The strengths perspective is a theory that helps youth work and school chaplains support young people. It builds on what’s going well rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong.
So you’ve got to know a young person and you realise they’ve got some issues going on that they could do with a bit of help in. What’s next? How do you bring about change for that young person?
In the helping professions there are lots of theories to guide how you work with people to create change. I’ve written before about systems theory as a way of making sense of what’s going on in a young person’s life. But there are other theories, including the strengths perspective.
This article gives you the basics of the theory and why it’s handy to build your work with young people around.
What is the strengths perspective?
The idea behind the strengths approach is to move away from looking at what’s wrong. Instead it looks at what skills and talents people have. What resources they can tap into.
For people we work with, it’s about taking their eyes off the issue and getting them to look up again. To look around them and start to believe that they can make things different.
I remember working with a young girl who lived with her mum and a few cats. Her mum had severe depression. She was also under pressure from Centrelink to keep applying for jobs.
They rarely had food in the house. So this girl would often come to school having not had breakfast and without lunch. Our school had a strict policy of calling parents if kids came to school without lunch. But she learned to hide her lack of food to protect her mum. There was a lot going on for this family, but one of the biggest issues was their poverty. And this had an impact on this girl’s ability to form friendships.
In supporting them, I suggested they apply for the young carer’s program.
This was a big deal. First, the mum had to acknowledge that her daughter was caring for her. There were a few forms we had to sort out and a home visit to survive. But by recognising that this girl was not only tackling Year 6, but also caring for her mum, their lives completely changed.
Centrelink recognised the mother’s depression and removed the pressure to look for work while she was getting treatment. The girl got tutoring to help her catch up on school work she had missed. And the family were given a big cleaning blitz to get their house back in order and deal with some hoarding issues.
We made arrangements for the girl to have some food at school for breakfast and lunch too. In a few short months, this girl’s bond with her mum and caring role where no longer a problem, but a strength. And alongside this, her relationships with her classmates improved too.
There’s a few common beliefs in the strengths perspective, that it’s important to understand:
- They own the problem, not us. The young people we work with are the owners of their own problems. A young person who is homeless or facing a medical challenge is the person in that situation. Our role is to journey alongside them. Give encouragement and point out strengths and resources they might not realise they have access to. But don’t fix the problem, because there will always be more problems if we have that approach to working with people.
- Every person in this world has strengths and resources. We should never give up on a young person or feel like they’re never going to find a way to overcome their situation. From the moment a child is born they display their personal strengths. Some babies are easy-going and placid, able to cope with just about any crazy day that comes their way. Other babies thrive on routine and pull the adults in their life into line by crying. These might not always feel valuable to us, but they are still strengths. We should never lose hope in young people!
- It’s not about ignoring issues, but looking for solutions without dwelling on the impact of the issue. The car manufacturing plants shutting down are a great example of this. Quite a few small component manufacturers have suddenly found their sole reason for business has disappeared. Some of these companies have spent a lot of time, and money, lobbying for the government to support the car industry in Australia. And it has; millions of dollars have helped keep Ford, Holden and Toyota in Australia, but now they’re closing. But some companies saw the issue, and instead of getting caught up in the problem, immediately started looking at how they could re-purpose their manufacturing businesses for new markets. That’s what we’re wanting to get young people to do when they face challenges.
- People are incredibly resilient. There is something about human nature that has a determination to survive. Maybe not always thrive, but definitely survive. Where people can move beyond a desperate state, they often find the energy to make life better for themselves and the people they care about. The strengths perspective recognises this and values it.
How you can use the strengths perspective in your work with young people
Often the hardest part about bringing about change in your circumstances is persevering. How many people had a great idea for a business but gave up too early, only to have someone else come along, pick up that idea and make a million dollars?
Basing your support of young people on the strengths perspective requires you to be a cheerleader in a young person’s life. To be someone who coaches them to reach their potential.
One of my sons had a football coach when he was young, that got this strengths perspective. That coach had high expectations of his team in every aspect of the game. Their attendance at training, their presentation, their sportsmanship and their application of his plans. He communicated those expectations in every training session and every game.
He valued every contribution to the game, whether it was from the star scorer or from the kid up the back who did a good job of encouraging his teammates. When someone made a mistake, the coach would just point out what their job was in the team and how they were perfect for that role. He talked up to the young people not down to them.
If you’re working from the strengths perspective, then a lot of what you say to kids will be pointing out how resilient they are and what strengths you see them using. Not in some patronising “aren’t you a clever boy” way, but in a genuine admiration of the young person’s character and perseverance.
A book I find valuable in youth work is Social Work and Human Service Practice. Written by Ian O’Connor and others in 2008, it gives four actions we can take when supporting young people from a strengths perspective:
- Education. Providing information and skills to young people. You might tell a young person about some ways they could deal with an issue and role play one of those methods. You could give them something to read about someone who had a similar experience. Or show them a video. It’s about coaching and sharing information.
- Action. Youth workers should be looking for ways that a teenager can use new strengths in the situations they face. Reinforce them and develop confidence in them. Think of it like a gymnast. They learn a particular skill, like say doing a cartwheel, on the ground. Then they learn to put that onto the beam, a metre off the floor. Then they learn to do it quicker and add something else on the end. Then they learn to do it without hands… Each time they are developing mastery, but also developing confidence in their ability to use that strength in any situation. In youth work, we just have to help the young people we work with see the cartwheels they are doing in life.
- Advocacy. Sometimes it’s important to recognise that young people don’t always have the power they need to change their own lives. Advocacy means we are stepping into a gap and lending some of our power to a child so their voice gets heard. Think of it like a lawyer in a courtroom. If they are working for us, their job is to protect our rights and ensure that we get the best outcome we can.
- Linkage. Being able to connect young people to the right services is an important partt of young work. In the strengths perspective, we should be looking to link young people in a way that enhances their own skills and knowledge. Not for our own gain or convenience. If you’re supporting a young person then you might link them into a program to learn how to be a better friend. Or suggest some social activities for them to connect with other teenagers. Read more about how to build good links in my article on networking.
One of the things I like about the strengths approach is that it’s tailored to the individual.
It’s about valuing one person’s story, their strengths and their hopes. Youth work should never be about fitting kids into a mould. It needs to be about fitting services and supports around that particular child and their place in this world.
What about your work with young people? Do you have some stories to tell from the strengths perspective? I’d love to hear your ideas.