Counselors in schools are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. School buildings across the country were closed this past spring, and as we transition to the new school year this fall, some students will attend school only remotely through online learning. Others will be in school part time with reduced capacity, whereas still others may return to a full-capacity school but urged to keep physically distant and with their faces covered throughout the long days.
In addition, because of pandemic management measures, students have been spending an unusual amount of time with their families, some of whom are under new and severe emotional, health and financial stress. The pervasive spread of COVID-19 is associated with higher unemployment and poverty, greater use of illegal drugs, and new and sustained trauma experiences. On top of all this are the ongoing string of horrific news stories reporting White on Black violence and ethnic hatred, which are compounding societal stresses.
School counselors must be prepared to support a wide array of student concerns associated with COVID-19 and the accompanying social isolation. Counselors who can assist many students with significant needs in a brief, flexible way in both remote and in-person venues will be particularly valued.
Fortunately, the solution-focused model of counseling is highly adaptable to a wide range of problems, including grief, trauma and anxiety. It is appropriate for suicide prevention efforts, classroom lessons and even brief check-ins with students who are not demonstrating any outward sign of struggle. Instead of a deep dive into problem origination and causation, this form of counseling targets clients’ hopes, resources, exceptions to problems and descriptions of a preferred future. It also fosters vicarious resilience, which will help counselors who may have their own diminished stamina arising from personal struggles related to the pandemic.
Solution-focused counseling was pioneered by Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer from their work at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee in the 1980s. It has evolved and become widespread over the ensuing decades through the work of many advocates in counseling, therapy and coaching. It is sometimes called “brief counseling” because it can be highly effective in a few 20- to 50-minute sessions, or even during a short hallway or classroom conversation.
Counseling in a modern, virtual world now means counseling through video calls without guarantees of confidentiality because students may be in only semiprivate or even public environments. Solution-focused counseling is not problem-phobic, but because of its embedded focus on goals, preferred futures, assets, resources and exceptions to problems, it poses less risk of revealing private, sensitive information that might be overheard by a family member at home.
Given the long absence from school and the limited amount of time students can be with school counselors, short three- to five-minute check-ins offer one practical way of providing support to students and gauging their emotional state. School personnel are key reporters of child abuse, and there are serious concerns about whether students could be enduring abuse because of having limited access to these trusted adult advocates.
Consider the following eight check-in questions:
- What is your best hope for this year?
- On a point scale of 1 to 10, where are you if 10 means that things are going as well as you could hope and 1 is the opposite?
- What are you most proud of in how you handled being at home for so long?
- If this turns out to be a really good year, what is something you will have done to make it that way?
- Who will notice?
- Do you feel safe at school and home?
- Who is a trusted adult you can talk with if you are upset?
- Is there anything else you would like me to know?
These types of questions allow students to express their preferred future, their resources to help them get there and a description of what that future will be like, including who will notice. Humans are social animals, and having students describe what others will see in them when they are successful helps make the path visible to them.
Even if there is not time to ask all of these questions, getting students to describe their preferred future, their resources and their social supports will help them move in small steps toward something hopeful. It will also allow the counselor to gauge students’ emotional states and resources.
Helping students cope with grief does not have to focus only on challenges and sadness. It can also effectively include conversations about joys and happiness. Students first need a counselor who will actively listen to their story of pain in losing a loved one (or a different loss), but a solution-focused counselor will also ask questions that seek descriptions of what the loved one liked to do and the positive aspects of the relationship.
Questions about what the decedent did for the student, enjoyed about the student and how the student knows these things can draw out memories of the relationship and help the student see their own assets and strengths through that relationship. Asking what students sees in themselves that the decedent saw can create rich descriptions of the strength of that connection.
Grief involves coping, so a solution-focused approach may include questions of how the student has managed to get out of bed and arrive at school, and what the decedent would be most pleased to see regarding how the student is getting along. For those students who are less verbal, allowing them to draw their coping skills or positive aspects of their relationship can supplant, or support, the dialogue.
All school counselors must be prepared to assess suicide risk in students. Unfortunately, given the diverse demands of school counseling, sometimes single meetings with students in the near term are all that are possible.
Fortunately, solution-focused counseling offers a framework to go beyond just assessing suicide risk; it paves the way toward fostering hope and engaging in critical prevention work. In addition to the classic questions surrounding scaling (e.g., “What keeps you from being one number lower? What will you be doing when one number higher?”) and questions about best hopes and a preferred future, more nuanced questions may elicit additional solution-oriented thinking. Some examples include:
- If we asked the version of you that has been happier, what would that version tell you to do?
- What would that version remind you that works for you?
- How have you made it this far?
- When in the last week were things a little better?
- Who is on your support team?
- Who could we bring into this conversation?
- What job should we give that person?
- What would that person advise right now with how you are feeling?
According to John Henden in Preventing Suicide: The Solution Focused Approach, one of the most powerful interventions is having the student imagine being a witness at their own funeral and describing who would be most upset, what advice that person would wish they had given, and what options other than suicide would the student wish they had tried.
Group counseling in schools is often based on themes such as anxiety regulation, social skill development or anger management. In the midst of a pandemic, school counselors may want to expand groups beyond narrow themes to include more students.
Taking a solution-focused approach allows a single group to include individuals with a variety of social and emotional needs. In the first group session, ask students about their best hope for how the group could help them. They can address their preferred future by describing what life would be like if things were better. Describing instances when this has happened and exceptions to the problem allows them to envision the change that is possible. Group members can then scale their current position, followed by questions of what idea they would be willing to try between now and the next session to move one step closer.
Subsequent sessions would start with each member reporting what is better since the last meeting, scaling their status and whether there were setbacks, describing how they coped and detailing what signs they will see when there is progress. To take advantage of the group dynamic, some of these questions could come from fellow members, or members could offer suggestions for what has worked for them. Ensuring that the group includes compliments from the leader and fellow members will help ensure that it is a positive and rewarding experience.
In addition, incorporating activities into groups helps children express themselves in a variety of ways. Fortunately, there are abundant solution-oriented activities to employ. An excellent resource for solution-focused activities with children is Pamela King’s Tools for Effective Therapy With Children and Families: A Solution-Focused Approach.
The following activities may be particularly useful:
- Cartoon panel: Ask students to draw their miracle day using a six-panel cartoon or, alternatively, six resources/strengths they possess or six challenges they overcame with the names of the people who supported them and the skills they learned.
- Mock interview: Prompt students to record a video interview of another student, or have them interview one another in a live video group stream. Prompts might include: What strengths did you use to overcome your challenge? How did you keep going and not give up? What advice do you have for others struggling with what you struggled with? Today, when you are being your best self, what are you doing well?
- Rainbow questions: Have students pick three different Lego pieces that you supply (if meeting in person), or just ask them to name their top three specific color choices. Then, based on the colors selected, have them answer color-coded questions. For example:
Green: Imagine you are talking to your 5-year-old self. What is the wisest advice you would give yourself on how to handle being quarantined?
Orange: What did you do to help yourself get along with your family during quarantine?
Yellow: What is the nicest compliment you have received since the COVID-19 outbreak?
Dark Blue: Who supported you best during the quarantine? what did they do?
Black: What will your friends notice when you are your best self?
- List it: Ask students to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side write challenges, and on the other side list strengths, resources and trusted advisers who help them with those challenges.
- Face mask: Have students draw an outline of their face (or body) on each side of a page. On one side, ask them to draw or list what others see in them. On the opposite side, have them draw or list the strengths and resources they possess that others don’t know about.
- News reporter: Have students interview key people in their lives and learn what those individuals see as their strengths, skills and resources. Ask students to elicit examples and stories, then write up the information as a newspaper piece.
According to the Responsive Classroom approach, the goal of a class morning meeting is to “set the tone for respectful learning, establish a climate of trust, motivate students to feel significant, create empathy and encourage collaboration, and support social, emotional and academic learning.” Morning meetings are an easy opportunity to incorporate dialogue about the crisis in a way that can make evident to individual students their best hopes, personal resources, and instances of the preferred future being present.
Best hopes for the school year can be asked individually or as part of a group, such as, “What do we need as a group to end this school year well?”
Questions about resources and strengths could include, “When things were difficult, what was most helpful? What is something you tried that helped you to cope that you had never done before? Imagine you get in a time machine, go one year in the future and COVID-19 is finished. Look back to right now and describe something you are proud of in how you handled all of this Who was helpful to you? What would that person say if they were here describing something you did well? Whom do you admire and why? How are you like that person?”
Solution-focused lessons can incorporate scaling as well as movement. Best hopes or goal setting can include floor spots that are numbered 1 to 10 (or write numbers on separate pages). Students can take turns standing by their number and then taking a step forward and describing what they will be doing when they are one number higher. Alternatively, a number line from 1 to 10 can be drawn and hung on the wall in class, and students can put a Post-it sticker on the line where they are. For a video chat, they can simply say their current number.
Picturing their preferred future and their resources can be done through letter writing. Students can be asked to think about what they would like to be doing in their career and life in 20 years. Have them imagine they are living that life and they find out that they can get messages back to the past. Ask this successful adult who is living their hoped-for life to describe to their younger self the challenges they faced, the internal assets that helped most and the people who were supportive. Then have them give their best advice on how to navigate the next 20 years.
Students can also interview each other to learn about one another’s recent challenges and resources, including who has helped them, what was most helpful and advice they have for others.
The ongoing pandemic requires that school staff members adjust how learning occurs. Solution-focused techniques allow school counselors to be brief, flexible and powerful in their support of students facing an array of social, emotional and learning challenges.
Mark M. Jones has been an elementary school counselor in Arlington, Virginia, for four years. Before that, he was a trial lawyer for 30 years. Contact him at email@example.com.
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