Why is the assessment of strengths so important?


Dr. Jim Longhurst

Dr. Jim Longhurst

A few years ago, Starr’s residential programs began the implementation of a true strength-based assessment tool – the Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale: Second Edition. Completed by the youth, parents, and a teacher or clinician, results of this widely accepted tool enable us to better understand a youth’s strengths along important dimensions:  interpersonal; family; intrapersonal; school; and affective.  This instrument has many applications including:

  • Measurement of gain in strengths:  Administered on a pre- and post-treatment basis, we can scientifically determine the effects of treatment on a youth’s behavioral and emotional strengths as experienced by the youth, parents, and clinicians.
  • Clinical applications:  the pre-treatment results serve as a guide for treatment planning that draws upon the strengths of the youth.  Having a comprehensive understanding of the strengths provides clinicians with ideas on how to provide sufficient experiences, instruction, and opportunities for continued growth and achievement of goals.

A real “strength” of this assessment tool is that it incorporates the experiences of three parties – the youth, parents, and clinicians.  As often happens, youth exhibit strengths in some situations and not others.  As well, it is helpful to see how the three assessments compare in consistency.  A youth may see strength in a particular dimension that is not experienced by the parent, or vice versa.  This is very important to know from a clinical standpoint because a strength not recognized, developed, and/or reinforced may be subject to “strength atrophy”, “strength extinction,” or the negative redeployment of the strength into destructive activities.

A good example of the importance of gathering observations from all three is “Brandon.”  Brandon came to our program having lived basically homeless and “on the streets” for most of his life.  He was later adopted but became such a handful that his parents and social services worker turned to Starr for help.  You can imagine the issues of trust and safety Brandon experienced on a continuous basis.

Brandon’s pre-treatment BERS 2 scores indicated that both his self assessment and his parents’ assessment ranked him at less than 1 percentile – meaning that more than 99% of youth assessed on this instrument scored higher, exhibiting more behavioral and emotional strengths.  His clinician’s rating was somewhat higher – 5 percentile – but still very low.  It was quite apparent that much work was needed to bolster Brandon’s ability to interact effectively with others.

After nine months of residential treatment, including group therapy, individual counseling, educational instruction, and structured recreational and service learning activities, Brandon was re-tested using the BERS2.  Both Brandon and his clinician saw significant improvement in his strengths – Brandon’s scores jumped to the 20th percentile and his clinician’s up to 23rd percentile.  BUT, Brandon’s parents’ scores remained exactly the same – less than 1st percentile!  They had not observed any progress at all.

This was significant clinical information for the treatment team.  They were able to set up a series of clinical parent conferences to help Brandon’s parents see that he was indeed making progress in many areas.  They were helped to communicate this awareness to Brandon which served to reinforce the gains made and to encourage further growth.  In this way the BERS2 served not only as a measurement of grow th but as an applied clinical tool.

Dr. James Longhurst is a licensed psychologist for Starr Commonwealth. In addition to his role as director for Montcalm Schools, Jim is involved in all case planning and clinical services for the organization.  He is a member of the American Psychological Association and is a charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. Jim is a certified lead facilitator and trainer for Starr’s Healing of Racism and Glasswing facilitator training initiative.


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