“Wraparound” is a strength based social service model designed to keep at risk children in school, at home, (with parents or guardians), and out of trouble. With each family, one of the initial tasks of the Wraparound process is to identify the strengths of each family member, particularly the identified child.  Social workers familiar with the Wraparound process are huge fans of this part of acquainting a family with Wraparound. Strengths  identification has the power to quickly change the family’s perception of itself (and the self-perceptions of each individual family member) from that of a disjointed and hopeless group of poor functioning failures with little hope of  reaching “normal” to a positive and appealing vision of a healthy team of family members who support each others interests and strengths.

When children are asked to come up with a list of personal strengths, most (especially at-risk children) have trouble thinking of even one!  Some will say that they have no strengths and that they can think of  is nothing special about themselves. They perceive that whatever they attempt, academic or otherwise, somehow they’ll mess it up. These children perceive the word “strength” in reference to some kind of outstanding academic skill (like excellence in writing or math - or winning the science fair) or a superior quality (kindness, patience or courtesy) that would likely appear in the context of a Sunday School class. 

The goal for the parent or child should not be to impress the Wraparound Team by producing a long list of inauthentic strengths but to actually identify  real strengths and interests of a child who has seldom heard these qualities attached to his or her own name. Most children with Special Needs are often reminded about their “challenges” or, more specifically, things he or she ISN’T good at doing. (If asked to list of their problems, these kids could start and keep on going for an hour.

In fact, an experienced Wraparound facilitator can quickly elicit a list of about 30-50 strengths by prompting a child about age- appropriate activities.

For young children, questions might be:

  • Do you like to help in the kitchen?
  • Can you make your own breakfast/lunch?
  • Do you know how to ride a bike?
  • Are you a good brother/sister?
  • Do you know how to color?
  • Who do you like to hang out with?
  • Do you like to watch movies? (If so, what is your favorite?)
  • Do you brush your teeth every day?
  • Do you ever go to work with Dad/Mom?
  • Have you ever played a video game?

And for the adolescent crowd:

  • Do you know how to drive?
  • Do you like to pick out an outfit for a special event?
  • Do you listen to music? (And if so, what kind and who?)
  • Do you like to go to the movies?
  • Do your friends call you on the phone to make arrangements to do things on the weekends?
  • Is there one special food or snack that you crave?

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So what do we find out by getting the answers to these questions?  We learn about the reinforcers that might work for kids who need motivation or for whom we need to set goals.  We might gain an understanding about their sense of self; where they think they rank in the family order,  levels of self confidence, perceptions of likeability, worldliness or independence quotients,  cultural awareness and ability to delay gratification.

Abilities that  children may not have ever considered to be strengths (such as changing the oil in their cars, doing their own laundry, writing a good “thank you” note or taking charge of the family’s recycling ) are reframed for that child as a unique accomplishment that other children may have never even attempted.  I knew a fourth grade boy who could prepare a complete chicken dinner - and have everything hot and ready to serve at the same time.  I met an elementary school child who could assemble all of the complicated Lego  projects that challenge most adults - even when they have the instructions.  Another knew the rules and was able to play a variety of sophisticated card games with his grandmother.  Some children might say that they “like to watch movies”, but can’t identify their favorite type of movie.  If a child selects “action movies” as his preference, caregivers and professionals who pay attention to this information are suddenly onto something that might motivate this child to conquer a difficult personal challenge or master an undesirable task. Preference and ability.

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Besides information, what else can a Wraparound Team get out of this conversation? At-risk children have heard, at length, all about the things that they don’t do or the mistakes they make.   A SPED student with Learning Disabilities may: 1) hear the word “special” in the most negative context, 2) might have been accused of not paying attention in class, 3) might not ask the teacher for help, 4) may be known for keeping a messy backpack or desk, 5) might be reluctant to dress out for PE, 6) might not pick up his clothes at home or 7) probably forgets chores at home.  These children are usually reminded by teachers and parents of personal qualities they don’t have. These kids:

  • can’t make and keep friends
  • are a nuisance to brothers or sisters
  • don’t acknowledge the hard work or sacrifices of  parents
  • won’t join sports teams (like Little League.

These children are extraordinarily familiar with their shortcomings.   If a family members happens to mention a fine quality, this “honorable mention” often comes with a qualifier like, “…but he never…”, attached to it.

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There is real magic that takes place when a child, adolescent or adult not only HEARS the list of things on that Strengths list, but the magic becomes golden when they SEE the physical  list – the long list – of things they had never thought of in this light. (“Wow! I didn’t know I could do all of that stuff!”)

At the beginning of an IEP meeting, Special Education directors ask parents to describe the strengths of the child.  In meetings that I attend, I look at this as an excellent opportunity for families to show off a little; to make the list (hopefully, in front of the child, even if the child only attends this brief portion part of the meeting) of the things this child is able to do.  Often, I find myself plugging in the prompt questions (mentioned above) in an effort to drag a little praise out of Mom or Dad to lighten up any negative vibes in the room.  I prompt the child’s teachers, too.  I wonder if this child:

  • has enjoyed a particular assignment?
  • has worked well in a group setting?
  • can work independently?
  • likes to illustrate reports and papers?
  • is friendly to those sitting near by?
  • is polite when speaking to the teacher ?
  • is improving in some area of classroom behavior?
  • has been observed speaking in a friendly way with other children at break or lunch?
  • offers to help others in his/her area of excellence?
  • shows up to class on time?
  • answers when called upon?
  • demonstrates a sharp sense of humor?
  • has enthusiasm that is contagious?

While school budgets are tight,  teachers hands are tied in terms of accessing reinforcers for an individual child.  if the reinforcer is something can be provided at home (even if it’s  just TIME with Mom or Dad), one way around this is for teachers to award points or stars at school (and at home) toward the reinforcer: the privilege or highly desired item.  If teachers and parents work together in this way, chances are that the reinforcer will be earned more quickly (which equals a “short term goal”, rather than a goal  that’s so far off in the future kids find it difficult to remain motivated) and can be given out more often!

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In my experience, the one thing that most children desire more than any material item is TIME: time while Mom or Dad might reads a book aloud, time when a parent could take him/her along on a quick errand, time when he/she gets to select the channel on the television, time when he/she is allowed to skip a chore and delegate it to someone else, or just, for many kids, time to cool their jets and not be “busy”.  Cost? Nothing.  Value? Worth a ton in “relationship currency”!

I seldom endorse just an annual IEP. I  usually prefer more frequent check-ins with teachers or the Team to monitor the progress of new strategies for a child with Special Needs in the form of a weekly or bi-monthly progress reports.  These are great opportunities for rewards for academic or behavioral achievements – no matter how small.  A series of frequent reinforcers have the long term effect of reinforcing goals if recognized short-term, like those that would be appropriate when a child is recognized for coming to school on time, week after week, after a long history being tardy in the morning. When a child has been success (for a period of time) with one challenge,   it’s a good idea to look quickly at the next goal and find a corresponding Strength that might lead to a logical reinforcer.  This reminds children and parents about the many things that a child can do already, refreshing the goals and encourage continued success.

When a child has put our his/her school clothes the night before, carefully organized a backpack and completed homework before dinner, (coming from a place where none of these things happened), there should be a list of “New Strengths” that are posted at home and communicated quickly with the school.  Teachers can reinforce with school-based perks, like giving out “Get Out of Homework Free” passes. 

When we start to focus on the Strengths of a child and move conversation away from deficits, conversations tend to lean in a positive direction.  Teachers start to perceive these children as kids who are able to change behaviors, as “highly motivated”, not lazy, as “interested”, not bored, as intelligent not simply Learning Disabled,  and as leaders rather than invisible.

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