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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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What is Strength-Based Child and Youth Care Anyway?

Angela Racco

As Child and Youth Care professionals, we are familiar with strength-based work. In many ways, we are the therapeutic cheerleaders in the life space of children and youth. However, we often find ourselves inundated with issues and a pathology-based approach, resulting in limited appreciation of child and youth’s strengths.

Several factors have contributed to the deficit perspective, including literature that has historically been rooted in problem-based views of at-risk children and youth. In addition, we are all familiar with client reports and assessments, which can unfortunately become a child or youth’s life book of problems. Not only does this create a preconceived idea of who this child or youth is, it also becomes the way they identify with labels, reputations and deficits. Not to say, that looking at psychopathology, diagnosis or psychosocial issues is not an important part of the work we do; it is that children and youth learn to reinforce these labels using them as masks in order to protect their fragile self-worth.

To complicate this deficit perspective, children and youth referred to organizations often have limited or no family links, social support systems, access to community resources, or spiritual connections. Additional challenges occur when we as helpers care and empathize with children at risk, but become discouraged due to the laborious change process. As a result, we become more susceptible to focusing on the negative aspects and struggle to recognize the progress, successes, and gains made by children and youth. Though we know significant change occurs in small steps, it can become considerably difficult to view those changes when we are immersed in the life space of youth. It is taxing to support and assist children whose difficulties and traumas are deeply embedded in their life history and identification of self. It is easy to become disheartened when change and progress is veiled in the chaos of client’s realities.

As professional helpers move away from the deficit perspectives, a new lens of looking at strengths in helping children has become noteworthy. In contrast to a deficit approach, the strength-based perspective offers a way to assess, treat and empower children and youth to assist them in achieving their highest potential. Strength-based work enhances children and youth’s understanding and realization of their strengths and personal resources, especially when they experience multiple challenges, and it assists them to overcome personal struggles. Simultaneously, strength-based approaches assist professionals to focus on the progress and gains that occur, to celebrate endeavours with clients, and to avoid stagnation and defeat that discourages and hinders our effectiveness and satisfaction.

At the Children's Centre in Thunder Bay (CCTB), a children's mental organization, a strength-based approach to residential practice demonstrated the capacity to combat the various adversities facing residential clients and workers. In working with children and youth who experience extensive psychological distress, strength-based practice has been a way of viewing their stories from a different vantage point, while maintaining professional health. This is accomplished by identifying unseen strengths and incorporating them within professional practice. In addition, viewing strengths as both internal and external help expand the identified strengths that can be challenging to identify (Smith, 2006). External assets are strengths found within the immediate or potential environments. These include but are not limited to family, community organizations, teachers, membership, spirituality, and culture. In contrast, internal assets are values, social skills, self-efficacy, perseverance, inner wisdom, survivor’s pride, and emotional expression. Other categories are helpful in identifying client strengths including insight and judgement, creativity, relational skills, education, cognitions, independence, and spirituality (Smith, 2006).

Through strength-based interventions, residential Child and Youth Counsellors can attempt to create opportunity for clients to re-experience their sense of self differently, thus breaking old labels and beliefs. Research has indicated that the following skills help enhance strength-based approaches (Saleebey, 2002; Smith, 2006 ;):

  1. Creating therapeutic relationships

  2. Identifying strengths

  3. Looking for exceptions

  4. Encouraging and instilling hope by listening

  5. Focusing on solution versus problems

  6. Empowering clients

  7. Reframing events in their life identifying the strengths

A beneficial approach to strength-based care in residential treatment is to integrate internal and external strengths within each child or youth’s treatment plan. This allows opportunity to reveal strengths and mobilize other potential strengths including community involvement (i.e. karate, dance, Big Brothers Big Sisters), membership to groups (i.e. cadets, church youth groups), skills (volunteering, job training), and reconnection with significant adults they have lost contact with (i.e. previous foster parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles). It is our role as Child and Youth Counsellors to exploit the potential environmental strengths and integrate them into children and youth’s life space. Incorporating asset mapping or asset checklists into treatment work help the child visually see their strengths as well as surface hidden strengths.

Interventions that follow strength-based approaches are not intricate. Being extremely honest with children and youth and consistently including them in their treatment works not only to build trust but also empowers them. A good time to explore realities, dreams, and self-awareness with children and youth is later in the evening and at bedtime when the day is winding down and more quiet. Discussing new and creative skills that coincide with their strengths can be explored. Telling imaginative stories about children with them also helps bring hope and re-story their past in a more optimistic future.

Active listening can be used to help children and youth identify their own strengths and resiliency. For example, “Sounds like you have been able to take care of yourself and your siblings. What do you think that says about what you can do?”. Countering negative statements with questions that focus on strengths is a valuable approach. For example, asking, “How did you manage that?” or “What does that experience say about who you are?” can be helpful. The use of metaphors to describe or identify strengths for children and youth with lower cognitive abilities has been successful in our programs. As well, asking open-ended questions that use important people in their lives as the spokesperson such as, “What would your mother say you do well?” or “What does your best friend like most about you?”. This helps identify both external and internal strengths without directly asking for the child's opinion of himself or herself.

It is equally important in strength-based approaches to look not only at the children and youth’s strengths, but also at the team perspective of the child and youth’s strengths. A reflective approach promotes self-awareness, encourages responsive practice, challenges and supports staff and combats compassion fatigue (Copa, Lucinski, Olsen and Wollenburg, 1999). Reflection involves looking within ourselves, our actions, and our thoughts and how this plays out in our practice. This can been done through individual supervision, group supervision, debriefings, and team meetings. Using feedback approaches to assist colleagues with helpful messages that promote growth and support create safety and professionalism in practice. This work becomes essential when children and youth dynamics, motivation, and high-risk behaviours are prominent in the milieu. At this time, relying on reflective practice and strength-based approaches help battle compassion fatigue, negative group thinking, vicarious trauma, and the high potential for burn out apparent in our profession. Radey and Figley (2007) identified maintaining self-care and having a reinforced sense of work satisfaction as strategies for preventing compassion fatigue. They suggested that increasing positive attitudes toward clients and increasing resources to manage stress and self-care maximize compassion satisfaction. Therefore, a strength-based approach to Child and Youth Care appears to not only benefit clients, but also our own mental health and job satisfaction. Consequently, focusing on the strengths of clients, ourselves and the team context helps to maintain optimism, focus, motivation, and drive to do the best we can to make a difference in the lives of the children and families we touch.


Copa, A., Lucinski, L., Olsen, E. and Wollenburg, K. (1999) Promoting professional and organizational development; A reflective practice model. Zero to Three Journal, 20,1.

Radey, M. and Figley, C., R. (2007) The social psychology of compassion. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35. pp. 207-214.

Saleebey, D. (2002) The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, 3rd edition. Boston: Allyn & Baco. pp., 1-21.

Smith, E., J. (2006) The Strength-based counselling model. The Counselling Psychologist, 34,1. pp. 13-79.