When I was in graduate school, which was not that long ago but long enough to actually reference a time in the past, there was a sense, at least to me, that strength-based approaches to education/psychology were something you did to make sure people felt good and bought into the intervention plan. You listed a bunch of positives or strengths of the child in an FBA not because it was actually integral to the intervention plan, but because it was just sort of the right thing to do. I’m oversimplifying here a bit, and there have always been folks that have agreed with what I’m about to say, but I think there’s bit a tipping point in positive psychology.

Let me start off with the theory, very simply put: Preventing bad things, or going around and metaphorically “picking up pieces,” is just a lot more difficult and cumbersome than getting a ball rolling in a certain direction and watching it take off on its own through momentum.

To give credit where credit is due, I remember the concept of “replacement behaviors” in grad school – the idea that it’s easier to build positives than it is to just get rid of negatives, with no alternative. However, that tended to be more of a tit-for-tat approach – every replacement behavior was tied to a very specific undesirable target behavior. There wasn’t really a broad, generative focus on building strengths & resiliency. That was seen as more of a layman’s task – something parents did, teachers, and maybe a PBS kids show.

My argument, very rudimentarily put, is that we should remove the limitation on technical intervention plans that all behavioral targets/goals be based on a deficit-reduction model of psychology. Rather than “addressing referral concerns,” let’s address issues of behavior problems by zooming out well past the scope of the acute behavioral problem, and examine the child’s life as a whole. Here’s something not novel: When kids have what they want and need, they tend to not seek those needs through less desirable means. So, if we zoom out to the “whole person” level of analysis, rather than just seeing the behavioral targets of “non-compliance” and “reactive verbal aggression,” we run the risk of helping kids meet their needs. The small behavior problems, then, tend to go away. And, and this is a BIG and, we take care of a bunch of other stuff at the same time, even stuff that may not have come up yet.

In short, when we focus on target behaviors, even target replacement behaviors, rarely are we addressing underlying cause. Even when we zoom out and address underlying cause, we often aren’t developing a support plan that addresses the child’s whole system. And, just like families, schools, etc. kids are systems – emotional, cognitive, social, etc. components and subcomponents that all work together. When one little thing appears broken, chances are there is a larger issue at play.

So, how does this relate to a strengths-based approach? After all, couldn’t you “zoom out” and take a “systems approach” by still focusing on deficit reduction? Yes. However, the more complicated and multi-dimensional the problem is, the more the problem tends to be solved by relatively fundamental solutions. Strength-based approaches tend to be more fundamental and self-organizing, similar to the idea of keystone behaviors, when an intervention has cascading effects on subsequent behaviors that are “downstream” from the source.

From a practical perspective, when way to go about doing this strength-based approach is not to just focus on things the child is already good at, but things that the child is NOT actually already good at, but needs to be. I realize that this is sort of just an inverse of a deficit-reduction approach, and still focuses on what the child lacks, but the focus is still on build resiliency & strength rather than just eliminating deficit.

So, next time you’re designing an intervention plan, consider widening your scope.