One of the many reasons solution-focused counseling is a good fit for school settings is because it’s a client-directed approach, says John Murphy, a longtime school psychologist and author of Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools.
School counselors often find the bulk of their time consumed with noncounseling tasks. When they are able to meet with a student, using a solution-focused approach provides a customizable way to forge a therapeutic bond with the young person in a short amount of time.
“The simple and practical premise of solution-focused counseling – find what works and do more of it – is one of its most appealing features for school practitioners,” Murphy writes in the book’s conclusion. “This does not mean, however, that it is easy to do. Solution-focused work requires careful attention to language, client feedback, relationship building and other therapeutic nuances and skills. Mastery of these skills requires patience and practice. If your experience is anything like mine, however, it is well worth the effort.”
Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools was originally released in 1997; the American Counseling Association published a third edition of Murphy’s book earlier this year.
Q+A: John Murphy on Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools
In the book’s introduction, you write “schools are not set up to accommodate counseling.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
This is not a criticism, merely an observation that the main purpose of schools is to teach reading, writing, math and other important academic skills. Unlike mental health centers and private practice settings where counseling is the main focus and the physical setting reflects that focus, school settings present some unique challenges for counselors.
These challenges include working around students’ and teachers’ busy class schedules, safeguarding client confidentiality and conducting “counseling sessions” whenever and wherever you can — in the lunchroom, on the playground, talking with a parent by phone or walking alongside a student or teacher in the hallway. This requires a lot of flexibility on the part of school practitioners.
But let’s not forget that there are advantages to school-based counseling as well. In addition to offering instant access to students and teachers, schools provide a natural and familiar setting for students and parents who might otherwise have to leave their community and travel long distances to receive services. For these reasons, and the fact that we know more than we ever have about helping people change, I ended the new edition of Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools by stating that there has never been a better time to be a school-based counselor.
From your perspective, what makes a solution-focused approach effective in helping elementary through high school students? How is it a “good fit”?
For starters, solution-focused counseling (SFC) is a clear and practical approach that makes sense to students, caregivers and counselors. Research tells us that people are more likely to benefit from counseling approaches that make sense to them, that respect their input and goals, and that customize counseling to them rather than requiring them to conform to the counselor’s preferred methods. SFC meets all of these criteria, which explains why it is effective with students of all ages.
Although solution-focused counselors validate problem-related experiences and struggles, they gently invite students to take action instead of spending a lot of time analyzing the problem. The “less talk, more action” nature of SFC seems to appeal to students as well as school counselors, who have very little time to do counseling in the first place.
Another reason SFC works with students is because it grabs their attention as “something different” rather than more of the same. Most students with school problems are well accustomed to problem-focused conversations with adults. These well-intentioned conversations emphasize what is wrong with students, with little or no attention to what they are doing well, which may include coping with a problem or preventing it from getting worse. In contrast, solution-focused conversations seek out students’ strengths and resources and explore how these assets could be applied toward solutions. In my experience, conversations that recognize and build on what is right and working with students engage their participation more effectively than “more of the same,” problem-saturated discussions.
The solution-focused approach fits with school counselors as well. In teaching classes and workshops throughout the U.S. and overseas, counselors often tell me that the solution-focused emphasis on “doing what works” as quickly as possible is more practical than cumbersome, time-consuming approaches that don’t fit well for schools and school problems. Building on students’ strengths also appeals to counselors’ desire to empower, energize and encourage people. The fact that solution-focused counseling accommodates a variety of cultural backgrounds and life experiences is another important feature in today’s increasingly diverse world. Most people, including myself, signed up for this business to lift people up, and SFC fits nicely with this goal.
What prompted you to do a third edition of this book? What’s new and different in this edition?
Though many of the basic ideas and techniques of SFC have been carried over from previous editions, several aspects of my approach to SFC have changed since the previously published second edition in 2008. Research continues to clarify specific elements of effective counseling, all of which are incorporated into the new edition of Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools. These elements include the importance of building a strong counselor-client alliance and of collecting ongoing client feedback.
The third edition has new chapters on topics such as the restrictive influence of problems and practical strategies for developing “goals that matter,” as well as additional practice exercises at the end of each chapter and a widely expanded chapter on innovative ways to use solution-focused strategies in group counseling, classroom teaching, peer helping programs, parent education, consultation with parents and teachers, systems-level change and referral forms. I also included new appendices with examples of solution-focused checklists and referral forms, therapeutic letters to students of all ages, scripts for introducing client feedback tools and handy crib sheets for conducting SFC sessions.
What is a main takeaway you want counselors of all types, including nonschool counselors, to know about the importance of solution-focused counseling in school settings?
The main takeaway is that the ideas and techniques in this book are “value added.” A value-added technique adds value and impact to whatever it is combined with, making everything else you do with clients more effective. Examples of value-added techniques include obtaining client feedback, giving compliments, validating students’ experiences and exploring exceptions to the problem.
The beauty of these techniques is that there are no risks or downsides to using them. The worst thing that can happen is that the person does not respond and nothing changes, at which point you simply move on to something else. Even then, value-added techniques can enhance the alliance by conveying respect for people’s input, wisdom and capability. The bottom line is this: You can use the techniques in this book regardless of your theoretical orientation and regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a solution-focused practitioner.
You were a public school teacher and school psychologist for many years. How have you seen the role of school counselor/psychologist change since then?
I haven’t seen much of a change in the roles of most school counselors or school psychologists, especially when it comes to the small amount of time they spend in intervention-related activities such as individual and group counseling, parent/teacher consultation and schoolwide prevention/intervention programs. I am not criticizing the professionals who fill these roles, many of whom would like to spend more time on such activities. School counselors and psychologists often tell me that they are pulled in so many different directions and saddled with certain responsibilities that leave little time for counseling and other intervention-related services. Unfortunately, the situation will not change in a big way if schools continue to rely exclusively on outside professionals and agencies to provide the bulk of school-based counseling and intervention services.
What advice would you give to a new professional who is starting a career as a school counselor?
Find ways to stay active, involved and hopeful about your profession and the people you serve. Effective practitioners are continually engaged in professional learning and development. They also find ways to sustain their hope in the midst of the ongoing problems and challenges they face on a daily basis. I would also advise them to make sure that their job description and role includes sufficient time for counseling and intervention activities.
Besides your book, what resources would you recommend for school counselors who would like to learn more about solution-focused counseling?
There are many more resources on solution-focused counseling with young people and schools than there were when I wrote the book’s first edition almost 25 years ago. An Internet search of “solution-focused counseling in schools” will yield various articles and chapters. The Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association’s website (sfbta.org) contains general information about SFBT. I also maintain a website on solution-focused and strengths-based practices in schools that has a variety of links and additional information about solution-focused practice in schools, workshop offerings on the topic and other related topics (drjohnmurphy.com).
Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222
For more insights from Murphy, see these downloadable VISTAS articles from ACA:
Also, see ACA’s podcast with Murphy on solution-focused school counseling: bit.ly/1OSO26v
About the author
John J. Murphy is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology and counseling at the University of Central Arkansas. Previously, he was a public school teacher and school psychologist.
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org