When faced with a difficulty, it’s often easy to see only the wall ahead -- and not the paths that go around it. Such is the case with focusing too deeply on the negative behaviors that your child may display. Experts on child welfare and psychology agree that a strengths-based approach gives children tools to build self-confidence and optimism that will carry them through into adulthood.
Clinicians who work in schools and mental-health settings that treat youth employ a standardized scale designed specifically to evaluate emotional and behavioral strengths. The Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale (BERS) includes 52 items that fall within the broader domains of family involvement, interpersonal and intrapersonal strength, school functioning and affective strength. Each item is weighed using a four-point scale, with the lowest number indicating that the descriptor is “not at all like the child” and the highest denoting it is “very much like the child.” For example, a clinician may use the scale to indicate that the same child is adept at using anger management skills but is not likely to pay attention in class. The cumulative score allows parents and others to see overall strengths and also strengths within each domain. Experts with the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice note that the BERS can be a useful tool for any adult who can knowledgeably rate the child’s behavior in these areas.
In addition to the BERS, other professional tools exist for measuring strengths in children. The Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths Assessments, California Child Assessment Tool and Youth Competency Assessment are all examples of tools developed to support practitioners in the field of youth and family services, including child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The importance, noted in a 2011 report in the "Journal of Child & Family Studies," lies in emphasizing positive traits and skills over deficits. In many cases, the researchers note, a child’s strengths are the key to unlocking and resolving negative behaviors.
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that all children have an opportunity to thrive if parents and guardians make a concerted effort to encourage kids’ interests and appropriately praise achievements. The challenge is discovering strengths that remain hidden or underdeveloped. In addition to formal assessment scales, active listening and observation can uncover children's strengths. Therapists use these techniques, and parents can use them too. For example, a child who is prone to agitated outbursts at home might happen to have a nascent talent in dance. Enrolling in dance classes at the local community center would build on this strength to provide the child with a structured outlet and at the same time develop peer relationships and hone a talent. Coupling this type of strengths-based approach with skilled behavioral management can prove particularly effective.
As parents begin to identify strengths and weaknesses, so too does the child become more aware of how she might play to her strengths in unique situations. It’s important to communicate strengths in ways that children can understand. Depending on your child’s age, praise for specific strengths -- a series of good report cards or a season of participation in an extracurricular sport -- may take different forms. It may be beneficial to honor established and developing strengths with a new opportunity. As a reward for a child who has demonstrated a keen interest or talent in the sciences, for example, a parent might decide to take her to the local science museum for a day of fun. The ultimate goal of strengths-based assessment is not just to point out achievements but to, over time, develop the best possible outcome for the child, according to children's legal advocate John Franz in a 2008 report for the National Wraparound Initiative, Research and Training Center for Family Support and Children’s Mental Health.