How can we use strengths-based approaches in social work?

On the publication of a new report, Ryan Wise examines how strengths-based approaches to social work can be used in practice

painted hands
Photo: Fotolia/Vitalinka

by Ryan Wise

I was fortunate to attend a seminar thinking about strengths-based approaches to children and families social work. The seminar fed into to the report produced by SCIE, Leeds City Council and Shared Lives Plus, ‘Strengths-based social care for children, young people and their families’.

When thinking about strengths-based approaches in action my practice experience leads me to think about three approaches: motivational interviewing, systemic family therapy and signs of safety. The approaches formed part of my toolkit as a social work practitioner and sync together with the belief in the individual/family as the expert on their own life.

Interestingly, early systemic thought was to an extent traditional in positioning the therapist as the ‘expert’; developments in the field led to ‘second order’ cybernetics theory which positions the practitioner as a part of the family system.

The solutions and answers come from the system as a whole working together to think about patterns which may have developed and led to unhelpful behaviours.

Values, reflections and wishes

Motivational interviewing focuses on exploring ambivalence to change and the ways in which the individual can be supported to facilitate it. The method differs from more traditional expert advice shaping change and leads itself to a focus more on the values, reflections and wishes of the individual.

The individual drives the change with support from the communication skills of the practitioner.

Signs of Safety is a tool intended to help practitioners with risk assessment and safety planning in child protection cases. Its purpose is to enable practitioners across different disciplines to work collaboratively and in partnership with families and children (NSPCC, 2018).

One of the defining features of all the approaches is the importance of using thoughtful questions. With motivational interviewing, open questions are encouraged to prioritise the voice of the family member. Reflections, summaries and affirmations are used to compliment the questions and facilitate change being led and directed by the individual.

Questions within systemic family therapy can become complex; the intention is often to encourage an understanding or opening of patterns within relationships. An identifiable example used in systemic approaches is to ask the individual or family to consider the view of another, as demonstrated below.

Slightly differently, signs of safety is an approach where specific questions support both a practitioner and a family member to understand the service involvement holistically. Questions allow for an accurate risk assessment of strengths and worries.

Examples of questions:

  • Have there been times when this problem has been dealt with, or was even a little better? How did that happen?
  • Who are the people that care most about x? What are the best things about how they care for x?
  • Help me understand ___?
  • How would you like things to be different?
  • What are the good things about ___ and what are the less good things about it?
  • How will things be different when x has happened?
  • What would it be like if you had the opportunity to do x instead of y?
  • If X were here now, what do you think she would say about your relationship with your partner?

Anyone can ask a question, but the intention and attitude is what is important. Some practice models appear to be used in a tokenistic within local authorities.

A model can be adopted by an organisation, staff can be trained, but if there is no buy-in or commitment across all layers of the system the model will remain a label or a process.

An example in my experience has been scaling levels of risk used in some unit meetings within a systemic family therapy model. Scaling is also a significant feature of the signs of safety model. Unit meetings are forums where problems or difficulties in families are viewed relationally, where patterns of behaviour have developed between people.

Practitioners share ideas or possibilities which may lead to the established unhelpful patterns being disrupted.

In some cases the level of worry or concern for the children within the family system is considered on a scale of 0 -10; this is to promote discussion as well as producing evidenced and thought out risk assessment.


A colleague once pointed out a key observation that often risk was scaled without considering the nature and response to the social care intervention. Evoking more of an expert position, the circumstances within the family were being considered without thinking about what help and support had been offered and what the reaction was.

Inadvertently, practitioners were applying systemic ideas without thinking more deeply about how this was being done. The processes of the model were being followed but the commitment to the thinking behind the model was not.

This exemplifies how a strengths-based model can be applied in principle but not fully in action. This for me is evidence of a wider issue of applying strengths-based approaches in the correct context.

If the context is one which does not support viewing families and individuals as assets and strengths rather than pathologised as ‘risks’, can strength-based approaches function in children’s social care organisations?

The picture is complicated due to the dynamic between safeguarding and supporting individuals and families. I do not think it coincidental that when there is more bureaucratic and process led practice; conversations about strength and resource are shut down.

The form filling becomes the highest context and a divide is drawn either consciously or not through poor practice. The culture needs to be one of excellent leadership and bravery to practice in a strengths-based manner.

Changing the narrative

There is plenty of hope with organisations across the country changing the narrative. More recently North Yorkshire has been the first local authority to be awarded Outstanding in every area in their Ofsted inspection. It is pleasing to note that one of the criteria for the new inspection framework from Ofsted is: The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families.

Leaders can drive culture change and strengths-based approaches by their own definition should be collaborative. It leads me to think about how co-production, the idea that children and families are active equal partners in producing and delivering services directly relates to strengths-based approaches and for me is a part of said approaches.

The more children and families shape services the better the organisation will be in accurately working towards meeting the goals and needs of the children and families it works for.

Two examples of co-production in action is London Borough of Southwark and Doncaster Children’s Services Trust. Southwark are closely working with young people, staff and local partners to design a service that ensures they offer the best service they can to those leaving care. The Catch22 project aims to develop a shared commitment to supporting Southwark care leavers wherever they are living, and making sure they have access to the help they need to address their different needs (Catch22, 2018).

Doncaster have young advisors embedded in the organisation who are using their experiences to help shape the Trust. This includes mentoring other young people through care councils and meeting with directors to better understand all areas of the Trust. Both Southwark and Doncaster are rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted.

Culture and context

In my experience the organisation’s relationship to risk is critical to shaping the practice culture and context. It is pleasing to see that policy makers as well as Ofsted are encouraging innovation and creativity. Organisations understand that one of its primary purposes is to safeguard and protect children.

However, this can become a defining feature that leads to a one-dimensional approach. Organisations may struggle to balance safeguarding – and the processes this entails – alongside an approach which evokes strengths and coproduction.

The need for brave leadership where there is a commitment to a clear vision is a necessity for the balance to be struck and for the organisation to successfully balance different priorities.

Safeguarding does not need to be separate from strengths-based approaches; with the right vision and model, the organisation can navigate the complexity of social work with values of co-production and family and child-centred practice at its heart.

Ryan Wise is a social worker, systemic practitioner and practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence. He tweets at @ryanwise18.

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One Response to How can we use strengths-based approaches in social work?

  1. A Man Called Horse September 19, 2018 at 12:02 pm #

    Strength based working is a fig leaf for cuts and Austerity, right of centre self-help dogma, the big society translated into the Care Act and other aspects of Social Work.

    All of the services are being stripped away by Austerity and Social Workers are told you must motivate people communities to help themselves. Motivational interviewing translated pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Society is not the problem you are. You just need to recognise its your own fault. Don’t expect anything from Society help yourself. Ask not what Your Local Authority can do for you ask what you can do for yourself JFK