In this third e-bulletin, Tina Rae considers the use of solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), which encouragestudents to consider how positive change can be brought about via the principles of ‘solution building’ as opposed to ‘problem solving’

This technique requires individuals to actively explore their current resources, as well as future hopes and aspirations, as opposed to focusing on present problems and their historical causes. It was originally developed at the Brief Family Therapy Centre in Milwaukie by Steve de Shazer and his team in the early 1980s, originating in a focus on the inconsistencies to be found in problem behaviour. The strategies are extremely useful when used with young people, in terms of developing their sense of personal agency and responsibility. Learning mentors/well-being co-ordinators can support students in identifying new and more positive possibilities for their futures, based upon their own answers, feedback and resources. These can include both internal and external factors including strengths, skills, qualities, helpful beliefs, capacities and supportive relationships.

Clearly, school-based staff members who are not physically trained will not be engaging in any traditional therapeutic approach. However, the strategies outlined here will prove extremely useful in one-to-one mentoring sessions – particularly when students have identified any personal problems or behaviours that they wish to change – in order to access the curriculum and social contexts in a more positive and effective manner.

The preferred future
When initially working with a student using SFBT, it is important to encourage them to identify their preferred future, i.e. where they would like to be in the future. In traditional therapeutic approaches, individuals tend to spend the majority of the time thinking about, and describing, their perceived problem in its various presentations. This tends to reinforce the problem. Instead, asking the student: where they would like to be in the future; what their ideal person would be; what their ideal self would be, will encourage them to begin to notice their progress towards this ideal, even when the steps are relatively small.

The miracle question
When discussing preferred futures with students, it is enormously helpful to make use of the ‘miracle question’. This is probably the central and key strategy to the solution focused approach. It is a creative way of eliciting the description of a preferred future, and it is relevant to young people who are frequently described as exhibiting social and emotional behavioural difficulties within both the home and school contexts.

You may wish to phrase the question as follows: imagine that when you are asleep tonight a miracle happens – it is almost as if a magic wand is waved over you and the problem or difficulty you are currently experiencing is eliminated. You are not aware of what has happened when you wake up, but you notice the changes. What is it that you notice when you wake up, and as you continue through your day, that lets you know that this miracle has occurred? The student is then encouraged to be very specific about describing all the changes in detail, elaborating further on their preferred future.

Using exceptions
When working with young people they can often appear to feel stuck in a difficult or complex situation. They can’t seem to identify a way forward for themselves and can become trapped in a vicious cycle of negativity. It is important to highlight the fact that there are always exceptions to every problem: for example a time when the problem is not quite so bad; less significant; or simply does not occur. Exploring these exceptions allows the student to perceive the power of problem-reducing, and the problem eventually begins to feel less of a controlling force in the student’s life. These exceptions become the seeds of the solutions. They are already owned by the student, and consequently place them in a more powerful position in terms of moving forwards and identifying the solutions for themselves. Two questions are key at this point: how did you do that, and what would you need in order to do it again and more frequently?

Rating scales to measure progress
When exceptions have been identified, students can make use of a scaling framework in order to measure any movement they make, and to identify their available resources and future aspirations. Having identified where they will want to be in the future through the miracle question process, the student can now rate themselves on a relative scale of 1-10 where they are now (10 representing the ideal). The student can be asked to identify what they have already done in order to find themselves on a specific place on the scale. For example, if they have said that they are currently a 3 they may not feel that that’s particularly good at the moment − but they must have rated themselves as a 3 as opposed to a 1 for some reason. What is it that they are already doing in order to have rated themselves in this way?

You may then lead the student onto thinking about how to progress from where they are now to their ideal. How can they get there? What is it that they need to do? Who can help them? What are the targets they need to set themselves now in order to move themselves further up this scale? The student can then engage in setting specific targets; and it is important that these are SMART (small, measurable, achievable and time bound). For example: should the target be to cope more effectively with embarrassment or anger, and not run out of the classroom? They also need to set a time limit in terms of reviewing these targets, and set a time to work with their mentor, or the SENCO, in order to review their progress and set subsequent targets as appropriate.

Overall, this kind of intervention helps students to take responsibility for their own futures, as opposed to focusing on difficulties they may have had in the past or are currently experiencing in school or at home. The idea is to clarify possible goals and changes to make, in order to actually achieve them.

Strategies to implement change: diaries and reframing
Another useful strategy for ensuring that students focus on future positives is to make use of a miracle day diary. This could be done from 7am through to 11pm in the evening, or as appropriate. The students are asked to identify how they think, feel and act at each hour of the day and why this would be so special and so positive. They need to ensure that this remains an entirely positive process. They are being asked to identify the best possible day that they could have – however, this doesn’t entail missing school! The day should be timetabled as usual – the only difference being that everything goes right.

Following this, the students can reflect on the differences between this miracle day and their usual day and write these down as a list. This will support the process of setting top targets. What would they really like to change about their normal day in order to make it more like the miracle day? What small steps could they take now in order to begin to work towards their ideal day and their ideal self? Students can adhere to a stepped approach as follows:

  • What do I want it to be like?
  • My target – how can I get there?
  • How I will know when I have reached my target?

Part of this process is also to maintain an entirely positive and solution-focused outlook; the students should be encouraged to reframe negative statements and thoughts that they have. For example, ‘I’m really sick when it comes to English’ could be reframed as ’I find English quite difficult but I know that if I work hard and access the appropriate support I can improve my skills.’ This is not an easy strategy for many students to develop – however, with appropriate support modelling and encouragement from a mentor, there is no reason why a majority of students cannot begin to make use of this strategy effectively.

Teaching Tools – A Solution Focused Approach for Secondary Staff and Students
This programme was developed and trialled in secondary schools in the London Borough of Hillingdon. It provides practitioners with a user-friendly resource with which to teach students the key skills and strategies of SFBT approaches. The 8 sessions in the programme are presented as follows:

Session 1: Introduction and ground rulesSession 2: Problem free talk, the miracle question and target settingSession 3: Defining a preferred future – talking about how the student would like things to beSession 4: Looking for positives – identifying what is working now and finding exceptionsSession 5: Scaling in order to reach your goals and using confidence scalesSession 6: Problem solving and looking ahead – what would happen if?Session 7: Magic me: my miracle self – visualising future success and planning for success

Session 8: Running a session – skills practice and evaluation

This practical programme aims to inform and equip all young people to utilise these solution-focused brief therapy strategies. Hopefully understanding and using these kinds of skills will help them to prevent problems from becoming entrenched in the future. The programme is not intended as any replacement or substitute for a therapeutic intervention; however it is intended to provide students with the opportunity to understand and practice a range of solution-focused techniques and strategies, ensuring that they feel confident in maintaining motivation and supporting the process of positive change – both in themselves and within members of their peer group.

Finally, it may be helpful to draw your attention to a range of publications and useful resources which can support the use of solution-focused brief therapy approaches in your school.

  • De Shazer, S. (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy New York: Norton
  • De Shazer, S. (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy New York: Norton
  • George, E., Iveson, C. & Ratner, H. (1999) Problem to Solution: Brief Therapy with Individuals and Families London: B.T. Press
  • Lethem, J. (1994) Moved to Tears, Moved to Action: Brief Therapy with Women and Children London: B.T. Press
  • Levy, E. (1998) Solution focused therapy with children: harnessing family strengths for systemic change Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Vol. 37 (6)
  • Metcalf, L. (1998) Teaching Toward Solutions West Nyack, NY: Center for Applied Research and Education
  • Rae, T. & Smith, E. (2009) Teaching Tools: A Solution Focused Approach for Secondary Staff and Students London: Optimus Education
  • Rhodes, J. & Ajmal, Y. (1995) Solution Focused Thinking in Schools London: B.T. Press
  • Webb, W.H. (1999) The educator’s guide to solutioning: the great things that happen when you focus students on solutions, not problems Thousand Oaks, C.A. Corwin Press

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Tina Rae, a senior educational psychologist in the London Borough of Hillingdon and the emotional literacy co-ordinator for Chantry SEBD school in West Yiewsley. Tina has extensive experience of teaching, research, programme development and consultancy across the country

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