Strength based approaches apply to both working with individual young people and also to working with whānau and communities. A strength-based approach is a perspective that assumes that people are active participants in the helping process (empowerment), that all people have strengths, often untapped or unrecognised, that strengths foster motivation for growth and that strengths are both internal and environmental. Strengths include talents, skills, knowledge, interests, dreams/hopes/goals, creativity, passion, connections etc.
A strength-based approach recognises that both ‘risk’ and ‘protective’ factors are prevalent throughout a young person’s development. These protective factors when experienced can enhance and develop resilience in young people. Risk factors increase the likelihood of difficulties in life and poor health and well-being. Protective factors enhance life opportunities and promote good health and well-being.
The strengths based approach fits within the framework of positive youth development. This does not happen until young people are encouraged to recognise their strengths and assets and are supported and encouraged to develop them. Many programmes claim to be strengths based because they have ‘youth development’ in their title and possibly their branding, however the reality is sometimes much more deficit focussed. What referral criteria are adopted? What assessment tools are used? What kind of attitudes emerge in our conversations about young people in meetings and informally over lunch?
“Practicing from a strengths perspective means that everything you do as a helper will be based on facilitating the discovery and embellishment, exploration, and use of clients’ strengths and resources in the service of helping them achieve their goals and realize their dreams.” -Dennis Salebey
There are a range of strength based assessment tools that have been developed in New Zealand that help respond to this challenge, including the SCOPE assessment tool and Whānau capacity tool that are outlined in the appendix.
What type of relationship best fits the need of the developing adolescent? Parents, school teachers, sports coaches, leaders and others all have a responsibility to form respectful and challenging relationships with young people. Counselling literature is unanimous in stating that the strength of the ‘therapeutic relationship’ is the most significant factor in the development of healthy outcomes for a client. Rogers (1960), the founder of person-centred counselling, coined the phrase “unconditional positive regard” as a prerequisite for any effective therapy. However – this is only one side of the coin. As Bishop (2003) describes below – we also need to have high expectations of the young people we are working with, to not buy into lowered expectations – no matter where they come from. Many studies have shown that the highest determinant of educational achievement is the expectations and belief from the educator in the young people they are working with – a self fulfilling prophecy it appears! So the relationship we need is one of high support and respect, but also high challenge. These relationships also need to be long term in order to develop the trust necessary for development to occur.
Bruce, Boyce, Campbell, Harrington, Major & Williams (2009) discuss the concept of connectivity that is present in programmes and services that are long-term, sustainable and relationship based. In his study of youth work in a New Zealand context, Martin (2006) supported this concept where he noted that “youth workers build relationships with young people in their own context, and the relationship (rather than the delivery of a particular service or programme) is what distinguishes their work” (p. 66). In addition to the centricity of the relationship between the young person and the youth worker, this study found that relationship-based youth work also tended to focus on creating community connectivity. Work in which connectivity was present was characterised by healthy relationships and the existence of collaborative practices between schools, youth work services and wider communities, and also, where appropriate, between young people and their families.
Covey (2004) identifies human growth as a sequence of three steps: dependence, independence and interdependence. This development process is a natural growth from dependence as a child, through to a growing independence as a person moves through adolescence towards adulthood and a growing interdependence. It is important to note that independence is a passing stage; we are not supposed to stop there and that while we can move different parts of our character/personality at any age, at puberty our biology demands we continue to develop. As we encounter new experiences and contexts we can cycle back to being dependent before moving through the stages again.
Programmes that have adolescent development as a primary objective need to focus on an intentional shift from dependence through independence and on to interdependence. Schusser (2005) describes how he sees this process occurring;
“My students are highly at risk when they enter the programme. Most students are dependent on me to guide them down the bumpy road. “In the second and third term a change starts to occur……our relationship deepens and they experience a class feeling that they like and want more of…a feeling of respect, dignity and trust. In this setting independence grows, skills grow and students are challenged on their selfishness…In the third and fourth term magic occurs, challenges to behaviour are met with consideration rather than cursing, acceptance and apologies rather than violence. People are feeling more empowered and interdependent. They help each other and some of this is transferring into other areas of life.” (Schusser, 2005).
This approach applies not only to our work with individual young people but also to the way organisations work with the communities that the young people come from. Funders and policy makers, working from within this approach consider their role as serving the community rather than the other way around. This involves distributing power ie: letting communities decide what to do. ‘Trusting the little guy’ is crucial and in this case ‘big serves small’.
Organisations benefit from sitting around the table with all involved and discussing shared outcomes and collaborative projects. Facilitation skills are needed to bring together different parts of a community and there are a range of proven processes for implementing this sort of work. The notion of independence and autonomy is also integral in the Circle of Courage (Brendtro et al. 2002). Canterbury based youth workers interviewed in a study (Bruce, et. al. 2009) believed that best practice seeks to empower young people through the provision of opportunities for decision-making, problem-solving and leadership. Principle 5 of the Youth Development Strategy of Aotearoa refers to this (in part) as youth participation; where opportunities are created for young people to “actively participate and engage” (Ministry of Youth Affairs 2002, p8).
Building ownership is inherently connected to having respectful relationships, having strength based approaches, focusing on developing the whole person and being connected. This then provides the opportunity for young people to contribute to self, whānau and community with meaning and purpose.