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Effective Practices for Counselling People With Low Income

Counsellors who work with clients with low income say that an open-minded, person-focused approach is critical.

In working with this client group:

  • Don’t judge. Recognize that many circumstances have brought clients to their current situation. Any person, given such circumstances, might end up in the same position.
  • Be respectful. Value clients and their experiences.
  • Stay positive. Help clients reframe experiences to find the positive.
  • Use a holistic approach. Help clients work through life issues as part of addressing employment issues.
  • Be client-centred. Don’t make assumptions.
  • Ask clients what they need. Find out what they want their goals to be, not what you want them to be.
  • Be consistent. Clients will begin to trust you and will return when you offer a consistent approach.

Helping clients build self-esteem

What do I wish I’d known when I first started working with persons who have low income?—“I wish [I’d] had a better grasp of the complexity of their life issues... They have so many things happening that are extremely complex in depth and with layers intertwining. It is important to... explore some roots to their present situation, to identify presenting and pressing needs, to work on their agenda (not mine), to identify support systems (good and bad), to identify what their attitude is and how it will support (or defeat) working successfully and enjoyably.”

Use the following techniques to help clients build self-esteem:

  • Provide a long-term, supportive counselling relationship. This consistency will enhance personal development and help clients move toward self-sufficiency.
  • Use exercises that allow clients to explore their values, needs, aspirations, fears, preferences, and relationships.
  • Help clients identify the positive and negative factors that affect them. Once they are aware of these different factors, they can better focus on the positive ones.
  • Teach your clients the skill of positive reframing to promote positive thinking. Show them how to rephrase negative comments such as “How could I be so stupid?” into positive affirmations such as “I made a mistake, but I am smart and can fix this.”
  • Help clients think of at least 3 things they are good at and write these as affirmations they can read daily.
  • Use your knowledge and your network to inform and refer clients. By getting them the right support, you can avoid shuffling them back and forth from agency to agency, program to program. This shuffling often makes clients feel like each of these incidents is a personal failure.
  • Focus on helping your clients understand themselves better. This will help them cope with negative feelings, feel more positive about themselves, and create and pursue opportunities.

Help clients manage personal change and solve problems by using the following techniques:

  • Relaxation training
  • Systematic desensitization
  • Assertiveness training
  • Modelling
  • Video recording of role playing

Strength-based approach

Building on strengths—“It’s important to focus on the positives and to see small successes. To us [practitioners], they may be small, but for [the clients] they are huge. Showing up clean and on time may be a big step. Keeping a job for 1 week or 1 month might be huge. It is important to look back at the person’s history and where they’ve come from and where they are now, to see the success, the movement.”

Using a strength-based approach does not mean ignoring the challenges that clients face. It is important to help them identify barriers and strategies to address them. They can then move forward with career building.

A strength-based, client-focused approach can use the following techniques:

  • Listen, listen, listen. Try to understand clients’ worlds, the vastness of their journeys, and the twists and turns those journeys have taken.
  • Allow client direction for topics and work options. Keep giving the control and decision making back to clients.
  • Offer confirmation of clients’ positive statements about abilities, dreams, and values.
  • Look for any motivating factors that light them up, such as money to buy something they want, time away from kids, or the chance to be a role model for someone.
  • Give hope, encourage dreams, and help clients develop some roots for those dreams.
  • Separate goals into short- and long-term goals. Work with small, manageable steps.
  • Believe in their potential. Think positively, no matter what biases you may have about clients’ past or present situations.

Resilience, or the capacity to bounce back from adversity, is itself a strength. In many cases, clients in this group demonstrate great resilience in handling the stresses and problems in their lives.

If clients have trouble identifying their own strengths, ask questions such as:

  • What has worked for you before?
  • What’s happening right now?
  • What have you been thinking about as far as work goes?
  • If you could take pictures of your future, what would you like to see in those pictures?


An important role for counsellors is helping clients to become self-advocates. Information can be a powerful tool. Clients will benefit from knowing what programs, services, and benefits are available to them and their children. They can best access such benefits if they are able to advocate for themselves. Always maintain current information about the variety of programs and services available to clients federally, provincially, and locally.

Multidisciplinary teams

Many clients with low income face multidimensional challenges. No single counsellor or agency is likely to have the resources to help clients through their complex situations. Experts in the field suggest a multidisciplinary approach.

A successful multidisciplinary approach requires that agencies work together to support clients in moving forward. You may want to ask clients to sign permission forms that allow sharing of information with all collaborating agencies. Explain why you are collecting the information and how it will be used. Be sure to follow the requirements of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).

With the multidisciplinary team, consider these approaches:

  • Work from a strength-based approach.
  • Check egos at the door and keep the clients’ best interests as the focus.
  • Collaborate to support clients in moving toward their identified goals.

Facilitated referrals

Facilitating referrals requires broad knowledge of community resources. Your contacts in these organizations will be invaluable.

Here are some suggestions for making referrals:

  • Take time up front with clients to identify their needs.
  • Ask clients what other agencies they are receiving services from.
  • Know the resources available in your community and their special areas of service.
  • Try to know the people and their special areas of expertise in the agencies providing services.
  • Make sure clients go to the person in the agency who can provide the most effective help.
  • If clients fall between the cracks, help them brainstorm names of agencies that can provide necessary services.
  • Encourage agencies to be flexible about their mandates.

Helping clients build hope

Hope for a better future—“Acknowledge strengths and build on hope for the future. There is a human desire for the life of kids to be better. Even when coming from challenging circumstances, there is still hope and desire that for the kids, things will be better.”

Helping clients explore the role of hope in their lives can be a helpful strategy, as it:

  • Provides physiological and psychological benefits that help communication and decision making
  • Reduces anxiety about and fear of the future
  • Increases the chances of taking positive risks, keeping commitments, and exploring possible futures

To help clients build hope:

  • Actively listen to their stories and acknowledge their losses and challenges.
  • Use hopeful language, such as “yet,” “when,” and “I believe.” These words indicate that change is possible.
  • Help clients see the positives and learn from their experiences.
  • Help clients explore alternative and hopeful possibilities.

Looking to the future

Addressing clients’ present circumstances and related challenges is extremely important. But you should also help clients look to the future. Try these strategies:

  • Take time to get to know clients and to build a relationship with them.
  • Plant seeds for clients’ future vision while working to meet short-term needs.
  • Ask clients what they want their future to look like. Use questions and prompts that are meaningful for each person.
  • Help clients identify how they might move in the direction they want. While their hopes may seem unrealistic, it is not your job to judge their visions or dash their hopes. Helping clients articulate how they might move toward their vision makes sure that they own and drive the career-building process.
  • Accept that a 6-month vision may be as far ahead as clients can imagine, given their present circumstances.
  • Accept that building a vision is a process and may happen a little bit at a time.
  • Seize opportunities to work with young single parents with new babies, who may be quite hopeful and particularly open to planning for the future.

Helping clients with motivation

Empowering clients—“Keep trying to give ownership back to clients. When they come in, ask, ‘What has brought you in?’ This question provides information clarifying if someone has sent them and whether they are aware of why they are here. Give clients an overview of what is available: ‘Here are the things that we can do here. Does it sound like any of these might work for you?’”

To help clients build motivation for future action:

  • Assess their current motivation. Why are they here to see you? Did they come because they wanted to or because “the system” required them to? What activities do they do on an average day? Who are they in daily contact with?
  • Recognize competence in clients. Position yourself as someone who reinforces their competence. Identify and resolve any barriers in your relationship with them.
  • Determine whether clients have an extrinsic or intrinsic locus of control. An extrinsic locus relates to behaviour driven by the expectations of others. An intrinsic locus relates to behaviour that is self-driven. To be motivated, clients need to choose and set their own goals. This is an example of an intrinsic locus of control.

This process takes time, but it yields long-term benefits for clients.

Goals and visions

Helping clients relate their goals to their vision is a critical part of the career-building process. Any goal that helps clients move toward their vision is relevant and meaningful. Your role is to help clients define and implement their goals.

Show clients how to break their goals into manageable steps using short- and long-term goals. Encourage them to set SMART goals. Help them to assess their goals, modify them as necessary, and identify the steps they are taking to accomplish them.

Some clients will take longer than others to complete the steps toward their goals. Your support can help to motivate them. Offer to discuss any difficulties your clients may be having in working toward their goals.

Helping clients build support systems

Signs of social support—“People who have resources can pump each other up. Grandma can go and buy winter coats for the kids [that a parent can’t afford]. Someone else can share the use of the car. And that car will probably work, so that it doesn’t break down or run out of gas on the way to the job interview.”

Many unemployed people, including those receiving income support, experience isolation and lack of social support. In this situation, social support is defined as feeling cared for, esteemed and valued, and connected to a network of people who communicate and act on mutual obligation.

Research shows that social support can be an important resource in times of stress. Studies on social support for people with low income suggest the following:

  • Verbal support of family and friends may actually send contradictory messages if they downplay the legitimacy or importance of finding work.
  • Positive support tends to be particularly important for mature workers over 45. They often become discouraged and drop out of the labour market.
  • Entire families who are unemployed often become isolated owing to humiliation and loss of self-esteem.
  • Families may break up when the stress of unemployment becomes too unbearable.

Helping clients build relationships

People with low income often have feelings of isolation and social exclusion. You can use a number of strategies to help clients build relationships. These include group counselling or referrals to peer support groups. Employment training programs can also reduce feelings of isolation.

Peer support groups can be particularly helpful, especially for women. Refer clients to such a group, if available. If an appropriate group does not exist, consider establishing a group in your area.

It is also useful to help clients learn the skills to build and maintain a social support network. Unemployed people most value messages of support from peers in a similar situation, so encourage clients to develop a personal network of peers.

Where possible, maintain frequent and ongoing contact with clients to develop a trusting relationship.

Strategies for building life skills

Some people with low income will benefit from training in life skills such as communication, time management, stress management, and financial management.


Use modelling and role plays to demonstrate positive attitudes and their effects on other people. For example, ask the client to role-play asking or phoning someone for information. For the first role play, ask the client to display a good attitude, and for the second role play, a bad attitude. Discuss how positive and negative attitudes affect our lives.

Communication skills

To build communication skills, help clients learn to:

  • Speak clearly
  • Actively listen
  • Paraphrase
  • Use questioning skills appropriately
  • Use “I” statements, especially in potential conflict situations

Time management

To build time management skills, help clients become familiar with:

  • Using a daily or weekly planner
  • Making appointments
  • Documenting meetings, appointments, names, and phone numbers

When clients find work, they may feel like they don’t have enough time. Talk with them about using time management skills to deal with the work adjustment period.

Stress management

Help clients to use the following strategies for managing stress:

  • Identify how stress will build up if not handled appropriately.
  • Recognize and prevent burnout.
  • Identify constant stress factors in life.
  • Find a positive form of stress release that works for them.
  • Realize that because stress is ongoing, stress release must also be ongoing.

Financial management

Stretching the dollars—“Persons with low income are some of the best money managers that I have ever met. Some are really able to stretch their dollars beyond what many can. They manage incredibly difficult situations and keep on going when many would give up.”

Be aware of your clients’ financial situations and any related limitations, such as lack of funds for transportation, child care, and work clothes. Some clients may be excellent money managers, having survived on extremely limited funds. At the same time, many benefit from financial planning information provided in either group or individual settings. They may also need information on how to deal with the stress that comes from financial deprivation and not being able to provide for one’s family.

Become familiar with financial assistance programs. When possible, help your clients get information about income exemptions and health coverage available to them.

Helping clients explore education options

Education and training are important parts of helping people with low income move forward. Encourage your clients to:

  • Consider how education and training may help them
  • Upgrade their education and training, if possible
  • Look into various options, including individual courses, part-time and full-time programs, and possible funding
  • Think about education as a long-term solution, as opposed to a quick fix (such as training to fill a temporary labour shortage)
  • Consider enrolling in 1 course per term if that fits best with their family and life commitments
  • Look into local not-for-profits that may offer literacy and related programs
  • Take part in technology training to improve marketability and enhance confidence
  • Take advantage of available work placement or on-the-job training programs

Provide clients with any information and referrals that may be useful.

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