Gloria Lithuli from the Inanda Family Preservation project near Durban reminds us that a strengths-based approach is reflected in our practice not only by what we do but also by what we write.
In principle, our recording, as much as our on-line actions, should reflect on the strengths of the children, young people and families. Most often strengths are not captured in our reports and upon reading the report one is often confronted with the negative labels which usually end up shaping our thinking. In our work we focus more on strengths because we want to build on what is good and positive for the people. If we do assess and use strengths, then we should be able to reflect them in our recording. What does this mean practically?
Highlight as many positives as you can
You must identify things that are working well with the family. Things you may have picked up during the referral (even before you have met the family or young person) or things that you may have observed during your early contacts with the family. The following example is an illustration of how you can identify some strengths in any family even before contact is initiated.
"Whilst the Family Support team was reviewing this referral, the following family strengths were identified:
mother is working
she is a 29-year-old single mother who has been able to raise her 12-year-old child after the father passed away
the child is attending school."
If there is a need to reflect on any weakness to make a certain point, we should be able to balance that with strengths. For instance:
"Thulani’s addiction to dagga and mandrax as well as his involvement with gangsters had caused a rift between him and his family as well as with his immediate neighbourhood. However, the positive factor is that in the family meeting he demonstrated enough strength and courage to concede that he needed help with drugging ... He showed interest and commitment to attend and finish the rehabilitation programme for young people at Siyakhula in Durban Children's Home."
You will find that enhancing such strengths in your recording is less exhausting than being trapped in focusing on what is not good about the family.
Look for potential
It is essential to observe the family’s capacity to learn new ways of doing things. Check who is making an effort to learn, is there any enthusiasm demonstrated? An example of this would be:
"After finishing helping Londeka to wash her school clothes, I asked her if there was anything else that they needed to do around the house. Londeka thought for a moment, grinned knowingly and responded that she wanted to surprise her mother by cooking the family supper. She started taking some potatoes and onions from the vegetable rack, gave some to me and kept some for herself. Then we started peeling, with her occasionally peeking at what I was doing. She had a very determined expression on her face..."
Furthermore you should also look out for any potential for change or growth that you might be able to capitalise on, for example:
"After thanking the family for their hospitality, we stood up to leave. Then something momentous happened. Thobani’s paternal uncle, who had seemed careful not to take part in the discussion and had continued to shine his shoes throughout the session, told Thobani to get a packet of crisp chips in the kitchen. Then he asked for our phone number. This was the connection! Thobani’s face lit up, not only because of the chips, but at the fact that the uncle had spoken to him in a way that actually acknowledged him as part of the family. He had for the first time since we were in the house shown interest in him as he had asked for our phone number. This was certainly a great moment for Thobani as he saw the possibility that he might eventually be connected with his family after all."
Pay attention to cultural richness
We all know that there are plenty of strengths to be found in people’s cultures. All we need to do is to identify those cultural practices and connections that bring family members together and strengthen them despite their current disagreements or crisis situations. Here is an example:
"Before the date of the meeting Ms Msimang had called one of the team members and indicated that she had been considering a number of things and was thus anxious to have her estranged brother and sister present at the forthcoming meeting. This was because family cultural issues were going to be discussed and she felt that their presence would fortify her position with Themba’s father."
No negative labelling
We should record in a manner that minimises blame, as this is connected to negative labeling. Our report should be devoid of negative and demeaning labels such as “aggressive”, “hostile”, “uncooperative–,” resistant, “unmotivated”, etc. Remember that any particular label might mean something different to others who might be reading the report, and it transmits very little helpful information about the actual situation. Such labeling could even be misleading. The specific things that the child or the young person or any other family member did to result in those labels could possibly be far less scary than the label might imply. So instead of using value-laden terms like “resistant”, it is more helpful to describe as “lacking some of the necessary skills to begin thinking about the issues at hand.” One could describe a person as “feeling helpless” instead of “unmotivated”.
Search for potential resources
Find out what existing resources there are within the family to draw on. You need to find out whether there are any influential extended family members, neighbours or special friends who could supplement and strengthen the family’s support system. This could be reflected in the report like this:
"The team was also able to observe that the mother’s sister seemed to be the most influential person as it had been gathered that she was the one who had assumed the sole responsibility for maintaining the traditional rituals. She also tended to lead other family members in the discussion during the session. It was noticed that she was not taking sides with anybody and was inclined to say what was on her mind. The other family members appeared to listen to her and looked upon her for guidance and leadership whenever there was a bit of a silence. "
Remember skills talents and abilities
Recording should also portray the family members” dreams, their exceptional qualities and things that they are good at. In our involvement with families, we obviously create opportunities where certain members are exposed to experiences of growth, e.g. workshops and skills training. Which family members acquire skills or display talents? All of these need to be reflected in our report. An example:
"To put them at ease, comments were made about the school certificates on the display cabinet and we were proudly informed that they were the achievements of their son, Reggie. We admired Reggie’s achievements and pointed out that he was indeed an “intellectual whizz” as one award was for Mathematics, Science and English. We shared about how we used to battle with those subjects in our school days. Mr Mbatha proudly shared with the team that the school principal always referred to his son as the “professor” and thus he was nicknamed “Prof” at school".