Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in Schools
Abstract and Keywords
One of the most promising areas of intervention for Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is with children, adolescents, and teachers in school settings. SFBT was applied in schools during the beginning of the 1990s and since that time the use of SFBT in schools has grown across disciplines with reports of SFBT interventions and programs implemented in schools in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and in the provinces of Mainland China and Taiwan. The brief and flexible nature of SFBT, and its applicability to work with diverse problems, make SFBT a practical intervention approach for social workers to use in schools. SFBT has been used in schools with student behavioral and emotional issues, academic problems, social skills, and dropout prevention. SFBT addresses the pressing needs of public school students that struggle with poverty, substance use, bullying, and teen pregnancy. It can be applied in group sessions, as well as individual ones, and in teacher consultations. There is also increasing empirical support that validates its use with students and teachers. SFBT has been applied to improve academic achievement, truancy, classroom disruptions, and substance use. The history and development of SFBT in schools, basic tenets of SFBT, the techniques that are used to help people change, and the current research are covered along with the implications for the practice of social work.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) was developed during the late 1970s and early 1980s at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by two social workers––Steve de Shazer, and Insoo Kim Berg––and a team of therapeutic collaborators from different disciplines. The Research Committee of the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association (SFBTA.org) identified three general ingredients of SFBT: (1) use of conversations centered on clients’ concerns; (2) conversations focused on co-constructing new meanings around client concerns; (3) use of specific techniques to help clients co-construct a vision of a preferred future and drawing upon past success and strengths to help resolve issues (Trepper, McCollum, DeJong, Korman, Gingerich, & Franklin, 2012). SFBT purports that language and social interactions are the primary tools for changing thinking and behavior (de Shazer, 1994; Gingerich & Wabeke, 2001; Miller, 1997; Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association Research Committee, 2013).
The origins of SFBT happened while a team of therapists worked in a family services clinic behind a one-way mirror, where some practitioners would interview clients in a room and the others would observe the sessions. This team discovered that change happens when they focus on client strengths and future-oriented interventions that facilitate clients toward solution-building instead of problem solving. Specifically, the solution building process directs clients toward exploration of resources, past successes, and the identification of goals and competencies, and future behaviors that lead to a solution. SFBT was influenced by the Mental Research Institute Brief Therapy model and the family systems therapy approaches of the day and had theoretical roots with ecosystems theories. Later, in the 1990s, SFBT became strongly associated with social construction models and social constructivist views within family systems therapies.
The practitioners and researchers that developed SFBT asked the question, “What works in therapy?” Social work researchers were involved in the early study of SFBT and in studies into SFBT effectiveness, such as Wally Gingerich, who also did the first systematic review of SFBT research (Gingerich & Eisengart, 2000) and Cynthia Franklin who did studies on the effectiveness of SFBT in schools (Franklin, Biever, Moore, Clemons, & Scamardo, 2001). Many other social workers helped develop SFBT and examples include Eve Lipchik, Peter DeJong and Elam Nunnally, Mo Ye Lee, Teri Pichot, Johnny Kim, and Michael Kelly. These practitioners and researchers have worked with others across disciplines to develop SFBT into an evidence-based practice. Over the last decade there has been an increase in the number of outcome studies examining the effectiveness of SFBT with children and adolescents in schools, clinics, juvenile courts, and child welfare settings (Bond, Woods, Humphrey, Symes, & Green, 2013; Franklin, Kim, & Tripodi, 2009; Franklin, Trepper, Gingerich, & McCollum, 2012; Jordan et al., 2013). The increase in research studies has also resulted in SFBT being recognized as a promising, evidence-based practice as is indicated by the recent review by the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices.
One of the most promising areas of intervention for SFBT is with children, adolescents, and teachers in school settings (Bond et al., 2013; Kim & Franklin, 2009). Research studies on SFBT in schools suggest that SFBT is a promising intervention for schools and has been applied to improve academic achievement, goal achievement, truancy, classroom disruptions, and substance use. The history and development of SFBT in schools, the basic tenets of SFBT, the techniques that are used to help people change, and current research are covered. Implications for the practice of social workers are discussed.
History and Development of SFBT in Schools
SFBT was applied in schools during the beginning of the 1990s and was followed by the emergence of associated publications and preliminary research studies in the mid-1990s (for example, Franklin et al., 2001; Kral, 1995; LaFountain & Garner, 1996; Metcalf, 1995; Murphy, 1996; Sklare, 1997). Since that time, the research and scholarly literature on the use of SFBT in schools has grown across disciplines such as school social work, counseling, and psychology (for example, Berg & Shilts, 2005; Brown, Powell, & Clark, 2012; Fearrington, McCallum, & Skinner, 2011; Franklin & Gerlach, 2007; Kelly, Kim, & Franklin, 2008; Kvarme et al., 2010; Metcalf, 2008; Murphy & Duncan, 2007;) with reports of SFBT interventions and programs implemented in schools in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and in the provinces of Mainland China and Taiwan (for example, Daki & Savage, 2010; Fitch, Marshall, & McCarthy, 2012; Kelly et al., 2008).
SFBT provides a practical focus on addressing day-to-day issues that may hinder educational achievement such as the relationship with the teacher, attendance problems, transportation issues, or family problems. Teachers and student support teams may deliver interventions that assist in practical solution building. In many cases, school-based social workers deliver their services to students who already have yearly goals for treatment (in their Individualized Education Plan—IEP). SFBT is well-suited to school-based professionals for writing the goals and collaborating with their clients to reach them. By identifying incremental changes, social workers can integrate SFBT into their IEP goals, for example (Kelly et al., 2008).
Another aspect of SFBT is the collaboration with the teachers (Franklin, Montgomery, Baldwin, & Webb, 2012; Metcalf, 1995). The social worker uses SFBT to build an alliance with teachers, developing a collaborative relationship in order to be more helpful in the school setting. The main approaches to building a relationship with the teachers are to validate their feelings, show empathy for the difficulties they experience and help them develop resources for managing their students (Corcoran, 1998; Gingerich & Wabeke, 2001; Kelly & Bluestone-Miller, 2009). Teachers can provide a very successful indirect intervention and further benefit from the changed behaviors of their students (Geil, 1998; Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011).
Parents and caregivers may also be a target of SFBT interventions. The SFBT follows the assumption that even when the other members of the student’s family are not able or willing to work with the social worker (maybe while dealing with overwhelming circumstances themselves), the change is still possible to be funneled through one person—the child (Corcoran, 1998; Gingerich & Wabeke, 2001). In the situations when parents do want to participate into the therapy (believing that the source of distress is the child, not themselves), it is important to “join” with the parents, in order to validate their feelings. Family sessions have great value and can identify the context for a particular child behavior.
SFBT School-Based Applications
SFBT school interventions may be delivered in a variety of different modalities including individual, group, family, and even organizational level interventions and has the potential to serve as universal, secondary, and tertiary prevention purposes (Metcalf, 2010). To date, a variety of school-based interventions have been applied at different grade levels and with varying groups (teachers, parents, and students) within the school environment. For example, past SFBT programs and interventions have included:
• Individual, group, parent, and family counseling and teacher consultations to assist with students that have behavioral problems and may also be at-risk for school failure and dropout (Franklin et al., 2001; Franklin & Gerlach, 2007; Franklin, Moore, & Hopson, 2008; Metcalf, 2008; Murphy, 2008). SFBT counseling and consulting interventions have been used with elementary, middle, and high school students.
• Intervention for Hispanic pregnant and parenting adolescent mothers (Harris & Franklin, 2008) with a focus on increasing problem-focused versus emotion-focused coping, improving grades, school attendance, social support, and parenting efficacy.
• Bullying prevention for youth as part of anti-bullying initiative (Young & Holdorf, 2010).
• Classroom management and coaching program known as Working on What Works (WOWW program) developed for special education teachers to use “solution-building” in classroom settings to improve behavioral and attendance problems (Kelly et al., 2008). Similar SFBT classroom coaching interventions known as Lip-Focus have also been developed for classrooms and used in Sweden and other European nations by two special education teachers (Mahlberg & Sjoblom, 2013).
• Academic counseling and coaching such as classroom group interventions for students with reading difficulties with a focus on improving academic and emotional difficulties associated with learning disabilities (Daki & Savage, 2010), improving the numbers of credits earned toward high school completion (Franklin, Streeter, Kim, & Tripodi, 2007), and increasing the turning in math of homework assignments (Fearrington et al., 2011).
• Training or coaching program for all school faculty and staff in an effort to incorporate SFBT techniques into the entire school environment (Franklin, Montgomery, Baldwin, & Webb, 2012; Franklin & Streeter, 2003; Kelly et al., 2008). This training was accomplished in a public, alternative high school for dropout prevention and the high school has sustained its Solution-Focused training and practices for the past fourteen years. See Franklin, Montgomery, Baldwin, and Webb (2012) for a review of the Garza High School program or go to the school’s website to learn about the Solution-Focused high school. An intervention manual describing the school’s practice is also available (Franklin & Streeter, 2003).
As has been suggested, the applications of Solution-Focused interventions and programs in schools vary and several different school personnel may become involved in the delivery of these interventions. For instance, interventions can be tailored to students in either an individual or group setting or entire classrooms may employ Solution-Focused techniques throughout the school year. Regardless of the setting, there are a number of specific techniques used in a SFBT intervention or programs that tend to be universal to the therapeutic model. SFBT methods are based on careful listening to what the client says and for strengths and competencies that may exist, creating cooperative relationships, and inspiring hope. SFBT practitioners further reflect on client competencies and on what clients want to happen, including their goals and aspirations. The strategic use of communication and social interactions, sometimes referred to as solution-building conversations, are most important for facilitating positive emotion and behavioral changes (Kelly et al., 2008).
Assumptions and Techniques for SFBT
At the core of SFBT is the collaborative relationship between the client and the helper, with a focus on letting clients discover their own solutions. SFBT also makes use of solution-talk and co-construction of meaning in the conversations between people, which is a major therapeutic mechanism for change (Bavelas, 2012). This means that social workers practicing SFBT listen carefully and position questions and dialogue that challenges the client to identify present competencies and new behaviors that can be enacted in the future, and that have the potential to accomplish desired goals (De Jong & Berg, 2008; Franklin et al., 2009). The conversational skills used by SFBT social workers focus on solution-talk and co-construction of communication, by asking questions, shaping meanings and interactions toward solutions.
Major tenets of the SFBT:
• Clients are encouraged to increase the frequency of current useful behaviors.
• Social workers help clients find alternatives to current undesired patterns of behavior.
• Small increments of change lead to larger increments of change, which may lead to a permanent solution.
• Clients’ solutions are not necessarily directly related to any problem, but are created through goal-setting and deciding on specific ways to achieve those goals.
1. The search for strengths or solutions
2. The use of the miracle question
3. The use of scaling questions
4. The goal-setting
5. The search for the exceptions to the problem
6. The consulting break and set of compliments offered to the client
7. The homework tasks (Kim & Franklin, 2009).
Franklin and Bolton (2015) describe each of these techniques and how they are applied in school settings.
Solution-building conversations or Search for Strengths and Solutions.
Specific types of questioning and communication methods have been associated with solution-building conversations (Kelly et al., 2008). Methods such as purposefully using the client’s language, grounding understanding in communication exchanges, and the awareness that questions and language are not neutral but shape perceptions and outcomes have been explored in process studies and determined to be important to SFBT change strategies (Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association Research Committee, 2013). A non-confrontational and collaborative approach to counseling is a part of the SFBT intervention and for this reason, the social worker follows closely the responses of the client using reflective listening and inquisitive and tentative language such as maybe, perhaps, suppose, and adopts an accepting, non-judgmental, and conversational approach (Kelly et al., 2008).
The miracle question provides the client with an opportunity to reconstruct their story by identifying a preferred future without perceived problem(s) (Berg & DeJong, 1996; DeJong & Berg, 2001). There are many adaptations to the miracle question but the one that was first developed by Berg, de Shazer, and colleagues is as follows:
I would like to ask you a very strange question. The strange question is this: After you leave here today, you go home, follow your regular routine, whatever that may be, and eventually go to bed. While you are sleeping, a miracle happens and the problems you are experiencing today are solved! But, you did not know it because you were sleeping. So, when you wake up in the morning, what would be the first thing that you would notice that is different? (DeJong & Berg, 2008, p. 84)
Scaling questions provide clients with the opportunity to examine or evaluate progress toward identified goals and also serves as a method for envisioning the next steps needed to build a solution. This process allows both the client and practitioner to quantify client progress and to identify the next steps to change by using a numeric rating scale (usually ranging from 0 or 1–10 with 0 or 1 as the lowest and 10 as the highest). Many different issues can be scaled from client progress, to hope for change, to commitment toward making the changes. For example, a social worker might say, on a scale from 1–10, with 1 being all the problems we have discussed are the worst they have ever been, and 10 being that a miracle has occurred and they are all solved, where would you rate yourself today? If the client says 4, the social worker might say, how come 4 and not lower? How will you get to a 5?
Goal setting is a fundamental element of the Solution-Focused process. In order to set an appropriate goal, the social worker has a conversation with a client about how they want their life to be different. Questions include: What has to happen for it to be worth your time to come here today? Suppose after we talk today that your life would be different––what would have to happen? What do you want to happen instead? This conversation may also involve ways that others want the client to change even if the client does not agree with those changes. So, what would your teacher say that you need to do differently? A goal directed conversation should lead to the identification of a goal that is stated in behavioral and practical terms that can specify who will do what, when, how, and where to create a solution. The goal should be self-determined and be important to the client. The social worker also asks the client to make a commitment to work toward the goal and emphasize that this will be hard work (DeJong & Berg, 2008). Importantly, in SFBT, goal setting is viewed as a beginning of change and goals allow the social worker and client to negotiate reasonable, observable tasks that lead to the preferred future. As a part of envisioning the goal, it is also important for the client to identify new behaviors and become aware of different types of social interactions, and to become very mindful of what is needed to achieve the goal. Many times goals are identified through the miracle question and this allows the social worker to ask the client detailed questions about how the client wants their life to be different and to identify “pieces of the miracle” that may already be present, as well as the changes that are needed in their everyday life.
Exception questions are questions that allow the practitioner and client to explore points in the client’s life where an identified problem could have occurred, but did not.
• Tell me a time when this problem does not occur?
• What was different then?
• What’s been better?
• What has changed?
Breaks and Compliments.
Breaks are often taken near the end of a session. This gives the social worker a moment to collect thoughts and develop compliments and to also think of the next steps, tasks, or experiments to propose to the client. In schools this could just be a pause for two to three minutes or a five-minute break to get some water. Compliments serve as positive client feedback from the social worker; they highlight what the client is doing well and what is working. It is important for compliments to be genuine and for the social worker to notice and point out client strengths and competencies such as persistence, coping, social skills, and special abilities. Compliments are often offered in a manner that asks the clients to also reflect on their own strengths and to view themselves differently (Franklin & Bolton, 2015).
At the end of a session, the social worker frequently suggest a possible assignment or experiment based on something the client is already doing (exceptions) or an important new task that the client has identified in the session that may move them toward their goal.
Research on SFBT in Schools
There have been two recent systematic reviews that evaluated SFBT interventions with children and adolescents and in schools, Kim and Franklin (2009) and Bond, Woods, Humphrey, Symes, and Green (2013). Kim and Franklin (2009), focused explicitly on interventions delivered in schools and examined the most rigorous studies that used experimental designs and standardized measures, and met the criteria for a Solution-Focused intervention. They found eight studies, most with quasi-experimental design studies, published from 2000 to 2009. The outcomes they focused on were: self-esteem, academic achievement, class attendance, substance abuse, and classroom-related behavior (Franklin et al., 2008; Franklin, Streeter, Kim, & Tripodi, 2007; Newsome, 2004; Springer, Lynch, & Rubin, 2000). Bond and colleagues, focusing on child and family interventions including those in school settings, reviewed another 13 studies, most being quasi-experimental as well, published between 1990 and 2012. Popular outcomes measures included some internalizing behaviors (anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, low self-efficacy) studied by Green, Grant, and Rynsaardt (2007) and Kvarme et al. (2010); and some externalizing ones (aggression, oppositional behavior, social adjustment) explored by Moore (2002), Emanuel (2008); Franklin et al. (2001); and Newsome (2005).
Kim and Franklin (2009), as well as Bond et al. (2013), indicate that SFBT is a promising and useful approach in working with students at risk of academic and behavioral difficulties. Below is a summary of the positive findings from the systematic reviews, pointing at the areas where SFBT was successfully applied:
• helps students reach goals;
• reduces depressive symptoms and anxiety;
• increases self-efficacy, self-esteem, and confidence;
• helps students alleviate their concerns;
• improves academic achievement (for example, credits earned, homework completion);
• helps students reduce the intensity of their negative feelings;
• helps students reduce drug use;
• reduces aggression and classroom disruptive behaviors; and
• decreases truancy rates; (Daki & Savage, 2010; Emanuel, 2008; Fearrington, McCallum, & Skinner, 2011; Franklin et al., 2001; Franklin et al., 2001; Franklin & Gerlach, 2007; Froeschle, Smith, & Ricard, 2007; Grandison, 2007; Green, Grant, & Rynsaardt, 2007; Kelly et al., 2008; Kvarme et al., 2010; Newsome, 2004; Violeta & Dafinoui, 2009).
There are many uses of SFBT based on the research studies, including the enhancement of social skills, empowerment, and capacity building of clients. Franklin & Streeter (2003), Newsome (2005), and Baker & Steiner (1995), for example, worked with students at risk of school dropout and students from low income and disadvantaged populations. Newsome and Kelly (2008) also introduced a SFBT school-based group work approach with grandparents, who are the primary caregivers of their school-aged grandchildren. Another capacity building SFBT intervention is oriented toward children who suffer from bullying (Young & Holdorf, 2003). Some SFBT applications with mental health issues (ADHD, ODD, CD) are presented by Gingerich and Wabeke (2001) and Dielman and Franklin (1998). Many children having these problems are prone to school related difficulties.
Practical Applications (Garza High School, Project WOWW)
One practical application of SFBT in schools is illustrated by the Garza High School, an alternative public school for students at risk of drop out (Franklin et al., 2007; Kelly et al., 2008). Garza was founded in 1998, and is part of the Austin Independent School District as a public alternative school of choice for any high school student in the district with 10 or more credits. The alternative schools are defined by the Department of Education (DOE) as institutions meeting the “needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school, provides nontraditional education, serves as an adjunct to a regular school, or falls outside the categories of regular, special education, or vocational education” (Young, 2002, pp. 55–56). Garza High School is a Solution-Focused Alternative School (SFAS), with a strengths-oriented culture and philosophy, consistent with the principles of the change process of SFBT.
Eight characteristics enable the school to be considered a solution-building school: (1) faculty emphasis on building students’ strengths, (2) attention given to individual relationships and progress of the students, (3) emphasis on the students’ choices and personal responsibility, (4) overall commitment to achievement and hard work, (5) trust in students’ evaluations, (6) focus on students’ future success instead of past difficulties, (7) celebration of small steps toward success, and (8) reliance on goal-setting activities (Franklin et al., 2007). In the same time, the best education practices are adhered to: (a) nonthreatening environment for learning; (b) caring and committed staff who accept personal responsibility for students’ success; (c) school culture that encourages staff risk taking, self-governance, and professional collegiality; and (d) low student-teacher ratio and a small class size to promote student encouragement (Rumberger, 2004).
Unique characteristics of Garza include multi-grade classrooms and integrated curriculums. New students learn the culture and expectations of the school from veteran students, and build on their own academic motivations and strengths. Teachers act as facilitators, motivating students to achieve their academic goals through a self-paced curriculum. Students are able to complete coursework at their own pace, without penalty. Teachers are trained to display Solution-Focused skills and help students keep track of their goals and progress (Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011; Franklin et al., 2007). See the school’s website to learn more about the Solution-Focused high school.
The Working on What Works (WOWW) program is another example of a successful SFBT school-based intervention. WOWW is a classroom approach developed by SFBT pioneers Berg and Shilts in 2002 (Berg & Shilts, 2005). Piloted in urban schools in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Kelly & Bluestone-Miller, 2009; Kelly et al., 2008), the WOWW philosophy starts with the assumption that teachers want to have a positive influence on students and feel like good teachers.
WOWW uses the basic tenets of SFBT, such as looking for exceptions to problems and past successes as part of constructing solutions, and there is also a belief that change is going to happen. The class recognizes its own strengths and identifies solutions to discipline problems together. The defiant students are not singled out; instead, intervention focuses on doing all the work as a group. The school social worker acts as the coach, using all the active ingredients of the SFBT, engaging with the students, giving feed-back, goal-setting, and asking scaling questions and the miracle question. This pilot study shows that WOWW is as an effective classroom management and staff development tool (Kelly et al., 2008). It uses the SFBT to have meaningful effects on classroom behavior, teacher resilience, and student achievement (Kelly & Bluestone-Miller, 2009).
Implications for Social Work Practice
SFBT has been used in schools since the 1990s, and there is empirical support that validates its use with students and teachers. The brief and flexible nature of SFBT and its applicability to work with diverse problems make SFBT a practical intervention approach for school social workers to use (Franklin et al., 2001; Kelly et al., 2008; Newsome, 2004). SFBT addresses the pressing needs of the public school students that struggle with poverty, substance use, bullying, and teen pregnancy. It can be applied within group sessions, as well as individual ones, and in teacher consultations (Berg & Shilts, 2005; Franklin et al., 2001; Franklin & Hopson, 2009; Franklin et al., 2007, cited in Kim & Franklin, under review; Kral, 1995; Metcalf, 1995; Murphy, 1996; Murphy & Duncan, 2007; Sklare, 1997; Webb, 1999).
SFBT is culturally sensitive and can be applied with diverse populations (Franklin & Montgomery, 2013; Lee, 2003) and this also makes it a good intervention for social work practitioners to use. The inclusive strategies and Solution-Focused thinking of this approach provides new ways to empower staff and students to bring about positive change in their schools (Young & Holdorf, 2003). Like any strengths-based intervention applied in school settings, it has to identify the inherent strengths and resources of the population in which it is applied. Most students have some completed classes behind, some homework completion skills, some friends-making abilities, and some positive interaction with their teachers. Students might also display leadership skills, creativity, and unconventional thinking when they engage in conduct-related problems. The SFBT social worker has to develop a special skill of actively searching for these strengths, in order to use them in therapeutic sessions (Corcoran, 1998). This approach builds on student strengths and competencies and shows respect for each person.
Solution-Focused interventions also share consistent values and similarities with the social work helping process and can be applied in social work interviews. The Solution-Focused helping process, often referred to as, solution-building, is a purposeful conversation resulting in changes in perceptions and social interactions. The solution-building process or conversation is often contrasted to the problem-solving process. Harris and Franklin (2008) suggest that solution-building, however, shares values and some similarities (for example, strengths, collaboration, goal setting) with the problem-solving process and task-centered types of problem solving that have been identified within social work practice. The differences, however, are also noteworthy. Approaches to problem solving, for example, focus on the resolution of problems through understanding the problems, enumerating alternatives that can solve the problems, and choosing an alternative. In contrast, solution building uses a process of co-construction of meaning to change the way people think about presenting problems and identify future behaviors and tasks that have the potential to accomplish desired goals and outcomes (De Jong & Berg, 2008). SFBT has developed a number of techniques that are used in solution building to guide clients in the change process.
The SFBT focuses on a person’s desired future, does not concentrate on the problem, and this is perhaps one of its main distinguishing characteristics that may be beneficial to clients. The solutions that are built have little to do with the problem and they emerge from the aspirations and goals of the client. When applying SFBT, a social worker must act as a coach and a facilitator that creates an interpersonal context where the solutions emerge from the client. SFBT offers an interview structure and a set of counseling techniques that help social workers successfully facilitate the solution-building process in schools (Franklin et al., 2008). An SFBT session structure is flexible enough to adapt to the individual needs of each student but also structured enough to provide guidance to school social workers about the change process. SFBT is also brief and goal-oriented (Kim & Franklin, 2009), aiming at quick change. These characteristics make it a perfect match for the school settings, where the time constraints are obvious and the emphasis is placed on the educational process. Its briefness also allows for more students to be served, as school social workers tend to have large caseloads and are pressed to serve all the children who need help.
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