Don't look back in anger

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Focusing children on their ideal future can divert them from their imperfect past. Douglas Blane reports

In 10 years at school, the boy had often been excluded and could barely remember one good day. All he wanted was to get out, get a job and a car and have a good time.

The depute headteacher at Dunbar Grammar seemed to understand. "Imagine you could achieve anything you wanted," Jim Cassidy said. "Now write down what your life would be like on this piece of paper."

It was big, bright yellow and cheerful looking. Five minutes later, the boy had finished writing and sat back looking pleased.

"Now I want you to crumple up the paper and throw it in the waste bin," the depute head commanded. Shocked, the boy did so.

"That is what you are doing with your future every time you mess up at school," Mr Cassidy said. That was a year ago.

"Of course, there's no such thing as a quick fix with poor behaviour," says Mr Cassidy as he sits in his office explaining the East Lothian approach to discipline. "He was a difficult boy, but that did get home to him and he is still with us, working away."

Scotland's official statistics on exclusions show secondary school pupils account for the majority, boys far outnumber girls and the figures have refused to budge from 50 per 1,000 pupils nationally for the past three years.

However, during that same period, East Lothian exclusions have fallen steadily: the latest figure is 33 per 1,000 pupils. It is probably no coincidence that during that time there has been a strong push to improve behaviour in East Lothian schools.

One recommendation of the authority's discipline task group, set up in 2001, was that teachers and managers should receive special training in dealing with difficult children. As a result, senior management, guidance and learning support staff have all been trained in the "solution focused approach".

The essence of this, Mr Cassidy explains, is that when problems arise you spend as little time as possible raking over the past. "Instead, you look to the future - particularly the future the youngsters want themselves - and you concentrate on what will make a difference. You create a picture in their minds of their lives as they want them to be. Once they've done that, they start making links in their own minds to behaviour. They realise it's not because their teacher wants them to behave but because it will make their lives so much better."

For the discipline task group co-ordinator, Sheila Ainsley, who is also a depute headteacher at Dunbar Grammar, one key point of the solution focused approach is that a shift in mindset rather than extensive training is what makes it work.

"We had two days' training but I think you could come back to school after just one and put it into practice the next morning. It's so simple," she says.

There are several techniques to help focus everyone's thinking on making changes and finding solutions, she explains. The essence is dialogue with the children, looking to their future, talking about the day after the problem is solved rather than the day it began.

"So you might say to them: 'Suppose you went home tonight and while you were sleeping there was a miracle and the problem that brought you here today had disappeared. How would your teacher know? How would your mum and dad know? What would be different when you came back to school?' Then they begin to explain to you what their life would be like when the problem had gone.

"Too much effort usually goes into exploring a problem and taking a counselling approach. With this technique, you keep prodding them with questions about the future and, eventually, you get this sort of dawning.

"It's far more powerful than I or anybody else saying: 'This is what you have to do.' The very best part about the solution focused approach is that the youngsters tell you the answers themselves."


* Put the pupil at ease

* Ask what he, or she, would like to get from the meeting

* Listen to the problem

* Wonder if the problem is ever less or different

* Explore when, why and how

* Wonder what his, or her, strengths are in school

* Wonder what life was like before the problem

* Explore why and how

* Ask what life will be like when the problem is solved

* Explore why and who will have done what

* Listen to the child's goals

* Take a break and use creativity to set tasks that help him, or her, achieve his goals

The best introduction to the solution focused approach is the case study of Luke on The intervention described is brief but persuasive

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