every person has an inherent power that may be characterized as life force, transformational capacity, life energy, spirituality, regenerative potential, and healing power… [which] is a potent form of knowledge that can guide personal and social transformation” (p. 24). This power also means that people “possess the inherent capacity to learn, grow, and change” (Kisthardt, 1992, p. 62).

Saleebey (1992c) suggests that individuals and groups “have vast, often untapped and frequently unappreciated reservoirs of physical, emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, social, and spiritual energies, resources and competencies” (p. 6). People who come to social workers and youth workers for assistance with some problem, are more than that problem (Early & GlenMaye, 2000), they also have strengths and abilities which have allowed them to survive, if not thrive, in the face of the challenges they meet (Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Saleebey, 1992b).

As Saleebey (1992b) describes it:

  • People are often doing amazingly well, the best they can at the time, given the difficulties they face and the known resources available to them.
  • People have survived to this point – certainly, not without pain – but with ideas, will, hopes, skills, and other people, all of which we need to understand and appreciate in order to help.
  • Change can only happen when you collaborate with clients’ aspirations, perceptions, and strengths and when you firmly believe in them. (p.42)

The focus of intervention is on the strengths and aspirations of the people we work with.

Saleebey’s last point just quoted, points to the principle that in strengths-based approaches the focus is on the strengths and aspirations of the people we worth with and their environments. Frequently service providers have focused on problems, deficits and pathologies (Chapin, 1995; Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Saleebey, 1992d; Weick et al., 1989) which Graber and Nice (1991, quoted in Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001) suggests “empowers the problem and disempowers the person” (p. 79). The strengths perspective argues that people are motivated to use their capacity to change when the focus is on their strengths (Clark, 1997; Saleebey, 1992b; Saleebey, 1992c; Weick et al., 1989).

A focus on strengths does not mean that people’s concerns and problems are ignored (Saleebey, 1992a) but they are not the main focus of the intervention (Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001). According to Saleebey (1992a) the people we work with have

Taken steps, summoned up resources, and coped. We need to know what they have done, how they have done it, what they have learned from doing it, who was involved in doing it, what resources (inner and outer) were available in their struggle to surmount their troubles (p. 172).

Kisthardt (1992) suggests that intervention will work best when there is “an orientation to, and appreciation of, the uniqueness, skills, interests, hopes, and desires of each consumer, rather than a categorical litany of deficits” (p. 60-61).

For an example of seeing communities from a deficits and a strengths-based approach    see A story of two communities.

 Communities and social environments are seen as being full of resources.

When social environments or communities are viewed as being “pathological, hostile, and even toxic” (Kisthardt, 1992, P. 66) potential helping resources are often overlooked (Sullivan, 1992a; Sullivan & Rapp, 1994) and interventions in these contexts may be avoided (Kisthardt, 1992). Strengths-based approach sees the social environment as being “a lush topography of resources and possibilities” with “individuals and institutions who have something to give, something that others may desperately need: knowledge, succor, and actual resource, or simply time and place” (Saleebey, 1992c, p.7).

The social environment provides important resources for everybody, not just clients (Sullivan, 1992a). A wide range of groups and institutions can provide support including family, friends, work, church, sporting groups, and local businesses. A strengths-based approach encourages service providers to seek out the full range of support available in a local community rather than relying on welfare and specialist support organisations (Kisthardt, 1992; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Rapp, 1992).

Taylor (1993, in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994) discusses the concept of entrapping and enabling social niches. The niche represents “the unique place in which one ‘fits’ into the environment, the workplace, or the community. It is the special place within which one feels comfortable; one has made it ‘one’s own’” (Brower, 1988, quoted in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994, p.97). Table 1 compares entrapping and enabling social niches.

Table 1: Entrapping and enabling social niches. (Taylor, 1993 in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994)

Entrapping social niches

Enabling social niches
  • They are highly stigmatising; thus people caught in them are commonly treated as outcasts.
  • People are not stigmatised, nor treated as outcasts.
  • People tend to turn to their own kind for association, thus restricting their social world.
  • People turn to their own kind for association, support, and self-validation. However, the niche also provides access to others who bring a different perspective so that their social world is less restrictive.
  • People are totally defined by their social category. The possibility that they may have aspirations and attributes apart from their category is not ordinarily considered.
  • People are not totally defined by their social category; they are accepted as having valid aspirations and attributes apart from their category.
  • There are few expectations of personal progress.
  • There are strong expectations of change or personal progress.
  • There are few incentives to work towards long-term goals.
  • There are incentives to work towards long-term goals.
  • There is little reality feed back ; thus there are few natural processes for people to recognise and correct their own unrealistic perceptions and interpretations.
  • There is good reality feedback.
  • There is little chance to learn the skills and expectations that would facilitate escape.
  • People are provided with the opportunity to learn the skills and expectations which aid movement to other niches.
  • Economic resources are scarce.
  • Economic resources are adequate, and competence and quality are rewarded.

A strengths perspective encourages people to discover enabling niches for themselves and recognises the importance of “the creation of a culture that is supportive of the proactive steps taken by individuals” (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994, p. 96).

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Service providers collaborate with the people they work with.

People are usually experts on their own situation (Bricker-Jenkins, 1992; Saleebey, 1992b) and Saleebey (1992b) argues that, for service providers, the role of expert or professional may not provide the “best vantage point from which to appreciate client strengths” (p. 7). Thus strengths-based approaches focus on “collaboration and partnership between social workers and clients” (Early & GlenMaye, 2000, p. 120).

Saleebey (1992b) suggests that the approach to working with people is

A give-and-take that begins with the demystification of the professional as expert, an operating sense of humility on the part of the helper, the establishment of an egalitarian transaction, the desire to engage clients on their own terms, and a willingness to disclose and share (Freire, 1973; Rose 1990). (Saleebey, 1992b, p.42).

Interventions are based on self determination.

If there is a collaborative relationship which avoids the expert/client relationship, then it is unlikely that the service provider will claim the expertise to decide whether or not a person is capable of making decisions for themselves: of self determination (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994). As Poertner & Ronnau (1992) suggests

Even well-meaning service providers are too quick to impose their own views of the world upon their clients. The professional’s investment in, and emotional attachment to, their own theory of helping leads them to believe they know what’s best. This tendency to exclude the client from all but the most basic steps in the helping process is even more characteristic of those who work with adolescents and children (p. 117).

Service providers do not need to judge: “a client’s expressed aspirations are accepted as sincere. Acceptance and validation replace scepticism about what clients can ‘realistically’ achieve” (Weick et al., 1989, p.353). When people are seen as being experts on their own situation (Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Saleebey, 1992c; Sullivan & Rapp, 1994; Weick et al., 1989) then they should be the ones to “determine the form, direction, and substance” of the intervention (Rapp, 1992, 9. 48).

Weick et al (1989) argue that

It is impossible for even the best trained professional to judge how another person should best live his or her life. The nonjudgemental attitude in social work dictates not only that social workers should not judge but that social workers cannot judge. Instead, the principles of knowing what is best and doing what is best places the power of decision where it should be – with the person whose life is being lived (p. 353).

There is a commitment to empowerment.

Although empowerment is almost a cliché in family and community work; it remains an important concept (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994). Empowerment is consistent with a collaborative approach and client self determination. Staples (1990, quoted in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994) defines empowerment as “the ongoing capacity of individuals or groups to act on their behalf to achieve a greater measure of control over their lives and destinies” (p. 92-93).

Because of the variety of factors which can influence person’s capacity to act on his or her own behalf, it is important to recognise that empowerment can have personal, interpersonal and structural dimensions (Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001). Sullivan and Rapp (1994) suggests that empowerment is analogous to conscientisation and animation which imply “a redistribution or recapturing of power, both personal and social” (p. 93). According to Saleebey (1992b) consciousness raising, which also contributes to empowerment, means that consumers:

Begin to develop a less contaminated and constricted view of their situation and identity, and they take on a firmer appreciation of how their lives have been shackled by institutions, agencies, and ideologies. In other words, consumers are assisted in coming to a more authentic sense of who they are, what they can do, and what they want to do (p. 42).

Problems are seen as the result of interactions between individuals, organisations or structures rather than deficits within individuals, organisations or structures.

This is a principle is not as frequently identified in the literature, but it is a useful distinction. In models of family and community work which focus on deficits and pathologies, the problem lies within the person: the person is the problem (Chapin, 1995; Saleebey, 1992c; Weick et al., 1989). According to Cohen (1999) these approaches tend to focus on individualistic rather than social-environmental explanations of human problems. From a strengths perspective, problems are frequently the result of interactions between people, organisations or structures (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994). By focusing on how the interactions contribute to the situation, as well as concentrating on people’s strengths, it is possible to avoid blaming the victim (Saleebey, 1992c).

Conclusion

Strengths-based approaches are not magic bullets which have all the answers, but they have transformed they way many practitioners and services operate.  I’ve found that more critical theories and approaches can help me understand situations, but when it comes to actually working with individuals, families and communities, the strengths perspective helps me to discover ways forward and to help other possibilities emerge. It takes discipline, reflection and practice, but it’s worth the effort.

This was a summary of the strengths perspective I wrote in 2001 so some of the references are a bit old. If I wrote it now, I would  have a greater focus on working with communities.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. More resources for students on strengths-based practice
  2. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
  3. Some good articles/links – strengths-based practice
  4. The Parent Empowerment and Efficacy Measure (PEEM)
  5. What is Appreciative Inquiry?
  6. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?

References

Bricker-Jenkins, M. (1992) ‘Building a strengths model of practice in the public social services’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Chapin, R. (1995) ‘Social policy development: the strengths perspective’, Social Work, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 506-514.

Clark, M. (1997) ‘Strength-based practice: the new paradigm’, Corrections Today, Vol. 59, No. 2, pp. 110-112.

Cohen, B.-Z. (1999) ‘Intervention and Supervision in Strengths-Based Social Work Practice’, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, Vol. 80, No. 5, p. 460.

Early, T. and GlenMaye, L. (2000) ‘Valuing families: Social work practice with families from a strengths perspective’, Social Work, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 118-130.

Kisthardt, W. (1992) ‘A Strengths Model of Case Management: The Principles and Functions of a Helping Partnership with Persons with Persistent Mental Illness’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Miley, K., O’Melia, M. and DuBois, B. (2001) Generalist Social Work Practice: An Empowering Approach, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Poertner, J. and Ronnau, J. (1992) ‘A Strengths Approach to Children with Emotional Disabilities’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Rapp, C. (1992) ‘The Strengths Perspective of Case Management with Persons Suffering from Severe Mental Illness’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Saleebey, D. (1992a) ‘Conclusion: Possibilities and Problems with the Strengths Perspective’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Saleebey, D. (1992b) ‘Introduction: Beginnings of a Strengths Approach to Practice’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Saleebey, D. (1992c) ‘Introduction: Power in the People’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Saleebey, D. (ed.) (1992d) The strengths perspective in social work practice, New York: Longman.

Sullivan, W. (1992a) ‘Reconsidering the Environment as a Helping Resource’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Sullivan, W.P. (1992b) ‘Reclaiming the community: the strengths perspective and deinstitutionalization’, Social Work, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 204-209.

Sullivan, W.P. and Fisher, B. (1994) ‘Intervening for success: strengths-based case management and successful aging’, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Vol. 22, No. 1-2, pp. 61-74.

Sullivan, W.P. and Rapp, C. (1994) ‘Breaking away: The potential and promise of a strengths-based approach to social work practice’, in Issues in social work, (eds.) R Meinert, J Pardeck, & W Sullivan, Westport, CT, USA: Auburn House.

Weick, A. (1992) ‘Building a Strengths Perspective for Social Work’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.

Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W.P. and Kisthardt, W. (1989) ‘A strengths perspective for social work practice’, Social Work, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 350-354.

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About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.

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This entry was posted in Strengths-based approaches & ABCD and tagged Community work, Definitions, For students, Social work, Strengths perspective, Strengths-based approaches, Strengths-based practice. Bookmark the permalink.

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