Lesson 3: Solution-Focused Approach

Click for introductory video for Lesson 3

This cognitive approach does not focus on problems, but on solutions. It is student-centered, not problem-centered, and action-oriented, with each session beginning with the question “What is your goal in coming here?” A solution-focused session acknowledges that there is a goal to be accomplished or a problem to be solved and then centers on that purpose. Listen attentively and empathically, but do not let the student get stuck talking about problems in the past or problems that are out of his control. Good goals are stated:

  1. in the positive,
  2. in the student’s own words,
  3. in process form, ending in -ing (What will you be doing or thinking?),
  4. in the here and now (What will you be doing now or soon?),
  5. as specifically as possible, and
  6. in ways that are within the control of the student.

Sample Dialogue for Setting Good Goals

Teacher (T): The first thing we need to do today is to set a goal for us to work toward. What is your goal in working with me?
Student (S): My mom says I’m “wasting my potential.”
T: Sounds like you were quoting your mom. How would you describe her expression “wasting potential”?
S: Not getting good grades.
T: How is this a problem for you?
S: I don’t want to be pulled from enrichment class. My friends are all there.
T: That gives us a place to start. What will you have to do so that doesn’t happen?
S: I’d have to work all the time.
T: Is that possible, to work “all the time”?
S: For a while.
T: Let’s try to come up with a goal that is realistic, one that you can stick to. Try to be really specific.
S: I can do better at school.
T: Okay, how will you do that?
S: By not wasting my time?
T: I don’t know. How will you do that?
S: I’ll act better in classes.
T: okay, let’s go over what we’ve come up with. You want to stay in the enrichment class and act better. Is that right?
S: I guess so.
T: We have to come up with a goal that you are comfortable with and it has to be something you can and will start doing right away.
S: I can do better in language arts class. I’m doing okay in math.
T: Great. Now, what do you mean by “doing better”?
S: Like, pay attention and not fool around.
T: Sounds like we have a good goal in the making! Let’s go over what you plan to do tomorrow.

Turning Wishes, Complaints, and Labels Into Goals

Students may need help with expressing good goals. Wishes, complaints, and labels such as “I wish everyone would lay off,” “My parents are never satisfied,” and “My teacher is too picky” need to be changed into goals. Listen carefully and empathically to show that you understand by rephrasing the comment and repeating it back to the student, but add a follow-up question to refocus the student on the active pursuit of change that is within his control (e.g., How is this a problem for you? How controllable is this? To what extent can you change this? What would you like to change as a result of this session? How can I help you make this change?) A good goal does not depend on someone else needing to change first.

The focus is on what is occurring in the present, and on how to actively change it for the future. Explore the exceptions to the problem to encourage the student to keep doing what is already working. To focus on solutions, ask questions like:

  • What is working for you now? How could you do more of the same?
  • What are you doing that keeps this problem going? What would you rather be doing instead of your problem?
  • What would you like to try that is different from what you usually do?
  • What kinds of problems have you previously solved? How?
  • When you had a problem like this one before, what good solutions did you work out? or If you have never had this type of problem before, have you ever helped someone else with this type of problem?
  • What changes did you make that were better than those you are making now?
  • What were the times when you expected to have this problem and you did not actually have it, or you dealt well with it?
  • What solutions have worked well for you, and what ones have not?
  • When you stopped feeling upset/angry/frustrated/incapable, what had you done to make yourself stop?
  • What interrupted your problem and made it better or tolerable?

Reactions to the Inevitable “I Don’t Know” Response

“I don’t know” is a natural for an adolescent, especially considering that the questions are new and difficult.

  • “How would your life be different if you did know?”
  • Paraphrase or reword your question.
  • Wait and see what happens. “I don’t know” might just be a way to buy time to think of answers.
  • “What would your parent/teacher/friend say about this problem/situation?” or “Guess.”
  • “I know it’s a hard question. You don’t have to answer immediately,” then wait again. This indicates that you want a real answer and are willing to wait patiently.
  • “Of course you don’t know yet. Take your time. What do you think?”
  • Use a combination of the above. After a student says “I don’t know” do not respond in any way for at least 6 seconds. Any kind of movement or nod from you means it is your turn to talk. Most students will start developing an answer in 6 seconds, but if the “I don’t know” is repeated, then respond with a prompt like “Suppose you did know” or “Pretend you know.”

The key to a solution-focused discussion session is to point out a student’s successes and assets by deconstructing the problem that she constructed (see Lesson 2 on Choice Theory). Show the student that she has changed in the past, so she can do it again. Willfully and actively pushing for change is going to work better than hoping for some miraculous or spontaneous change. A student must learn to blame his behaviors, not himself. A supportive adult can encourage a student to push to do something he would not normally have done. The students will need more reassurance at first that he can do better than he thinks he can and that he can change himself.

Help the student pick an important, yet not too big of a problem to solve quickly. It is important to start with a small, manageable situation so that the student experiences success quickly. For example, the student may wish to “do better in math.” Once the student expresses a goal help her express it according to the six criteria of good goal-setting. Next, help them come up with several realistic, practical, and workable potential solutions that are possible to use right away. Evaluate the pros and cons of the solutions. Rehearse some of the strategies and likely behaviors, then choose one together to actually implement.

Follow-up: Did the solution work as anticipated? Why or why not? Even if the plan did not work perfectly, reward the student for making the effort. Help the student choose another strategy to try again, or another problem.

Classroom Strategy: Kill the “I can’t-ism”

As long as a student believes she can’t change, it will be almost impossible for her to change, not because of lack of ability, but the belief that she can’t. Do not allow students to use the words “I can’t” as a cop-out. Model and encourage them to use alternative expressions such as “I find it difficult” or “I am having trouble with…”

For more on Solution Focused techniques:

  • <http://www.enabling.org/ia/sft>
  • “Helping that Focuses on Solutions,” B. Clelland, at <http://hippocrates.family.med.ualberta.ca/~bill/solut1.html>

Next Section: Lesson 4: ABCDE Approach to Faulty Cognitions
Previous Section: Lesson 2: Choice Theory