Strengths-Based Approach in Social Work: 6 Examples & Tools

Strengths-based approachThe strengths-based approach to social work focuses on a client’s personal, relational, and community assets, rather than their deficits (Pulla, 2017).

It is a holistic, collaborative approach concerned with identifying a client’s inner and outer resources to promote resilience (Pulla, 2017).

Client strengths include their individual talents and problem-solving abilities as well as the resources available in their support networks, such as family, friends, and the wider community. In short, this approach focuses on what is strong, not just what is wrong (Baron et al., 2019).

This article will explore the strengths-based approach to social work, the different models and theories used, and some strengths assessment tools available for social workers. A strengths-based approach requires a social worker to establish a collaborative relationship with clients that develops their resilience to life’s challenges.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.

Strengths-Based Approach in Social Work

The strengths-based approach has been widely embraced in the social work field because of its holistic, person-centered perspective that focuses on clients’ assets rather than their deficits, pathologies, and problems.

The strengths-based approach draws on a variety of models and theories and comprises a collaboration between the social worker and their client that maps the client’s strengths and assesses these strengths as the foundation for social work intervention planning (Pattoni, 2012).

The social worker focuses on building on the client’s existing strengths, assets, and resources and the support available in their relationships and community. This avoids duplicating services that may already be available and contributes to the development of grassroots community resources as their locally targeted reach expands (Berg, 2009).

The video below from the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) explains the approach in accessible terms.

 

Social Work & Strengths: 3 Models and Theories

Several strengths-based models of care have been developed, including the following.

 

1. Asset-based community development (ABCD)

The asset-based community development approach focuses on a client’s strengths in the context of their wider network and community resources. ABCD is based on five core principles (Russell, 2017).

  1. Citizen led

According to this model, local people are in the driving seat of change and first establish community strengths that can be shared locally, before searching for additional support from outside agencies.

  1. Relationship oriented

While this approach recognizes individual clients’ strengths and skills, it also recognizes how these can be amplified by the presence of supportive relationships. Relational power means the societal whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  1. Asset based

This involves focusing on what’s strong rather than what’s wrong. This focus builds on existing strengths to make them stronger and then uses them to address what’s wrong.

  1. Place based

This focuses on local neighborhood community development from a bottom-up rather than top-down perspective by drawing on local people’s knowledge of each other’s strengths and local resources that institutional agents often miss.

  1. Inclusion focused

Communities have imperceptible boundaries that define who belongs and who is deemed an outsider. The focus on inclusion recognizes that those on the edges of communities often have skills and assets that can benefit their neighbors and enrich community life as a whole.

 

2. Knowledge, values, ethics, theory, and skills (KVETS)

KVETS stands for knowledge, values, experience, theories, and skills (Stanley et al., 2018). It is the practice framework recommended in the UK 2014 Care Act as a strengths-based approach to social work. The model comprises a set of practice triggers to be considered when making decisions and choosing an intervention.

The aim is to provide person-centered, holistic, ethical interventions that uphold human rights and social justice, as illustrated in the diagram below.

KVETS

Source: https://www.scie.org.uk/publications/guides/guide13/law/

For further reading on KVETS, check out the SCIE’s extensive resources on the subject.

 

3. Local area coordination (LAC)

LAC is a strengths-based approach to social work that focuses on relationship building and developing community networks (The Local Area Coordination Network, 2019). The approach aims to provide person-centered services that are co-created with local communities. Individuals require less institutional intervention and ongoing care because they draw on existing strengths and community resources.

LAC has 10 largely self-explanatory principles:

  1. Citizenship for all
  2. Relationships matter
  3. People have natural authority
  4. Lifelong learning for all
  5. Information is power
  6. People need choice and control
  7. Community creates opportunity
  8. Everyone can contribute
  9. Working together is powerful
  10. Services should complement people’s goals

A local area coordinator is assigned to a defined neighborhood and works with people who are at risk of needing formal service intervention and may be isolated or causing concern locally.

The coordinator helps clients to identify what they want and need that is missing from life. The coordinator and client explore the client’s personal, relational, and community assets and collaborate on practical solutions to existing problems to minimize formal service intervention.

In this way, a local area coordinator helps clients build connections locally and develop skills that promote resilience and independence (Lunt & Bainbridge, 2019).

 

How Does It Work in Practice? 3 Examples

1. Embrace, Richmond, VA, United States

In the video below, a social worker from Richmond, VA, in the United States describes an Embrace neighborhood project that decided to use ABCD. This was after three separate murders in the first three weeks of 2011, and after a three- to four-year journey, the Richmond neighborhood had turned itself around.

 

2. Doncaster Children’s Services Trust, UK

In the video below, social workers from Doncaster Children’s Services Trust describe how they use strengths-based approaches to get the best for children and families who face hurdles in the parenting process.

KVETS is the strengths-based framework recommended in the UK Government’s 2014 Care Act and used by social services across the United Kingdom (Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2015a).

 

3. National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), Australia

The NDIS helps children and adults with intellectual, physical, sensory, cognitive, and psychosocial disabilities get the support they need to develop their skills and independence.

They use local area coordinators to plan and implement support packages in collaboration with their service users. For a brief explanation, see the video below.

 

Performing Strengths Mapping Explained

Strengths or asset mapping involves identifying individual, family, and community strengths or assets as the basis for planning social work interventions (Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2015b).

Many tools can be used to map individual strengths. However, in a social work context, this usually begins by having the first of the three conversations described below and detailed in the SCIE’s three conversations model. This person-centered dialogue aims to identify a client’s resources, needs, and sources of support.

Specialist social work services, such as mental health services or children’s services, may use specific assessment tools to engage with their clients further after having this initial conversation. Some of these are discussed below.

Further strengths mapping is required to decide on a specific social work intervention. This typically takes place at a community or neighborhood level. The Rural Health Information Hub (n.d.) in the United States describes their strengths-based asset mapping exercise as:

“A systematic process of cataloging key services, benefits, and resources within the community, such as individuals’ skill sets, organizational resources, physical space, institutions, associations, and elements of the local economy.”

The local community is much more likely to buy into interventions if they build on the community resources available and support their further development. Social work services become more targeted, effective, and relevant the more they engage with and build on existing community resources.

Below is a list of community assets that might be included in each segment of an asset map.

Associations might include:
Animal care groups, anti-crime groups, business organizations, charitable groups, civic event groups, cultural groups, disability/special needs groups, education groups, environmental groups, family support groups, health advocacy and fitness groups, heritage groups, mentoring groups, neighborhood groups, political organizations, religious groups, social groups, union groups, veteran’s groups, women’s groups, and youth groups
Physical assets might include:
Gardens, parks, playgrounds, parking lots, bike paths, walking paths, forest/forest preserves, picnic areas, campsites, fishing spots, duck ponds, natural habitats, bird watching sites, stargazing sites, housing, vacant land and buildings, transit stops and facilities, and streets
Institutions might include:
Schools, universities, community colleges, police departments, hospitals, libraries, social service agencies, nonprofits, museums, fire departments, and media foundations
Individuals include the strengths and gifts of the following:
Youth, older adults, artists, welfare recipients, people with disabilities, students, parents, entrepreneurs, activists, veterans, and ex-offenders
Local economy might include:
For-profit businesses, consumer expenditures, merchants, chambers of commerce, business associations, banks, credit unions, foundations, corporations, and branches

 

You will find an example of an asset map on page 15 of this guide.

 

3 Strengths Assessment Tools for Social Workers

Using a strengths-based assessment framework ensures that a social worker conducts a holistic and balanced assessment of a client’s resources and needs that does not reduce them to a set of problems or symptoms rooted in discourses of deviance, psychopathology, frailty, or illness (Graybeal, 2001).

A strengths assessment begins with a “blossoming conversation” that should be as natural as possible. It should not be structured around service eligibility criteria, although these are addressed later. A visual mind map of the blossoming conversation is reproduced below.

Blossoming Conversation

Source: City of Wolverhampton Council (2017, p. 17).

The blossoming conversation refers to the initial rapport building required to progress through the three conversations and ROPES assessment processes detailed below.

 

1. The three conversations model

The three conversations model is a strengths-based approach to needs assessment and care planning recommended by the UK Care Act guidelines published by the SCIE. The model recommends that social workers engage their clients in three types of conversations to assess their strengths and needs (Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2015a).

  • First, explore people’s needs and identify their sources of personal, family, and community support.

  • Second, assess risk and any crisis interventions that may be needed and establish provision.

  • Third, discuss long-term outcomes and planning based on a client’s vision of a good life and how to mobilize the resources needed, including budgetary needs and drawing on personal and community strengths.

For a more detailed account of the model, you can visit the SCIE website.

 

2. Resources, opportunities, possibilities, exceptions, and solutions (ROPES) model

ROPES is a strengths-based framework devised by Graybeal (2001) to guide practitioners on the broader process of continuous strengths-based assessment.

The table below outlines the ROPES model with life domains that should be considered during an assessment and questions to be considered during an exploratory conversation.

ROPES Assessment content
Resources:
• Where do the client’s resources lie?
• What can they access today?
• Who are their role models?
• What are their skills and interests?
• Any community and religious involvement?
• Any regular family/friend get-togethers?
• Any important family stories?
Personal and family relationships
Social environment
Organizational involvement
Community involvement
Options:
• What can be accessed now?
• What is available and has not been tried?
Present focus
Emphasis on choice
Possibilities:
• Looking at potential, how can the client prepare for the future?
• When the problem has been solved, what will this look like?
• What has the client thought of trying but hasn’t tried yet?
Future focus
Imagination
Creativity
Vision
Exceptions (to the problem):
• When is the problem not happening?
• When is the problem different?
• When is part of the hypothetical future solution occurring?
• How has the client survived, endured, and thrived?
• How has the client overcome other adversities/problems?
Past focus
Fluctuations in severity or nature of the problem
Previous experience of solving problems
Previous sources of resilience
Solutions:
• What’s working now, and what are your successes?
• What are you doing that you would like to continue doing?
• What if a miracle happened?
• What can you do now to create a piece of the miracle?
Person centered
Identifying strengths
Solution focused
Building on strengths

Adapted from City of Wolverhampton Council (2017, p. 18).

 

3. The recovery model

The recovery model is a person-centered, holistic, and strengths-based approach to the provision of mental health services that contrasts sharply with the old medical model rooted in psychopathology and medication (Jacob, 2015). It emphasizes peer support during recovery as a primary strength and source of social integration, especially following a period of hospitalization.

The recovery model is a framework that identifies a service user’s strengths to build resilience. A social worker will support their client to regain control of their life after experiencing a serious mental illness. For many service users, recovery is about living a meaningful life while living with a mental health problem (Scottish Recovery Network, n.d.).

The Scottish Recovery Network (n.d.) describes the recovery model using the following four pillars:

  • Champions and values lived experience by integrating it into all parts of the system.
  • Embeds peer support approaches and roles in mental health services and supports.
  • Offers more community-based support and choices so everyone can be supported when and where they need it.
  • Works with others to create a more equal society where good mental health and wellbeing can flourish.

 

Comprehensive List of Client Strengths

The following list is not exhaustive but gives some indication of the areas a social worker and client can explore together during a strengths-based assessment and collaborative care planning (Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2015b).

 

8 Individual strengths

  • Personal qualities
  • Knowledge and skills
  • Relationships
  • Passions and interests
  • Health status
  • Financial status
  • Housing conditions
  • Access to transport

Adapted from Berg (2009).

 

6 Family strengths

  • Appreciation and affection – People in strong families care deeply for one another and tell each other so regularly.
  • Commitment and dedication to each other’s wellbeing
  • Positive ongoing communication to stay connected
  • Enjoying time together
  • Spiritual wellbeing and shared spiritual values/religious practice – Shared spiritual values can be considered the heart of the family and a set of shared life values that enable them to stay connected whatever happens.
  • Successful management of stress and crises when they occur

Adapted from JRank (n.d.).

 

8 Environmental strengths

  • Neighbors
  • Community groups
  • Shared interest groups
  • Health and social care services
  • Leisure facilities
  • Schools
  • Community buildings like libraries and community centers
  • Green spaces like parks and public gardens

Adapted from Berg (2009).

 

A Look at Strengths-Based Interviews

Strengths-based interviewing in social work practice refers to both assessment processes and the ongoing evaluation of care plans and services (City of Wolverhampton Council, 2017). As described above, strengths-based social work assessment focuses on specific types of conversations that build rapport by relating to the client as a whole person, rather than a diagnosis or set of problems.

However, one specific type of strengths-based interview is motivational interviewing (MI), an intervention that facilitates behavioral change. MI is “a collaborative, person-centered form of guiding to elicit and strengthen motivation to change” (Miller & Rollnick, 2009, p. 137).

Motivational interviewing is effective in supporting client-centered behavioral change and has an established evidence base.

It is based on the following four pillars:

  1. Engaging
    Building a relationship based on empathy and active listening
  2. Focusing
    Establishing which behaviors the client would like to change and identifying obstacles and struggles blocking such change
  3. Evoking
    Drawing out the client’s motivation for change and their ideas about how they could make changes by drawing on their strengths, assets, and resources
  4. Planning
    Collaborative action planning that provides a bridge to change

MI is a strengths-based interviewing technique that social workers use to facilitate client-led behavioral change. To find out more, look at this video interview with the founder of the MI approach, William R. Miller.

 

Best Resources From PositivePsychology.com

PositivePsychology.com has a range of resources you can use to support a strengths-based social work practice.

First, you can download our free worksheets Exploring Character Strengths, Strengths in Challenging Times, and Motivational Interviewing in Social Work.

In addition, we have a huge selection of articles in our dedicated Strengths & Virtues category, providing you with insight, worksheets, and further guidance.

We also offer a complete eight-module training course called the Realizing Resilience Masterclass© should you wish to dive deep and take your practice further.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, check out this collection of 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.

 

A Take-Home Message

A strengths-based approach to social work involves building a collaborative, person-centered relationship with your client that treats them as a unique individual by focusing on their personal, relational, and community strengths.

No longer is a client viewed as a diagnosis or collection of problems, but rather as a unique individual who may require additional support for a while.

This approach benefits the quality of social work relationships by promoting clients’ self-efficacy, resilience, and independence.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.

References

  • Baron, S., Colomina, C., Pereira, T., & Stanley, T. (2019). Strengths-based approach: Practice framework and practice handbook. Department of Health & Social Care, United Kingdom.
  • Berg, C. J. (2009). A comprehensive framework for conducting client assessments: highlighting strengths, environmental factors and hope. Journal of Practical Consulting, 3(2), 9–13.
  • City of Wolverhampton Council. (2017). Adult social care strengths based assessment guide. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://wolverhampton.moderngov.co.uk/documents/s85859/Adult%20Social%20Care%20Strength%20Based%20Assessment%20Guide.pdf
  • Graybeal, C. (2001). Strengths-based social work assessment: Transforming the dominant paradigm. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 82(3), 233–242.
  • Jacob, K. S. (2015). Recovery model of mental illness: A complementary approach to psychiatric care. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 37(2), 117–119.
  • JRank. (n.d.). Family strengths: The qualities of strong families. The Marriage and Family Encyclopedia. JRank. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://family.jrank.org/pages/594/Family-Strengths-Qualities-Strong-Families.html#ixzz7M6M9kTty
  • Lunt, N., & Bainbridge, L. (2019). Local area coordination: Summative evaluation. University of York. Department of Social Policy and Social Work.
  • Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2009). Ten things that motivational interviewing is not. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 37, 129–140.
  • Pattoni, L. (2012, May 1). Strengths-based approaches for working with individuals. Insight, 16. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from http://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/strengths-based-approaches-working-individuals
  • Pulla, V. (2017). Strengths-based approach in social work: A distinct ethical advantage. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change, 3(2), 97–114.
  • Rural Health Information Hub. (n.d.). Identify assets/resources available. Retrieved March 21, 2022, from https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/toolkits/rural-toolkit/1/asset-identification
  • Russell, C. (2017, June 2). Asset-based community development: 5 Core principles. Nurture Development. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/asset-based-community-development-5-core-principles/
  • Scottish Recovery Network. (n.d.). A new future for mental health. Scottish Recovery Network Strategic Plan 2021–2024. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.scottishrecovery.net/resources/scottish-recovery-network-strategic-plan/
  • Social Care Institute for Excellence. (2015a). Strengths-based approaches for assessment and eligibility under the Care Act 2014. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from http://www.scie.org.uk/care-act-2014/assessment-and-eligibility/strengths-based-approach/
  • Social Care Institute for Excellence. (2015b). Care Act guidance on strengths-based approaches. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.scie.org.uk/strengths-based-approaches/guidance
  • Stanley, T., Baron, S., & Romeo, L. (2018). How social workers could make more ethical and justifiable decisions for service users. Community Care. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2018/12/21/social-workers-make-ethical-justifiable-decisions-service-users/
  • The Local Area Coordination Network. (2019). It’s time for local area coordination. Community Catalysts. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://lacnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Its-Time-for-Local-Area-Coordination.pdf

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