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:
- Very true or often true
- Somewhat true or sometimes true
- 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.
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