It was the start of a 14-day course and as the students were stepping off the bus, I caught a glimpse of Carl (not his real name). It was one of those moments you have as a seasoned instructor when you just know the type. He looked disinterested, unengaged, and just all-around "too cool for school". I immediately was dreading putting on a back and hiking around the backcountry with him for two whole weeks.
Outdoor camps and programs are weird, quirky, but all around amazing places if you stop and think about it. Sports camps, by contrast, offer one activity. You travel to their location, play basketball for a week, and then head home. Our programs offer the ability to practice a multitude of activities all from the confines of our small campuses. You can climb, swim, paddle, ride horses, shoot guns, throw axes, hike, and bike all while you're at a 5-day camp. What a bargain! But, more important than the deal our students get is something much more important and fundamental to enhancing behavioral and prosocial outcomes: the, often allusive, chance to find success.
It was about the fourth day and the student turned out to be as big of a pain as I had anticipated. Not only was he disinterested but he was also trying to get other students to defect to his point of view of how stupid this trip was and insight a general mutiny. I volunteered to set up the rock climbs that morning just to get a short break from the group. We started climbing and I had thought to myself that Carl was predisposed to succeeding in rock climbing as he laced up his climbing shoes. He was tall and lean, perfect for reaching a variety of holds. He easily scampered up any and all climbs that we had set up. He came down from a climb and was untying his knot when I, through no skill, insight, or knowledge of my own, leaned over to him and said, "You know, you could be pretty good at this rock climbing thing." That's when everything changed.
Strengths-based approach is a technique in social work and clinical mental health counseling that focuses on and emphasizes the inherent strength of an individual. Often we think of therapy as going and talking about our shortcomings and deficits. This technique seeks to flip that narrative on its head, first focusing on what we're good at and can accomplish, before acknowledging the deficits we have. I didn't know it at the time, but when I pointed out to Carl that he was finding success at rock climbing, I was tapping into this powerful technique that would ultimately lead to a complete and total behavioral change while Carl and I were together throughout this course.
The switch had flipped, the gates opened (insert other change metaphors here). The differences in Carl were immediate as I noticed he was actually helping me coil the ropes at the end of our day of rock climbing. Later that evening, he engaged in meaningful discussions around our campfire about the day we had while climbing. Over the next few days, the shift in his attitude and behavior was dramatic. He assumed leadership roles, cared about group morale, and showed genuine interest in the other people on the course. He was a poster boy of success for our types of programs.
Later, having talked with Carl extensively at the end of our course, he told me he had struggled through school. Not academically gifted, unable to make the sports teams, and genuinely without a place, he hadn't had a chance to succeed in anything throughout his life. The chance to succeed and find our strengths is perhaps the most simple, yet most powerful opportunities our programs can offer. Through diversity in activities and low focus on competition, our programs function as a place where individuals can try new activities and find strengths and success that can lead to a lifelong change. All while using a strengths-based approach, this is how our programs truly fulfill the mission of creating a better society and helping people grow and change. This incident was 10 years ago but, to this day, Carl serves as proof for me that our programs can make a lasting difference and an important reason we've included Strengths-Based Approach in our Behavioral First Responder curriculum.
Please share your success stories with us in the comments section and let us know how you utilize this approach and what type of success you've seen in your students as a result. Thanks for reading and consider subscribing to our site to make sure you know when we drop new blogs, courses, or opportunities.