History of Strengths Perspective at KU

Early History at the KU School of Social Welfare

In 1989, then recently appointed dean Ann Weick and colleagues at KU were the first to formally name and articulate the Strengths Perspective in an essay for the journal Social Work (Weick, Rapp, Sullivan, & Kisthardt, 1989). They summarized its main insight this way, “All people possess a wide range of talents, abilities, capacities, skills, resources, and aspirations… a belief in human potential is tied to the notion that people have untapped, undetermined reservoirs of mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual abilities that can be expressed. The presence of this capacity for continued growth and heightened well-being means that people must be accorded the respect that this power deserves” (p. 352).

A strengths-based approach was initially developed at KU in the early to mid-1980s by our faculty and students for use with adults with psychiatric disabilities served by community mental health centers. These innovators included Professor Charles Rapp and doctoral students Ronna Chamberlain, Wallace Kisthardt, W. Patrick Sullivan, and others. The approach intersected with the movement for deinstitutionalization and advocacy for the rights of mental health service consumers, as championed in our state by Professor Lou Frydman. The strengths model of case management provided the state of Kansas with means to support persons in the community. This led to publication of the first practice-focused strengths model which addressed case management in mental health (Rapp & Chamberlain, 1985; Rapp, 1998) and then developed into the internationally influential strengths model of mental health recovery (Rapp & Goscha, 2012).

KU’s early conceptual innovations on the Strengths Perspective also engaged other movements that challenged conventional thinking in social work, such as empowerment, social constructionism, feminism, and holistic health and wellness. Professor Ann Weick, as dean from 1987-2006, provided much inspiration and impetus for the Strengths Perspective. Her husband, Professor Dennis Saleebey, published six editions of the book, A Strengths Perspective for Social Work Practice, extending from 1992 to 2013, which brought together scholars and practitioners of many fields to elucidate ideals, principles, practices, and applications. Many writings by Professor Saleebey and other KU faculty helped spread the Strengths Perspective. For example, in 1995, Professor Rosemary Chapin reformulated strengths principles to guide policy practice. The ensuing textbook, Social Policy for Effective Practice: A Strengths Approach, is now in its 5th edition. Examples of other strengths innovations in the 1990s at KU included practice with Black families (Logan, Freeman, & McRoy, 1990; Logan, 1996), social work and Indigenous education (Yellow Bird & Chenault, 1999), poverty and micro-enterprise responses (Banerjee, 1997, 1998a & b); holistic perspective and Taoism (Koenig & Spano, 1998), spiritual diversity in practice (Canda & Furman, 1999), and women’s empowerment (Davis, 1994).

The Strengths Perspective is now widespread in social work related to child and youth services, family practice, gerontology, mental health recovery, substance abuse treatment, and other fields of practice in the USA and several other countries. It has also connected with related innovations in a variety of disciplines, such as empowerment practice, resilience theory, neuroplasticity research, capabilities theory, positive psychology, positive youth development, positive aging, supported employment, community asset development, disability rights and the independent living movement, restorative justice, solution-focused therapy, and strengths based social policy.

The Strengths Perspective legacy continues at the KU School of Social Welfare. As our current mission statement says, the School “…rooted in the Strengths Perspective, aims to transform lives and social contexts and promote social, economic, and environmental justice in Kansas, the nation, and the world.”

Banerjee, M. M. (1997). Strengths despite constraints: Memoirs of research in a slum in Calcutta. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 3(3), 36-45.

Banerjee, M. M. (1998a). Micro-enterprise development: A response to poverty. Journal of Community Practice, 5(1), 63-83.24.

Banerjee, M. M. (1998b). Strengths in a slum: A paradox? Journal of Applied Social Sciences, 22(1), 45-58.

Canda, E. R., & Furman, L. E. (1999). Spiritual diversity in social work practice: The heart of helping. New York, NY: Free Press.

Chapin, R. K. (1995). Social policy development: The strengths perspective. Social work40(4), 506-514.

Chapin, R. K. (2017). Social policy for effective practice: A strengths approach, fourth edition. NY: Routledge.

Davis, L. (Ed.). (1994). Building on Women’s Strengths: A Social Work Agenda for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Haworth Press.

Kim, J. S.. and Bolton, K. W. (2013). Strengths perspective. In Encyclopedia of Social Work. New York: NASW Press and Oxford University Press. DOI

Kisthardt, W. (1993). An Empowerment Agenda for Case Management Research: Evaluating the Strengths Model from the. Case Management for Mentally Ill Patients,1, 165.

Koenig, T. L. & Spano, R. N. (1998). Taoism and the strengths perspective. Social Thought: Journal of Religion in the Social Services, 18(2), 47-65.

Logan, S. M., Freeman, E. M., & McRoy, R. G. (Eds.). (1990). Social work practice with Black families: A culturally specific perspective. New York: Longman.

Logan, S. (Ed.). (1996). The Black family: Strengths, self-help, and positive change. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Petr, C. (2015). “Birth” of the Strengths Perspective, Social Work, 60(3), 271. 

Rapp, C. A. (1998). The strengths model: Case management with people suffering from severe and persistent mental illness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rapp, C. A., & Chamberlain, R. (1985). Case management services for the chronically mentally ill. Social work30(5), 417-422.

Rapp, C. A. & Goscha, R. J. (2012). The strengths model: A recovery-oriented approach to mental health services. NY: Oxford University Press.

Rapp, C. A., & Sullivan, W. P. (2014). The strengths model: birth to toddlerhood. Advances in Social Work15(1), 129-142.

Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (1992a). The strengths perspective in social work practice. Boston: Pearson.

Saleebey, D. (1992b). Biology's challenge to social work: Embodying the person-in-environment perspective. Social work, 37(2), 112-118.

Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: Extensions and cautions. Social Work, 41(3), 296-305.

Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (2002). The strengths perspective in social work practice, third edition. Boston: Pearson.

Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (2013). The strengths perspective in social work practice, sixth edition. Boston: Pearson.

Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W., & Kisthardt, W. (1989). A Strengths Perspective for Social Work Practice. Social Work, 34(4), 350-354. 

Yellow Bird, M. & Chenault, V. (1999). The role of social work in advancing the practice of Indigenous education. In K. C. Swisher & J. W. Tippeconnic III (Eds.). Next Steps: Research and Practice to advance Indian education, pp. 201-235. Eric Clearinghouse.