Defining Strengths

A young boy bushing his bike up a steep inclineThe strength-based perspective is "essentially an approach rather than a well-integrated theory" (Van Wormer & Rae Davis, 2003, p.21), as there is no single, agreed upon definition or formulation of its procedures. One perspective of the strength-based approach describes "emotional and behavioural skills, competencies, and characteristics that create a sense of personal accomplishment; contribute to satisfying relationships with family members, peers, and adults; enhance one's ability to deal with adversity and stress; and promote one's personal, social, and academic development" (Epstein & Sharma, 1998, p.3).

 Epstein and Sharma's (1998) definition of strength offers notions of resilience, which is often used synonymously with strength in the literature. Resilience refers to "an individual's capacity for adapting to change and to stressful events in healthy and flexible ways" (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak & Hawkins, 2004, p.103). However, Rawana and Brownlee (2010) contend that resilience theory presents a slightly limited perspective of the full spectrum of what could be considered a strength. Using resilience to assess strengths in an individual requires an inference about a person's life, involving two fundamental judgments: (1) that a person is "doing okay", and (2) that there is now or has been significant risk or adversity to overcome (Maston & Coatsworth, 1998). 

 Conversely, from a strength-based perspective, "almost anything can be considered a strength" (Saleeby, 1997, p 50). Strengths can materialize and "emerge in mundane, every-day environments (Rawana & Brownlee, 2010, p.4), rather than materialize as the result of stress or adversity. Thus, another definition of strengths are "a set of developed competencies and characteristics embedded in culture and ... valued both by the individual and by society" (Rawana & Brownlee, 2010, p.10).

This definition allows for a very broad perspective of strengths, which can then be assessed and used toward the engagement of youth. Competencies are represented by certain skills that have been developed over time (e.g., hockey, cooking, etc.). Characteristics are personality variables residing within the individual (e.g., extraversion, nurturing). Competencies and characteristics may act independently, or in harmony, when they are valued by both the youth and his/her culture, thus, resulting in their manifestation as strengths. Often, youth may minimize or potentially be unaware of their ability to use these assets as strengths to overcome struggles and as "resources to achieved their stated goals" (Epstein, Rudolph & Epstein 2000, p.250).


Catalano, R.F., Berglund, L.M., Ryan, J.A., Lonczak, H.S. & Hawkins, D. (2004). Positive youthe development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, 291, 98-124.

Epstein, M.H., Rudolph, S. & Epstein, A.A. (2000). Strength-based assessment. Teaching Exceptional Children, 32, 50-54.

Epstein, M.H. & Sharma, J.M. (1998). Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale: A strength-based approach to assessment. Austin, Texas: PRO-ED Inc.

Matson, A.S. & Coatsworth, J.D. (1998). The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons from research on successful children. American Psychologist, 53, 205-220.

Rawana, E.P. & Brownlee, K. (2010). Strengths Assessment Inventory: Manual. Thunder Bay, ON: Centre of Excellence for Children and Adolescents with Special Needs.

Saleeby, D. (1997). The strengths perspective in social work practice (2nd edition). New York: Longman.

Van Wormer, K. & Rae Davis, D. (2003). Addiction treatment: A strengths perspective. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.