Strength-Based Focus, Positive Youth Development and Rekindling Hope

strength-based-positive-youth-development-hope-mailbox.jpg"Strength-based” and “developmentally appropriate” models are frequently mentioned and often encouraged throughout justice and treatment programming for young people. But between managed care mandates, budget cuts and staffing reductions, the reality is that one’s strength-based mindset and focus on youth development can sometimes be lost. So as we build and protect improved systems of care and opportunity for young people (as Reclaiming Futures tries to do), how do we assure that we maintain a rigorous focus on strength-based approaches for diverse groups of youth, families, organizations, and communities?

In the midst of systems change and turbulence, it seems more important than ever to find ways to use strength-based language as a tool to work across disparate systems, and explore tools and techniques that can increase strength-based and youth-development-centered proficiencies among professionals involved in the lives of young people.
From the earliest days of Reclaiming Futures, we’ve talked a great deal about the importance of strength-based approaches and built them into the bedrock of our work together. As an example, here’s a Strength-Based Bill of Rights I created for youth in the juvenile justice system inspired and informed by work I was fortunate enough to be involved in during the late 1990’s.
Thankfully, the dialogue about this family of philosophies and frameworks continues to diversify and spread and includes such variations as: “youth development”, “resiliency”, “asset-based”, “youth competency-based”, and “empowerment/youth leadership”, to name a few. (We even produced a first-of-its-kind strength based assessment tool, called the Youth Competency Assessment (Nissen, Mackin, Weller & Tarte, 2005; Mackin, Weller, Tarte & Nissen, 2005) which has been incorporated into the Reclaiming Futures initiative at several of our sites.)
And increasing attention has been paid to youth development frameworks in substance abuse treatment (Nissen, 2006) and juvenile justice, reinvigorating new possibilities and longstanding commitments by many strengths-oriented juvenile justice leaders and front line staff (Barton & Butts, 2008).
So what is a strength-based approach?
In essence, it means:
a)  assuming that any person we come in contact with has not only problems, but likely strengths as well;
b)  a significant part of our job as youth workers is to identify, amplify, and activate those strengths; and finally that
c)  as a result of these efforts, youth will better engage with and move through not only services but connect with positive recovery supports in the community as well.
A strength-based approach also includes a parallel movement related to the strengths of families and communities. This relates to youth development frameworks  in a very synergistic way, frameworks that suggests that youth develop whether we do anything about it or not – so we might as well actively harness this energy and momentum and support, encourage and structure opportunities to develop in positive ways, and bring to life the five C’s: confidence, competence, character, caring, connection (Pittman, Irby, Tolman , Yohalem & Ferber, 2002).
Further, youth development approaches can give us a window to understand the multiple cultural, gender and other identity-related variations that youth experience in the real world and understand that growing up healthy involves almost infinite cultural variations that must be appreciated with reflexivity and skill to maximize these cultural strengths (Ungar, M., Brown, M., Liebenberg, L., Othman, R., Kwong, W.M, Armstrong, M., and Gilgun, J. , 2007) and to address persistent disparities (Bell, J. & Ridolfi, L.J., 2008).
But are we as leaders actively engaging with and building these new tools and frameworks into our practice? Much more needs to be learned regarding how juvenile justice, alcohol and drug abuse and mental health providers have successfully incorporated these elements successfully.
And now, a word about hope.
Hope is deeply embedded in the work of applying a strength-based lens; there’s even an emerging literature on it (McCarter, 2007, Snyder, 2000). For example, one author thinks of her youth program as a place to build an “ecology of hope” (Yohani, 2008).
We probably all assume that hope is the bedrock of good work (i.e., we have hope that people can overcome their difficulties, that families can rally to meet the needs of their members, that communities have resources that can be tapped to improve lives), but in truth, each of us regularly witnesses a veritable battering of hope as well.
Assuming that hope is present isn’t enough – we must explicitly attend to it, learn about it, and acknowledge that sometimes it’s missing in action. After all, its absence impairs our ability to do good work (Koenig & Spano, 2007), and hopeful leaders can play a crucial role in the resiliency of their employees (Norman, Luthans, & Luthans, 2005).
[Dr. Nissen discussed these issues and others in a webinar, "Using Strength Based Approaches in Juvenile Justice," held July 9, 2009. Follow the link and scroll down the page to find the link and watch.]

*Here's the research cited in this post on strengths-based work, positive youth development, and hope. Photo by herby fr, under a Creative Commons license.

Updated: February 08 2018