One of the benefits of living in Cape Town is the array of markets one has access to. Artisan foods, craft beers and upcycled products… it’s a wonderland of creative genius. My favourite stalls are run by those who have upcycled what others would have considered rubbish. A cup with a broken handle turned into a beautiful pot plant. An old window frame transformed into a work of art. Scraps of metal moulded into a magnificent baobab tree. What does it take for someone to look beyond the broken and see the potential?
A different perspective.
Our approach in society is very much the same. There are two main perspectives in how we perceive and behave towards others who are different. The first is to focus on the problem. In psychology, this is known as the needs-based or medical model. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine over the last few centuries, we’ve been able to isolate the root cause of diseases and find cures and preventions. However, it has also caused us to replicate this way of thinking in our everyday lives. “What’s the problem?” We ask ourselves.
As parents, we might see that our child’s behaviour is unacceptable and ask, “What’s wrong with this kid?” We might go further to ask, “What is happening at school? What am I doing wrong?” As a teacher, we may notice that a child is unable to complete the required tasks and think, “What’s wrong with this student?” We might have the insight to ask, “What is happening at home? Is there something going on in class? Am I doing something wrong?” These questions can help us unearth difficulties and challenges within and around a child.
Unfortunately, one problem just leads to another problem, and another, and another. It can leave us feeling overwhelmed, paralysed and disheartened. When all we can see is the problem, the person gets lost, labelled and belittled – the ADHD kid, the bully, the slow learner, the uncooperative one, the unavailable parent, the incompetent teacher… Much like the trash we so easily discard once it breaks, we discard the individual and replace them with a generalisation.
On the other hand, a different perspective is one that acknowledges that there is a problem. But it shifts the focus onto the skills and resources available. Strengths not only in the person, but around the person. This is known as an asset-based approach. This perspective requires a complete shift in thinking. Instead of asking, “What is wrong?” We ask, “What is useful?”
While a cup without a handle may not be suitable for drinking tea, it is still useful for holding substance – soil, a succulent, and some pebbles. A glassless window frame cannot keep the wind out of a house, but it can frame some precious memories. The asset-based approach recognises that the original design is not being achieved, but that the usefulness of product lies within its unique makeup. Instead of just seeing the child’s problem, we see the strengths of the child and utilise them to his or her benefit. We recognise that there may be difficulties within class, or home, or school, but we find those areas where the child flourishes and use them to his or her advantage. We build on the strengths so that the child has resources available to overcome the challenges. We recognise the individual’s uniqueness and see his or her potential for the future.
It means looking beyond the problem, and seeing the person.