Dr 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” (Kelly 2008:4). Some teachers develop a belief that they need to ‘fix’ children and their problems and often take on the responsibility of doing so. In order 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, an independent private school in Edenvale, Johannesburg is doing research on utilising a Solution Focused Philosophy developed by de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg (Franklin in Connie 2009:126) to train teachers to become more strength-orientated and solution focused. The aim is to make the School of Merit a place of solutions, strengths and successes and for teachers to see children as resourceful, capable and resilient. The teachers at the School of Merit have undergone extensive training over the past two years to help them see children in a strength-based, solution orientated way. The teachers have been taught to view children through a different lens, to find the child’s strengths and to use these strengths in developing solutions. The research shows that the teachers at the School of Merit are viewing the children differently, feeling more motivated and less burnt out. They have changed their language, they focus more on the positive, acknowledge what works for the child and have started collaborating with the children more, thus sharing the responsibility for learning.
What is a Solution Focused philosophy?
Solution Focused thinking is an approach that tends to “emphasize strengths” and find solutions rather than focussing on problems (Kelly 2008:3). The Solution Focused approach is all about working with the child’s strengths no matter what the circumstances might be. It is an approach that views the child as capable and resourceful and the expert on what they need to do to change.
Solution Focus thinking believes that problems do not happen all the time (Connie 2009:13). There are times when they do not occur or they occur less intensely. By looking at these times when problems are less severe, and by highlighting these successes, children become more confident and more hopeful about themselves and will want to achieve more. Metcalf (2003:49) notes that “through identifying exceptions, that is, those times when the problem occurs less, rather than dwelling on problems themselves” one instils hope and gives new direction. Thus Franklin states “schools can be places of solutions and successes” (Kelly 2008:5).
The basic assumptions of a Solution Focused philosophy are:
- Children have resources and strengths to solve their own problems
- Future orientation, which means moving 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 (Connie 2009:10)
- Children are the experts of their own lives and are capable of defining necessary goals ( Franklin in Connie 2009:128)
The School of Merit
The School of Merit has adopted a Solution Focused philosophy as the ethos of the school, which means that difficulties and challenges’ do not have to define a child’s future. The School of Merit is a school that inspires hope and confidence in their pupils and believes that small steps of change can and will lead to bigger changes and progress in the child’s life. The first step in establishing this ethos has been to train the teachers in a Solution Focused mindset. The staff at the School of Merit believe that every child has the skill and resourcefulness that can be built upon to assure a positive goal for the child. It is a school that lives its motto of “Dream… Believe and Achieve!” The teachers have been trained to encourage children to control their own destiny by using their strengths and abilities positively.
The teachers at the School of Merit have been trained to utilise the key concepts of:
- If it works, do more of it. If it does not work – do differently (Connie 2009:8)
- 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 ( Kelly 2008:21)
- Big problems do not always require ‘big’ solutions (Connie 2009:11)
The Solution Focused approach increases the children’s hope in the possibility of finding solutions and in their ability to bring change and succeed (Kelly 2008:22). The School of Merit thus believes in the child’s ability to do differently and to reach their own goals, as well as the goals set by the teacher.
Solution Focused Training
The School of Merit embarked on a Solution Focused training journey at the beginning of 2012. The teachers underwent intensive training in the Solution Focused approach, changing the way they view children, changing their language and changing how they set goals with children. Three months after each training workshop the teachers were asked to fill in a questionnaire on what they found most useful. Here is a brief overview of the five training workshops which the teachers of the School of Merit have completed in order to develop a Solution Focused mindset:
Training workshop 1 – Finding a strength lens
The first workshop looked at viewing the school, the staff and the children through a lens of strengths. In groups the teachers were encouraged to elicit their own strengths in working with the children, and to record these. They were taught how to look for and elicit the strengths of the children in their class, and then how to compliment and highlight these strengths.
Three months after the workshop the teachers where asked what they found most useful about the new mindset:
- There was more awareness of the role of positivity within the child and the classroom
- They were focusing on achievements and small accomplishments
- They were rewarding progress more
- They were allowing children to take responsibility for their own work
- They were looking for the WOW in all negative situations
- Felt empowered as a teacher
- Become more patient
Training workshop 2 – Burying the old and starting anew
The teachers were given the opportunity to bury the ‘old bread mould’, the old way of looking at children as problem saturated, and they ‘planted a tree’ thus a new view of viewing a child as capable and resourceful was developed. The teachers were taught to help children set goals and to scale progress. (Where are you now in reaching your goal, where would you like to be, and what are you going to do differently to reach your goal? Or what are you going to do more of or instead of … to reach your goal?)
The teachers noted after this workshop that:
- Children become more independent when they scaled
- Identifying and using the child’s strength helps us to move forward
- Children need to believe more in their own ability and also accept that they can make mistakes
- They as teachers need to give the child more responsibility – they need to work on the solution – how are they going to do differently?
- Children more willing to work towards goals if they have set them
Training workshop 3 – Finding Exceptions
This workshop was geared to assisting teachers to empower children to do differently – in working towards changing their behaviour. They were encouraged to look for times (in and/or out of school) when the child was able to cope or 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:
- They were constantly looking for WOW’s in the children
- To ‘do differently’ is a term which both teachers/parents buy into and it results in a far more positive outlook for all
- They don’t have to be all controlling – the learners can do a lot more for themselves
- They were able to pay more attention and listen more intently
- Words can make or break a child
Training workshop 4 – How to use strengths to build solutions
The focus of the workshop was to ‘do more’ and ‘revise’ the concepts already taught. In this workshop the teachers revised the notion of finding the exceptions or the WOWs and then using the WOWs to move towards the goal (using the child’s strengths in another situation) and thus helping the child to do differently.
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
- Using the positives when speaking to parents – makes for an easier meeting
- They were able to listen more to the child and see each child as an individual
- An atmosphere of “I can” was developing
Training workshop 5 – How to make a solution diagnoses
During this workshop the teachers were taught to see the flip side of a negative problem diagnosis and rather make a solution diagnosis, for example hyperactive could be seen as energetic and anxious could be seen as trying to do things perfectly (Metcalf in Connie 2009:34).
The comments of the teachers after this session noted the following:
- The fact that I’ve changed my ‘vision’ in class and try and see children differently has opened a whole new dimension in the classroom
- My communication, work ethic and how we ‘tackle’ problems in class has changed
- I use scaling as a teacher in most situations and my children feel empowered within their own worlds
- 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 the teachers were asked the following 3 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 children
- Giving children opportunity to talk about what they can do and not always what they can’t do was empowering
- They found new strategies and tools to teach with
- I now search for the WOW, find it and use it
- Creating opportunities and dialogue for children to use their strengths
- Giving children back some responsibility
What impact was there on their teaching?
- Teaching is now more enjoyable and uplifting
- It changed my perceptions of children and allows one to see each child as an individual
- The more strengths I see the more I give
- Less rigid – more flexible, not always my way but their way too
- Relabeling the children and the problem into a strength diagnosis is hopeful
- Much, much, much more patient
- More inclined to step back and allow the child to discover and work out their own situations
What impact was there on them personally?
- I am less stress and more relaxed
- I feel less responsibility on myself as a teacher and now view learning as collaborative
- I feel less “burnt out” and more calm
- Positiveness is contagious
- I feel less frustrated with children, more excited about children
- I love what I do more (teaching)
- I found my own strengths
- I focussed on the positives in my own life
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. The research conducted at the School of Merit is in agreement with research done in the United States that states that teachers that work from a strength-based angle are more effective and less burnt out (Kelly 2008:61). The research at the School of Merit also shows that the Solution Focused mindset affects the school ethos, the children’s belief in themselves and the teacher’s outlook on the children and the way that they teach.
If the statement “a teacher effects eternity, he never can tell where his influence stops” is true then approaching children in a Solution Focused way can empower the child and the teacher to a space of empowerment, hope and learning.
- Connie, E and Metcalf, L 2009: The Art of Solution Focused Therapy. Springer Publishing: New York
- Kelly, M and Kim, J and Franklin, C 2008: Solution Focused Brief Therapy in Schools. Oxford University Press: New York
- Metcalf, L 2003: Teaching toward Solutions. Crown House Publishing: Wales
- Metcalf, L 2008: Counselling toward Solutions. Jossey Bass: San Francisco
About the Authors:
Dr Jacqui von Cziffra-Bergs is an Educational Psychologist and the owner of the Solution Focused Institute of South Africa. 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, an independent private school in Edenvale, Johannesburg which embraces a Solution Focused ethos.