A successful strategy for all schools: Solution Focused Philosophy at the School of Merit

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Jacqui von Cziffra-Bergs and Merritt Watson

A teacher affects a child’s life forever. Most teachers want to teach children and help children reach a desired outcome, however “problems are abound in schools”.1 Some teachers develop a belief that they need to ‘fix’ children and their problems, and often take on the responsibility of doing so.

To understand the children better, teachers often tend to label children and comment on what they have not managed to achieve in their daily school tasks, and why. The School of Merit (SoM), an ISASA member school in Edenvale, Johannesburg, is doing research on utilising a ‘Solution Focused Philosophy’ (SFP), developed by De Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg,2 to train teachers to become more strength-orientated and solution-focused.

The aim is to make the SoM a place where teachers understand children as resourceful, capable and resilient. After two years of training, our data shows that the teachers at SoM are viewing students differently and are feeling more motivated and less burnt out. They have changed their language, they focus more on the positive, acknowledge what works for each child and have started collaborating with the children more, thus sharing the responsibility for learning.

What is SFP?

SFP is an approach that views the child as capable and resourceful and the expert on what they need to do to change, no matter what the circumstances might be. In times of stress or challenge, SFP advocates encouraging the child to remember their previous successes, so that they become more confident and more hopeful about themselves and their goals.

The basic assumptions of SFP are:
• Children can solve their own problems.
• Children should move towards a goal, rather than dwelling on the past.
• Importance is placed on what is possible and changeable.
• Children want change and want to overcome their concerns or issues.
• Small change leads to bigger change.
• Children are the experts in their own lives and are capable of defining necessary goals.

The School of Merit

The SoM has adopted these key concepts:
• If it works, do more of it. If it does not work, do something differently.
• Every child is unique, resourceful and capable of change.
• Working collaboratively creates solutions.
• Finding ‘exceptions’ (a time when the ‘problem’ is not there or when it is better) and using these times as building blocks to do differently.
• Big problems do not always require ‘big’ solutions.

The journey

We embarked on our journey at the beginning of 2012. SoM teachers underwent intensive SFP training, changing the way they view children, their classroom language and how they set goals with children. After each training workshop, the teachers were asked to fill in a questionnaire on what they found most useful. Below is a brief overview of the five training workshops that our teachers have completed.

Training workshop one – finding a ‘strength lens’

The first workshop looked at viewing the school, the staff and the children through a lens of strengths. In groups, teachers were encouraged to pinpoint and record their own strengths in working with students. They were also taught how to look for and highlight the strengths of the children in their class.

Teachers listed the following elements as the most useful about the new mindset:
• Increased awareness of the role of positivity within the child and the classroom.
• Increased focus on small and large accomplishments.
• Increased rewarding of progress.
• Increased ability to allow children to take responsibility for their own work.
• Increased ability to look at negative situations in a new way.
• Increased empowerment as educators.
• Increased patience.

Training workshop two – burying the old and starting anew

The teachers were given the opportunity to bury the old way of looking at children as ‘problem saturated’. Then they ‘planted a tree’: a new view of a child as capable and resourceful. Staff were also taught to help children set goals and to scale progress. The teachers noted after this workshop that:
• children become more independent when they scaled their own progress
• identifying and using each child’s strengths helped everyone to move forward
• children need to believe more in their own ability and also accept that they can make mistakes
• teachers need to give students more responsibility
• children are more willing to work towards goals if they have set them.

Training workshop three – finding exceptions

This workshop was geared towards assisting teachers to empower children to ‘do differently’ in terms of working towards changing their behaviour. They were encouraged to look for times (in and/or out of school) when they were able to cope where the concern or issue was not present.

How were they getting it right then? They were then encouraged to use these ‘strengths’ to move towards a solution/goal. The teachers noted after this workshop that:
• when everyone – parents, teachers and students – ‘do differently’, the result is a far more positive outlook for all
• teachers don’t have to be all-controlling – the learners can do a lot more for themselves
• teachers must listen more intently
• words can make or break a child.

Training workshop four – how to use strengths to build solutions

The focus of this workshop was to ‘do more’ and ‘revise’ the concepts already taught. The teacher’s comments after this workshop were:
• Scaling works well, even with very young children – they are able to identify their own strengths and areas where they need to improve.
• Use positives when speaking to parents – this makes for an easier meeting.
• Each child is an individual worthy of attention.
• An atmosphere of ‘I can’ was developing.

Training workshop five – how to make a solution diagnosis During this workshop, the teachers were taught to see the flip side of a negative problem and make a solution-based diagnosis. For example, ‘hyperactive’ could be seen as ‘energetic’ and ‘anxious’ could be seen as ‘trying to do things perfectly’.

After this session, teachers noted the following:
• The fact that I’ve changed my ‘vision’ in class has opened a whole new dimension in my classroom.
• My communication, work ethic and how we tackle problems in class have changed.
• I use scaling as a teacher in most situations and my children feel more empowered.
• I can now identify a child’s characteristics as a tool to help them.
• I can now encourage a child to develop their own solutions.
• I am able to see a child through ‘solution-seeking eyes’ not ‘problem-seeking eyes’.
• Little change leads to bigger change.

At the end of 2013, teachers were asked the following three questions to ascertain if there had been a shift in their mindset:

1. What had they found useful?
2. What impact was there on their teaching?
3. What impact was there on them personally?

The teachers noted the following:

What had they found useful?
• There was more collaboration with students.
• Giving pupils the opportunity to talk about what they can do as opposed to what they can’t do was empowering.
• They found new strategies and tools with which to teach.
• Giving children back some responsibility.

What impact was there on their teaching?
• Teaching is now more enjoyable and uplifting.
• SFP [has] changed [my] perceptions of children and allows [me] to see each child as an individual.
• The more strengths I see, the more I give.
• [I am] less rigid in the classroom and more flexible. It’s not always ‘my way’.
• Relabelling the children and the problem into a strength diagnosis is hopeful.
• [I am] much, much, much more patient.
• [I am] more inclined to step back and allow the students to discover and work out their own situations.

What impact was there on them personally?
• I am less stressed and more relaxed.
• I feel less responsibility and now view learning as a collaborative experience.
• I feel less ‘burnt out’ and more calm.
• Positivity is contagious.
• I feel less frustrated with children and more excited about children.
• I love what I do more (teaching).
• I found my own strengths.
• I focused on the positives in my own life.

Life-long learning

A solution-focused mindset not only empowers the children to acknowledge their strengths and to take ownership of their ability and learning, it also empowers and uplifts the teacher. If the statement “a teacher affects eternity, he never can tell where his influence stops”3 is true, then approaching teaching and learning in a solution-focused way can create the foundations for lifetimes of empowerment, hope and happiness. 

Dr Jacqui von Cziffra-Bergs is an educational psychologist and the owner of the Solution Focused Institute of South Africa. Online Psychology CPD Workshops. She trains psychologists, counsellors and teachers to use a solution strength-based language. Merritt Watson is an educational psychologist and owner of the School of Merit in Edenvale, Johannesburg.

1. Kelly, M., Kim, J. and Franklin, C. (2008) Solution Focused Brief Therapy in Schools. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Connie, E. and Metcalf, L. (2009) The Art of Solution Focused Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing.

3. See, for example: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henry_Adams.

Additional sources:
1. Metcalf, L. (2003) Teaching toward Solutions. Wales: Crown House Publishing.
2. Metcalf, L. (2008) Counselling toward Solutions. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2014

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