Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in SchoolsA 360-Degree View of the Research and Practice Principles$

Johhny Kim, Michael Kelly, and Cynthia Franklin

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190607258

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190607258.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 22 October 2021

SFBT Techniques and Solution Building

SFBT Techniques and Solution Building

(p.12) 2 SFBT Techniques and Solution Building
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in Schools

Johnny S. Kim

Michael S. Kelly

Cynthia Franklin

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an overview of the SFBT model and highlight the contributions made by SFBT pioneers Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer as well as other school-based SFBT practitioners and scholars. It contrasts the techniques of SFBT with typical approaches used in schools, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to show how SFBT differs from other approaches that school social workers are already using. It also discusses the 2nd edition of the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association Treatment Manual which provides more details about the specific SFBT techniques and ways to use solution-building questions in this therapy model approach. Lastly, it discusses the theory of change in SFBT and how it helps create behavioral change in students.

Keywords:   Solution-Building, Techniques, Treatment Manual, Positive Emotion, Theory of Change

The History

In the late 1970s, psychotherapy in the United States was at its zenith. The evidence for this high point was everywhere: mental health services had gone mainstream, self-help books topped the best-seller lists, and perhaps most important, economic conditions had created a high degree of health insurance support for mental health services (Cushman, 1995; Moskowitz, 2001; Wylie, 1994). The insurance money for psychotherapy usually was not time limited and was also generous, allowing therapists from psychiatry, psychology, and social work to earn six-figure incomes. A review of the popular and academic literature of that time reveals that three main schools of psychotherapy were popular then: psychodynamic therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and humanistic psychology (Norcross & Goldried, 2003). Therapy was available, usually open ended or long term, to almost anyone who knew where to find it.

By the early 1990s, things had changed dramatically. Self-help books continued to crowd American bookstore shelves, but psychotherapy had become a profession that was largely dominated by managed care. Although still readily available to many people who needed it, psychotherapy was now time limited, often restricted to no more than 20 sessions a year. Fees for therapists had been capped as well, and the golden days of lucrative therapy practices had begun to fade (Duncan, Hubble, & Miller, 1999; Lipchik, 1994; Wylie, 1994). To a psychoanalytically informed practitioner used to seeing patients for a decade or more, this new era was dreary indeed.

(p.13) Something else important happened in psychotherapy during this era, however, and in the heart of America, in a city known more for bratwurst and beer than for therapeutic innovation. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a group of therapists led by Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer started working with clients in radically different ways. They only saw clients for a few sessions, often no more than five or six times. They asked questions that focused less on client problems and more on how clients had previously solved the problems they faced. The focus was on using solutions from the past to handle issues of the present and future. Although consciousness of a client’s experience of loss, trauma, and other difficult feelings was incorporated into their work, these therapists were more focused on the client’s actual strengths and capacities to move beyond those difficult issues quickly (Berg, 1994; de Shazer, 1988). The SFBT model for working with clients required a different mind-set and a unique line of questioning compared to the more popular CBT approach.

In SFBT, clients themselves are viewed as experts on their own problems and solutions. Rather than position therapists as authority figures or experts in the counseling sessions, this new approach put therapists in the role of curious questioners who also offer suggestions that both bring out client strengths and set them on the path to finding their own solution, not the answer or solution that the school social worker had chosen for the client. Overall, the presumption of the therapists in Milwaukee was that clients could change, would change, and were actually changing already. These therapists were creating a new approach to therapy, a collection of techniques and activities that would eventually become known as SFBT (Berg, 1994; De Jong & Berg, 2002; de Shazer, 1988; MacDonald, 2007). Box 2.1 shows some differences between SFBT and CBT treatment.

SFBT Theory of Change

While learning about the different SFBT techniques are important for school social workers, understanding how those techniques work to create changes in students can be very useful in grasping the SFBT mentality and approach. Positive emotions were noted early in the development of SFBT. For example, de Shazer (1985) discussed the importance of increasing positive expectancy (i.e., hope) and suggested the perception that change is possible is a critical part of the SFBT processes that help clients change. Insoo Kim Berg also frequently discussed the importance of fostering hope in clients and (p.14) described how solution-focused conversations create a sense of competence, which is also important for helping clients change (e.g., Berg & Dolan, 2001; De Jong & Berg, 2008). Despite such efforts to understand the therapeutic process of SFBT, our knowledge about the possible theoretical and therapeutic mechanisms for change within SFBT are still in their infancy when it comes to actual empirical studies that examine these mechanisms, especially concerning the role that positive emotions may play in the change process of SFBT.

With the recent popularity of positive psychology and research on positive emotions such as hope, an opportunity exists to re-examine how SFBT techniques work in the counseling sessions. Positive emotions theory argues that positive emotions are not simply the absence of negative emotions (e.g., anger, sad, frustrated, and hopelessness) or just a “good feeling” the student has but, rather, can serve as a therapeutic value in clinical practice (Fitzpatrick & Stalikas, 2008a). Most of the research and discussion in clinical practice has viewed positive emotions as a desired outcome (i.e., “I want to be happy again”) and neglected the possibility of positive emotions serving as a vehicle for change (Fitzpatrick & Stalikas, 2008b). We believe that the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions by Fredrickson (1998) may provide some the most compelling evidence for explaining how SFBT (p.15) works and may be used in future research studies to examine change processes within SFBT.

Under the broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions further elicit thought-action repertoires that are broad, flexible, and receptive to new thoughts and actions, whereas negative emotions elicit thought-action repertoires that are limited, rigid, and less receptive. The broadening aspect of this theory posits that after someone experiences a positive feeling, that person is more open and more receptive. This may be the key step in helping students observe exceptions, make new meanings, and do something different that is touted in SFBT practice literature (de Shazer, 1991). In addition to broadening, this theory also posits that positive emotions help build durable resources that can be drawn upon for future use. Students experiencing psychological problems like depression or anxiety commonly to dwell on negative thoughts and beliefs about themselves or a particular situation, which then leads to dysfunctional behaviors and further perpetuates a downward spiral of psychopathology (Garland, Fredrickson, Kring, Johnson, Meyer, & Penn, 2010). With positive emotions, the opposite can occur: upward spirals of positive emotions help students build enduring resources of new thoughts, perspectives, and options (Fitzpatrick & Stalikas, 2008b). But to counteract the negative emotions students experience, a greater number of positive emotions must be experienced. Research suggests that, at minimum, a 3-to-1 ratio of positive emotions experienced to negative emotions is necessary to help generate sustained positive changes and undo the impact of negative distress (Garland et al., 2010). Therapeutic techniques for increasing positive emotion are fairly new to positive psychology and are still being developed. However, techniques for increasing client strengths and positive emotions are not new to SFBT; they have existed for many years and have been successfully applied in diverse practice settings (Kim & Franklin, 2015). Formulating answers to solution-focused questions requires students to think about their relationships and talk about their experiences in different ways, turning their problem perceptions and negative emotions into positive formulations for change.

The Skills

As the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association (SFBTA) makes clear, “[SFBT] should be characterized as a way of clinical thinking and interacting with clients more than a list of techniques” (SFBTA, 2006, p. 2). By viewing a client as being engaged in a constant process of change, solution-focused (p.16) clinicians are poised to tap into that client’s natural ways of healing and existing ways of viewing change (Tallman & Bohart, 1999). In July 2013, the second edition of the Solution Focused Therapy Treatment Manual for Working with Individuals was published on the SFBTA website for clinicians to learn more about the clinical practices and research relevant to SFBT. It is free to download at www.sfbta.org and a great resource for learning more SFBT techniques.

How SFBT Distinguishes Itself

Rather than a set of sequential techniques that must be followed rigidly, SFBT is more of an approach (SFBTA, 2006). Every client is different, and every professional using SFBT is going to adapt his or her approach to the specific client’s needs and developmental level. This is perhaps most evident in a school setting, where the client’s age can range from 5 years (a kindergartner) to 65 years (a veteran principal). We focus here on how, in the first session, SFBT distinguishes itself from other treatment models by providing some examples of not only how to “start” doing SFBT but also how to contextualize the different directions SFBT can take depending on the client’s goals and frame of reference.

An emphasis of SFBT is on the process of developing a future solution rather than analyzing and dissecting the past manifestation of the problem. SFBT practitioners focus on identifying past successes and exceptions to the problem, as well as on identifying new and novel ways of responding in future efforts to solve problems (Franklin, Biever, Moore, Clemons, & Scamardo, 2001). Orchestrating a positive and solution-focused conversation, often referred to as solution building, is unique to SFBT and aims to create a context for change in which hope, competence, and positive expectancies increase and a client can co-construct with the therapist workable solutions to problems. The task of the school social worker is to listen for words and phrases that are aspects of a solution for the student and build on those (Berg & De Jong, 2008). There is a constant focus by the school social worker on not delving into problem talk but, rather, helping the student identify what life looks like when the problem is gone and what the student will be doing differently (Kim, 2014). This is one of the key differences between SFBT and other strengths-based interventions like motivational interviewing (MI). A recent microanalysis conducted by Korman, Bavelas, and De Jong (2013) found that SFBT counselors preserved the client’s exact words at a significantly higher rate, while adding their own interpretations (p.17) at a significantly lower rate, than MI and CBT counselors. This study also showed how a SFBT approach differs from other, similar approaches like MI by highlighting the sustained focus on listening for what the clients want, what’s important to the clients, and how clients can achieve their desired version of themselves (Bavelas et al., 2013).

When school social workers meet with students, much of the counseling session is centered around questions or problem-solving discussions. Typically, the types of questions asked are:

  • Questions about the student’s problem

  • Questions about mistakes made

  • Questions about causes of the student’s problem

  • Questions about how the problems making the student feel

As these types of questions show, most approaches to counseling focus on the problem, with little talk about the solutions or what the student wants that is different from the current situation. This solution-building mindset differs from more problem-focused approaches like CBT that focus on helping clients identify problem thinking and beliefs, challenging those negative thinking patterns, and substituting more rational thoughts and beliefs. The solution-focused techniques described below help school social workers accomplish this task and stay focused on the SFBT approach.

Pre-session Change, Exception Questions, and Other Key SFBT Techniques

One distinctive facet of the SFBT approach is the attention that the solution-focused school social worker pays to changes that are already in motion from the moment the first session is scheduled. This is called pre-session change, and it allows the solution-focused school social worker to model the SFBT concept not only that change is a natural and constant occurrence, but also that this notion can become a source of hope and empowerment for clients as they struggle to change what initially seem to be overwhelming problems they fear will take years of treatment to address (Berg, 1994; De Jong & Berg, 2001; Murphy, 1996; Selekman, 2005). To do this, solution-focused school social workers at the first meeting ask questions such as “Since we last talked on the phone and scheduled this first meeting, what’s been better in the way that you and your son are getting along at home?” or “Since Mrs. Smith asked me to come and see you, have there been any positive changes (p.18) in the way you’re behaving in her class?” On the basis of any changes that the client identifies, the solution-focused school professional moves on to amplify those positive changes and sees what ideas the student might have about maintaining such changes into the future. Box 2.2 describes questions typically used in SFBT. (p.19)

A hopeful, almost expectant tone pervades SFBT sessions, where students and parents are welcomed and given the chance to describe how they are already changing before they have even begun treatment. In our practice experience, we have seen this approach resonate with students used to mental health professionals who start their first sessions trying to probe for underlying causes to the problem behavior by asking detailed questions about the student’s history. By setting the context squarely in the present and asking clients to imagine a new, preferred future, many students embrace this perspective and tailor it to their own goals. We have also found students are more willing to talk about things they do well or things they like compared to talking about their problems. This can be especially useful when students are hesitant about seeing a school social worker as well as helpful in quickly developing a therapeutic relationship. And it can be particularly important when working with students who are ethnic minorities as this allows the school social worker to practice cultural humility.

This approach is immediately apparent through the ways that solution-focused clinicians talk with their students from the first session. Solution-focused school social workers tend to focus on different areas in their initial contact with students compared to typical treatment approaches, which are more rooted in using the medical model to assess for student pathology. The questions tend to focus on what the students see as their presenting problem, and little time is spent talking about root causes or past family history that might have contributed to the problem. Rather, from the first meeting, students are encouraged to talk about their situation in present and future terms, with the expectation communicated that they are more in charge of their problem now than they might have previously felt. In contrast to a typical first session, in which great energy and effort is expended by both the school social worker and the student to describe the problem and all its attendant impacts for the student, solution-focused school social workers tend to ask students to tell them what they might have already tried to address the problem and, if that the student cannot name anything that has worked, identify those times or situations where the problem is not present (or at least not as problematic).

Students are also encouraged to think of their preferred future self, even in the first session. This can be done through questions that orient the session toward future hopes and what will be different when the problem is no longer there. More specifically, by asking students the “miracle question” or “scaling questions,” they are invited to imagine a future reality that they (p.20) might be able to start bringing into being. For the miracle question, students are asked to imagine that when they go to bed that night, a miracle takes place, and when they wake up, their problem is solved and they feel better and more hopeful about their day. The solution-focused school social worker then asks, “What would be the first thing you would notice about your new situation that told you the miracle had taken place?” This opens up the possibilities that students can see changes happening in their lives and identify first steps at achieving more of the changes they want (Berg, 1994). Scaling questions can be used for a variety of subjects, asking clients to rate their ability to manage their problem on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “not able to handle my problem at all” and 5 being “fully able to handle my problem.” Assuming a student rates the problem as being at a 2, a solution-focused school social worker can ask what the student would be doing differently if he or she is able to give a rating of 3 or 4 when they meet the next week. With the scales, students can be asked to imagine what they would need to do to raise (or lower, depending on the way the scale is framed) their score, and exceptions where they may have already been doing things more in line with their goals can be identified.

Likewise, the focus on exception questions helps the student use the past pragmatically. By identifying times when the problem was not affecting the student, or when the student was more able to handle a similar situation successfully, the solution-focused school social worker invites the student to view his or her current reality as being less stuck and hopeless. It also encourages the student to imagine that the “exceptions” could more easily become the future reality because, as one student told us, “Hey, now that I realize that it’s already been a problem I was able to beat before, why can’t I do it again?”

Future Sessions and Goal Setting

Like many treatment approaches, SFBT favors the implementation of a goal-setting process between student and school social worker. Where SFBT differs is in the power sharing that goes on when setting these goals. Instead of a process where, over time, students are expected to face their denial and accept a reality that the school social worker is advocating, the reality of the student is always paramount in the sessions. (This produces some interesting contrasts—and even conflicts—when working in school settings with children referred by teachers, which we discuss more fully in Chapter 5.) (p.21) Students can change as much or as little as they want, and they are given the freedom by the SFBT process to set goals they can achieve. In some ways, this goal-setting process mirrors some of what CBT school social workers do as they set treatment goals with clients based on specific problematic thinking or behavior. The difference between CBT and SFBT here is that students are not required to adopt a particular approach to their behavior or adopt new ways of thinking about how their emotions are affected by their cognitions. In CBT, the school social worker typically assigns tasks and makes recommendations for behavioral or thought changes, whereas an SFBT approach encourages students to do more of their own previous exception behaviors in an effort to achieve their preferred future self (Bavelas et al., 2013).

Compliments Count

Anyone watching a videotape of a clinician doing SFBT will be immediately struck by how often the clinician compliments the client over the course of a regular session (Berg, 1994). Because in SFBT so much effort is spent identifying student resiliency and setting goals based on strengths that students have demonstrated in the past, it’s understandable that students begin to self-report the times between sessions that they have made at least small gains in solving their problems. Rather than take credit for helping the student make this change (or expressing frustration the student is not progressing more quickly), solution-focused school social workers are quick to highlight client gains and give compliments about their progress.

These compliments are not meant to be patronizing. Good solution-focused school social workers know how to convey genuine pride and excitement at a student’s progress, often saying things like “That’s great; tell me how you did that?” or “I am so impressed! What did you figure out that helped you deal with your problem so successfully?” Students take that feedback and are motivated to make more changes, either for the same problem or for a different problem that the solution-focused school social worker may not even be aware of yet (De Jong & Berg, 2002; Metcalf, 1995; Selekman, 2005).

Coping Questions

One persistent critique of SFBT has been that it is too optimistic and does not allow clients to have deep emotional experiences in therapy (Lipchik, 1994; Nylund & Corsiglia, 1994). This has been acknowledged (p.22) as a critique by SFBT’s founders (Miller & de Shazer, 2000), but in some ways, it strikes us as a straw-man argument. If clients have strong, upsetting emotional experiences in treatment, they are certainly encouraged by a solution-focused school social worker to experience those feelings—to cry, to yell, to express what they need to express. What SFBT does not do, and which confuses some people who are new to the approach, is place any inherent value on intense emotional experiences in therapy (Berg & Dolan, 2001; De Jong & Berg, 2001). Because SFBT presumes that students can (and regularly do) solve their own problems, no particular weight is given to any emotionally cathartic experience that might be triggered by the school social worker during sessions. Instead, great emphasis is placed on asking questions that allow students to help the school social worker learn what the students want to talk about, as well as how fast or slow the students would like to go in exploring how to change their situation. In our two decades of doing solution-focused work in schools, we have witnessed many students share their hopes and goals in SFBT with intense emotion; we have also seen many students embrace the approach in a calm, somewhat playful way, with plenty of laughter and spontaneity punctuating the sessions. The focus has never been on the degree of emotional intensity or on asking them how they feel about something; rather, it has always been on helping students generate their own solutions (Berg, 1994; Miller & de Shazer, 2000). In fact, recently focus on SFBT has been on how the approach creates positive emotions in students, which helps them change (discussed more in SFBT Theory of Change below).

The most concrete way to show how this approach works for chronic and seemingly debilitating problems that students deal with is the SFBT coping questions. Solution-focused school social workers often use these questions when a student is reporting significant difficulty and even some frustration that a situation has not gotten better. Questions like “This situation sounds really hard—how have you managed to cope with it as well as you have thus far?” are designed to elicit student strengths and possible strategies that they may have used in the past to cope with their difficulties (Berg, 1994; Selekman, 2005). Another coping question that we have often used when students are complaining about the seeming impossibility of their situations is “How have you been able to keep this from getting worse for you?” By framing the “impossible” situation as one that the student has some control over, the solution-focused school social worker can explore (p.23) what hidden capacities the student has for managing and potentially overcoming problems.

Doing Something Different

One of the most exciting and fun aspects of doing SFBT in a school setting is the ability to try out new ideas and interventions with students based on their willingness to “do something different” about their problem. Rather than seek to teach students a specific technique for handling their problems, such as those associated with anger or difficulty in making friends, solution-focused school social workers explore what students have done about their problems in the past and what new ideas they could try now. For example, an 11-year-old student we worked with was struggling to manage his temper in the classroom and had not found the traditional cognitive-behavioral anger management techniques offered by his special education teacher to be helpful. He told us that he had run out of ideas because everything he had tried before had not worked. When we told him that we thought it might be time to “do something different,” he immediately warmed up to the idea and started brainstorming new ideas to tackle his anger problem. Being a young person, some of the ideas were admittedly wacky: no teacher was likely to let him play games on his iPad all day to fend off his tirades, for example. After sifting through his ideas, however, the student settled on a creative solution that he was excited to implement and that we thought his teacher would support as well: he would work out with his teacher a list of “helper tasks” in the class that he would be able to do any time he thought he was going to lose his temper. The teacher would get some help with things in the classroom, and the student would get to take his mind off his frustration and recharge.

Client Resistance? We Do Not See It that Way …

The advantage of having concepts like coping questions, “doing something different,” brainstorming, or exception questions when working with students is that they allow a solution-focused school social worker to quickly short-circuit student resistance to working on their problems. In fact, the very concept of resistance is eagerly debated in the SFBT literature (Berg, 1994; de Shazer, 1988; O’Hanlon & Bertolino, 1998); most SFBT writers consider resistance to be more a product of the solution-focused professional’s inability to find common ground with the student than an actual refusal by students to face their problems directly. By approaching the student in a (p.24) respectful, patient way, we have found that the ideas in SFBT allow us not only to find some workable goal for most students in a school setting but also to avoid labeling our students as being “in denial” about their problems.

What SFBT Does (and Does Not) Teach

Part of what has held back SFBT in some quarters is the notion that it does not “teach” anything new to a student. Perhaps predictably, SFBT practitioners often define this relative lack of specific skill training as another strength of the approach—namely, it does not limit interventions to specific techniques that are generated by the school social worker. For one thing, it’s usually easier to get people to do things that they already know how to do (Berg, 1994; De Jong & Berg, 2002; Selekman, 2005). SFBT works hard to help students identify the strengths and skills they already possess to address their problems, and then tries to free them up to “do more of what’s working” (Berg, 1994; Newsome, 2004).

Another challenge to applying SFBT in a school involves the belief of some educators that they are there to instruct students on how to “act.” Some educators who feel this moral imperative may be uncomfortable with SFBT’s view of starting from where students truly are, and then working with what’s there, as opposed to modeling a better way to behave or think. As stated earlier, the benefit of SFBT is that it does not deny the presenting problems that require intervention (e.g., student defiance or work refusal). It just frames them differently than the traditional school practice that typically emphasizes the authority of the adult over the self-determination of the student.

Undoubtedly, some educators can (and do) view SFBT as excessively optimistic and too “easy” on kids. SFBT does impart to clients an optimistic and future-oriented perspective; however, we believe there is value in this approach. Again and again, we have seen in our school practices how SFBT can elicit new ideas from students who have traditionally viewed their problems from more fatalistic and pessimistic angles. This can involve teaching new ideas to students, so SFBT in no way limits the skill and authority of the teacher or school social worker using it to engage with and help a student. If anything, we have often noticed that the process of asking SFBT questions itself makes an impression on students who are unsure how to respond to treatment and are anxious about seeing a mental health professional. By starting with a curious and hopeful stance, SFBT tries to de-escalate many potentially difficult situations and move the focus to solving problems that the student is having.

(p.25) Finally, as a wholly student-centered treatment approach, SFBT is open to almost any intervention that is already underway in a student’s life and, in the student’s view, is a helpful intervention. For example, one student of ours was already taking anti-anxiety medication when we first met her, and part of the solution-focused treatment we conducted was helping her identify ways to build on the benefits she was seeing from taking her medication. In this way, students and school social workers can collaborate on using SFBT with other treatment models (e.g., psychoeducation or psychopharmacology) that emphasize students setting goals and working toward them. As discussed in Chapter 1, the portability and adaptability of SFBT in a school setting is one of the major strengths we have seen when applying this approach for the past two decades.

The Application

The later “SFBT in Action” chapters provide more concrete case examples of how to use SFBT with five of the most common issues or problems school social workers encounter. In the present chapter, we also include an example of a solution-focused handout developed by Franklin and Streeter (2004) to help students set goals using SFBT techniques (see Box 2.3) and a form developed by Garner (2004) to help practitioners evaluate their school’s readiness to adopt SFBT ideas (see Box 2.4).

The Research

In Chapter 3, we share more information about the effectiveness of SFBT in schools and other mental health settings obtained since the first edition of this book. In our work employing meta-analytic techniques to analyze the extant intervention studies on SFBT, we have found that this therapy has a small to medium treatment effects on behaviors and problems typically found in a school setting. This outcome is only slightly smaller than the typical effect of other psychotherapeutic treatments for some of the same behaviors and problems experienced by students (Kim, 2008).

As we note in the next chapter, in keeping with our efforts to be transparent and rigorous in this book, we can highlight the claims of SFBT’s effectiveness but also caution against overstating that, as a technique, SFBT outperforms all other approaches to therapy. In some ways, SFBT may be best viewed as an important technique to use with students because it facilitates (p.26) (p.27) conversations about student strengths. whereas many other approaches in schools (with competing claims of effectiveness) are more rooted in medical/deficit models. What remains for further research to explore is whether strengths-based approaches like SFBT produce better outcomes for students (p.28) than approaches rooted in special education deficit models or social skills/psychoeducation models.

The Future

School settings and SFBT are in some ways a natural fit. School social workers are constantly struggling with large caseloads and limited time to serve all the students who need help, and SFBT’s emphasis on rapid engagement and change for students can help school-based professionals meet more students and make a difference for them quickly. The goal-setting process of SFBT (involving scaling questions and asking teachers to observe behaviors that students are working on improving) can be easily adapted to the outcome-based education paperwork of Medicaid and special education to help school social workers document their effectiveness (Lever, Anthony, Stephan, Moore, Harrison, & Weist, 2006).

The challenge of finding ways to bring a solution-focused perspective using student, family, and teacher strengths into a variety of school contexts (e.g., special education staffing, disciplinary meetings, or teacher consultations) is significant, however, and sometimes even daunting. This is particularly true as educators increasingly favor “problem-talk” using diagnostic categories derived from special education classification and psychopathology language found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Altshuler & Kopels, 2003; House, 2002). More research on SFBT in schools (as well as collaboration between SFBT researchers and practitioners in schools) remains essential to help continue the work that Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer envisioned three decades ago.


SFBT is an approach that started in the American Midwest and has now spread throughout the world, heavily influencing the last two generations of practitioners. Its main ideas—that client strengths matter, that client change is constant, and that clients can be trusted to devise solutions to their own problems—are a welcome alternative to many of the deficit-based diagnostic and treatment approaches prevalent in schools today. Solution-focused school social workers can use techniques like the miracle question, coping questions, and scaling questions to identify student goals and strengths to help them make changes in their lives.

(p.29) References

Bibliography references:

Altshuler, S. J., & Kopels, S. (2003). Advocating in schools for children with disabilities: What’s new with IDEA? Social Work, 48(3), 320–329.

Bavelas, J., De Jong, P., Franklin, C., Froerer, A., Gingerich, W., Kim, J., Korman, H., Langer, S., Lee, M. Y., McCollum, E. E., Smock Jordan, S., & Trepper, T. S. (2013, July 1). Solution-focused therapy treatment manual for working with individuals, 2nd version. Retrieved from http://www.sfbta.org/researchdownloads.html

Berg, I. K. (1994). Family-based services. New York: W. W. Norton.

Berg, I., & Dolan, Y. (2001). Tales of solutions: A collection of hope-inspiring stories. New York: W. W. Norton.

Cushman, P. (1995). Constructing the self, constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

De Jong, P., & Berg, I. (2001). Instructor’s resource manual of interviewing for solutions. New York: Brooks/Cole.

De Jong, P., & Berg, I. (2002). Interviewing for solutions (2nd ed.). New York: Brooks/Cole.

De Jong, P., & Berg, I. (2008). Interviewing for solutions (3rd ed.) Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.

de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York: Norton.

de Shazer, S. (1988). Clues: Investigating solutions in brief therapy. New York: W. W. Norton.

de Shazer, S. (1991). Putting difference to work. New York: Norton.

Duncan, B., Hubble, M., & Miller, S. (Eds.). (1999). Heart and soul of change: What works in therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Fitzpatrick, M. R., & Stalikas, A. (2008a). Integrating positive emotions into theory, research, and practice: A new challenge for psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 18, 248–258.

Fitzpatrick, M. R., & Stalikas, A. (2008b). Positive emotions as generators of therapeutic change. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 18, 137–154.

Franklin, C., & Streeter, C. L. (2004). Solution-focused accountability schools for the 21st century. Austin, TX: Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, University of Texas at Austin.

Franklin, C., Biever, J., Moore, K., Clemons, D., & Scamardo, M. (2001). The effectiveness of solution-focused therapy with children in a school setting. Research on Social Work Practice, 11(4), 411–434.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300–319.

Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer P. S., & Penn, D. L. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 849–864.

Garner, J. (2004). Creating solution-building schools training program. In C. Franklin & C. L. Streeter (Eds.), Solution-focused accountability schools for the 21st century. Austin, TX: Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, University of Texas at Austin.

House, A. (2002). DSM-IV diagnosis in the schools. New York: Guilford.

(p.30) Kim, J. S. (2008). Examining the effectiveness of solution-focused brief therapy: A meta-analysis. Research on Social Work Practice.

Kim, J. S. (2014). Solution-focused brief therapy: A multicultural approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kim, J. S., & Franklin, C. (2015). The importance of positive emotions in solution-focused brief therapy. Best Practices in Mental Health, 11, 25–41.

Korman, H., Bavelas, J. B., & De Jong, P. (2013). Microanalysis of formulations in solution-focused brief therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and motivational interviewing. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 32, 31–45.

Lever, N., Anthony, L., Stephan, S., Moore, E., Harrison, B., & Weist, M. (2006). Best practice in expanded school mental health services. In C. Franklin, M. Harris, & P. Allen-Meares (Eds.), School services source-book (pp. 1011–1020). New York: Oxford Press.

Lipchik, E. (1994). The rush to be brief. Family Therapy Networker, 18(2), 35–39.

MacDonald, A. J. (2007). Solution-focused therapy: Theory, research and practice. London: Sage Books.

Metcalf, L. (1995). Counseling towards solutions: A practical solution-focused program for working with students, teachers, and parents. New York: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, G., & de Shazer, S. (2000). Emotions in solution-focused therapy: A re-examination. Family Process, 39(1), 5–23.

Moskowitz, E. (2001). In therapy we trust: America’s obsession with self-fulfillment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Murphy, J. (1996). Solution-focused brief therapy in the school. In S. Miller, M. Hubble, & B. Duncan (Eds.), Handbook of solution-focused brief therapy (pp. 184–204). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Newsome, S. (2004). Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) group work with at-risk junior high school students: Enhancing the bottom-line. Research on Social Work Practice, 14(5), 336–343.

Norcross, J., & Goldried, M. (2003). Handbook of psychotherapy integration. New York: Oxford Press.

Nylund, D., & Corsiglia, V. (1994). Becoming solution-focused forced in brief therapy: Remembering something important we already knew. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 13(1), 5–12.

O’Hanlon, B., & Bertolino, B. (1998). Even from a broken web: Brief, respectful solution-oriented therapy for sexual abuse and trauma. New York: Wiley.

Selekman, M. (2005). Pathways to change (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association (2006). SFBT Training Manual. Retrieved July 3, 2007, from http://www.sfbta.org/

Tallman, K., & Bohart, A. (1999). The client as a common factor: Clients as self-healers. In B. Duncan, M. Hubble, & S. Miller (Eds.), The heart and soul of change: What works in therapy (pp. 91–132). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Wylie, M. (1994, March/April). Endangered species. Family Therapy Networker.