Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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Tapio Malinen

The everyday reality of school work is full of problems. It is problematic both ethically and for co-operation to do long therapies, when the situation calls for fast solutions to unravel the case jam. As
practitioners, we always have the possibility of picking our viewpoint: seeing a person either through pathologies or as someone who is able to do his or her best, or whatever is possible in any given situation. This is a moral choice, not a truth. For school work, it is more essential to ponder on (and test) what works and what does not, rather than to ponder on what is normal and who is guilty. Even when the case involves a person's inner limitation (e.g. a neurological disorder), changing the problematic interaction may, for instance, complement what is being done with medication or special tutoring.

In the following, I am describing one way of practicing  solution- focused work at school (1). The questions we pose always have a dual nature: they obtain information of the client's situation and they are interventions, with which we create a positive expectation of change.



9-year-old Mikko's mother calls the school psychologist and wants to make an appointment for his son, who is in third grade. After the flu he had during fall break, Mikko has been at home for a week, complaining of different somatic problems: chest pains, headaches, vague anxiety and other feelings in his body. The pains are related to a fear that something bad could happen.

Mikko calls his mother at work many times a day, complaining how bad he is feeling and how much pain he is in. In the mornings,  Mikko would like to go to school, but when he needs to leave, the bodily sensations strengthen and he stays at home. His father has died a year and a half
ago. His mother has a male friend who lives elsewhere.

Commentary:  A specific description of the problem is made, and this gives a very detailed picture of what is going on. The concreteness helps to figure out the ways in which the problem has been attempted to solve.

Below are the interview phases and some questions that may be used. (Murphy, J. J. 1994)

Describing the Problem
• If I were filming with a video camera, what is going on, what would I see? What would I hear?
• What happens first? What then? And what next?

Solution Attempts
• How have you tried to solve your problem? What have the others done?
• What else have you considered doing?

• What would be a sign that the change has happened?
• What would convince the teacher that you do not have to come here anymore?
• On a scale from 1 (no problem) to 10 (big problem), where are you right now? Where would you like to be? What would be a sign that you have advanced by a half step?

• Are there things happening in classes already that would like to continue?
• What are the situations where the problem does not manifest itself?
• When is the situation a little better? How does it different from when everything is bad? Who does what then? What is the client's map and role like?
• Why do you think the problem is manifesting itself right now?
• Who is the most worried in this situation? Who the next most worried?
• How willing are you to do something at this moment? How willing are others?



The mother tells me she has taken Mikko to a doctor, both on the communal and private side. The doctors have declared the boy healthy, and the mother has been asked to contact a psychologist. In the mornings, the mother has told Mikko that there is no reason to worry and the pains would stop if he just went to school.

Commentary: People's ways of solving the problem often turn into problems in their own right. That is why it is good to find out what has been done and how. Sometimes people have been acting in successful ways, but do not consider the changes significant. Instead of general observations or
interpretations, the goal is to describe the solution attempts as concretely as possible.



Mikko is invited to the school psychologist's room together with those family members that the family considers important in making solutions. The people who show up are Mikko and his mother. The session is begun by creating a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. After this, both are asked to imagine how they would know the meeting was a success; when they feel good and happy at the end of the session, what kind of things have been discussed? Both Mikko and mother agree that in a successful session, they would have talked about what can be done so that the pains would stop and Mikko would go to school. "Well, when Mikko has come to school and it is going well, Mikko is healthy and life is going well, what is that like?" Plenty of time is spent on creating a very specific and multilayered vision of the future (what can be seen, heard, felt, what thoughts one
has of oneself, what others think).

Commentary: Clear goals are set with the client, so that interventions can suit the needs and their effectiveness may be estimated. In a good, clear goal some desirable state of affairs begins instead of an undesirable one ending. E.g. "I will come home at 10 PM on three days per week." "I will write my homework in the parent-teacher notebook, do all the homework before the evening news, and pack up my backpack before bed." People often describe their goals in a very vague and abstract way: "Liisa needs a boost for her self-esteem." "Ville needs to become more responsible." The therapist can help redefine the goals into more precise ones by asking e.g. "What will Liisa be doing differently when she has a better self- esteem?" or "What could Ville do that would tell you he is taking more responsibility?" When needed, one also needs to be able to give up old goals, if the problem is redefined in a new way during the therapy work. Teenagers rarely feel the need to change themselves, when they are sent to a therapist thinking "There's something wrong with him/her, and that has to be found and fixed." In this kind of situation, it is possible to negotiate a new definition of the problem, one which the young person can also accept. The teenager may be willing to change his or her behavior for instance to get more freedom or to get parents off his or her back.



Next, Mother and Mikko were told to evaluate on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = the problem could not be worse, 10 = no problem at all), when the situation was at its worst and where they are right now. It turns out that they both think the worst is already behind them: they have advanced from 3.5 to 7(!). "How on Earth have you achieved this?" the school psychologist asks. Mother tells him: "We have been at home... been to car shows... done all kinds of things... this pain has not liked the
doing and we have outsmarted it!"

Commentary: It is interesting to observe that in Mikko's mother's language, the problem is externalized as she mentions things the pain has not liked. This stays in the therapist's mind for later use.



Mikko says he is confused about the situation, and he does not really know what the problem is: "I guess I'm somehow sick and those doctors just didn't see it." Mother also wonders: "Could there be something at school that causes this?" However, Mikko cannot name any particular problems with his school. When asked how ready Mikko would be to do something to solve this problem (on a scale of 0 to 10), Mikko answers 10 (!) because "I want to be with my friends and play street hockey". The mother is also willing to do "just anything to get this thing cleared up."

Commentary: It is good to evaluate the patient's inner map, i.e. the beliefs related to the problem, its causes and solution. People are more willing to do something about their issues when the suggestions correspond to their thoughts and beliefs. How one talks is as important as what one
talks about (Murphy, J. J. & Duncan, B. L., 1997). Thus the feedback and possible suggestions may be given in the style and language most acceptable to the client. At this moment, Mikko is also in a role where he is probably ready to do something.



Around the end of the session, the psychologist takes a little pause, which he uses to go through the conversation again in his head and plan his feedback to Mikko and the mother. In his feedback, the psychologist tells them how impressed he has been with Mikko and his mother's agreement on the goal and their will to do something... "just anything"... to solve the problem. The feedback also emphasizing that Mikko and his mother know precisely what life is like when the problem no
longer exist, and that they have done many things Pain doesn't like. "But maybe this is a particularly cunning disease, so that even doctors have missed it, and we will see who's more cunning in the future, you or Pain!" the psychologist says, and recommends them to do more of what they have already done and to continue to observe what things Pain doesn't like. Mikko interrupts the psychologist to say that he would like to do something even more cunning. Mikko is given the additional task of predicting in the evening, who will be more cunning the following day, Mikko or Pain? During the day, Mikko should write down how well he was able to predict this. In conclusion, the psychologist says that when Mikko goes to school, nobody knows how he will do it, and he gets to decide himself how it happens. The session is ended and a new one is scheduled in one week.

Commentary: Interventions can be built e.g. a) for exceptions, b) by redefining the problem or some component of the situation (e.g. if the pupil talks in class without permission, this is a sign of excitement and interest), c) by ordering the problem to happen in a new context (e.g. the student is asked to behave normally on odd days and to do something different on even days), d) for metaphor working (e.g. the client may continue a story or drawing started during the session, in which the Problem Character and the Solution Character(s) are externalized ( Durrant, M., 1995). By externalizing the problem, the therapist attempts to change the guilt- and shame-related energy into creativity and playfulness, "which problems hate as much as vampires hate garlic" (Freeman, J. et.al., 1997).



"Well, what is better or different than before?" Mikko says he has gone to school (!) and is at 7.5 on the scale. When asked what he has done to accomplish this, he replies: "I just went and now I feel a bit better because I have stuff to do." Has done the prediction task each day for a week. Predicted that lal days be good; only one false prediction. He is now being guided to map out the movements of the Pain Creature in a more detailed way: what does it like and dislike? How has it affected the
relationships between Mikko and his friends? How have the achieved victories affected Mikko's ideas of himself,  etc street hockey and spend time with friends." He is guided into the role of his dead father and the "father" is asked what he thinks of what Mikko has done and what it tells him about the boy. "I am proud of Mikko... He's got determination and courage." The "father" also trusts that the boy will win Pain.  "It likes when I'm lying home or elsewhere in one place and it doesn't like it when I play. In the feedback, Mikko is congratulated for everything he has done to defeat Pain. "Of course, it's good to advance slowly now, because these creatures can be very cunning." Mikko is given the task of continuing with his predictions.

When a positive change occurs, the therapist moves into the role of a coach. The more people feel that they have actively participated in the change, the more likely they are to want to continue in that direction. Questions that strengthen the clients' experience of their own "copyright" are e.g. a) those that clarify their own role in the development ("What did you do that increased cooperation with your class?") b) those that are aimed at the future ("What should happen so that you could continue in this way?") Even if people are relieved because of the fast changes, they may also fear that the change is only temporary. The practitioner must then define the temporary setbacks as parts of the process of change, and the client may coach him- or herself for them in advance ("If this happened, how could you psyche yourself back on the right track?")

The Third Meeting
Mikko has continued to predict all days to be good, apart from one. He estimates that he is at 8 on the scale now. The psychologist guides him, from social atom roles, to describe what is different in Mikko's life right now compared to before and how the change has been achieved. In the role of the mother, he says: "Mikko has been happier and perkier, when he's been seeing his friends more, and he has more energy to be outdoors." In the teacher's role: "He's been at school all the time, because
he just decided to come." Best friend: "He has more energy to be with me, is happier because we do all kinds of things together. When asked what would be a sign that the meetings need not be continued, Mikko responds: "When I have energy to play street hockey and ice hockey... there's still
more joy and I feel up to being with friends."
After the third meeting, the school nurse calls to say that Mikko comes to her office daily to complain about various pains and ask if they are dangerous. His mother has also called and said she is tired of the boy's complaints at home. The next meeting is scheduled with the mother at the school doctor's office.

The Fourth Meeting
The central content of the joint meeting is to create a detailed story of how, despite Pain, Mikko has gone to school every morning, and has also been more cunning than the beast in many other situations. At the end of the session the doctor tells him, "It's rare for a 9-year-old to take this good care of his health, and you can also see the results. Continue to watch your health and make notes about it and show them once a week to the school nurse." Mikko gets a new appointment in three weeks.

Commentary: This is where the problem is redefined and the client is asked to continue, but in a new way. This paradoxical intervention is often used to change behavioral patterns that are stuck in a rut (Molnar, A. & Lindqvist, B., 1989).

The Fifth Meeting
"For many weeks, I haven't been ill... I've been increasingly able to focus at school... I have done more homework... I no longer complain and it's been more fun and I can be with friends better. If Pain comes back, I will know it's not serious." Mikko says he saw the school nurse for a week to show his notes, "but then on the second week I didn't feel like it anymore, and I haven't had pains anyway." He is happy with his situation and does not feel a need to continue the sessions. He is congratulated on his cunning and the other good qualities and skills that he has used during the projects, and it is agreed that there will be no more sessions. 

Commentary:  During the follow-up call made in six months, Mikko's mother tells us that he is doing fine. "He has complained about his pains a couple of times, but then he has always quickly become more cunning than them (laughs)".



"Words are a way of crystallizing thought, but a crystal is no longer a liquid," says Arthur Koestler. Each case study describes only a fraction of the colors of the rainbow related to human interaction. It is difficult - perhaps impossible - to simply rationally seek an understanding that would prove the therapist's theory and explanation of why things happened the way they did. The meanings and understanding have been negotiated in dialogues between people, and intuitiveness has also directed the practitioner. The best case scenario is when the therapist meets his or her client as wind meets water. This is when technique and meeting people become one. When the practitioner gives up his or her goal of achieving something predefined, the changes happen naturally. Thus spontaneity is not an unthinking reflex, but a natural meaningfulness born from each passing moment. No therapeutic approach or technique can cover a therapist's lacking skill of listening or lack of belief in the client's ability to know what he or she needs (Berg, I. K., 1994). It is only a respectful and appreciative orientation that can create the atmosphere where clients may reclaim what they are.


Berg, I.S. (1994) A wolf in disquise is not a grandmother. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 13 (1), 13-14.
Durrant, M. (1995) Creative Strategies for School Problems. Guildford Press.
Molnar, A. & Lindqvist, B. (1994) Changing problem behavior in school. Jossey-Bass.
Murphy, J.J. (1994) Brief Therapy for School Problems. School Psychology International. Vo. 15, 115-131.
Murphy. J.J. & Duncan, B.L. (1995) Brief Intervention for School Problems. Guildfors Pres.s


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