Seeing Only Solutions

17th June 2005 at 01:00
As Bing Crosby would sing, you've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Moray teachers and pupils are learning how to latch on to the affirmative, reports Douglas Blane

Not long ago, 11-year-old Tommy Mercer used to respond in a very direct way to problems he encountered at school. "If boys wound me up, I would smack them in the mouth," he says.

Teachers and management staff at Hythehill Primary in Lossiemouth, Moray, had tried to help him control his anger and find acceptable responses, but nothing had worked and exclusion was becoming likely.

Then, a year ago, the school became one of three funded by the Scottish Executive to pilot a new approach to people and their problems, the Solution-Oriented Schools programme. The impact on Tommy has been dramatic.

"I don't get nearly so worked up now. I can calm down," he says.

Other pupils have also noticed improvements around the school.

"There is less fighting and squabbling," says Anna Thomson, who is 12.

"There are more groups playing together and not so many people wandering around on their own," says Murray McPherson, 10.

Hythehill Primary staff also believe the school is a calmer, pleasanter place to work. "Not just the school," says teacher Bonnica Thomas, "I feel calmer myself."

The SOS programme's foundations are in solution-focused brief therapy, adapted to suit the school setting and educational objectives.

Working with Welsh consultant Ioan Rees, Moray's educational psychologists had been offering training in solution-oriented methods for several years.

The enthusiastic response of teachers and managers convinced them that a whole-school approach would have even greater benefits. As a result they developed the SOS programme, which has been operating since the start of this session at Hythehill Primary, St Gerardine Primary in Lossiemouth and Keith Primary.

Two secondary schools, Elgin High and Keith Grammar, launched the programme last month and several others have announced their intention to do so.

A few principles underpin the approach, says Deirdre Cavalcante, Moray's depute principal psychologist and SOS team leader.

"The first is that if something works, do more of it. If it doesn't work, try something different.

"The second is that the problem is the problem, not any person."

This means more than just not blaming children, she explains. "It is about externalising the problem, so that the child, the parent and the professional can look for solutions together.

"It is deceptively simple, but it works."

Neither the training for teachers, nor the dealings with children having problems are necessarily brief. Ms Cavalcante and her colleagues provide 18 weeks of twilight sessions for teachers aiming to play the key role of SOS facilitators, while Tommy has had weekly meetings with a facilitator for several months.

The core conviction is that traditionally far too much time is spent on criticising, meting out punishment and raking up the history of a problem, and far too little time and creativity on looking for solutions.

To be effective, solutions must come from the people closest to the problem, says Hazel McPherson, Hythehill Primary's headteacher. "You can't make other people change. If you impose a solution it probably won't work.

The only person you can ever really change is yourself."

This means that the central role of any SOS expert - whether one of the Moray development team, a teacher trained as a facilitator or a pupil volunteer using the methods in the playground - is to act as a catalyst for change and a source of support.

Structures and templates provided to help include guidance on conducting a solution-oriented meeting with a child or a teacher who has a problem. A list of typical questions to ask ensures that the focus shifts quickly from the problem to seeking exceptions to it and exploring possible solutions, questions such as: have you been able to resolve something like this before, and if so, who helped? What are you doing now that stops things getting worse? When is the problem a little less? What three things can you think of doing differently that might help?

As one SOS participant remarked, this is not rocket science. But the practical nature of the methods is what appeals most to teachers, even if the language used and the mindset demanded are different from those prevailing in most schools.

"I was sceptical at first," says Christine Ironside, Hythehill Primary's support for learning teacher and an SOS facilitator, "but the training changes how you think about bad behaviour. I used to think: 'Is this kid just trying to annoy me?' Now I focus on the behaviour and not the child."

She pauses, thinking back almost a year. "We worked through a lot of scenarios during training, but it was only when I tried them out in school that I became convinced.

"Actually it was when I got Tommy, who was one of the first pupils sent to me. Nobody could do anything with him. If you met him in school he looked fit to burst." That was a little daunting, says Ms Ironside, as she was still in training.

"Over a period of weeks, we built up a rapport and he told me a lot of stuff about himself and how he was feeling. At first we had quite long interviews, but now it can be just a few minutes.

"When you use SOS, the kids tell you so much."

So, too, do the teachers.

Kathryn McRitchie missed the whole-school SOS induction day while on maternity leave, so when she was faced with a particularly challenging class she welcomed the chance to talk to an SOS facilitator. The structured conversations were helpful in refocusing her thinking on stratagems and solutions, says Ms McRitchie.

"The facilitator had a sheet of questions about classroom management that helped me think about where to look for solutions.

"Being so close to the problem, I had become quite negative in the way I talked to the kids. It reminded me to be positive, to praise children when they were doing what was asked. That had an immediate and lasting effect on my class. They are a lot calmer now."

As one of initially two facilitators at the school - three more teachers are just completing their training - Ms Ironside has been allocated an afternoon a week to talk with pupils referred to her or teachers seeking advice.

"Getting that time is very important," she says.

"It was good to get things off my chest," says Ms McRitchie.

"Cover is provided when I have meetings with the facilitator. So you don't feel you're grabbing five minutes at the end of the day."

Tommy also appreciates the time to talk. "You don't keep all your feelings bottled up. It's really good that I've got somebody at school to speak to.

If I don't do that, everything goes all wrong."

For many children with problems, time with a caring, sympathetic adult is rare and wonderful. But the Hythehill Primary pupils are learning that they can find solutions to problems themselves.

"Mrs Ironside encourages me to think about what I need to do to progress," says Tommy. "Sometimes I think of things; sometimes she says 'Could you try this?'

"I can still get quite angry, but I have learned not to overreact. I am a lot calmer than I used to be."

"The kids are keen to talk to an adult who listens to them," says Bonnica Thomas, another of the school's SOS facilitators. "The difference is that they're coming up with the answers themselves. It's not us saying 'Do this'

or 'Do that'.

"If you give them a chance, they do take responsibility and they do come up with ideas."

Moray's Solution-Oriented Schools programme was developed by Deirdre Cavalcante, Sandra Bruce, Kirsty Mackintosh and Ioan Rees. For more information email

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