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Strengths-Based Practice

Definition, elements, strengths’ identification, benefits, limitations, challenges, facilitators, strengths-based practice approaches

Three sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. Suggestions for Practice

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material


Definition

The main notion of the strengths-based approach is that people have strengths/resources/assets (e.g. the person, their family and friends, the community, social care services and the Health System) and that they are able to put them to use in dealing with the issues that are causing distress or should be changed.  Social work for a long time worked with deficit-based approaches, ignoring the strengths and experiences of the participants.  Strengths-based methodologies do not ignore problems. Instead, they define issues differently. The focus here is on what is working well. This belief in inherent strengths focuses on identifying and mobilizing the resources and assets, respecting the inherent wisdom, and knowledge that every person has, and leads to a rediscovery of these resources within the environment in which they live.  A strengths-based approach is often paired with other methods and interventions to support clients in meeting their individual treatment goals (Caiels et al., 2024; Nash, 2022; Peterson, 2023; Pulla, 2017; VCU, 2023)


Adopting a strengths-based approach does not necessitate dropping weaknesses from a list; it only means that social workers do not begin with weaknesses. A strengths approach avoids the use of stigmatising terminology, which people in need may have been accustomed to and eventually accept, and then develop a sense of helplessness to change. The strengths-based approach encourages hope within people by focusing on what has been currently or historically successful for them in their personal, professional and career contexts, thereby exposing precedent successes, and sets the groundwork for realistic expectations.  The client becomes the expert in regard to what has worked, what does not work, and what might work in their personal life (Pulla, 2017). 


Key Concepts / Standards / Principles

The following are key concepts associated with a strengths-based approach.

  • See people as their own assets   A strengths based approach regards all clients as assets with resilience who are capable of possessing talents to overcome their own challenges. When employing this method, social workers aim to uncover these strengths and utilise them as a groundwork for the clients' growth.

  • Do ‘with’, not ‘for’              Working with clients in a strengths based manner should be seen as a partnership, where social workers act like facilitators rather than an expert in the client's lives. This collaborative approach helps clients feel more in control of their own destiny and better empowered, boosting their motivation and dedication to the process of positive life changes.

  • Place emphasis on the client's potential                  Instead of focusing on limitations or past shortcomings, social workers look to promote their client's potential and explore the opportunities they have. This can involve setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) that align with the client's strengths and aspirations (Peart, 2024).


The precise methodology of a strength-based approach will vary depending on the context and goals of the client, but the approach is generally based on common standards including:

  • Goal orientation. Helping clients set goals is a crucial part of a successful strength-based approach. The process of setting goals is always person centred and client led.

  • Strength assessment.  Strengths approaches in social work begin with a systematic assessment of strengths, beginning with the most current resources that are on display and possibly moving to some of the resources deployed in the past by the clients.

  • Resources in the environment. Strengths-based practices view the environment as being rich in resources, with the natural community in which the client resides as the main source of opportunities, supports, resources, and people. For effective goal attainment a good fit between what client desires, what his or her strengths are and what resources are available within his or her environment, is imperative. 

  • Different approaches for different situations. Social workers need to tailor their approach to the client’s goals. In solution-focused therapy, clients set goals first, then identify strengths. In strength-based case management, clients begin by identifying their strengths.

  • Hope-inducing relationships. Clients gain hope that they can achieve their goals and improve their lives by identifying strengths and establishing connections with others. 

  • Meaningful choice. By viewing clients as experts on their own lives, social workers empower them to make informed decisions about how best to achieve their goals (VCU, 2023; Pulla, 2017).  See also Pattoni (2012) and Stoerkel (2019). 


Five core principles underlying the strengths-based perspective:

  1. Everyone has strengths—individuals, groups, families, and communities.  These strengths can be used to help with the presenting problem. The strengths-based perspective allows us to see the whole picture when it comes to working with individuals, groups, families, and communities.

  2. Presenting problems may be sources of challenge and opportunity.

  3. Strengths-based social workers maintain high expectations and hope for clients regardless of their history or diagnosis. The strengths-based worker takes clients visions and dreams seriously while believing in the capacity for self-healing for all clients, groups, families, and communities.

  4. Social workers best serve clients by collaborating with them.  This principle challenges social workers to work with clients rather than to treat their disorder or work on them.

  5. Every environment is full of resources.  Strengths, ideas, and possibilities exist within the environment, even when a community is plagued with poverty, violence, and collective trauma.  These resources can be tapped for change (Giacomucci, 2021).


Literature

Reviews of the efficacy of a strengths-based approach vary.  Peterson (2023) suggests research demonstrates that when people know and use their strengths, they experience improved self-esteem, report feeling happier, and are motivated to pursue and achieve meaningful goals. Multiple research studies have investigated and supported the effectiveness of a strengths-based approach to therapy.


However, a recent review (Caiels et al., 2021) questions whether improved outcomes actually do result from a strengths-based approach.  The authors note that strengths-based approaches fit with the neo-liberal narrative of competency, independence, and self-care and many practitioners are keen to embrace a model that promotes positive thinking and engages with the skills and abilities of users and carers and their social networks.  Nonetheless the authors maintain strengths-based approaches remain a contested area, with some authors claiming the empirical evidence about its impact on the lives and wellbeing of users, particularly those with complex needs that straddle the physical, psychological, social, and financial, is unclear. However, others point to the potential benefits of taking a strengths-based approach while suggesting that capturing evidence of the success of strengths-based approaches using more ‘traditional’ methods of measurement may simply not be possible.


Limitations / Risks / Criticisms

The issue of whether strengths-based approaches are suitable for people with complex needs was mentioned in a recent study where the authors found a number of the 32 respondents suggested that the approach might be ‘less suitable’ for people with severe mental health problems or learning disabilities, people in crisis, and people with dementia and/or severe frailty.  In addition, respondents suggested employing strengths-based approaches at crisis points may be challenging as sometimes a decision has to be made quickly (Caiels et al., 2024).


Some consider the main focus of the strength-based approach to be its primary disadvantage. While it’s great to focus on strengths, therapists should not utterly neglect weaknesses. If weaknesses are poorly managed, they may not be monitored, leaving the person less effective (Stoerkel, 2019).  Focusing on strengths may leave serious issues unaddressed, issues that people actually come to therapy for assistance in dealing with (Peterson, 2023).


Other criticisms of the strengths-based approach include:

  • It can be too focused on the client, leaving the therapist to play a minimal role in the therapeutic process,  Many people seeking therapy desire a therapist who provides guidance and direction.

  • Too much emphasis is placed on achieving high self-esteem when there is a lack of evidence to support that high self-esteem is directly beneficial.

  • It can be poorly defined and lacking a predictable structure.

  • Because it is a newer therapy, it lacks multiple decades of research that support other types of therapy.

  • It is heavily focused on Western notions of optimal functioning and might not consider other cultural conceptions of strengths (Peterson, 2023).


Benefits

A number of writers consider the strengths-based approach has multiple benefits.  Peart (2024) suggests:

  • It can improve client engagement              When client's realise that the focus is on their strengths, rather than their weaknesses, they can be more inclined to actively participate in the intervention process. This engagement is vital for establishing trust and nurturing lasting relationships that support the journey towards lifelong progress.

  • It empowers people         Strengths based approaches empower clients by emphasising their abilities and resources, and how these can have an impact on their self-esteem and confidence. When clients acknowledge their capabilities, they are more likely to take charge of their treatment and engage actively in their journey towards recovery and improvement.

  • It fosters resilience          By recognising and leveraging individual and family-based strengths, social workers can help to boost their clients' resilience and their ability to bounce back from setbacks. Building resilience is key for managing challenges and maintaining overall wellbeing, as well as reducing re-referral rates.

  • It is holistic          Strengths based practice encourages social workers to consider their clients within the context of their surroundings, relationships, and personal histories. This holistic approach aids social workers in developing thorough interventions that consider the client as a whole person, not just by the sum of their problems.


VCU (2023) agrees with Peart about fostering empowerment and resilience and adds:

  • Interventions are individualized and led by clients, honouring their preferences and values throughout treatment. 

  • The approach emphasizes respect and compassion, acknowledging vulnerabilities and weaknesses without making them a focus of treatment.  

  • Clients gain tools they can use to overcome problems and develop interpersonal skills to help them cultivate more meaningful connections and social support systems. 

  • The approach is versatile, with applications across various populations and conditions as a stand-alone treatment or alongside other interventions. 


These points are also mentioned by both Peterson (2023 and Stoerkel (2019).  Stoerkel also adds:

  • Distressed people are engaged with respect and compassion.

  • The approach respects that it takes time to build clients’ capacities.

  • The approach sees people as creating and rebuilding, rather than broken or failing.

  • With improved resilience come additional benefits, including feeling special, valued, and optimistic, and understanding that life is a journey.

  • Clients learn how to set goals and expectations, cope in a healthy way that fosters growth, and confront rather than avoid challenges.

  • The approach doesn’t ignore vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

  • The approach builds self-esteem and competence.

  • Clients learn effective interpersonal skills in order to look for assistance and support when needed.

  • Clients better understand what can and cannot be controlled.

  • Clients are better able to support others, giving time to those that they care about.

  • The approach encourages clients to connect to social support like family or community to nurture their growth


Strengths and Their Identification

In the context of a strength-based approach, strengths are more than just a client’s skills. They can also include character traits and values held by the client, such as empathy, kindness, curiosity, ambition and honesty (see also Peterson, 2023 and Stoerkel, 2019).


Social workers can help clients identify individual, family, and community strengths or assets using various assessment tools. Nash (2022) suggests these tools should begin with a ‘blossoming conversation’. 


The Clifton Strengths assessment is one of many strengths assessment tools.  It takes the form of a test or survey that can help clients:

  • Discover what they do best

  • Learn how to develop their greatest strengths

  • Apply their strengths to achieve their goals and live their best life 

  • Identify resources, skills or strengths that have helped them to overcome adversity in the past (VCU, 2023; Nash, 2022; Stoerkel, 2019)


Another instrument for identifying strengths is the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS).  This instrument (Stoerkel, 2019) examines six core virtues and 24 strengths of character:

       I.         Wisdom: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective

     II.         Courage: bravery, persistence, honesty, zest

   III.         Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

    IV.         Justice: teamwork, fairness, leadership

     V.         Temperance: forgiveness, modesty, prudence, self-regulation

    VI.         Transcendence: appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humour, religiousness.


Therapist Aid (2012) has a list of strengths that can stimulate clients to recognise strengths in themselves.


Social workers can also engage clients in what’s known as the three conversations model. This model advises social workers to gather information about a client’s strengths and needs through a series of conversations:

  1. Assess the client’s needs, and identify sources of support in their life (e.g., family, community).

  2. Determine risks present in the client’s life, and develop crisis intervention strategies if needed.

  3. Discuss what type of long-term support the client may need, including budgetary assistance or community support, and what outcomes they’re seeking based on their vision of a good life (Nash, 2022; VCU 2023). 


ROPES is a strengths-based framework to guide practitioners in the broader process of continuous strengths-based assessment (Nash, 2022).  Specific questions are posed to the client to examine:

  • Resources (personal, family, social, organisational and community)

  • Options (available at present with the emphasis on client choice)

  • Possibilities (a future focus using imagination, creativity and vision)

  • Exceptions to the problem (a past focus, examining fluctuations in the problem, previous experience in problem-solving, and previous evidence of resilience

  • Solutions (person centered, strengths-based, solution-focused)


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 (Nash, 2022)

[Motivational Interviewing is a separate topic on this website – access via the contents tab.]


A common assessment framework used in child protection social work that utilises such an approach is Signs of Safety (see https://www.signsofsafety.net/what-is-sofs/ and https://www.wa.gov.au/system/files/2021-11/Signs-Of-Safety-Child-Protection-Practice-Framework.pdf) (Peart, 2024).


Social workers can employ other techniques and assessment frameworks within the strength-based approach, but at the core of each of these is the same principle: Clients are the agents of change in their own life, and they all have the capacity to improve their situation (VCU, 2023).  Social workers will find a list of strengths that can be presented to clients as a prompt at Therapist Aid (2012) and Nash (2022).  Nash divides strengths into individual, family, and environmental categories.


Suggestions For Practice


Adopting a strengths based approach involves making subtle adjustments when engaging with clients, undertaking assessments, and delivering interventions by:

  • Engaging and inquiring                   Practice active listening to authentically grasp the clients' narratives and life stories. Ask about their achievements, abilities, and instances when they overcame challenges in the past. These conversations can unveil strengths to draw upon in the here and now, helping you bring about change.

  • Reframing difficulties    Support clients in shifting their perspective on challenges by highlighting their strengths (as drawn out in the above step). For instance, a client's persistence which is seen as a problem by some professionals could be reframed to be seen as determination.

  • Utilising strengths based assessment tools           Integrate assessment tools into practice that help pinpoint client strengths. These tools can establish a basis for creating interventions focused on strengths, not weaknesses.  Examples of tools are included in the above section on ‘What are strengths?’ 

  • Setting goals together    Collaborate with clients to help them establish goals that align with their strengths. This collaborative process ensures that the goals are meaningful for the client themselves and not based on the views of others. Remember, the person is the expert in their own lives.

  • Acknowledging progress               Acknowledge and celebrate victories and milestones throughout the client's strengths based journey. Celebrating progress helps reinforce a client's strengths and embeds the positive changes they are making (Peart, 2024).


Strengths-Based Practice Approaches

Over recent years a number of strengths-based approaches have emerged and have been found to be effective.  Some of these will be outlined briefly below.  It is worth noting that the many of the 32 respondents in the Caiels study generally used parts of, or tools from, overlapping approaches, or creating modified versions of existing models when adopting a strengths-based approach.  What appeared to be more important than adherence to a specific ‘model’ was the adoption of the ethos and principles that underpin strengths-based approaches (Caiels et al., 2024). Some examples of strength-based approaches mentioned by Stoerkel (2019) and Pattoni (2012) follow.


Solution-focused therapy focuses on what people want to achieve rather than on the problem(s) that made them seek help.  Encouraging people 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.  Solution-focused therapy has been used in a variety of settings, including family service, mental health, public social services, child welfare, prison, residential treatment centres, schools, and hospitals.  This topic is covered in more detail elsewhere on this website – access it via the ‘contents’ tab.


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.  Strengths-based case management has been utilized in a diversity of fields and populations, including substance abuse, mental health, school counselling, elderly care, children, and young families.


Narrative               Practitioners can use narrative to get the client to tell a story, teasing apart the client’s strengths and resilience skills.  The basis of this method is that we each live our lives based on our experiences or our story.  However, we often forget that we are the main actor and that we have many strengths.  Our problems are separate from us; when a person can learn to separate themselves from their problems, they learn how to face it and build resilience.  This topic is covered in more detail elsewhere on this website – access it via the ‘contents’ tab.


Family support services are 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.  Family support services work to empower and connect the family as a team or unit so that they have the same end goal: being together.


Strengths-based practice with communities Nash (2022) offers two models of care for use with communities.  These models focus on community development by identifying community strengths and using them as the basis for development.  ‘Community development’ is outlined elsewhere on this website – use the ‘contents’ tab.

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.

  1. Citizen led               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.

  2. Relationship oriented          This approach recognizes individual clients’ strengths and skills, and 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.

  3. Asset based            Focusing on what’s strong rather than what’s wrong builds on existing strengths to make them stronger and then uses them to address what’s wrong.

  4. Place based            Focusing on local neighbourhood community development from a bottom-up rather than top-down perspective.  This draws on local people’s knowledge of each other’s strengths as well as local resources that institutional agents often miss.

  5. 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 neighbours and enrich community life as a whole.

2. Local area coordination Local area coordination is a strengths-based approach to social work that focuses on relationship building and developing community networks. 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.

A local area coordinator is assigned to a defined neighbourhood 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.


Other authors also describe specific areas where strengths-based practice can be effective.  If interested readers should consult the reference section below and read the specific articles.

  • Peterson (2023) describes in some detail how strengths-based theory can be applied to people struggling with substance use and addiction, for youth with disabilities or chronic illness, and to assist people in managing depression. 

  • Giacomucci (2021) examines the use of strengths-based approaches the areas of trauma, and group work (providing mutual aid to participants).  (Group work is covered in more detail on this website – access via the contents button).

  • The three conversations model, ROPES framework, motivational interviewing and Signs of Safety program mentioned in the Strengths section are examples of other strengths-based approaches.


References / Supporting Material

(available on request)


Caiels, J., Milne, A., & Beadle-Brown, J. (2021). Strengths-based approaches in social work and social care: Reviewing the evidence.  Journal of Long-Term Care, 2021, pp. 401–422. https://doi.org/10.31389/jltc.102  


Caiels, J, Silarova, B., Milne, A. J., & Beadle-Brown, J. (2024). Strengths-based approaches: Perspectives from practitioners.  British Journal of Social Work, 54, 168-188.  https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcad186 


Giacomucci, S. (2021). Strengths-based and mutual aid approaches in social work and psychodrama. Psychodrama in Counselling, Coaching and Education, 1, 155-185. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-33-6342-7_9


Nash, J. (2022).  Strengths-based approach in social work: Six examples and tools. https://positivepsychology.com/social-work-strength-based-approach/


Peart, V. (2024, May 9).  Here’s how using strengths-based practice can make you a better social worker.  Social Work Newshttps://www.mysocialworknews.com/article/here-s-how-using-strengths-based-practice-can-make-you-a-better-social-worker?


Pattoni, L. (2012). Strengths-based approaches for working with individuals.  Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Sciences, Insight 16.  https://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/insights


Peterson, T. J. (2023). Strength-based approach to therapy: how it works, examples and what to expecthttps://www.choosingtherapy.com/strength-based-approach/


Pulla, V. (2017). Strengths-based approach in social work: A distinct ethical advantage.  International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change, 3(2), 97-114. www.ijicc.net  

Stoerkel, E. (2019). What is a strength-based approach?  https://positivepsychology.com/strengths-based-interventions/


Therapist Aid. (2012).  Strengths-based therapyhttps://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/strengths-based-therapy


VCU: Virginia Commonwealth University.  (2023).  What is a strength-based approach in social work?  https://onlinesocialwork.vcu.edu/blog/strength-based-approach-in-social-work/







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