Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Helping students change with dignity

By John J. Murphy August 26, 2016

“We may need to solve problems not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward.”

— Edward de Bono




In the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, author Robert Fulghum said he had learned life’s most important lessons as a young child in kindergarten. In that same spirit, this article could be titled, “Most of What I Know About Counseling Students, I Learned From Students.”

As much as I appreciate my formal training, the best lessons of all — the ones that really got my attention and took hold — have come from the young people I’ve been privileged to serve. MurphyThese lessons can be condensed into two practical principles of school-based counseling: 1) Involve students and 2) build solutions from strengths and resources.

As further testimony to the expertise of my youthful teachers, these two strategies are strongly supported by mountains of empirical research in counseling and psychotherapy. More specifically, research indicates that counseling outcomes depend largely on the quality of the client-counselor alliance, the client’s hope for a better future and the extent to which the client’s opinions, values, strengths, social supports, life experiences and other “client factors” are incorporated into counseling.

This article translates these findings and principles into the following steps and techniques of solution-focused counseling, a practical and culturally sensitive approach to helping young people change with dignity.

Step 1: Establish collaborative relationships

The client’s perception of a strong client-counselor alliance is the most reliable predictor of successful outcomes, and client involvement is the key to a strong alliance. The more involved students are in their own counseling, the better the outcomes. The following techniques help to strengthen alliances and improve outcomes in solution-focused counseling.

Adopt the ambassador perspective. Approach every session as a cross-cultural exchange and every student as a unique “culture of one,” with the humility, respect and curiosity that a foreign ambassador would show when entering an unfamiliar country or culture. Good ambassadors look, listen and learn from people before making any assumptions
or suggestions.

Compliment students. Anything we can do to boost students’ hope will improve outcomes, which is why compliments are an important part of solution-focused counseling. Compliments help to reframe students’ views of themselves and their circumstances, and they are often folded into questions in solution-focused counseling. For example, asking a student who complains of being stressed out and depressed, “How have you managed to juggle so many things for so long?” invites a more hopeful and empowering self-perception. Students can be complimented for attending counseling sessions (“It takes courage to meet like this”), cooperating in the conversation (“I appreciate your help and patience in answering my questions”) and trying to improve their lives (“With all you’ve been through, where do you find the strength to keep on trying instead of giving up?”).

Fit counseling to students versus students to counseling. Just as a tailor adjusts a suit to fit the owner, we need to customize counseling to each student rather than requiring students to conform to our favorite ideas and methods. This means incorporating students’ key words and phrases into the conversation, exploring their theories and opinions, and determining what they want from us and our services.

Incorporating students’ language into counseling conversations validates their perceptions and reinforces the client-driven emphasis of solution-focused counseling. For example, if Maria says, “My teacher gets on my back all the time about my behavior,” we could ask, “What have you found helpful in getting your teacher off your back?”

Another way to fit counseling to students is to explore their opinions about the problem and potential solutions. This can be done through asking questions such as, “What needs to happen to improve things at school?” and “If you were counseling people in a similar situation, what would you advise them to do?” A student’s ideas about the problem and its possible solution can be cobbled into interventions that are more likely to be accepted and implemented by the student than interventions that come from other sources.

Obtaining feedback from students is another way to ensure the provision of student-driven rather than counselor-driven services. The Outcome Rating Scale and Session Rating Scale — two four-item client feedback scales that take one minute to administer and score — provide ongoing snapshots of students’ perceptions of counseling progress and alliance. Collecting feedback from clients during every meeting, and adjusting services based on this feedback, has been shown to dramatically improve counseling outcomes regardless of one’s theoretical orientation.

Step 2: Develop practical goals

In addition to providing students with a sense of hope, purpose and direction for the future, goals help them persist in the face of setbacks and obstacles. Effective goals share several characteristics that can be summarized in the 5-S guideline: significant, specific, small, start based and self-manageable.

Significant: The most important feature of a counseling goal is its personal relevance to the client. Good goals are goals that matter to students, and we can develop these goals by asking questions such as “What are your best hopes for counseling?” and “What is the most important thing you want to change about school right now?”

Specific: Goals also need to be specific and concrete so that students, counselors and anyone else involved can tell when they are reached. The following sample questions help counselors partner with students to develop specific goals: “If we videotaped you being less anxious at school, what would we see you doing?”; “What will be happening next week to let us know that we’re on the right track?”

Small: Practical goals are small enough to be attained, yet challenging enough to inspire action. Questions that help in this regard include the following: “What will be the first small sign that things are moving in the right direction?”; “You rated school as a 2 on a 10-point scale. What would a 2.5 or 3 look like at school?”

Start based: When asked what they want from counseling, most students tell you what they don’t want: “I want to get in less trouble at school” or “I want to be less depressed.” When students state goals in negative terms, we can ask the following “instead of” questions to encourage goals that express the start or presence of something desirable rather than the end or absence of something undesirable: “What will you be doing in class instead of getting in trouble?”; “What would you rather be doing instead of being depressed?” In addition to being more noticeable and measurable than negatively worded goals, start-based goals are more motivating because they focus students’ attention on moving toward what they want (solutions)
rather than away from what they don’t want (problems).

Self-manageable: Students may initially focus on how other people should change instead of considering what they could do differently (“My teachers need to back off and chill a little”). This perspective, accurate as it may be, usually impedes solutions by holding others responsible for changing while placing oneself in a passive and powerless role. When this occurs, counselors can acknowledge students’ perceptions while inviting them to consider what they might do to improve

the school situation: “What have you found helpful in getting your teachers to back off and chill?”

Step 3: Build on what is ‘right’

Instead of emphasizing what is wrong, missing and not working (problems, deficits, limitations), solution-focused counseling invites students and others to notice and build on what is “right” with students and their lives (successes, strengths, resources).

Build on exceptions. Struggling students typically are aware of their failures and problems at school, which is one reason why building on exceptions is so effective in grabbing and keeping their attention. Exceptions refer to the “good times” at school — times when the problem could have happened but did not. These nonproblem occasions are minisolutions that are already happening, just not as often as people would like.

Building on exceptions is a core technique of solution-focused counseling that involves three steps: 1) eliciting exceptions (“When is the problem absent or less noticeable?”), 2) exploring the conditions under which exceptions occur (“How did you make that happen? What was different about your approach?”) and 3) expanding their presence and frequency at school (“What will it take to make that happen more often at school? Are you willing to try that approach in another class?”). This strategy is based on the practical idea that it is more efficient to increase what students are already doing than it is to teach them brand-new behaviors from scratch.

Many students are surprised to learn that they are doing “something” right, and they become more hopeful when they realize that they already have what it takes to turn things around at school. On a more personal level, building on exceptions encourages struggling students to change the question from “How can I be more like other students?” to “How can I be more like myself during my better moments?”

Build on other student resources. In solution-focused counseling, all students are viewed as resourceful and capable of changing. It is our job as counselors to help them identify and apply the “natural resources” in their lives toward school solutions. Natural resources include heroes and influential people (family, friends, actors, athletes); resilience and coping (students’ abilities to cope with life’s adversities); values (students’ deeply held beliefs); special interests (cooking, sports, movies); and community support systems (places of worship, neighborhood groups, clubs). These resources, individually or in combination, can be woven into respectful Branding-Images_Studentsinterventions that improve school behavior while respecting students’ cultural heritage and life experiences.

Let’s look at a quick example involving Ben, a 10-year-old student who loved baseball. After a few minutes of general baseball talk, we explored similarities between the challenges of school and the challenges of baseball. For instance, we talked about how long the baseball season is and how important it is to not let a few bad games ruin the entire season. Ben agreed to try a baseball experiment at school that involved “stepping up to the plate every day” and doing his best, knowing that he would sometimes “strike out” and have bad days. Ben improved his classroom behavior over the next two weeks, and his teacher commented on his impressive turnaround.

This example captures the general nature of building on student resources — identify an available, naturally occurring resource in the student’s life and link the resource to a school solution. Because every student offers a unique set of resources, resource-based interventions are constructed one student at a time with no preconceived notions about what they should look like. You are not likely to find them in treatment manuals or lists because a) they cannot be selected or developed before meeting the student, b) they evolve from the student-counselor relationship and are often formulated on the spot in collaboration with the student and c) they are based completely on material supplied by the student — which is precisely why they work so well. I describe these techniques and many others in greater detail while offering more than 50 real-world illustrations in the new third edition of my book Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools (2015), published by the American Counseling Association.

Solution-focused counseling rests on two main values. First, students should be given every opportunity to be actively involved in their own care because they are the very people for whom school-based counseling services are designed. In addition to honoring core principles of multiculturalism and social justice, giving clients a voice in shaping and evaluating counseling services results in better outcomes. Second, all students are doing “something” to help themselves — if only to keep the problem from getting worse — and these assets and resources can be applied toward school solutions. Without denying the reality and pain of school problems, we can improve outcomes by identifying students’ strengths and resources and incorporating them into the counseling process.

I hope this article was successful in showing that solution-focused counseling in schools is far more than a set of techniques. It is instead a new and different way to approach young people, problems and solutions.




Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

John J. Murphy, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at the University of Central Arkansas, is the author of several well-regarded books, including the third edition of Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, published by the American Counseling Association. Contact him at and learn more about his work at

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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