Assessment of Client System Strengths and Weaknesses
A variety of approaches exist to the identification of strengths and weaknesses or problems within the client or client system. Depending on the social workers training and theoretical perspective, the approach to assessment will have a distinct tone, even if the components and conclusions of assessment have essentially the same content information. The difference in the approach, however, can set a specific course for treatment. As research has shown, different approaches have more or less efficacy for different populations and different target problems.
A traditional assessment format seeks to develop rapport and a working relationship that will be underscored with trust, respect, dignity and integrity. Depending on the theoretical approach, more or less focus will be placed on the relationship itself. The assessment identifies problems and issues that cause difficulties, and the treatment plan may be written in terms of what issues need to be resolved. The components of the assessment will be a history, a psychosocial study, mental status, level of functioning, clinical assessment, recommendations and goals for treatment.
In a strengths-based approach, the assessment process has the same components, but the approach is markedly different. The entire focus of the process is to reframe the client’s attitude, perceptions and behaviors into a strengths-based perspective and orientation. Specific efficacy has been found in the literature for this approach, for example Multi-systemic Therapy (MST) has been used with success in youth populations and is a strength-based model.
The strength-based model assesses the inherent strengths within a client or client system and seeks to build upon those strengths. This requires the worker to reframe and shift the client or family perceptions toward the positive, thereby instilling hope. For example, a couple may seek marital counseling and report they constantly argue, reporting daily arguing, only relenting when they cease to speak with one another. In response to this negative issue or problem, the social worker with a strength-based perspective might pose to the couple their dedication to continue communicating, seek support under the current stress and note the marriage is intact (even if situation is tenuous at best and seems overwhelming to all present in the session).
The reason to use a strength-based approach is the empowerment that underscores the process of assessment and treatment, as opposed to describing the client in terms of a diagnosis or experiencing other deficits. The approach removes stigmatizing terms that clients use and internalize that create helplessness about change. Removing stigmatizing terms moves clients further from the victim perspective reinforced by mainstream society. Identifying and reviewing the positive attributes the client has fosters hopefulness within the client or family, beginning the process for recovery and success. It may be the first time a client has heard, identified or focused on strengths, providing a positive environment for change. The process elevates the client, helping the client see their own power and expertise in their own life, identifying what has and has not worked in the past and providing a platform to work from to identify what might work for them in the future. Clients become more invested when they can see how they have control of their own recovery and power in their lives.
Changes from the social worker’s perspective involve a shift in how the client is viewed. Stigmatizing terms and phrases such as resistant, poor insight, dysfunctional, non-compliant, not motivated for treatment, or difficult. Additionally, the importance of language becomes more apparent. An example is saying, Joe has schizophrenia, rather than Joe is schizophrenic. The strength-based model is mindful that the client is not the illness, though they are diagnosed with the illness.