Strengths-Based Social Work Practice


The Strengths Perspective


What Is It?

  • Strengths-Based Practice assesses the inherent strengths of a person or family, then builds on them.
  • Strengths Based practice uses peoples' personal strengths to aid in recovery and empowerment.

(Fort Wayne MSW class, December 2006. Class discussion.)

  • It's really about reframing personal perception to find good even in the worst situation.

Why Use It?

  • It is an empowering alternative to traditional therapies which typically describe family functioning in terms of psychiatric diagnoses or deficits.
  • It avoids the use of stigmatizing language or terminology which families use on themselves and eventually identify with, accept, and feel helpless to change.
  • It is at odds with the "victim identity" -- epitomized in popular culture by the appearance of individuals on television or talk radio sharing intimate details of their problems—which is inherently self-defeating.
  • It fosters hope by focusing on what is or has been historically successful for the person, thereby exposing precedent successes as the groundwork for realistic expectations.
  • It inventories (often for the first time in the person's experience) the positive building blocks that already exist in his/her environment that can serve as the foundation for growth and change.
  • It reduces the power and authority barrier between the person and therapist by promoting the person to the level of expert in regards to what has worked, what does not work, and what might work in their situation.
  • It reduces the power and authority barrier between person and therapist by placing the therapist in the role of partner or guide.
  • Families are more invested in any process where they feel they are an integral part.
  • And lastly - it works.

Implications for Practice


Therapists (and other health professionals, like physicians) are often comfortable and confident in their role as expert. Effective strengths-based practice requires that we acknowledge that in the life of the people we work with, we are not yet significant. Ideally, in the long run, we will not have an ongoing significant role in their lives- we will empower them to be the experts. However, we can help by locating and integrating those who are significant into the helping process.

More importantly, we must change the way we perceive, and the way we speak. Stigmatizing labels and personal behavior descriptors must be avoided:

  • non-compliant
  • resistive
  • unwilling to change
  • unmotivated
  • poor insight
  • uncooperative
  • dysfunctional
  • oppositional
  • defiant
  • delinquent

Additionally, never refer to the person by his or her diagnosis. Describing someone as a "schizophrenic" is no different from referring to another person as "cancerous". A person is not their illness—a person is a person, with a physical or psychiatric problem.

Strengths-Based Assessment




Sometimes, the magnitude or volume of problems troubling an individual or family is overwhelming—to therapists and individuals alike. When your initial impression of another person's situation is "train wreck", how can you proceed in choosing areas for initial development, and defining realistic goals? For yourself, and for the people you are assisting, it is important to begin the process with a positive vision.

Wherever there is a problem in the person/family, look for the inherent strengths that can be used as a starting point for further growth. Never practice strengths-based perception to the extreme of ignoring dangerous situations, but do focus on creating a valid inventory of positive characteristics that are the foundation of the work you will do together.


Problem Strength
Child has attendance problems at school Child still attends school, does well in some subjects, is strong willed
Child runs away from home Child has "street smarts", survival skills, self protective skills
Child hangs out with negative peers Child can make friends, has a support network
Daughter is sexually active Daughter is not pregnant, practices safer sex
Family is in perpetual crisis Family has continued to exist under stress, have strengths that have helped them survive together so far
Family is dysfunctional Family is overwhelmed and is in need of support
Family resists agency intervention Family believes in taking care of their own
Parents fight Parents are still married, or still communicate

Life Domain Guided Assessment


A useful and visually powerful assessment exercise involves the brainstorming and posting of client/family strengths on a wall, on a pyramid made of different facets (or life domains) of the person/family and their environment. The pyramid has several levels.

  • Vocational, Educational, Legal, Financial, Social & Recreational and Logistical
  • Crisis & Safety, Home & A Place to Live, Family & Relationships, Spiritual & Cultural, Health & Medical, Mental Health

You may wish to make letter-sized signs—one with each of these domains listed—then laminate them and arrange them on a wall in your office or group therapy room. Arrange the signs in a roughly pyramid shape starting with the top domain (Family Vision):





This process is a challenge to both individuals and therapists, a fact that clearly illustrates the pervasive influence of deficit-based assessment and labeling in how therapists perceive individuals, and how individuals perceive themselves.

Take heart—it gets easier with repeated use—and eventually it will be routine to generate fifty or one hundred positive aspects of a person or a family in their present environment.

Self Assessment


It is also useful to provide people or families with self-assessment tools, and for those who feel pressured or embarrassed by the Life Domain Assessment, this may be a better fit. In two or three pages, try to elicit background information and basic goals from your new client. Keep the wording simple.

The following sample questions might be given to the parent/guardian of a child with bipolar disorder, or another emotional handicap:

  • List the three most distressing problems you are having with your child/family.
  • What seems to help, even if doesn't solve the problem?
  • What things does your child enjoy doing?
  • What talents or skills does your child have?
  • List some positive things about your family.
  • What are your dreams and future plans for your child?
  • What does your family hope to achieve in the next month?
  • What does your family hope to achieve this year?
  • If you had all the money and support you needed, what would you change about your family's situation?
  • Apart from your immediate family, list by name the most important people in your child's life (examples: teachers, coaches, friends, neighbors, clergy, health professionals, etc.).
  • When are the best times for you, your family, and other important people to meet with us to plan and discuss as a team?



List the strengths of these individuals and their family systems, speculating as appropriate.

Scenario 1: Phil


Phil is 16 years old, and the oldest of 4 children. He attends school regularly but doesn't do much homework, and does assignments at the last minute. His grades are B's and C's. Phil is very quiet but has half a dozen friends. He plays in a garage band with a few guys he knows from school. Phil rarely smiles. He has a weekend job, but often does not return home after getting off work. Usually, he goes straight over to the home of a friend who is two years older. There, he is allowed to drink as much beer and hard liquor as he wants. He gets very drunk each time and usually spends the night sleeping on the floor, or on the couch if it is available. He's driven home drunk once. Phil sometimes cries when he is drunk, saying he hates how his life is and wishes he were dead. He complains that his parents scream and fight too much, and it's easier to stay out of the house and avoid the chaos. Phil hopes to be an architect someday and takes drafting in school. Phil's problem basically stems from home whereby his parents fight most of the time, however despite that Phil still has visions and dreams. therefore, further interventions should focus on the strengths recognized from Phil and also provide family therapy to try and remedy the situation at home.

Scenario 2: Rachel


Rachel is 11 years old, but already has a reputation at school about her interest in boys, despite never having had a boyfriend (or at least one her own age). She is a good student. Her father is employed by the school and even the students are aware of a rumor that he is having an affair with another staff member. Rachel has a number of friends, but all except one are boys. She often invites people over, but never to her bedroom. Instead, she prefers to hang out in her brother Seth's bedroom (he is rarely home). The room is littered with erotic magazines, liquor containers, and smells like cigarettes and something else. Rachel says the 'other smell' is pot. Rachel's mother never comes down to see what she is up to, and rarely greets her friends, despite usually being home. Her father is often away, and it's difficult to know when he is at home because he gives the children a wide berth. Seth hosts drinking parties at the house regularly, where marijuana is smoked freely, and no-one has ever objected to Rachel inviting her own friends. Recently, one of her friends from school died in an accident. Rachel only remarked that is was a shame that he died a virgin.