Some educational authorities have taken the word ‘needs’ out of planning and assessment guidelines, at least in headings, focusing only on strengths and abilities. Clearly it is important for educators to plan and work with children’s strengths and abilities. The question for me is whether it helps children to do this at the expense of their needs, or whether a combined approach offers the best outcomes for children. Of course leaving out needs from headings and goals does not necessarily mean that educators will not include them in planning. In the same way, including needs does not mean that educators will focus on them to the exclusion of strengths and abilities. However, I believe that what is in the discourse has an influence on what people do.
‘Needs’ by definition are essential to a child’s wellbeing and development. ‘Strengths’ and ‘abilities’ build on the child’s capacity, encourage agency and competency and a positive approach. This is not always successful or sometimes even possible without taking account of needs. What is required is a combined approach without emphasising one to the detriment of the other. We need to ensure first and foremost that children’s needs are met while supporting their development in relation to strengths. How can a child focus and think clearly on their learning tasks if they are frightened or hungry or insecure or have a disability that prevents them from doing so? (Peth-Pierce, 2000; NEA, n.d.).
Some organisations, including the Victorian Government for example (Strengths based approach, 2012) have moved to only using strengths and abilities in the leading statements, but in the implementation strategies include addressing needs. The risk of this is that many people do not read all the strategies, especially the detail, and might be misled into believing that working with strengths and abilities is enough. Therefore they may not give attention to what is most important—children’s needs—perhaps in a belief that these will take care of themselves if the strengths are developed.
Let us look at what needs are. They are defined as something people (children) must have, highly important to thriving and, in some cases, surviving. Needs include things like food, shelter, love, safety, security, education, and so on. Children’s needs were considered so important that they have been enshrined as rights in the Convention on the rights of the child (UN, 1989) in order to make them legally enforceable. Not all needs can be legally enforced however, needs such as love and respect are equally important.
Considering needs is critical to educational success and should be in the leading discourse. Sometimes children’s strengths can be harnessed to meet a need. Sometimes more adult support is needed. Consider a child who comes to school hungry. This child is not going to be able to adequately take part in the educational program unless this need is met first. Another child may come to a service fearful and need an educator to hold her hand as she walks in, claim her and be available as a safe base. Until this happens the child’s focus is on her fears and she is unable to build on her strengths or develop her abilities. Another child may have had some trauma in his life or have missed some early learning opportunities so he is behind the others in reading. He may have great strengths in other areas but he is aware that the other children know that he cannot read well and has lost confidence. He may need to work on what is not his strength (reading) so he will eventually build up both skill and confidence.
Children can develop resilience over time which helps them to cope with difficulties but they cannot do it alone, resilience relies on support (Grotberg, 1997). When something is not right for a child, they need an adult, parent and/or teacher to be there for them. Maybe they can use their own strength and manage with encouragement, maybe they need a helping hand, they definitely need to know there is someone who can and will help them when they need it. The only way to know how best to help is to observe and to ask the child about how he or she feels. What is most important is that children know their needs are understood and being met.
Finally, what does the research say? As it happens, not much. There is very little empirical research on the effects of strengths-based programs. Strengths-based interventions vary greatly and often include other theories and approaches therefore are hard to research (Scerra, 2011). More empirical research is needed. In the meantime there is much research on the negative impact of children’s needs not being met, and on building resilience. Strengths and abilities are very important and part of developing resilience and educational success but without addressing needs, children’s education, mental health and health are compromised. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
National Education Association (NEA). (n.d.). Facts about child nutrition. Retrieved 12 February, 2015 from www.nea.org/home/39282.htm.
Grotberg, E. (1997). A guide to promoting resilience in children: strengthening the human spirit. Retrieved 19 February, 2015 from resilnet.uiuc.edu/library/grotb95b.html.
Peth-Pierce, R. (2000). A good beginning: Sending America’s children to school with the social and emotional competence they need to succeed. Bethesda: Child Mental Health Foundations and Agencies Network (FAN).
Scerra, N. (2011). Strength-based practice: the evidence: a discussion paper. Parramatta: Uniting Care Children, Young People and Families.
Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD). (2012) Strengths Based Approach, a guide to writing transition and development statements. Retrieved 19 February, 2015 from www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/childhood/professionals/learning/strengthbappr.pdf.
United Nations. (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.