What do practitioners need to consider when using a strengths-based approach?
Practitioners will need to work in collaboration with service users, supporting them to do things for themselves, with the aim that they become more than passive recipients of care and support. In order to do this, it is fundamental that practitioners establish and acknowledge the capacity, skills, knowledge, network and potential of both the individual and the local community.
Preparing for assessment
Preparing for an assessment is key to ensuring the intervention is conducted professionally, that its effects are maximised and that the assessment is both appropriate and proportionate. When preparing for an assessment you should:
- Gather information and background on the individual’s circumstances:
- What are their reasons for contacting social services?
- Are there any other professionals involved?
- Do the local authority or any partner organisations have any useful background information?
- Is an interpreter or advocate needed?
- Determine, jointly with the individual, how the assessment will be conducted in terms of appropriateness and proportionality. See the SCIE Guide, ‘Ensuring assessment is appropriate and proportionate’:
- Has the individual been informed about what an assessment involves: their options, the timescales, the potential next steps?
- Does the individual prefer to perform a supported self-assessment? See the SCIE Guide, ‘Supported self-assessment’
- Agree on who should contribute to the assessment other than the individual and how this will be done.
- If an assessment visit is to take place:
- Has everybody who needs to be there been informed (i.e. care professionals, carers, other family members, friends, etc.)? Have they confirmed their attendance?
- Do you have all the information and paperwork you need?
- Have you done research on related community services, products and activities?
What information is being sought?
The assessment intervention should aim to discover what the person concerned believes would constitute a ‘good life’ for them and their family, and how all parties can work together to achieve this.
In particular the following information should be gathered using open questions rather than a tick-box exercise. The following questions are examples of the type of information that may need to be gathered, although each assessment should be approached on a case-by-case basis, and it may not be necessary or relevant to ask all of the questions suggested here.
- Individual’s strengths, hobbies, abilities, wishes, etc.
- What is the individual good at? What do they enjoy doing? What did they used to enjoy doing but can no longer do?
- What would they like to be better at?
- What do they think they can do better or more of?
- What do they think they can do to improve themselves and their wellbeing?
- What do they think will help, if not to make things better, then at least to prevent things from getting worse?
- Individual’s support network (friends, family, neighbours, professionals, etc.), their strengths, abilities, knowledge, etc.
- Who can they count on? How would they reach them? What would they count on them for?
- Who visits them frequently? How often?
- Who do they miss? Why are they not able to see/keep in touch with these people?
- Who do they communicate with? How? With what frequency?
- Who else do they know that could be part of their lives?
- Are there any other people helping the individual? Any other professionals?
- Is there anything that could facilitate this network to increase, either in quantity or quality? Do they want it to increase?
- What has been working until now, and how have things changed?
- What could help to enable them to return to previous means of support which worked for them?
- Which needs/outcomes can be met/achieved now without waiting for/moving to a care and support plan?
- Needs, challenges, risks, etc. (focusing on strengths does not mean ignoring these, but maximising and using the strengths to overcome them)
- What is preventing the individual from doing what they would like to do or seeing who they would like to see?
- What do they think they can do to change this?
- Who do they think can help to change it?
Practitioners should ensure that they have fully and accurately understood the individual’s views on the above, and ask for clarification when required. ‘Presenting back’ to the individual is a good technique for confirming the accuracy of information. For example: ‘So what I heard you say is …’; ‘Can I check I’ve understood this as you meant it …’.
It is easy to misunderstand what others say, or to only understand it within our own context. When people talk about things they are very familiar with, they often omit information that could be key to understanding fully and accurately what they mean. Practitioners should ensure as far as possible that no information is missing or misunderstood.
Example 1: ease of misunderstanding
Mrs J, a woman who lives on her own, is introverted and has never had any relationship with her neighbours. However, she says that her relationship with them is ‘good’. For her, this means that they never bother her and she has no interaction with them at all. However, the assessor may understand ‘good’ to mean that the neighbours are helpful and that Mrs J could call on them if she was in need of help.
A focused discussion with the person about their strengths can lead to new opportunities to develop and share skills and make new connections. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘strengths-mapping exercise’. This method of assessment builds a picture of the individual’s strengths and of the community around them. There are two types of strength: ‘soft’ and ‘hard’, each of which applies to the individual and the community.
- Personal qualities
- Knowledge and skills
- Passions and interests
- Links with neighbours
- Community groups
- Shared interest groups
- Community leaders
- Health and social care services
- Community buildings
During the assessment it may be helpful to consider the following questions: 
- In order to remain as independent as possible, what strengths (knowledge, experience or expertise) does the individual already have and how could these be enhanced?
- In order to enable an individual to remain as independent as possible, what other skills, knowledge, experience or expertise do people directly or indirectly involved in the person’s life already have or need to acquire?
It is also important for the practitioner to have an objective understanding of the individual’s views and to ensure that strengths, needs and outcomes have not been over- or underestimated. In order to do this, it may be necessary to speak to others in the individual’s network (ensuring consent is obtained) and/or seek evidence. For example, it may mean observing or establishing via others an individual’s level of mobility. They may have been living with severely reduced mobility over a long period and become accustomed to the considerable limitations this causes them in their day-to-day life, while an objective understanding gained during assessment would help to reveal the true impact on the individual’s wellbeing.
Example 2: a balancing act
Ms L, 85, is asking for help as she can no longer safely manage her own personal care. During the assessment it emerges that Mrs T, a friend who lives nearby, and who has been providing support until now, including personal care, has suggested that she might not want to continue in future. With Ms L’s permission the assessor talks to Mrs T and discovers that she would in fact be happy to continue if she can be assured that she is doing the right thing and that she would not be expected to do any more if and when the situation changes.
During the discussion it emerges that Mrs T is interested in the option of sharing the provision of support with the local authority. This would allay her concerns about Ms L’s potentially increasing needs, and access to her own support and/or training, along with and further guidance on her caring role, would reassure her that she is ‘doing the right thing’.
It is important in this case for the assessor to explore Ms L’s own view concerning her personal dignity: how does she feel about relying on informal help from someone she knows as opposed to receiving help from a ‘stranger’ from social services? How does she feel about a ‘balance’ of care, as discussed with Mrs T?
The assessor should also ensure that relevant benefits are claimed, such as attendance allowance, which, if appropriate, could be used to pay for informal support. This may in turn help in maintaining Ms L’s dignity by giving her greater control.