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What’s a Strength-Based Approach in Social Work?

December 22, 2023

Every day, social workers help people cope with adversity and support communities in dealing with issues from homelessness to mental health. In this pursuit, social workers employ various methods and interventions. One technique that social workers use to help clients overcome challenges is a strength-based approach. 

A strength-based approach in social work entails empowering clients to identify and apply their strengths to achieve their goals, rather than focusing on fixing weaknesses or deficits. This approach considers both the individual and their innate strengths as well as their environment and how it impacts them. This client-led approach can be applied to help people in various contexts, such as psychotherapy, substance misuse and school counseling. As such, a strengths-based approach is often paired with other methods and interventions to support clients in meeting their individual treatment goals.

Understanding what a strength-based approach is and how it can be applied to support clients is crucial for those pursuing a career in social work. Learning about this approach to treatment may be particularly beneficial for those who are seeking a master’s degree to become a clinical social worker. 

The Strength-Based Approach Explained 

The strength-based approach in social work is rooted in the idea that each client is an agent of change in their own life. Applying this method, social workers help clients set goals and identify strengths that can help them achieve those goals, allowing them to recognize their own value and create a sense of personal agency.

The precise methodology of a strength-based approach will vary depending on the context and goals of the client, but this approach is generally based on common standards. Those standards include the following:

  • Goal orientation. Helping clients set goals is a crucial part of a successful strength-based approach. The process of setting goals is always person-centered and client-led with a strengths-based approach.
  • Strength assessment. Clients need to identify and assess their inherent strengths and the internal and external resources at their disposal.
  • Resources in the environment. Social workers help connect clients with resources that can help them achieve their goals. These resources can include individuals (such as family members), groups or institutions. 
  • Different approaches for different situations. Social workers need to tailor their approach to the client’s goals. In solution-focused therapy (a type of strength-based approach), clients set goals first, then identify strengths. In strength-based case management, clients begin by identifying their strengths.
  • Hope-inducing relationships. Clients gain hope that they can achieve their goals and improve their lives by identifying strengths and establishing connections with others. 
  • Meaningful choice. By viewing clients as experts on their own lives, social workers empower them to make informed decisions about how best to achieve their goals. 

What Are Strengths, and How Do Clients Identify Them?

In the context of a strength-based approach, strengths are more than just a client’s skills. They can also include character traits and values held by the client, such as empathy, kindness, curiosity, ambition and honesty.

Social workers can help clients identify their strengths using various assessment tools. For example, Donald Clifton, who is a psychotherapist and an educator, developed the CliftonStrengths assessment (formerly known as the Clifton StrengthsFinder). One of many strengths assessment tools, the assessment takes the form of a test or survey that can help clients:

  • Discover what they do best
  • Learn how to develop their greatest strengths
  • Apply their strengths to achieve their goals and live their best life 
  • Identify resources, skills or strengths that have helped them to overcome adversity in the past

Social workers can also engage clients in what’s known as the three conversations model. Developed by the Social Care Institute for Excellence, a charity and improvement agency based in the United Kingdom, this model advises social workers to gather information about a client’s strengths and needs through a series of conversations:

  1. Assess the client’s needs, and identify sources of support in their life (e.g., family, community).
  2. Determine risks present in the client’s life, and develop crisis intervention strategies if needed.
  3. Discuss what type of long-term support the client may need, including budgetary assistance or community support, and what outcomes they’re seeking based on their vision of a good life. 

Social workers can employ other techniques and assessment frameworks within the strength-based approach, but at the core of each of these is the same principle: Clients are the agents of change in their own life, and they all have the capacity to improve their situation.

Benefits of a Strength-Based Approach in Social Work 

Clinical social workers can use a strength-based approach to help clients manage a wide range of mental and behavioral challenges, including the following:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance misuse 
  • Schizophrenia
  • Trauma 
  • Low self-esteem

While the strength-based perspective is an obvious fit for individual psychotherapy, it has many other applications in social work, such as strength-based case management and community social work. The approach can be used in various social work situations and settings, including family services, child welfare, addiction treatment centers, prisons and schools.

Regardless of the context in which it’s used, applying a strength-based approach in social work can yield numerous advantages. The benefits of the strength-based approach include the following:

  • Interventions are individualized and led by clients, honoring their preferences and values throughout treatment. 
  • The approach emphasizes respect and compassion, acknowledging vulnerabilities and weaknesses without making them a focus of treatment.  
  • Focusing on strengths rather than deficits can empower clients and provide them with a fresh mindset.
  • Clients gain tools they can use to overcome problems and develop interpersonal skills to help them cultivate more meaningful connections and social support systems. 
  • Clients can gain greater resilience, which provides them with a greater capacity to overcome issues, even after formal treatment has ended. 
  • The approach is versatile, with applications across various populations and conditions as a stand-alone treatment or alongside other interventions. 

Help People in Need Uncover Their Strengths

Social workers require a range of tools to support their clients and help them overcome challenges. The strength-based approach is one such tool, providing social workers with an avenue to empower their clients and communities. Using this approach, social workers help clients recognize their inherent strengths and learn how to leverage them to improve their lives. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the strength-based approach and other interventions you can use to support clients, explore the Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. With a curriculum focused on evidence-based treatment and rooted in cultural competence, our M.S.W. online program format can set you on the path to a meaningful career of social work advocacy and helping those in need. 


Reviewed by Kathleen M. Korndoerfer, M.A., LPC.*

*Kathleen Korndoerfer, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor with over 10 years of experience in the fields of mental health and social work. Kathleen currently practices in Colorado and specializes in the treatment of PTSD & trauma-related disorders and child and adolescent counseling.

Kathleen Korndoerfer, Licensed Professional Counselor, Montrose, CO, 81401