Strengths-based practice is an increasingly popular approach to social work and wider support services for children and families.
The concept is one of the seven elements of successful systems identified in the overview of findings from Wave 1 of the Department for Education Innovation programme. Having a clear framework of practice means having a well-defined set of values and theoretical principles that underpin all work with children and families. A number of good and outstanding authorities state that they successfully use a strengths-based approach in their work.
The seven elements include:
Defining strengths based-practice
Fundamentally strengths-based practice aims to work in partnership with families to build sustainable change based on their strengths. The key features of strengths-based practice are:
- Working towards shared goals, shared by the professional and the family;
- Systematic analysis of strengths;
- Seeing the environment as rich in resources;
- Explicit use of tools to identify and build on strengths;
- The provision of meaningful choices for families;
- A relationship that is ‘hope-inducing’ (Rapp et al., 2006).
Strengths-based practice is not new, and many characteristics in its literature are familiar from guidance and best practice being used across the country. A number of practice frameworks and social work models being adopted are explicitly based on these principles, for example Signs of Safety encourages practitioners to look at family strengths (‘what is working well?’) and to look at the family’s wider network to identify sources of support.
However, some of these practice frameworks can be considered incomplete. While they provide guidance for practitioners, they do not provide a framework for leadership and management. This risks leaving practitioners trying to be strength-based, in an organisational context which is quite the opposite.
Making it work in practice
Strengths-based practice is as much a ‘way of being’ as a ‘way of doing’. There is potential for strengths-based practice in every interaction with a family. A checklist or form is not inherently strengths-based, if the practitioner filling it out uses a deficit driven way of thinking about families. Practitioners working in this way need time to reflect on their own practice, to challenge and be challenged about their attitudes and language, and be supported to think differently about the families that they work with.
The Research in Practice Leading strengths-based practice frameworks: Strategic Briefing explores how leadership activity and organisational culture affects the ability of practitioners to adopt and use the approach. Highlighting practical applications and issues leaders need to consider in relation to:
- How organisational culture and climate affect practice
- Implementing changes and the adoption of new approaches
- Sustaining change through ongoing learning and development.
Practitioners report that using strengths-based approaches with families is challenging, particularly in statutory settings. Challenges include having the time to build the relationship with the family and to reflect on their own emotional responses, policies and procedures that are deficit-orientated (e.g. traditional child protection conferences) and a defensive, risk-averse management culture that does not give families space to change (Oliver, 2014).
These barriers are not in the gift of the practitioner. Leaders and managers wanting to develop strengths-based practice need to look to the culture and practice of the organisation as a whole and how it complements or conflicts with strengths-based approaches in practice.
One way to do this is by considering how the seven strengths-based principles above can be applied to leadership and management activity as well as social work. This includes supervision, policies and procedures, performance and quality assurance activity and engaging with partner agencies (Sebba et al., 2017).
Like practitioners, this requires leaders and managers to spend some time reflecting on the day-to-day interactions that they have with practitioners, on the language they use and the messages that they send to practitioners about what is valued here, in our organisation.