Learn Opinion

Goldfish and strengths-based approaches

Kathryn Smith, Chief Executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence

I was struck by a story I heard about a man who has dementia. The thing is: He can catch a goldfish with his bare hands. The staff at his care home were trying to clean out the fish tank and the goldfish was proving a slippery customer. So, this man thrust his hand into the tank and got the fish out. The tank was then cleaned.

All too often, providing care and support is seen as starting with: What’s wrong with you? By looking at people’s strengths in the first instance, then they are able to contribute something back. More often than not, that involvement will increase someone’s wellbeing. Imagine the feeling of pride that the goldfish-grabber had.

This story was told on a blog on our website and the author, Kat Sowden, who is Managing Director of Persona Care and Support, says: “Our system for providing care and support rarely allows for people’s strengths to shine through. When we carry out an assessment or put together a care plan, people’s unique talents are unlikely to get a mention. Even if they did, the next layer of risk assessment would manage to suppress any chance of this man’s fish catching abilities being employed to useful effect”.

So, we want to encourage the move from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What can you offer?’ We call this a strengths-based approach. It’s all about the outcomes and experiences that people have with care and support. Everyone working in care and support has had more than seven years to get used to this as it is enshrined in legislation. The Care Act 2014 puts a strengths-based approach at the centre of someone’s assessment, care and support, highlighting ‘What is strong’ rather than simply ‘What is wrong’.

One size does not fit all

The idea is that all of people’s strengths and talents are identified and considered in all interventions. As individuals we have multiple skills, knowledge, talents, character traits, relationships and abilities. We say on a film on our website that social care interventions should consider all of those attributes rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Through a strengths-based approach people can be supported to identify their personal outcomes, their needs and their strengths, including social and family networks. There are plenty of resources on our website to help with this but also some of it is common sense. www.scie.org.uk/strengths-based-approaches

Using these tools people can discover assets and strengths they have or could have access to and that may be through local facilities, professionals or their own talents or those of a friend or family member. When we take a strengths-based approach, we look at the wide array of skills and assets of, and around, the person. We can involve and link with family, community, organisations, practitioners, local authorities or facilities and services; all in order to work out the best way for their wellbeing to be promoted.


We have recently done some work on how leaders can embrace strengths-based approaches, because without effective and committed leadership, strengths-based practices are unlikely to flourish. As one of our trustees, Alex Fox, says: “Good leaders share rather than hoard power, which in turn will enable them to ask more of those around them. The key measure of success is not their own strength, but the combined strength and capacity of the whole system”. And we are working with the University of Birmingham to support practice leaders to demonstrate leadership through engaging with academic insights, critically reflecting on their own leadership, and developing a community of practice with their peers.

When work is done collaboratively, it can reveal that an apparently simple ‘circumstance’ for each person and then unfold a whole world of possibilities. Today: Goldfish. Tomorrow: The world! Well, not quite, but it’s clear that a strengths-based approach can go a long way to help achieve the best possible lives, experiences and outcomes for people who draw on services.

Read a longer version of the goldfish story on the SCIE website: https://www.tinyurl.com/caregoldfish









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