Promoting a strengths-based approach to support youth and their families

Devaney, C., Brady, B., Crosse, R., & Jackson, R. (2022). Realizing the potential of a strengths-based approach in family support with young people and their parents. Child & Family Social Work.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • A strengths-based approach (SBA) aims to a) evaluate the resources and strengths an individual, family, and community has and b) expand on them to address individual and familial issues.
  • While there is a consensus that SBA is advantageous, the concept is still ambiguous.
    • For instance, some interpret SBA as a value stance, while others might interpret it as a way of thinking or a distinctive lens.
  • This paper focuses on research on the Family Support Program*, an intensive support program for youth and their family to examine how SBA can promote positive change.
  • The Youth Advocate (YAP) model highlights supportive relationships between youth, families, and trained adult advocates.
    • More specifically, it emphasizes the need to concentrate on youths’ strengths**, active youth involvement in support planning, and develop a community support network.
  • SBA allowed advocates to personalize their approaches to cater to every youth and their family.
  • While youths are the main focus of the YAP Ireland model, evidence shows that it also assists family members in helping their children.
  • Despite the overall benefits of utilizing an SBA, it doesn’t mean that practitioners should overlook the detrimental effects of adversity.
  • Practitioners need to apply SBA within the context of their training, skills, and knowledge.
  • There’s no secret formula for implementing an SBA. It requires practitioners to a) share the belief that every individual has their strong points and skills and b) help youths experiencing hardships recognize and utilize their strengths.

* = This program is delivered by the Youth Advocate Program (YAP) in Ireland. It serves youth who are at risk of care or custody placement and are enduring a variety of problems (e.g. educational, home, community, and/or peer-group issues). 

** = This is based on the notion that youth and their families have the potential to grow when the proper skills and protective factors are developed. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This paper on a strengths-based approach (SBA) to practice is based on empirical research with stakeholders involved in an intensive support programme for young people at risk and their parents in Ireland. The Youth Advocate Programme (YAP) model provides wraparound support to respond to their needs by focusing on their competencies and their coping skills and building networks of community-based supports. The model includes parents or carers in the suite of support offered by advocates. An SBA to practice has been discussed for some time in academic literature and practice guidance. However, it tends to be considered primarily in relation to social work practice, and there is ongoing ambiguity as to what it actually involves in day-to-day engagement with individual family members. Insightful, rich accounts of SBAs as part of routine practice provided by young people, parents and practitioners form the basis to this paper and detail how these approaches support the development of hope-inspiring relationships and promote positive change. Relevant literature and research situates the debate on the experience of using SBA, the wider challenges faced by families, the impact of SBA in practice on those receiving the support service and its potential for use in the wider continuum of children and family services.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The YAP Ireland programme facilitates the development of a supportive relationship between an advocate and a young person through the use of SBA in the routine interactions they engage in. This relationship then becomes the medium through which the practitioner can connect with the young person and their environment and intervene to support and help them (Munro, 2011; Ruch, 2005). As an approach, it is valued and experienced as supportive by all who are involved in the YAP programme. Critically, this includes the young people themselves and their parents. Recent research has emphasized that it is the kind of relationship between the service provider and those in receipt of it that matters (Ferguson et al., 2020). Practitioners, who work intensively in this way with young people and their families, as the YAP advocates and team leaders do, are ideally placed to develop supportive relationships through regular interactions and help identify strengths, talents and assets as part of a support plan and to use these as a key resource in managing difficulties (Prowle & Musgrave, 2018; Walsh, 2015). The flexibility demonstrated by YAP Ireland in developing these supportive relationships using SBA to identify even the smallest spark of positivity and resourcefulness allows advocates to tailor their approach to each young person and family ensuring they establish the kind of relationship that is required.

Linked with the participatory nature of the YAP Ireland model, Smith and Davis (2010) describe how an SBA promotes choice and participation and uses techniques or strategies that put young people’s own solutions at the centre of programme of support. Prowle and Hodgkins (2020) present a triangle of positive approaches that enable families to take ownership and to create achievable plans. These approaches, engagement, empowerment and resilience can be seen in the work of the advocates in YAP Ireland. Many examples were given by respondents of applying an SBA in routine practice with the perceived positive effect this has on both the engagement of young people and their family and on the desired outcomes achieved noted. Many factors evident in the responses of participants: a listening approach, positive praise, identifying family strengths and encouraging family choice, echo those found in the literature on strengths-based practice (e.g. Lietz, 2011; Pinkerton et al., 2016; Saleebey, 1996). Furthermore, the categorization of SBA in practice as presented by Dunst (1995), Rapp et al. (2008) and Prowle and Hodgkins (2020) is clearly evident in the work of YAP Ireland. The fundamental approach in YAP Ireland is to find positive aspects of the young person’s behaviour or circumstances to focus on, and to access informal supports and resources with the local community and environment as much as possible.

To access this article, click here.