Mental Health in Schools: Solution Focused Therapy Strategies

As a follow up to my last post on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), here’s the next therapeutic modality for consideration in classrooms! With mental health in schools gaining more attention, knowing some Solution Focused therapy strategies may prove useful in addressing mental health in your school!


Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be used as an alternative to proper treatment administered by a trained, registered professional mental health practitioner. The strategies offered in this article are meant to be used by educators in a supportive context to provide tools to decrease anxiety provoking situations in a school setting.


Although I do utilize aspects of CBT, I typically employ alternative methods of talk-therapy practices both in my clinical therapeutic work, and as a way to engage youth experiencing anxiety in school.


WHY? Because I find that although the CBT strategies can be helpful in partnership with other therapeutic modality, negating the reasons someone experiences certain emotions and problematizing the feeling rather than the situation can be invalidating. So you’ll notice - unlike the CBT article, this article doesn’t have a Pro’s and Con’s section. It’s merely a reflection of what Solution-Focused Therapy is and how it may be helpful.


What is Solution-Focused Therapy?


Solution-Focused Therapy, or Solution Focused Brief therapy (SFT/ SFBT) “... is future-focused, goal-directed, and focuses on solutions, rather than on the problems that brought clients to seek therapy” (Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy, 2020).


From this description, it would appear that goal-oriented conversation would, (as I criticized CBT for), negate the nature of an individual’s upset and struggle; however, this is actually not the case!


SFT highlights the benefit in looking at former experiences the individual has had that can then allow them to assess what strategies or behaviours have been either helpful or unhelpful and identify what tools the client already has that can help them solve their current challenges! (Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy, 2020)


Evidence Supporting Solution-Focused Therapy for Youth


Although SFT for anxiety treatment is under researched (Brown and Sholinder, 2016), use of SFT with youth and in schools has been explored more extensively. The strategy of “exploring for exceptions [to the problem]” has helped to effectively disrupt youths’ “problem talk” (Tyson and Baffour, 2004). SFT has also demonstrated positive effects on youth-at-risk experiencing negative feelings toward school and externalized behavioural difficulties (Kim and Franklin, 2009). Furthermore, in follow-ups on long-term benefits of SFT, research indicates that SFT may benefit youth’s perceptions of school and behavioural challenges long term (Newsome, 2005).


Now here’s the really interesting part! SFT conducted by trained teachers (not therapists) in group settings of students identified as having behavioural challenges at school indicated benefit in using SFT strategies and tools with youth (Franklin, Moore, and Hopson, 2008).


I know, I know… “KIM! These studies highlight benefits on youth experiencing BEHAVIOURAL CHALLENGES! Will these strategies really be helpful if you have anxious youth who are not demonstrating anxious responses?!”


YES! Keep in mind that behaviour is an outward reflection of what’s going on internally. There is also often a gender based difference in how youth outwardly demonstrate experiences of anxiety and depression (side note: this is more likely due to social conditioning than it is to inherent differences …). Although anxiety may be comorbid with other diagnoses, providing ways to cope with the anxious feelings that come from dealing with a diagnosis in school will likely address many of the perceived behavioural challenges.


SFT Strategies for Classrooms


SO, in short, similar to CBT, SFT offers a lot of great strategies to help youth be more mindful and engaged in their learning, and here are some effective strategies you can easily employ with your students of any age!


Explore Exceptions - Acknowledge where they’ve found success before!


When a student is struggling behaviourally or emotionally, allow them to identify times in their life they overcame the problem, in spite of the behaviour, or acknowledge those times yourself!


Ex. A student is unable to focus on their test due to experiencing a high rate of test induced anxiety. This is a great time to ask them what has enabled them to do it before and begin to implement those parameters to support them this time!


Did they forget their glasses? Did they sleep poorly? Were they able to talk themselves into writing the quiz despite feeling anxious before? These are the types of things you can help youth tease out!


You can also tease these things out! For example, when a student is struggling to write their test you can highlight the many times they’ve successfully written tests in your class before! For instance you can say “I see you’re really struggling with this test today and you seem pretty nervous! I noticed last week you were really able to focus and get in the zone for your test! How can I help you get started today?"


Miracle Question


The Miracle Question is a founding principle of SFT - and for good reason! I’ll be brief in my description, but here’s an example of the script: “You leave school today and you carry on with your day, you go to bed and while you’re asleep, a miracle happens. You wake up the next day and you have no way of knowing this miracle has happened, what would be the first thing, the first small sign that would make you realize that something had changed and the problem was gone? What would be the first thing you’d see?”


Now the individual is beginning to see how their day would look different, and you can begin to highlight some of the behavioural changes you notice that would help to implement that change! For example "I would wake up right when my alarm went off and I would be able to get ready for school..."


This will allow them to see which areas of their lives they have control and can change behaviours to affect overall change in their lives - even if some of the problem is not resolved, this is a start!


So how do you do this with students?


The Miracle Question can be done as a class wide writing prompt! You can ask students to write for 10-15 minutes on an issue they’re facing, ask them, individually, to highlight which aspects of their writing is about behaviour and how they can control that behaviour and how that might influence others to change their behaviours around them!


You can also do a written assignment for a character to help distance students from the issue, but which can allow students to see how behaviour can influence overall change. For instance, the character may still have their problem, but they can at least change aspects of their behaviours to change some of the daily struggles they face while dealing with the problem!


Compliments


Instead of complimenting students solely on the results of their assignments (i.e. “great work on your essay!”), begin to compliment students on their behaviours during their work time! For instance “Wow! I can see you’re really focused today! I know that it's sometimes tough to focus for an hour on writing an essay - what’s different today?”


OR


“It’s so great to see you sitting next to your friends but still paying attention during the lesson! This is a great way for you to understand the assignment and demonstrate your knowledge!”


Scaling Questions


I use this strategy every Monday with every class! Every student provides what we call a “Monday Check In” where students are encouraged to share how they feel based on a rating scale of 1-10. Sometimes this question will be more specific, for instance “how prepared are you feeling for this test, on a scale of 1-10” or in one-to-one situations “how confident do you feel that you and your friend can work things out?”


This not only allows students to share their worries without disclosing anything too vulnerable, and also gives you valuable insight on what students need and how they are doing, overall!


As a follow up to this activity, I’ll often ask students what needs to happen in class to take them from a “2” to a “2.5 or higher.” This puts onus on the rest of the class to support each other to improve their experience of the class, and encourages an overall culture of kindness!


Conclusion


Overall, SFT strategies can prove to be very useful to develop a safe, supportive environment that acknowledges behaviour as a response to a situation rather than the problem. It ensures you take account of the “whole student” and the many things they are doing right! The more you highlight what’s going right, especially in difficult situations, the more you’ll see students employing behaviours that help them! SFT has the potential to also change how one views school, their relationships to teachers and other students, and offers strategies they can employ in other areas of their lives!




References:



Brown, Laura E. and Kim Sholinder (2016). Response-Based Drama Therapy: a viable option for youth experiencing anxiety. City University of Seattle.


Franklin, C., Kelly Moore and Laura Hopson. (2008). Effectiveness of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in a School Setting. Children and Schools (30.1) 15-26. https://academic.oup.com/cs/article-abstract/30/1/15/391075

Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy (2020). What is Solution Focused Therapy? https://solutionfocused.net/what-is-solution-focused-therapy/


Kim, Johnny S. and Cynthia Franklin (2009). Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in Schools: A review of the outcome literature. Children and Youth Services Review, (31). 464-470. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0190740908002569


Newsome, W.Sean. (2005). The Impact of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy with At-Risk Junior High School Students. Children and Schools. (27.2) 83-90. https://academic.oup.com/cs/article-abstract/27/2/83/48534


Tyson, Edgar H and Tiffany Baffour. (2004). Arts-Based Strengths: a solution-focused intervention with adolescents in an acute-care psychiatric setting. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 31. 213-227.