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The Power of a Positive, Relationship-Focused, Trauma-Informed, Strength-Based Approach to Guiding At-Risk Children and Youth

By Charlie Appelstein

May 14, 2014 Back

Behavior is a message (Appelstein, 1998). When children and youth misbehave, often in very serious ways, such as setting fires, committing violent acts of aggression, or cutting themselves – it’s as if there is a neon light flashing over their heads, announcing: I need help! I need help! Fortunately, adults can respond to these calls for help with an effective, evidence-based strategy. Strength-based practice is a proven approach to guiding off-track lives that positively transforms our most vulnerable children.

First, before we delve into strength-based practice, let’s take a look at the psychology of misbehavior and the evolution of interventions addressing it:

Young people do not like misbehaving. Sure, at the time of an incident, there might be satisfaction due to increased attention, avoidance of a problem area, revenge, and/or a release of anger that has been building within. Also, following a serious misbehavior, there could be gloating and a desire to repeat the offense.

However, if we could administer a truth serum to any kid who commits a serious offense and ask the following questions: “Do you like who you are? Do you like displaying these horrible behaviors? Or would you rather be that kid over there that has a loving family, many talents, lots of meaningful friendships, and a very bright future?” Not one young person in our universe would choose his or her life over this alternative. Many of these kids loathe themselves (they blame themselves for any abuse they incurred from their parents) and, in fact, misbehave with the deep intent of getting the help they so sorely need and, in many cases, can’t directly ask for.

As an old warhorse in the youth care arena, I have observed interesting changes in our field with respect to understanding and responding to at-risk children and youth and their troublesome behaviors. I recently conducted a series of trainings in Scotland. David Mackay (2013), a representative of the Falkirk Council of Educational Services, sent me a paper written by his staff members that traced the evolution of approaches employed by educators over the past 50-75 years. These changes mirror what has occurred in treatment cultures as well.

What this table illustrates, is the ongoing progression and evolution towards a positive, empowering, relationship-focused approach to guiding children who struggle with behavior issues.

Back in the ‘80s, when I first began conducting workshops, attendees would talk to me at the breaks. I would often hear: “I do what you suggest. I’m really positive with my kids, but my supervisor says I’m being too nice and that I’ve got to be more stern. She says they’ll walk all over you if you’re too good to them.” Even today, when I conduct back-to-school trainings in August and September, without fail, new teachers approach me and state, “The older teachers are telling me not to smile until December! What do you think?” I reply, “Such advice makes me ill. It implies a warm, positive approach with your students will cause you to lose control of the class, and that you don’t possess adequate limit setting skills. That’s a crock! Treat your kids in a warm, engaging and positive manner – but set limits when you need to, and you’ll move mountains.”

Child care veterans have known through observation and intuitively for untold years that when you treat kids, and in particular, those who have suffered emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse (trauma) – with great respect and in a truly positive manner, the kids feel safer, become happier, make better choices, and often go on to lead more productive lives.

What many of us didn’t know at the time is that this positive and effective approach to guiding at-risk children has a name. It’s called strength-based practice. Although professionals often refer to SB practice as a modality, in reality it’s a conceptual framework; it’s a way of understanding and responding to problem behavior, and those who commit such acts, that recognizes that behavior is a message (“I need help”) being sent by inherently good people, and that when we respond to these calls for help in respectful, affirming, and empowering ways… problem behavior diminishes, self-esteems rise, and happiness abounds.

Here’s a basic definition of strength-based practice as it applies to children and youth:

Strength-based practice is an emerging approach to guiding children and youth – and in particular, those experiencing ongoing emotional and behavioral challenges, that is exceptionally positive and inspiring. Its focus is on strength-building rather than flaw-fixing. It begins with the belief that all young people are resilient and have or can develop strengths and draw on past successes to make good decisions and enhance functioning and happiness.

In reality, strength-based practice is about two words: attitude and actions. It begins with the uplifting attitude a professional presents to an at-risk young person or group – from the moment they meet and then forever, that conveys the following message: I believe in you. I know you will succeed here and after you leave. And I am absolutely thrilled to be part of your life.

Subsequently, everything a professional says or does with an at-risk child or group needs to be an extension of this critical affirmation: I am excited to be around you, I believe in you, and I know you will make it.

According to Michael Durant’s seminal work, Residential Treatment (1993), the goal of his residential setting is to have each youth leave feeling better about him or herself. The logic is simple: if they leave with a more positive self-concept, they’re more likely to use and develop their strengths to make better choices in life.

When at-risk children and youth feel better about themselves due to the positive manner with which they are being treated, it makes them feel good. When children feel good they’re more likely, from both a neurological and psychological perspective to make better decisions.

James Garbarino (2000), one of the world’s foremost experts on at-risk youth, stood in front of a group of 1000 people in Las Vegas and stated: “We can now predict with almost 100% certainty whether a teenager who has committed acts of violence prior to entering high school will commit more acts of violence while he is at the school. If that youth can wake up every day believing there is at least one adult at the school who ‘thinks I’m terrific,’ the odds of that student committing a serious offense goes down to about zero.”

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage (2010) and a major force in the strength-based world, writes:

“New research in psychology and neuroscience finds: ‘We become more successful when we are happier and more positive. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.’”

Achor continues:

“Recent research shows that the broadening effect (how positive emotions broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas), is actually biological. Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. Positive emotions help humans to organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.

Brain change, once thought impossible, is now a well-known fact, one that is supported by some of the most rigorous and cutting-edge research in neuroscience.”

Achor’s amazing neurological work validates and trumpets the need for all of us who influence young people’s lives to employ a positive, strength-based approach.

Strength-based practitioners use a myriad of interventions that build on the powerful theory and research presented throughout this paper. You can too. Popular techniques include:

Reframing: Taking a seemingly negative behavior and seeing the positive, protective value in it.

Example: (To a youth who won’t talk about his family matters) “You’re a very loyal daughter.”

Solution-Focused Questions & Communication: Using questions and comments to alter a negative perception.

Example: (To a youth who makes a hopeless comment, “I can’t do this!”) “You can’t do it yet, Michael.”

Creating and Modifying Activities to Ensure Success Opportunities:

Example: Changing the rules of a basketball game: No ball can be shot unless it is passed three times.

Positive Predicting: Talking positively about the future.

Example: (To a child experiencing serious behavioral issues) “How should we celebrate in six weeks when you’ve had six of the best weeks you’ve ever had? Pizza or Chinese Food? Or, “Will you come back and visit me, and perhaps treat me to a great meal –  for always believing in you, when you’re a successful businessman?”

Humor: Humor needs to be taken more seriously. It enhances relationship formation, and makes people feel good.  Avoid sarcasm!

Inspiring Metaphors: Using symbols to explain and empower.

Example: (To a youth who is struggling big time) “All kids are like trains; they all have big engines and are going somewhere great. But, dude, you’re a bit off track right now. You’ve got wheels spinning, smoke bellowing, oil seeping out! We’ve just got to get you back on track, brother. Back on track, Jack!”

Strategic Use of Incentives: Celebrating incremental progress.

Example: Offer an enticing reward to a high school student for skipping school 3 times instead of 4 next week.

One-Line Rapping (Coping Thoughts): The brain is designed to change in response to patterned, repetitive, stimulation. Create mantras for kids that help them to function better.

Examples: Let it go, Joe. Just stay cool no need to blow….Here’s some advice, talk real nice…If you lose hope, don’t do dope

Intentional Acting: Fake it until you make it. Start every interaction, every shift, with an attitude that says: I’m thrilled to be here and excited to be working with you! Doing so increases the probability for daily and long term success on the part of the kids you serve.

Although our world contains too many kids who have suffered abuse and are off-track, the good news is that a positive, strength-based approach offers caring parents and professionals a way of rejuvenating these kids. If the whole child-caring world would jump on board with this approach, untold lives would be transformed, billions of dollars would be saved in the criminal justice arena, and folks like me would be happily flipping pizzas instead of writing articles.

Remember, there is no such thing as a bad kid, just bad luck and bad choices. All who influence young lives must embrace this concept and do everything they can to help these message-senders reclaim their lives and find happiness. We do this by adopting a relationship-focused approach that identifies and builds upon the strengths all children possess and can develop.

If you would like a complimentary, comprehensive handout full of effective strength-based tools, visit, email the author at, or visit

About The Author

Charlie Appelstein

Youth care specialist Charlie Appelstein, M.S.W., President of Appelstein Training Resources, LLC (ATR), provides expert strength-based training, consultation, publications, CDs, and DVDs for individuals and groups who work with children and youth experiencing serious emotional and behavioral issues.