In the UK, support for children with additional needs or disabilities starts from what is known as a “strengths-based model”. This is a psychological approach that focuses on a person’s strength and ability to control their own lives, and starts from the position that this person can and will be resourceful and resilient when faced with difficult situations.
If you are the parent of a small child (or indeed not so small) with additional needs or disabilities, you may well be seeing red already. Most of us approach systems for support because our child cannot control their own life, even when compared to their peers, or has been so knocked about by life that they have little resilience left. And yet…
When systems first identify that a child has additional needs, they bring overly bright smiles to the table and ask us to “focus on your child’s strengths”…
Don’t ignore the problem!
If I walk into hospital with a broken bone or a bleeding head, I do not want you to ask me which parts of my body are working well or feeling good. At least not at first!
Please fix the bleeding first! Deal with the crisis, the reason I am here and then later we can talk about the fact that I can use crutches because my arms are fine.
When a parent approaches you because their child is not reaching a certain developmental milestone, or they are crying every day after school, or they simply cannot recognise their letters… deal with that problem first. Now is not the time to put on that huge (and rather obviously fake) smile and tell them that Sam paints beautiful drawings, or that Lou is “such a happy child”.
Please help us find solutions to the problem that brings us together.
Find or create “stable”
The strengths-based approach that much of our lives centres around depends on a certain degree of stability. To be resilient and resourceful, we have to have a functioning “owl brain” (https://www.brightfuturescounselling.com/post/the-lizard-dog-and-owl-explaining-the-brain-to-children). Our pre-frontal cortex, responsible for analysis and problem-solving, has to be “online”. And that can only happen if we feel safe and stable.
Here’s the thing: many if not most children with additional needs only rarely feel safe. They are often confused, anxious and stressed. They live in near constant panic because they are rarely in an environment that suits those needs. So their cortex, their owl brain, is most often off-line… and yet we ask them to perform tasks that only that part of their brain can do!
So once you have helped fix the immediate crisis, the “bleeding”, your job as the adults around that child and their family, is to help them create “stable”.
Think about the physical environment and its impact on that child. Think about the demands of the day, physical, emotional and psychological. Can the child manage a change of classrooms? Is the maths lesson at the best time of day? Do they need breaks in a quiet space to self-regulate?
How can you put the child first within the highly regulated environment of a school, a hospital? It might take three hours with a play therapist to perform a blood test – but if you take that time, the next will be much shorter…
Now! Build on strengths
Only now can you start truly thinking about strengths. Now that you have a safe, regulated child in front of you, working with them and their family to discover AND BUILD on their strengths, resilience and resourcefulness is possible, and exciting!
Don’t even start if you are not prepared to change the way you work to include those strengths – that would be unfair.
If a child is exceptionally good at science, what will you put in place to encourage that and allow that child to excel?
If they love running, how can you add more running to their day?
If they delight in helping younger children, can you set up a mentor scheme within your school or club to allow them to do more of that?
The strengths-based approach is an incredibly valuable one – but like a sticking plaster, it works if the wound is small, identified quickly and cleaned first. It is not appropriate when faced with a dirty, bleeding open fracture.
I like to think of it as akin to preventative medicine. If we can learn to eat well, exercise, practise self-care to maintain our emotional wellbeing, we can prevent all manner of health problems as we grow older.
If – and it’s a big if – we are able to identify a child’s needs before they go unmet, then we can use a strengths-based model to equip them with the tools they will need to handle life. The reality is that most children with additional needs are identified because those needs have not been met. In that case, you cannot use a sticking plaster. Emergency medicine first please, followed by convalescence and rehab. THEN and only then can you start thinking in a strengths-based way…