By Terry S. Trepper, Ph.D., and Yvonne M. Dolan, M.A.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) principles have been increasingly applied to areas beyond the traditional psychotherapy field. These areas include social work and case management, the medical professions, business and management consulting, and education. Because SFBT is an over-arching approach, it can be adapted to a variety of clinical, medical, organizational, and educational settings. Within education, the SF approach has been applied to classroom management, student advising and counseling, teacher supervision and consultation, parent consultation, and even organizing an entire school including teachers, counselors, administration, custodial staff, food service workers.
The basic principles of the SF approach are:
- A focus on building solutions rather than solving problems
- The orientation is on the future rather than the past.
- Small changes lead to larger changes
- No problem happens all the time, so interventions build on exceptions to problems
- Solutions or potential solutions already exist within each individual.
- Solutions are not necessarily directly related to the cause of the problem, nor it is always necessary to develop a highly detailed problem description in order to develop an effective and lasting solution
One of the most inspiring classroom management programs is the Working on What Works or WOWW program. This program m was developed by one of SFBT’s founders, Insoo Kim Berg, and Lee Schiltz in 2002, and further developed and studied by Michael Kelly and his team from Loyola University in Chicago. The six to eight week WOWW program applies the basic SF principles to empower teachers and students in regular and special education classes to recognize their own strengths and abilities, and make changes toward desired goals. A WOWW coach joins a classroom to serve as a facilitator to help the teacher and students achieve their goals. Skilled WOWW coaches manage to incorporate all of the basic SFBT principles in their sessions. This process progresses essentially as follows:
- The coach, after introducing herself, tells the students that she is there to observe the things the class does that are good and helpful. She then has some observation sessions, noting what individual students and class as a whole is doing well, and then reporting these back to the students, e.g. ”Today I noticed that several of you did a good job of continuing to focus on your assignment even though there was a lot of noise going on in the hallway outside the classroom. I was very impressed! I also noticed people helping each other, passing out the assignments sheets, taking turns using the art supplies. This shows that you are doing a good job of paying attention to the teacher and also that you were paying attention to each other in a very co-operative, helpful way.”
- The coach, with the students, provides a 1-10 point scale ( a gradation of sad faces gradually changing to happy faces can be used for earlier grade students) with 10 symbolizing the best and 0 the opposite. The students are invited to describe what the best classroom (symbolized by the 10 or happy face) would look like, what a 5 would like, etc. Following this, the coach asks the students to pick a number on the scale based on how things are going in their classroom today: “What number on the scale would you give your classroom today? “The students are also invited to describe their rationale, e.g., “What do you see happening in class today that makes you give it that number?” Additionally, the coach might ask “What would help keep the number at that point, what could have made it go down, and what will make it go up higher? “
- In subsequent sessions, the coach repeats the above steps. She continues to observe the class, compliments the students and teacher, whenever possible referring to specific things the students are doing that are going well, asks the students to identify where they think their class is currently on the scale now, and invites the students to describe what needs to happen for the class to move up a little bit on the scale.
- Meanwhile, following each classroom coaching session, the coach also meets privately with the teacher to do a similar goal setting, scaling, give positive feedback on what the teacher is doing that is working, and complimenting.
Initial studies have found that students in WOWW classes had improved student-teacher relationships, the teachers and students had more collaborative classroom environment, had fewer absences and tardiness, and showed a trend toward higher grades and fewer suspensions.
SFBT is used by school counselors and psychologists all over the world, with notable programs in Singapore, Korea, England, Sweden, the Netherlands, and in the United States. The research done thus far has suggested that SFBT in school settings helps reduce the intensity of students’ negative feelings, manages conduct problems, and reduces externalizing behavioral problems.
Like SFBT in clinical setting, SFBT in school settings consist of the following interventions, all of which are usually incorporated in each session:
- Using the Miracle Question or some similarly structured questions to help the student set future-oriented goals
For example: “Let’s suppose that when you woke up tomorrow, something had happened during the night when you were sleeping that made things go much better for you at school. But since it happened when you were sleeping, you wouldn’t know it had happened until you or other people around you started gradually noticing that some things were different. What would be the first thing your best friend would notice about you on your Miracle day? What would your teacher notice? What would your parents notice? What would you notice? What else? “The counselor gently elicits as many positive details of what will be happening when things are better from the student as possible, thereby generating a highly personalized, richly evocative description. When used skillfully, the Miracle Question gives the student a vivid, virtual experience of what “better” feels, sounds like and looks like, simultaneously lowering tension and eliciting positive emotions, gradually seeding hope and increasing motivation.
- Discovering whether change (evidenced by new or increased exceptions to the problem) is already occurring, and encouraging the student to do more of that which is already happening.
“Are there times when things have been going better for you, maybe in big ways, but also maybe just in some little ways, even just a little bit better? How did you manage to make this happen?” (Get as many details as possible about any things the client is doing that is positive.) Students who have trouble identifying exceptions sometimes find it easier to imagine, “What would your best friend (mother, father, significant other) say is going better for you, even a little bit?”
- Scaling the goals on a 0-10 point scale (either with numbers, sad-happy faces, etc.); finding out where the student is each session on the scale, what they would need to do to move it up a point for next session; then the following session, checking their progress. “How would you discover that you had gone up a point on this scale in the next week? What will you be doing that will tell you (the coach, teacher friends etc) that you have gone up a point? How will others react? Who will be most likely to notice this first?”
- Monitoring change until the student feels he or she can continue it.
“Where are you on your scale this week”
As illustrated in many of the previous examples, SFBT school counselors often ask “systemic questions” designed to expand the solution description to include friends, family, and teachers. Questions like “How would you mother know that you had achieved your miracle?” or “What would be the first thing your best friend would notice when you are a 9 on the scale?”
SFBT assumes that major changes can occur as a result of small shifts in how students talk and think about their lives. Solution-talk is usually far more productive and helpful than problem-talk. Not surprisingly, students are typically more readily willing and motivated to engage in identifying and honing skills and abilities than focusing on correcting problems. The former can feel like an adventure or a challenge; the latter risks evoking painful past failures and personal deficits.
Skilled SF school counselors are trained to listen carefully for signs and signals of exceptions to the students’ problems and for solutions that have already begun to occur. “You said that even though you don’t like school, you go to school sometimes, anyway. What about those times that you go? How do you manage to get yourself to do this?”
Many teachers have found the SF approach to be particularly useful as a vehicle to talk about their child’s progress. Teachers trained in SF have noted that parent conferences, even with parents of students who are struggling in school, are less stressful, more collaborative, and more positive. Similarly to the SF applications to education previously discussed, the particular elements of the SF approach that are most helpful in structuring a parent-teacher meeting include :
- Focusing on the student’s strengths and abilities, as opposed to his or her deficits and problems
- Identifying the student’s resources and how the teacher is working to utilize those.
- Having the parents identify changes and exceptions their child has demonstrated during the school year, and encouraging them to do more of what they may be doing that helps
- Asking the Miracle Question, then scaling the miracle with the parents.
- Complimenting the parents for behaviors that are supportive to their child.
Making Whole Schools Solution-Focused
One of the most ambitious and exciting possibilities is to design an entire school to be Solution-Focused. When this is done, it provides a complete solution-focused educational context which permeates all aspects of the student’s and staff’s school experience which emphasizes hopeful, positive, empowering language; experimenting with new behavioral patterns; and encouraging incremental change. Students are viewed as being the experts in identifying their own solutions to problems, and thus student input is valued and sought after by teachers and staff.
The first all-school Solution-Focused school was Garza High School in Austin, Texas, which was a school for high-risk high school students. The school originally chose to redesign itself into an SF institution because, besides having many special programs to help high-risk youth, it was still experiencing extremely high drop-out rates, low rates of college enrollment among its graduates, and poor academic performance of its students. The administration, led by its principal, aligned with solution-focused researchers from the University of Texas. That team redesigned the school so that its guiding philosophy was solution-focused, and all aspects of the student experience would be solution-focused. They trained the entire staff, including administrators, teachers, students, and even support staff, in solution-focused principles and practices. Among the most striking results were increased student retention, improved test scores, and higher graduation rate. The main features of the Garza program were:
- Focusing on goals via a future orientation rather than the past. Students were continuously goal setting and evaluating their movement toward those goals.
- Self-paced learning replaced all students moving through the curriculum at the same time.
- Individualization allowed students not only to self-pace their movement through a course of study, but also to choose the order in which they could take classes using a schedule that worked best for them.
- The staff focused on building on students’ competencies, by being given the responsibility to control their own learning, and being empowered to take responsibility for their own progress.
- Support and reciprocal respect among teachers, administrators, staff, and students using solution-focused interventions such as focusing on the positive, looking for exceptions to problems, and complimenting were continuously offered.
As the field of Solution-Focused Education and Counseling continues to develop, we look forward to many creative new applications of the approach and increasingly innovative techniques.
Franklin, C., Biever, J., Moore, K., Clemons, D., & Scamardo, M. (2001). The effectiveness of Solution-Focused therapy with children in a school setting, Research on Social Work Practice, 11(4), 411-434.
Franklin, C., Montgomery, K.L., Baldwin, V, & Webb L. (2012). Research and development of a Solution-Focused high school. In Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper, Wallace J. Gingerich, & Erick E. McCollum (Eds.) Solution-Focused brief therapy: A handbook of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 371-389.
Gingerich, W.J., & Wabeke, T. (2001). A Solution-Focused approach to mental health intervention in school settings, Children & Schools, 23(1), 33-47.
Hogan, D. (2017). Introduction to Solution-Focused practice in education in Asia. In Debbie Hogan, Dave Hogan, Jane Tuomola, & Alan K.L. Yeo. Solution-Focused practice in Asia. New York, Routledge, pp. 129-133.
Kim, J., & Franklin, C. (2009). Solution-Focused brief therapy in schools: A review of the outcome literature, Children & Youth Services Review, 31, 464-470.
Trepper, T.S., McCollum, E.E., De Jong, P., Korman, H, Gingerich, W. J., & Franklin, C. (2012) Solution-Focused Brief Therapy treatment manual. In Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper, Wallace J. Gingerich, and Eric E. McCollum (Eds.), Solution-focsued Brief Therapy: A Handbook of Evidence-Based Practice, London, Oxford University Press, pp. 20-38.
Specific Programs and Interventions
Kelly, M.S., Liscio, M., Bluestone-Miller, R., & Shilts, L. (2012). Making classrooms more Solution-Focused for teachers and students. In Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper, Wallace J. Gingerich, & Erick E. McCollum (Eds.) Solution-Focused brief therapy: A handbook of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 354-370.
Metcalf, L. Counseling toward solutions: A practical solution-focused program for working with students, teachers, and parents (2nd Ed.) (2008). New York: Jossey-Bass. http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0787998060.html
Garza Independence High School: A Solution-Focused High School. http://garzaindependencehs.weebly.com/solution-focused-approach.html
Måhlberg, K., Sjöblom, M., & McKergow, M. Solution-Focused Education. sfwork.com/pdf/sfeducation.pdf
Working on What Works: About the WOWW Program; a solution-focused coaching method for schools: Video: https://youtu.be/zdOUyWTpUTc
Kim, Johnny S., Michael S. Kelly, and Cynthia Franklin. Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in Schools: A 360-degree View of the Research and Practice Principles. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print.
Metcalf, L. (2008). Counseling toward solutions: A practical solution-focused program for working with students, teachers, and parents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 Terry S. Trepper, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Purdue University Northwest.
 Yvonne M. Dolan, M.A., is Founding Director of the Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy.