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Solution focused t i schools 04
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First published March 1995Reprinted with corrections April 2004Published by BT Press618b Finchley Road, London NW11 7RR
Printed by Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham, Wiltshire
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrievalsystem, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the permission of the copyright owner.
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1 The Solution Focused approach
2 From conflict to co-operation
3 Reading and spelling: Methods, motivation and interaction
4 How will you know when you are a reader?
5 Consultation: Creative dialogue with teachers
6 Classroom management and organisational change
7 First steps
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Within the field of family therapy a new and distinct approach has devel-
oped during the last few years called Solution Focused Brief Therapy
(de Shazer, 1985). Though it originated in family therapy practice it has
evolved into an approach which can be used just as well with individu-
als as with families and other groups. On one level the solution focused
approach has a set of very practical and sometimes simple procedures;
on another level it contains ideas and theories which challenge many
assumptions both in therapeutic thinking and in various areas of applied
psychology. Furthermore, though these ideas and practices started in
the context of ‘therapy’, we believe that this way of thinking can be trans-
ferred to other settings and ways of working: the work described in this
book is more accurately thought of as consultation or casework of var-
ious kinds. Our emphasis is, therefore, very much on solution focused
thinking for the everyday problems of school and not on therapy as
such. In order, however, to understand this way of thinking we will need,
in the first chapter, to explain in detail the work and ideas of solution
Various forms of family therapy have now been used and adapted in
the school setting (Aponte, 1976; Dowling and Osborne, 1985). Thesewriters developed the use of ‘joint meetings’, where family members andrelevant school staff met together in the school setting to discuss con-cerns and develop therapeutic interventions. The use of solutionfocused therapy in schools is a very recent application. Kral (1987) hasexplained the use of solution focused methods with schools, and Molnarand Linquist (1989) give detailed accounts of a mixture of strategic andsolution focused methods. Additionally, Durrant (1993) focuses onbehaviour problems in schools. This book is intended to complementthese publications, but also describes how the solution focused ap-
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The Solution Focused approach ·
proach can be used in the context of developing reading programmesand with organisational work such as classroom management. All thework described took place in school and involved either direct work withstudents and their parents or indirect work with teachers. (We will usethe terms ‘student’ and ‘pupil’ interchangeably). We have found the ap-proach helpful for both school based and home based work withbehavioural difficulties. Students may or may not have had difficultiesin both places. This book, however, concentrates on interventions inschools.
In this introductory chapter we will outline the basic principles and
techniques underlying solution focused brief therapy and the ways thesecan be used in interviews. Some of the techniques are specifically ques-tion driven, whilst other principles or assumptions operate as generalroute maps suggesting directions to explore or avoid. We have drawnparticularly on the ideas of de Shazer (1985, 1988, 1991, 1994) and hisvarious associates: these sources formed the bedrock of our work. Thetwo most accessible introductions, we have found, are O’Hanlon andWeiner-Davies (1989) and George, Iveson and Ratner (1990). We have,however, also been strongly influenced by White and Epston (1990,1992) whose approach, for convenience, could be termed ‘narrative’:these writers would not categorise themselves as solution focused, butwe have found their ideas to be related and compatible with thisapproach. Furman and Ahola (1992) likewise draw on both of theseinfluences. This chapter is intended to provide a framework and asource of basic ideas for the later chapters in the book.
Some fundamental assumptions of
Solution Focused therapy
O’Hanlon and Weiner-Davies (1987) discuss in detail many of the basic
assumptions underlying solution focused brief therapy. These assum-
ptions have not been proven experimentally but summarise the experi-
ence and observations of solution focused therapists.
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8 · Solution Focused Thinking in Schools
1) An emphasis on the past and on details of the problem are not
necessary for the development of solutions
de Shazer (1985) argues that it is possible to do constructive work with
clients by focusing on aspects which might provide ideas for solutions
with, in some cases, very little discussion about the problem and its cau-
sation. There almost seems to be a logical break between problem talk
and solution talk: and the former does not automatically lead to the lat-
ter. Likewise, an extended discussion of the past will not necessarily lead
to new ideas for solving problems in the present. Furthermore, for some
clients extended discussion of the past can actually be unhelpful, for ex-
ample, where it leads to feelings of hopelessness.
Most solution focused therapists are not saying, however, that it is
never useful to discuss the past and details of problems: de Shazer(1994) mentions how it may be useful where a client has never put some-thing into words before and Dolan (1992) suggests that it may berequired where there are issues of trauma and abuse. However, solutionfocused therapists have found that in many cases it is more useful tospend the bulk of the time on the search for solutions. In the schoolcontext we have found this an invaluable insight and believe our expe-rience confirms this observation.
2) There are always exceptions, that is, times when the problem is
less or absent
At the core of solution focused therapy is a network of ideas partly
derived from observation of clinical work, and partly from theorising.
It is claimed that where a problem is said to exist there are always excep-
tions, that is, times when the problem occurs less or not at all, and this
is so even if the client isn’t aware of these exceptions. For example, a
person who is depressed may have days when they feel less depressed,
or a child who usually rejects school may sit and work if given a page of
sums to do.
These exceptions are often forgotten, ignored, or considered to be
non-deliberate spontaneous ‘flukes’ (de Shazer, 1985, 1988). If, how-ever, they are carefully explored, many ideas or clues can be found tosuggest a possible solution. To give a simple example: if a discussion
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focuses on a child who is finding it difficult to develop their relationshipswith other children, the interest will be on those times when a degreeof positive interaction has been observed. This could be something assimple as sharpening pencils with another child. An exploration of whatis different about this situation when the desired behaviour is occurringmay provide clues which can be used to help the child develop their so-cial skills in other areas.
3) Clients have resources to resolve their difficulties
Underlying all the above is the belief that people have within them the
skills they will need to change and to solve their problems. People often
emphasise their difficulties, their failures, times when they are ineffec-
tual. Solution focused therapists seek to open up the possibilities of a
different view, drawing attention to strengths and coping strategies. Even
amidst the most distressing account of a person’s life the question, “How
did you cope?”, can create the perspective of someone who has man-
aged to survive and carry on.
One of the greatest influences in this area is Erickson (O’Hanlon,
1987). Erickson advocated using a client’s own resources, strengths ,beliefs and behaviour in the direction of change and called this ‘utili-sation’. de Shazer (1985) wrote ‘this is the key to brief therapy; utilisingwhat the client brings with him to meet his needs in such a way that theclient can make a satisfactory life for himself’.
4) A small change can lead to widespread changes.
Solution focused therapists argue that if one small positive improvement
or change can be achieved in what was otherwise a repetitive stuck pat-
tern, then many other positive changes can occur through the ‘ripple
effect’ (de Shazer, 1985). O’Hanlon and Weiner-Davies (1989) make the
claim that change can arise from doing things differently, viewing what
you are doing in a different way, or maybe both. Most importantly, the
choice of the direction of this change lies with the client (within moral
and legal parameters).
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10 · Solution Focused Thinking in Schools
5) Clients have different ways of co-operating in therapy.
Another fundamental idea is the principle of co-operation. An inter-
vention or question is not used if it is thought to disturb the co-operative
relationship developing between therapist and client. de Shazer (1984)
“Each family (individual or couple) shows a unique way ofattempting to co-operate, and the therapist’s job becomesfirst, to describe that particular manner to himself.”
The principle of co-operation is a guide to action, and O’Hanlon
(1987) suggests that if the activity of the therapist seems to be makingthe client uncomfortable, then the therapists should reconsider theircourse of action. For example, if the client seems to particularly wish tocontinue the discussion of his or her difficulties, then that might be thebest course of action at that moment. The therapist, however, contin-ues to listen for constructive possibilities which can be used at a latertime (Lipchick 1987).
Solution focused therapists also co-operate by noting and sometimes
using the exact language, metaphors and ideas a person uses in describ-ing their situation. There is, in fact, an effort to see the world from theclient’s point of view, to try to ascertain their belief-system. The client’slanguage might well be used in discussing a task or in rephrasing ques-tions; for example, a colleague described a woman who, in response toa question about what her preferred way of living might be, askedwhether this meant what life would be like if it were ‘sweet’. Using thisterm then aided communication.
There is also co-operation by focusing on what concerns the client,
and not asking questions which imply other problems and weaknesses.
If out of the blue a therapist asks “Has your child witnessed marital dis-putes?”, the question might convey information such as, “I think theymight have done”, or that marital difficulties are the cause of the prob-lem. Of course most workers would not ask such an extreme question,yet many traditional diagnostic questions are not so dissimilar. The solu-tion focused therapist tries to use language very carefully. O’Hanlon andWeiner-Davis (1989) advocate the use of questions which suggest thelikelihood of change; for example, they prefer, “When the problem is
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solved, what hobbies might you choose?”, as opposed to asking, “If theproblem is solved .?” In addition, solution focused therapists general-ly believe that questions give information to clients just as much as theyobtain answers. Hence, questions can inadvertently encourage or discour-age clients by the way they are constructed. This attention to languageis found in all solution focused therapies and has become a major theme(de Shazer,1991 and 1994, White and Epston, 1990).
6) The centrality of goals
Solution focused therapists believe that if the client’s goal is ignored or
is not central then the work together is unlikely to suceeed. Hence, in
most cases, the therapist works in the direction the client wishes to take
and does not impose aims taken from psychological theories about how
people are supposed to live. If a goal seems unrealistic or too large, the
aim will then be to negotiate which part of the goal is a feasable step
foward. (Of course, the usual limitations apply such as not working with
illegal or dangerous goals).
Where several people are involved, consideration of how the goals
may be in conflict or vary becomes very important. The task may thenbe to clarify this situation before progress can be made.
Elements of Solution Focused interviewing
The following section shows how these assumptions are realised in
Problem-free talk (George, Iveson, and Ratner, 1990) is a natural two-
way conversation with a client that can focus on work, family and friends,
interests, etc. The therapists may also say something about themselves
in relation to the topic of conversation. It can be used at the beginning
of a session to develop rapport between the client and the therapist; it
can also be used to focus on areas of the person’s life which are going
well and which illustrate their competence. Some of these strengths and
resources may be useful when looking at changes the client would like
to make in other areas of their life. An interesting example was report-
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12 · Solution Focused Thinking in Schools
ed by Lethem (1994). A woman who some time ago had been in ther-apy, returned with her son because he had recently become involved instealing. The son sat hunched up in his coat looking down at theground. During the session the therapist asked about the woman’s joband how she managed to co-ordinate life as a working mother. As thewoman began explaining how she had taught her sons to cook (start-ing with a cup of tea and progressing to Sunday lunch), the son alsojoined in to expand on some of the details. A very warm picture of fam-ily life emerged with some clear examples of good parenting whichprovided a positive base from which the three of them could begin tolook at the changes the family wished to make.
Not all therapists begin with a period of problem-free talk, while oth-
ers may return to it later in the session or in later stages of the work (forexample if a different member of a family joins a session). In some sit-uations the client wants to start talking immediately about the problemand this must be respected; however the session starts, the therapist willlisten out for strengths and note them.
A general opening question to explore any possible exceptions might
“Is there a time when (the complaint) does not occur, or occurs less
than at other times?” (Lipchik and de Shazer, 1986).
However, it is often easier for a client to answer a more specific ques-tion such as:
“When does your daughter listen to you?”“Have you ever noticed a time when Fred is able to play with other
“What’s the closest things have come to you feeling calm when work-
Some therapists (O’Hanlon and Weiner-Davies, 1989) suggest using themost positive wording possible and would prefer a question such as “Tellme about the times he does work?”, as opposed to “Are there times he
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The Solution Focused approach ·
does work?” We have found both useful: which to use seems to be anissue of finding what best fits the particular context. In general we pre-fer the former, especially when a meeting seems to be in a more ‘positivemood’.
If an exception is suggested, the therapist does not use a single ques-
tion, but a sequence of questions (Lipchick, 1987). For example:
“What’s different about those times?”“What do you do differently?”“Who else is involved, or notices these differences?”“How could more of that happen?”“How do you explain these differences?”“How did you get that to happen?”
By encouraging a detailed examination of what is happening differentlyit may be possible to use some of the information to plan what to donext. It can also help a person to look again at a time when they had,in fact, been effective, thus opening up possibilities that they could beso again. The distinction between a deliberate and a spontaneous excep-tion(de Shazer, 1988) is an important one (see Brewin, 1988, for arecent summary of attribution theory which covers a similar area). It willbe easier for someone to repeat a behaviour they deliberately carriedout than one they think ‘just happened’. For example, when asking onemother what she was doing differently when her child did follow arequest she replied, “I was much firmer”.
In trying to conceptualise what areas to explore for exceptions, par-
ticularly for aggressive behaviour, a range of contrasts can beconsidered. For example:
- good behaviour in contrast to outbursts of temper;- partial outburst in contrast to total outbursts;- times when it might have occurred, but didn’t, in contrast to times
Hence an exception might be when a desirable but rare behaviour
did occur or when an undesirable behaviour didn’t occur, or occurredwith less intensity, or was amenable to discussion, and so on. For aggres-sive behaviour such as fighting, it is also interesting to note those times
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14 · Solution Focused Thinking in Schools
when a confrontation almost occurred but didn’t accelerate: did otherpeople do something different or did the student find alternative meansof resolving the situation? If it was the latter, then the student can berecognised as sometimes acting in responsible and caring ways.
The search for exceptions can be in the present or past. Kral (1987)
suggests asking teachers if they have had similar problems in the past,and how they solved them at that time. This may help the teacher toremember forgotten strengths or strategies which can then bereworked to accommodate the new situation. Another rich source ofinformation can be provided by looking at the improvements which mayhave occurred in the time between the referral and the first session.
Weiner-Davies, de Shazer, and Gingerich (1987) call this ‘pre-sessionchange’. A question can be asked to encourage the noticing of thesewhen arranging an interview:
“Between now and the time we meet note down any differences
This is deliberately vague to encourage the person to focus on the thingswhich are meaningful to them. In the session it can then be followedup by questions such as :
“How come you did this?”“How did you reach that decision?”“What is it about your children that made you feel they could take
With some clients, the bulk of the first session can revolve around excep-tions. Sometimes it is difficult for people to recall any exceptions anda common initial response is, “I don’t know”. However, this could justmean that the client has not thought about their situation in this waybefore and it is worth the therapist persisting in the belief that there aretimes when things are closer to how the client would like them to be.
Furthermore, an exception might well appear at some later stage whentalking about an area of the person’s life which is at some distance fromthe original problem. For example, a parent concerned about theirchild’s difficult behaviour might comment that he is well liked by some-
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The Solution Focused approach ·
one. Exploring what is happening in this ‘exception’ may offer someclues relevant to the original problem.
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