Looking for solutions

Most school counselors understand Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) – or use it without knowing the name or acronym. However, there may be some new ways you can put it to use, even in the college admissions process or handling the student stress that goes along with it.

You can understand a lot about SFBT from its name. The therapy tries to keep the focus on solutions to problems – not the problem itself or the underlying causes or history behind an issue. It can help students consider ways they can solve their problems by using their strengths and available resources, and by considering approaches that have worked in the past. It asks them to consider what their situation would be like if things were better, then create a way to get there, while monitoring progress.

SFBT was developed in the early 1970’s, and school counselors, with caseloads ranging from 300-700 students, quickly adopted it as a speedy, efficient technique. It has been proven effective in nearly 80 research studies and two meta-analyses and nearly 3,000 documented cases, often with a 60 percent success rate in under five sessions, as good as any therapy and quicker.

While it is perhaps most often considered for use with students for social problems or even slumping grades, experts say that it can be applied in cases of self injury or trauma and grief, though they warn that school counselors should be aware when more extensive types of therapy are warranted. And potentially it can help with the college exploration process.

For a student with social anxiety, a counselor might ask them about small steps they could take or under what circumstances they have been more comfortable. For a student whose grades don’t reflect their ability, a counselor might help them consider benefits they’d gain by working harder – regaining lost privileges or ending parental nagging or their own worry about their future, for instance.

By considering how life could be better and identifying the benefits, they might recognize the solution is up to them, not the fault of others, and take action. Meanwhile, pondering past social problems or getting additional lectures about how they’ve failed academically and are damaging their future don’t produce results.

When it comes to college choice, John Murphy, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas and author of the book Solution Focused Counseling in Schools, says SFBT “encourages students to use what they already do and know”. The college exploration and application process involves finding solutions related to getting good information about colleges, he says, along with solving how to work through the process or find their interests.

He suggests counselors ask students about decisions they’ve successfully made in the past, about how they can discover their interests and how they can find out more about which schools are a good match.

You could use SFBT strategies like the “miracle question”, experts say, asking them if they were attending  the perfect school and what would happened to have reached that point. Then let them use that to develop a path there.

Try a “scaling question”, which asks the young person to consider from 1-10 where they are in a process or how difficult it is. How much is it making them stressed?  What will move them along? How will they know? Review progress as they gain bits of information and move along the scale.

Have them consider strengths they bring to the process and how they can use them. Get them to think about resources they have available – family, their school and the extensive information at reliable Web sites. Have them consider how they can use those things to create a good future, and what that will be like.

College counselor Mary Ann Looby has done a brief succinct description of how SFBT can be used to discuss career choice. The Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association  and the Institute for Solution Focused Therapy have detailed information about the approach and links to research and training.

James Patterson has written broadly on career exploration, academic success and other education related topics for several national and trade publications. He is also a school counselor, and was named ‘counselor of the year’ in Montgomery County, MD, a large Washington DC area district.