School counselors and school counseling educators typically agree on three things when it comes to solution-focused counseling.

A) The approach makes perfect sense because it works with a student’s strengths and successes.

B) It is often more effective in getting challenging students to change than other approaches typically used in schools — namely, diagnosing problems and doling out punishment.

C) It is easier said than done.

“It sounds so easy in a book and makes so much sense, but it is harder than one might think to implement. We tend to slip back to the default — focusing on the problems,” says Leslie Cooley, a former school psychologist and author of a new book, The Power of Groups , which focuses on using solution-focused counseling in groups. “We’ve all seen All About Bob, Good Will Hunting and The Prince of Tides. That seems to be what works, and that is the default.”

John Murphy, a professor of psychology and counseling at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools , published by the American Counseling Association, agrees. “Solution-focused counseling is simple to understand but harder to do because we have been socialized to seek out and eradicate problems,” he says. “When something isn’t working, there is an implied belief that we have to figure out what it is and call in someone to fix it.”

In practice, the solution-focused approach validates the struggles and perceptions of the client while building on their strengths and resources, encouraging their involvement, recognizing any change (no matter how small) and focusing on the future. To apply the approach effectively, Murphy says, counselors must develop a cooperative relationship that examines the client’s goals and the issues that concern the client.

According to Murphy, solution-focused counseling grew out of the work of Milton Erickson, who believed therapeutic solutions could be found separate from the problems that clients displayed, and Steve de Shazer and the Brief Family Therapy Center, where the solution-focused counseling name arose. “Historically, psychotherapy has concerned itself with problems (variously defined) and solutions (seldom defined at all), with problems receiving the major share of the effort,” de Shazer wrote in 1988. Solution-focused counseling also taps into Martin Seligman’s positive psychology approach, which examines healthy states of mind and how therapists and counselors can study, promote and use them.

“There is a seismic philosophical shift that many have to make (in using solution-focused counseling),” says former teacher and counselor Patrick Akos, now an associate professor of school counseling at the University of North Carolina. “You have to be intensely curious and focused on the assets kids have and the ideas that they believe will work for them — as focused on that as you are their problems.” Akos, a member of ACA and a past American School Counselor Association Educator of the Year, adds that counselors have to be “willing to give up the power of the expert role and understand that the student standing in front of you has the culturally and contextually relevant answers needed to move them toward positive change.”

In spite of the challenges, Akos, Cooley, Murphy and other experts insist that new and veteran school counselors alike can master solution-focused counseling and experience great success with students because of it. Fundamentally, solution-focused counseling recognizes that student problems related to behavior or performance in school are generally “imbedded in a social system rather than residing strictly within the student,” says Murphy, a member of ACA. He recommends school counselors search for new approaches in working with students rather than relying on other, more “traditional” approaches such as lecturing, threatening and pleading for rational thinking. Utilizing the student’s ideas in a collaborative relationship and stressing the student’s strengths and past successes is key, he says.

Putting the filling in the pie

According to Murphy, research shows change comes proportionally from the following sources: the client and what he/she brings to the session (40 percent); the client’s relationship with the counselor (30 percent); hope factors (15 percent); and models or techniques used (15 percent).

If counselors look at this breakdown in terms of “change pie,” Murphy says, then “ignoring the resources of the client is like baking a pie without filling.” He says using a solution-focused approach with students addresses at least 85 percent of the change factors by focusing on the needs and strengths of students, offering them a collaborative relationship and giving them hope through a new way of approaching their problems.

Cooley says school counselors dedicated to using the approach must first make certain assumptions: Students possess resources that, though not always visible, can help them solve their problems, and students are the experts about their issues. Solution-focused counseling suggests that if one method isn’t working, the student should try another approach, she says, adding that the solution may not be very complex or even directly connected to the problem. Change of some sort is inevitable, she says, and will affect other parts of the client’s life.

Murphy spells out certain “tasks for school-based solution-focused counseling,” including:

  • Establish cooperative, change-focused relationships by being curious and respectful, listening carefully, validating and complimenting the students and getting their feedback.
  • Clarify the problem and related details by defining and describing the problem and describing how change can occur. Find out what the student has tried to do previously, how the student thinks and how counseling might help.
  • Develop clear and meaningful goals. Allow the student to focus on a better future and goals that are “personally meaningful, specific and positive.”
  • Build on “exceptions” — behavior that is different than the unacceptable or unsuccessful norm — and other resources the student possesses by identifying circumstances when the problem wasn’t occurring or was less intense.
  • Change the “doing” or viewing of the problem by suggesting behavioral experiments or encouraging other changes in performance and the way the problems is viewed. Suggest the “do something different” experiment.
  • Evaluate and empower progress by looking at improvements in the student’s referrals, class work, grades and so forth. Give students ample credit for success.

Cooley tells counselors in training at California State University-Sacramento where she is a professor that they should approach students with questions that focus on the students and their goals. For example:

  • Scaling questions that highlight differences or exceptions to a problem, such as when things were going better for the student
  • Questions that can yield compliments for the student
  • Accomplishment questions that focus on positive events
  • Goal questions that establish positive, achievable end results
  • Questions that ask the student to describe the problem in observable terms
  • Questions that highlight changes the student has noticed or changes in how other people view the student
  • Motivation questions to determine whether the counselor “really has a customer for change”

A good fit

An approach that ideally requires less time exploring the client’s past and problems, solution-focused counseling is attractive to time-strapped school counselors in large part because the therapy has proved effective for typical school counseling sessions, which are often brief and sometimes occur without follow-up. “Being effective is the top priority, but it is a simple numbers game,” Akos says. “If you are serving 450 students, efficiency is part of that equation. That is where solution-focused counseling comes in.”

Julia Taylor, an eighth-grade counselor at Apex Middle School in North Carolina, agrees that efficiency is always an issue. “Solution-focused counseling works in a school setting because the school counseling we do is always brief,” she says, noting that the approach is useful even in short sessions with students or in brief discussions to remind students of the approach.

Solution-focused counseling works in schools for a variety of reasons, Murphy says, but primarily because it creates an atmosphere in which a student is willing and open to try to do things a different way. “School counselors want to promote change, period. That’s it,” he says. “A solution-focused approach responds to the simple reality that change is the name of the game.”

Cooley says although solution-focused counseling is potentially very effective in schools, proper training and careful attention to the process are essential to earning the hoped-for results. She suggests school counselors work collaboratively with other counselors to adopt and correctly use the technique or view tapes of counselors successfully utilizing the approach. Cooley has also observed that it is often harder for counselors with prior training in other approaches to adapt to solution-focused counseling.

Others suggest that the effective use of solution-focused counseling in schools may also require prior experience with young people, a clear and objective understanding of their motivations and a knowledge of how they can use their strengths more productively. “I like to think (expertise in solution-focused counseling) is possible to cultivate by making counselors aware of how to capitalize on the client’s assets in different ways,” Akos says, “but that sensitivity to the client is hard to develop.”

Doing something different

In addition to perhaps battling their own tendencies to slip back into problem-focused approaches, Cooley says counselors may encounter pressure from other school personnel to use more traditional techniques. “People stick with what is comfortable because they don’t know what else to do,” she says. “Traditional punishment works for the kids in the mainstream, but those aren’t the ones who are always sitting in the vice principal’s or the counselor’s office and really need to change.”

“Some teachers will think that (solution-focused counseling) is anti-discipline,” says Linda Metcalf, a former teacher and current school counselor, speaker and author of several books, including Counseling Toward Solutions . She is also president-elect of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a member of ACA.

In her presentations, Metcalf points out that using solution-focused counseling stands to help not only the student, but the student’s teacher. This can be a big selling point when counselors explain solution-focused counseling to their school colleagues. “A counselor may intend to help kids,” Metcalf says, “but unless they approach teachers who have some resistance with a technique that is also going to help them, it is hard to get buy-in. These are stressed and busy people.”

Yet, Metcalf notes that when she surveys her audiences, she is typically told that only 20 to 30 percent of students actually change their behavior based on traditional modification techniques rooted in disciplinary actions. “To that I say, let’s do something different,” she exclaims.

Murphy says school counselors can easily find themselves repeating unsuccessful techniques with students without giving it much thought. He asks school counselors to consider how often they have found themselves trying to convince students that they have a problem without the students buying in; felt a student becoming less and less engaged; realized they were working a lot harder than the student to change a problem; or felt responsible for providing a solution to a student’s school problem.

Murphy notes that school counselors often try one of two common tactics with students — the “rational persuasion approach” of trying to talk students out of their opinion or the “fatalistic future approach” in which the counselor lets students know how miserable their life will be unless they change. “Even when these resistance-countering responses are applied with the best of intentions, they usually backfire and make matters worse,” he says.

Like other proponents of solution-focused counseling, Murphy recommends that school counselors try something different. This starts with recognizing that “every client is unique, resourceful and capable of change,” he says. Students are such a critical part of the process, he emphasizes, that counselors must involve them, making use of their ideas, experiences, strengths and values.

“You really have to do something interesting enough to make them want to work on the problem,” Murphy says. “That means they have to be involved. If you don’t develop an alliance with the person in front of you, it’s like trying to climb a mountain on a bike with one wheel.”

Group solutions

Leslie Cooley believes solution-focused counseling is a highly beneficial technique for school counselors to master. In her new book, The Power of Groups , released in May, the professor and former school psychologist says this effective and efficient approach is even more powerful when applied to students working with their peers in group sessions.

Cooley contends that what she refers to as the traditional “default approach” in schools — “lecturing, threatening, withholding, cajoling, persuading and sharing the dreaded ‘facts’” — isn’t very successful in motivating students to change their behavior, whether in group or individual settings.

In her book, she describes the major elements that influence change, such as the skills and resources the client brings to the table and the relationships the clients has, including with the counselor. Those factors, along with two other commonly cited factors — hope and the effectiveness of the therapeutic model — can be mined for change in a group setting; the group itself often becomes a change agent.

Cooley asserts that adolescents are more dramatically affected by their peers than by counselors or parents, especially in group settings in which they can practice developing new thinking or behavior and examine what has proved effective for them in the past. “Feedback among teens is usually the fast track to change,” she says.

Counselors who try group solution-focused counseling must move away from the traditional group method that focuses on getting students to talk about their issues, process what is happening and share their feelings, Cooley says. Instead, what she calls a “strengths-based approach” directs the students to talk about goals, changes and personal strengths.

Jim Paterson is a writer and school counselor living in Olney, Md. Contact him at

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