Solution-Focused Counseling, Techniques, Theory into Practice, Practical Application

Solution-Focused Counseling

Solution-focused counseling or brief counseling was developed primarily by Insoo Berg and Steve De Shazer at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee (Nichols & Schwartz, 2006). Like the motivational interviewing approach, solution-focused counseling is characterized by the counselor in a collaborative and/or one-down position. Davis and Osborn (2000) note, “the counselor assumes the role of the student and the student becomes the teacher. 

This means that in solution-focused counseling, the school counselor, becomes the learner, and in turn, the student assumes the role of teacher or informant, telling you what the problem is and when a workable solution has been created” (p. 11). Using solution-focused theory, students identify what works, discuss what has worked for them in the past, and discuss how they can construct workable solutions in the future.


Some techniques that are used in the solution-focused model are counting on change, highlighting exceptions, the miracle question, the great instead, establishing measurable goals, and using scaling questions. All of the techniques associated with this model are forward-thinking and embrace a climate of openness to new possibilities.

Among other techniques, school counselors using the solution-focused model employ curious and respectful listening skills, and carefully construct a change-oriented relationship that promotes student competence in understanding what changes have been or could be successful. Problems are clarified and specific goals are identified so that even the smallest change can be measured and used as a foundation to promote more change. Using the highlighting of exceptions techniques, students are asked to determine when the problem is not a problem or what circumstances keep the problem from happening (Legum, 2005; Patterson, 2009).

Changing the doing and/or viewing of the problem can also be powerful techniques that are used in this model. By paying attention to problems only, students may find themselves trapped in a cycle of defeating thoughts and behaviors. A shift in attention to solutions has the potential to break the cycle and allow new possibilities and ideas to emerge. Changing the doing of the problem is a behavioral technique that invites students to “do” something different in relation to the problem and evaluate the positive and/or negative consequences of the change (O’Hanlon, 1999; Patterson, 2009).

By using measurable goals and scaling questions, counselors and students can view problems and their progress in creating or discovering solutions. If a situation has moved in a positive direction, why? Is it possible to do more to keep the positive momentum moving? In other words, do more of what works and do less of what does not (Davis & Osborn, 2000; Legum, 2005; O’Hanlon, 1999).

The miracle question invites students to pretend that a miracle occurred while they were sleeping and now the problem no longer exists. How would they know that the miracle happened? What are the signs of change? Are any of them happening right now (Legum, 2005)?

Theory into Practice

Schools are ideal environments for the use of solution-focused counseling. Time away from instruction can have a detrimental effect on students, and parents do not put children on buses every morning for them to participate in lengthy therapeutic activities designed to uncover unconscious drives. In addition, solution-focused counseling can be characterized as a strengths-based theory, fostering in students a sense of mastery and independence (Legum, 2005).

Practical Application

Brent is in sixth grade and has come to you to talk about his test anxiety. He tells you that whenever Ms. Donnelly gives out a math test he starts to feel queasy, his palms get sweaty, and he can’t remember any formulas or equations. You begin by asking Brent what exactly he wants to work on during this visit to your office. He says he wants to feel more confident about tests tak- ing. You ask on a scale of 1 to 10 where Brent feels his confidence level is now about test taking, 10 being completely confident and 1 being not confident at all. Brent replies that he thinks he is at a 3 right now. You invite him to con- sider how he might move it to a 4 or a 5. You ask Brent if there was a time

when his anxiety level was lower and why he thinks it was so. He replies that he felt more confident when he went to Ms. Donnelly’s weekly extra-help ses- sions. He said he stopped going when after-school baseball practice started in the spring. He said he thinks he can talk to the coach and ask to be late once a week so he can go back to the extra-help sessions.


Stone, C., & Dahir, C. A. (2015). The transformed school counselor. Cengage Learning.

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