Advocating for a Strengths-Based Counseling Approach
By Robert Schroeder
The American medical model of co-pays for insured doctor visits or pay-as-you-go non-insured visits does not encourage regular trips to the doctor. Logically, the medical profession often focuses on what is wrong with patients, not what is going right.
This approach filters into mental health fields, an approach that National Louis' Anna Marie Yates, Ph.D., and Susan Kerstein are trying to reverse. Their recent presentation on "Issues of Confidence for Emerging Leaders Using a Strengths-Based Approach" at the Illinois Counseling Association Annual Conference in Skokie, Ill. instructed participants on the benefits of using a strengths-based approach to address challenges in clients' lives.
"In our real lives, we're always talking about how can I fix you, what are you doing wrong, or what am I doing wrong," said Kerstein, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. "What we're trying to look at is how do we focus on what's right about you and how can you use those strengths to work on the issues you have."
The practice can impact organizations working with children as young or three or four up to the world's largest businesses. For school counselors, research shows that children as young as 7 gain life satisfaction from experiencing gratitude. Further research indicates that encouraging curiosity at a young age can significantly build upon learning ability as a child progresses.
"The more [students] hear it, the more they feel reinforced, and they will reinforce others as well because you model it," Kerstein said.
Research in the medical field shows positive reinforcement and emphasis on developed and growing strengths can significantly cut back on hospitalization, recovery and therapy time. Yates, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, says the approach's application in the corporate world can have a significant impact on a company's bottom line.
"Companies who focus on strengths and reward people for what they have done well have 67 percent better turnout with what kind of work they do," Yates said. "Companies that don't have a strengths focus see much lower production."
Yates and Kerstein recommend a number of approaches to solidify a strengths focus. They place a high emphasis on group listening in a counseling setting, as one counselor may interpret a strength differently than another. Second, they recommend using anchoring, a series of physical reinforcements like patting on the back or touching on the arm, to re-emphasize a counselor's belief in a client's strengths.
The two caution that this identification process should be completed with sincerity. In a school setting, Kerstein says, children are particularly acute at identifying disingenuous messages.