Wraparound and CANS Strengths: How to Rate CANS Strengths Effectively and Authentically with Youth and Families

By: Stephanie East, MS, MSW/CSWA, En Route, LLC

One of the unique aspects of the CANS assessment is the ability to focus on the whole picture: one that highlights both current strengths and needs as a decision support tool within the Wraparound planning process. A strengths perspective highlights the skills and abilities, attributes and features, attitudes and values, culture, and preferences of youth and families and encourages us to utilize those strengths in planning. How those strengths are categorized and rated is important; if we do not as practitioners fully understand that process, we cannot truly rate CANS strengths effectively, nor can we accurately translate those strengths into planning.

Within Wraparound, there are three types of ways that we can communicate strengths but functional strengths are the most useful within the Wraparound Planning Process. Teams tend to inherently start the strengths identification process with descriptive strengths. Descriptive strengths are typically adjectives and describe attributes and features (i.e. he likes dogs). Contextual strengths are present in specific situations (i.e. I had a dog named Spot that made our lives better). What makes the Wraparound process sustainable and acts as a pathway to solutions are functional strengths. These are strengths that are useful in different settings and meaningful to the youth’s development (i.e. he hugs or walks his dog to help him feel safe).

One of the guiding principles of Wraparound is to be strengths based. The CANS gives us the framework to apply this principle into practice. Strengths are the key to lasting success in the treatment planning process and practitioners have to believe that strengths ultimately resolve concerns. The true application of strengths lies in the practitioners; how strengths are discovered and utilized across teams is largely based on the value that teams place upon them.

When rating the CANS, it is critical that the CANS is not an “event” but a process of discovery through conversation. Within the practice of Wraparound, peers and facilitators are trained to look for strengths in a comprehensive way and explore strengths within the Strengths, Needs, and Cultural discovery. Because of this mindset and the practice of being strengths based, at times the CANS reflects high ratings for strengths despite evidence that they are not yet functional. For teams to truly serve youth and families effectively, teams have to be honest and authentic in the way the Strengths domain is rated. By rating strengths too highly in the beginning, teams are missing an opportunity to truly show and reflect progress in growing strengths during their work with youth and families.

In order to determine which strengths are functional, and how they should be rated, there are several questions to consider. Is the strength useful and something to work with but the youth (or the caregiver) isn’t using it yet? Is the strength currently being used in planning? Is there opportunity to further develop this strength? Applying those questions and truly considering whether a not a strength is being used in a way that furthers development provides a solid framework for rating. Centerpiece strengths are the “headliner” of strengths and if they are not featured in a plan, the strengths are likely not centerpiece strengths.            

Wraparound and CANS both ground themselves in the needs and strengths perspective and through the process, the more intentional and authentic we can be in our ratings, the more we can truly see growth and progression. It’s ok if a youth and family begin Wraparound without many strengths identified; the process of Wraparound is to guide those strengths into functionality as the pathways to solutions.


Editor’s Note: The Praed Foundation and the Center for Innovation in Population Health are focused on taking solution focused action to support systems change during this important period in American history. Ms. East’s focus here on authentic and effective use of the Strengths items of the CANS is a great opportunity to consider and be truly thoughtful about how participation in efforts to impact systems by children and families can be a sign of internal strength.

Participation in rallies and other Black Lives Matter events show us signs of optimism, community life, cultural identity and so much more. A family’s engagement with political movements could reveal much about their own internal strengths and resilience. As we work to build a more equitable world it’s important to observe how those we serve are doing the same, and recognize and engage with the strengths they are showing the world.

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