Looking for problems!

(Photo by Jennifer Mathis https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenxer/)

(Photo by Jennifer Mathis https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenxer/)

A few years ago, Jasmine came home with a survey for us to fill out as part of a university research project being conducted through the school. I didn’t know at the time, but the survey was the Child Behavior Checklist of the Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment (ASEBA). The ASEBA is a well respected tool “to identify patterns of functioning” and for identifying “problem behavior in children”.

What I saw was a four page survey. The first couple of pages had a range of general questions including some relatively positive ones such as:

  • Please list the sports your child most likes to take part in.
  • Please list your child’s favorite hobbies, activities, and games, other than sports.
  • Please describe the best things about your child.

The last two pages felt like the real focus of the survey. They were all closed-ended questions which would provide quantifiable information. There were 119 statements about what could be wrong with our daughter such as:

  • Argues a lot (Q3)
  • Cruelty, bullying, or meanness to others (Q16)
  • Easily jealous (Q27)
  • Physically attacks people (Q57)
  • Stubborn, sullen, or irritable (Q86)
  • Unhappy, sad, or depressed (Q103)
  • Wishes to be of opposite sex (Q110)

The most surprising part was the responses we could give:

  1. Very true or often true
  2. Somewhat true or sometimes true
  3. Not true (as far as you know)

Yes, that was “Not true (as far as you know)”.

Think about it. What is the inference?  The suggestion was that we might not know our daughter very well or that she might be doing something behind our backs.

So in our response to the statement that Jasmine was cruel, bullying or mean to others, the best we could say was “not true” as far as we knew. Nowhere could we say that she was actually very caring; that when she was only 5 she received two chocolates and her immediate response was, “Oh good, I can give one to Alexa [her younger sister].” The best we could do was “Not true (as far as you know).”

Now I’m sure that this type of survey has its role in diagnosing behavioural problems, but it should not have been sent out as a screening survey as part of a broad research project. The way in which the survey was implemented, forced parents to focus on all the bad things their children might do. This could help reinforce, or create, the dominant story parents had of their children.

This is the antithesis of a strengths-based approach.

In a strengths-based approach, one of our aims is to challenge the dominant negative story; to find exceptions and to harness potential. We don’t focus on the half-empty glass – the problems, deficiencies and deficits. We explore the half-full glass – strengths, potential and aspirations – to discover alternatives.

There are times where we may need to use such diagnostic tools: this wasn’t one of them.

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. More resources for students on strengths-based practice
  2. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  3. Parenting for a better world
  4. Ethics and community engagement
  5. 10 Ways to build school-community partnerships

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Strengths-based approaches & ABCD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Looking for problems!

  1. Well said Graeme. I am currently in the throes of thinking about options for school for my daughter. The very idea of these types of assessments sends me into a spin! In the debate about teacher quality we can throw in a need to train new teachers in the strengths approach for while we can base our social work on this premise, the Education system is firmly rooted in the deficit / discipline code which is breaking down and in need of radical change. While there are exceptions on an individual school basis, the emphasis should be on supporting staff to overcome their challenges in adapting to responding to students not as the problem but as the person!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Richard, starting school is a big thing. Good luck with it! Some teachers are great at building on kids strengths, but some others have a long way to go. I should emphasise that this was a survey done by researchers external to the school.


  2. Margaret says:

    I remember doing a questionnaire in my 20s related to youth work. All the questions assumed you had low self esteem and had had a negative upbringing. “Did you believe that the world was unpredictable and unreliable?” Type questions. I rang my mum up to ask her how she had managed to do a good and positive job!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think there is a greater awareness of identifying strengths as well as problems, but there is still a long way to go. I wonder if the people who develop some of these surveys really think about the impact they might have on people doing them?


  3. I completely agree with you. I think surveys can be helpful to some extent, but you cannot group people into neat categories and try to determine a patter of behavior or personality. The tone of that survey sounds pretty negative, and as you said forces parents to concentrate on the “bad” characteristics of their children. At the end of the day, you know your daughter best, and a list of questions, no matter how respected, will not be able to determine her personality or problems better than a parent. This is purely my opinion, I am not basing this on any medical or scientific data.

    Liked by 1 person

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