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Solution building for student success

Every year around late August and early September, students around the country prepare to begin a new school year. It’s a time of mixed emotions for many students but a fresh start to an important life experience. Teachers, administrators, and school social workers also prepare for a fresh start with new students and ideas to engage in another year of educational and developmental learning. Unfortunately, as the school year progresses, the new beginning and excitement can give way to complacency, frustration, and sometimes hopelessness. The reality for students who are disengaged from school, as well as those who experience significant academic and behavioral issues, is a season of uncertainty, diminished expectations, and possibly serious life outcomes that are just beginning.

This is especially the case for Hispanic and African American minority students who are more at risk for school failure. Schools with a higher minority student body are more likely to produce dropouts, even after controlling for various students’ attributes like socioeconomic status and academic ability (McNeal, 1997). The research also clearly shows the impact for students failing to complete high school. Research shows that high school dropouts are more likely to abuse drugs, have higher rates of mortality, increase dependence on public assistance, be unemployed, and be in jail (Aloise-Young & Chavez, 2008; Rumberger & Lim, 2008). While national dropout rates for students have decreased from 12.1% in 1990 to 6.5% in 2014, minority high school students continue to be at a higher risk of dropping out than Caucasians. In 2014, 5.2% of Caucasian students dropped out of school, compared to 7.4% for African Americans and 10.6% for Hispanics. Dropout rates were also higher for those in lower-income families. Those students who were in families in the bottom 25% in incomes had a dropout rate of 11.6% compared to 7.6% for those students in middle-low income families, 4.7% for those in middle-high income families, and 2.8% for those in the highest income families (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).

As the data indicate, youths from diverse cultures and backgrounds are more at risk for school dropout than white students. It is an increasing challenge for school districts to engage youths who leave school prematurely or are currently failing and on the verge of leaving school. While media and academic researchers (ourselves included) bombard parents and educators with these stark statistics, it’s often the school staff and parents that are left wondering what can be done. It’s one thing to know there is a problem, but developing practical solutions is even more challenging. School social workers need interventions that can engage at-risk students and develop quick change in student behaviors and attitudes.

The research and clinical work we have done points to a different approach to helping students remain engaged in schools that shifts away from a punitive way of treating kids, which does not help them grow and learn.

The research and clinical work we have done points to a different approach to helping students remain engaged in schools that shifts away from a punitive way of treating kids, which does not help them grow and learn. Our work in solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) is one promising intervention used by many school social workers to help students with academic and personal problems (Franklin, Streeter, Kim, & Tripodi, 2007; Kelly, Kim, & Franklin, 2007). A systematic review of SFBT studies conducted in school settings found the strength-based, future-focused approach of SFBT to be a particularly useful approach in working with at-risk students to help reduce the intensity of their negative feelings, manage their conduct problems, and reduce externalizing behavioral problems (Kim & Franklin, 2009).

Orchestrating a positive, solution-focused conversation is often referred to as solution-building and is unique to SFBT. Solution-building aims to create a context for change where hope, competence, and positive expectancies for change increase and a student can co-construct with the social worker workable solutions to their problems. Goals are also important to the change process in SFBT and are co-created by the social worker and student through an open and collaborative working relationship. Formulating answers to solution-focused questions requires students to think about their relationships and talk about their experiences in different ways, turning their problem perceptions and negative emotions into positive formulations for change. For example, students experiencing academic stress and low grades can easily become defeated by their poor performance and give up. Using SFBT allows the school social worker to identify places in the student’s school career that are working, and to break the students’ academic and behavioral goals into smaller, achievable components, thereby increasing hope for the student along the way.

One of the strengths of the SFBT approach is the that it has also proven to be very adaptable and transportable to a variety of therapeutic contexts including behavioral health and counseling clinics, school counseling and mental health services, and community social service agencies. We are hoping schools will move in a new direction that we feel is congruent with the SFBT approach to helping students, an approach that emphasizes confidence in the students and the belief they are more resourceful than we might give them credit for. Solutions abound in school classrooms and we just have to look for them. And when school staff and parents look for those characteristics, they will not see a statistic, but rather a student with unique skills and talents.

Featured image credit: “Education – Creative Commons” by NEC Corporation of America. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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