This is the second in a series, Why Problem-Solving Doesn’t Help Students Succeed

In the first article, we examined a scenario involving Maria, a cheerful student who was having trouble organizing herself for school and maintaining her grades.

In the article, we talked about how the traditional problem-solving approach emphasizes deficits, assumes to know what’s best for Maria, suggests a solution for her to try, and increases the “power” of persuasion by reminding her that her forgetfulness is getting to be a habit that could result in more serious consequences down the road.

In contrast to focusing on problems and giving Maria ideas about how to solve them, we introduced you to the concept of seeking solutions by first finding out what’s already working and helping Maria do more of that.

Remember the first four steps in a solution-focused conversation:

  1. Offer compliments
  2. Notice what’s already working
  3. Examine what makes things work
  4. Focus on a preferred future

By starting the conversation with Maria by noticing what she’s doing right and exploring what’s making things work when they do work, Maria is relaxed, open, and engaged.

Maria responds to questions about what’s working (ie, “On the days you do bring all your materials, what’s happening?”) by revealing that on the days when she has all her materials, she comes to school straight from her mom’s house. Her mom has a special cubby for Maria right at the front door so Maria puts all her school work there when she finishes it at night so it’s ready for her to take with her the next morning.

Another powerful question (“What else?”) reveals that when Maria is home with her mom, her mom keeps the house quiet so Maria can concentrate on studying. Her mom also makes sure to wake Maria up in plenty of time to allow Maria to eat breakfast, double check that she has everything, and get out the door on time to catch the bus. It turns out that on the days Maria forgets her materials and is less prepared, she has spent the night before with her grandmother because her mother works nights. Maria complains that her grandmother “always” watches TV very loudly which disturbs Maria’s studying, and prevents her from getting good sleep and waking up on time.

When Maria thinks about her preferred future and imagines what will be happening when things are better for her regarding her school work, she describes a scenario in which her grandmother’s house is quiet, she has somewhere to put her backpack at night after she finishes her homework, and she is able to get up on time so she can eat breakfast and double check that she has everything.

Let’s continue exploring a solution-focused approach to help Maria. Here is a powerful tool that helps build self-efficacy (the confidence and optimism that the person can make a change):

Ask the Question

Scaling questions ask students to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, various factors that contribute to change. These factors can include their confidence, interest, or readiness levels, or most any other factor that helps move someone forward in the self-change process.

Scaling helps students put their observations, impressions, and intuitions into concrete, quantifiable terms.

Use a scale from 1 to 10 and ask the question this way, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the [highest] and 1 is the opposite, how would you rate [factor that will help in the change process].

Here are three examples of scaling questions that could be used with Maria:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the most important and 1 is the opposite, how important is it for you to do well in school?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the hardest and 1 is the opposite, how hard are you willing to work to find a solution for making sure you have your materials with you when you come to school after staying with your grandmother?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the totally ready and 1 is the opposite, how ready are you to take a small step toward a solution so you can have your materials with you every day?

Follow Up with the Unexpected

Whenever we teach scaling, students assume that the next step is to respond by asking the student what it would take to get them higher on the scale, or even to a 10. That’s totally logical.

Unfortunately, this “logical” approach usually backfires because students either tell you that they don’t know or they’ll give you a lot of reasons why they can’t. In other words, you’ll get nothing, or you’ll hear more “problem” talk, not “change” talk (ie,“I can’t go higher on the scale because…”).

Instead, follow up with the “unexpected.” Ask what makes them at the number they’ve said and not a lower number!

  • What makes you say a “7” and not a “6” or a “5”?
  • What makes you a “3” and not a “2”?

When asked that way, you’ll find out something remarkable: Students talk about what’s working, what they’ve already accomplished, skills they have, and people that might help them!”

Once they’ve shared with you what’s working and why, you can build on that. We’ll give you some tips on that in our next article.

Next Steps

This week, consider asking a student a scaling question and make sure to follow up with the “unexpected!”

I look forward to hearing from you!