Problem Solving WITH Students, Not FOR Students: A Book Review

As adults who truly care about the youth we work with and who want to see them succeed, we may have the tendency to want to solve their problems for them. After all, most of the time we can clearly see the solution to their problems (if only they would get up 10 minutes earlier they could get to school on time, if only they would get their assignments turned in they could pass their classes, if only they would ignore their friends’ requests to skip class and attend they wouldn’t get referrals for skipping), and it’s just so easy to tell them what to do. It takes much more time and effort to problem-solve with youth rather than for youth, and it can be difficult to watch them try solutions we know won’t work. However, most of us have also learned, maybe the hard way, that telling young people, particularly adolescents, what to do to solve their problems does not work. Youth are much more likely to try out solutions they’ve generated for themselves. So how can we problem solve with youth and help them generate solutions that may actually work?

Book coverJohn Murphy’s new book, Conducting Student-Driven Interviews: Practical Strategies for Increasing Student Involvement and Addressing Behavior Problems (2013), provides strategies that Check & Connect mentors, and all adults working with youth, can use to help them involve youth effectively in the problem-solving process.

Perhaps the most important suggestion that Murphy makes is to help youth focus on what’s right with them and what’s working rather than on the problem or what they’re doing wrong.  This is an especially important suggestion for working with the youth that most Check & Connect mentors work with – disengaged, alienated youth who have had their faults and problems pointed out to them far more frequently than their strengths and assets. Mentors can help their mentees think about what they’re doing right in school, celebrate those things, and help them to draw on their strengths and assets to work on things that might not be going as well for them.

This idea of focusing on what’s right with students appears throughout the book and in many of the other suggestions that Murphy makes for involving youth in the problem solving process. Some other important lessons for mentors from Conducting Student-Driven Interviews include:

  • Meet students where they’re at
    • Understand that adolescents are excited about increased freedom and independence but apprehensive about the choices they have to make and the responsibilities they must take on.
    • Hear and respect students’ opinions.
    • Acknowledge students’ freedom to think for themselves and make their own choices.
  • Help students prioritize problems
    • Help boost students’ hope that they can tackle a problem by narrowing a wide range of problems into a specific, manageable focus.
    • Allow students to decide which problem they think is most important to focus on first.
  • Focus on future possibilities rather than past problems
    • Focus on small, changeable aspects of a student’s future.
    • Don’t spend too much time on “problem admiration” – allow students to share their concerns and frustrations, validate their feelings, and then move quickly to what the student wants to change.
  • Encourage students to keep doing what works
    • Build on exceptions! Help students to see when the problem does not occur and think about what they’re doing right in those situations.
    • Find out what students have tried. Ask about what worked, even a little.
  • Encourage students to do something different if what they’re doing doesn’t work
    • Students often get stuck in a pattern of trying similar things over and over again and expecting different results. Encourage students to try something else when what they’re doing or the solutions they’ve tried don’t work.
  • Identify and draw on natural resources such as (adapted from page 150):
    • Resilience. Ask students:
      • How have you kept things from getting worse?
      • Why haven’t you given up? How have you managed to hang in there?
    • Special interests, talents, and hobbies. Ask students:
      • What do you enjoy doing outside of school?
      • If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?
    • Heroes and influential people. Ask students:
      • Who are your biggest heroes? Who do you look up to or respect the most?
      • Who at school do you respect the most?
        • How could these people help you? What advice would they give you?
    • Ideas and opinions. Ask students:
      • I’ve heard other people’s ideas, but I want to know what you think would help improve things?
      • What would you say to someone in a similar situation? What can I (as a mentor) say to someone who…?

For more information on these strategies, for dialogue examples and discussion starters, and for many more strategies for involving students in the conversation about their school success, check out Murphy’s book Conducting Student-Driven Interviews: Practical Strategies for Increasing Student Involvement and Addressing Behavior Problems. And please share your comments or suggestions below for what works for you for problem solving with students!

More resources related to problem solving:

Gilman, R., Huebner, E. S., & Furlong, M. J. (2009). Handbook of positive psychology in schools. New York, NY: Routledge.

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S.  (1991).  Motivational interviewing: Preparing people to change addictive behavior.  New York: Guilford Press.

Murphy, J. J. (2008). Solution-focused counseling in schools (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.


About the Author: Angie Pohl, Ph.D. provides training nationally and internationally on Check & Connect, serves as an investigator on several Check & Connect research projects currently underway, and is one of the authors of the 2012 Check & Connect manual, “Implementing with Fidelity”.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

One thought on “Problem Solving WITH Students, Not FOR Students: A Book Review

  1. Pingback: Check & Connect’s Fit with Existing School Initiatives | Attend, Engage, Invest

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