Back-to-school problems and solution-focused strategies.

The first couple of weeks back to school are nearly over and the excitement of the new pencil case full of lovely things has probably started to fade. Hopefully the young people in your care are settling in well and excited to be learning especially after so much time away from school and their friends. However, many kids experience back-to-school problems. They might be missing the brilliant time they had in lockdown with their family, worried about homework or certain subjects/teachers, or struggling with friendships. Whilst I would always suggest speaking to the school if there is anything worrying your child which is preventing them from happily learning, here are five simple solution-focused strategies that can be used to help get a child to deal with and move forwards from their problems.

What are solution-focused strategies?

Unlike traditional psychotherapies that are usually focused on the problem (which often arose in the past), solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) focuses on using solutions often that someone has used before and has worked well in other situations. In other words, the focus is on the present and the future. Developed by de Shazer and Berg in the late 1970s, SFBT uses a range of techniques to get someone to recognise their own strengths and motivations for change as well as using simple techniques that can help a change in behaviour. This is all done to meet the ‘client’s’ goals and can be very quick in contrast to other psychotherapies. It doesn’t downplay the problem but acknowledges it without focusing all the energy on it. The emphasis is on a solution so deal with back-to-school problems and use solution-focused strategies.

There are three key principles to working in a solution-focused way:

  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • Once you know what works, do more of it.
  • If it’s not working, do something different.

(de Shazer and Berg, 1995)

These techniques have been applied successfully to many areas such as business, education, criminal justice services, child welfare, domestic violence offender’s treatment and addiction treatment.

As a psychology teacher I had heard of SFBT but really came to use it and was trained in it when the school I was working at became a ‘solution-focused school’. It had a major impact on the relationships in the school and I find myself constantly using the techniques in all areas of my life now.

back-to-school problems and solution-focused strategies

So how do solution-focused strategies work?

There are a number of steps that I will briefly summarise – the key here is to offer a suggestion in each section that can be used to talk to kids that are struggling. You don’t need to be an expert – the suggestions are there to help you talk and ask effective questions.

1. Find Out What They Want

This is the ‘goal-setting’ aspect. What would life be like if the problem didn’t exist? A useful technique for this is called ‘The Miracle Question’.

solution-focused strategies - miracle question

This is a really powerful way to start the talking positively. It can also help to identify what is wanted and whether this is realistic.

Identifying Solutions

2. Using Exceptions is a good idea here. For example, there will be times when the problem has not been such a big issue. Ask about these times and find out what is different.

solution-focused strategies - exceptions questions

3. The Fly on The Wall

‘If I was a fly on the wall and could watch you when things are better, what would I see and hear that is different to when it is really bad?’

This keeps the focus on the positive, allows for compliments for positive behaviours and gives ideas for possible solutions that have already worked.

4. Scaling

This helps identify the small things that are easy to do that make a difference. Trying to go from 0 to 10 is too much but change is much more likely to happen if the change is gradual. For example, my daughter when we first moved to France really struggled with making friends and she REALLY needs friends. She was very unhappy for a while. I knew it was because she didn’t speak French, and she was used to being well-liked and popular. Telling her to learn French and speak to people clearly wasn’t going to work. But she identified that smiling every morning at people as she got on the bus and saying ‘Bonjour’ made her feel better. Now she is back to coordinating outfits and have lengthy conversations with her new friends.

solution-focused strategies - scaling questions

5. Coping Questions

These are important to reinforce the resilience and strength that the young person has already shown and can help them realise that they are determined to succeed and make things better for themselves even when they feel like giving up.

“How have you managed so far?”
“What have you done to stay afloat?”
“What is working?”


Keeping conversations going with young people is not always easy so hopefully these suggestions will help you. The most important thing is to accept that you don’t always have the answers (and don’t need to) because we should all be the experts of our own lives. Creating workable solutions from a place of strength is an outcome we all could benefit from so try these out and start building that ‘best future’ together.

If you need further support use the contact button to send me an email.

References and further reading

de Shazer, S. & Berg, I.K. (1995). The brief therapy tradition. In: Weakland, John H. and Wendel A. Ray (eds) Propagations: Thirty years of influence from the Mental Research Institute. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

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