1. The first thing to remember about a Solution Focused approach with children is that it is essentially the same as with anyone else: we are managing a conversation about a better future or a successful past.
2. The second thing to remember is that the Solution Focused approach provides a set of techniques (miracle questions, exception questions, scaling questions and the various adaptations that have accrued over the years) but offers no guidance on how each practitioner with each client adapts these techniques to make them part of a living conversation. Therefore, each of us has to find our own way to be a person using Solution Focused techniques.
3. Discover your own way of engaging with children. If you haven’t got any children of your own hang out with someone who has. Try different ages and notice what each child brings out in you. I’m generally quite uncomfortable with teenagers and deal with this by being an older person taking them very seriously. On the other hand, anyone between two and eight years old is well within my comfort level and will bring out my ‘silly’ side. These are the aspects of ‘you’ which you take into your therapy to create the relationship within which you can ask your Solution Focused questions.
4. Try not to limit children’s possibilities by underestimating what they are capable of knowing. If you ask a too difficult question blame it on yourself and find a simpler version – we do this all the time whatever aged client we are working with so why treat children differently.
5. It is a good idea to take what children say seriously rather than start a conversation in your head about whether or not they mean what they say. As we can never know if a child is saying what they think we or their parents or teachers or we want to hear we may as well take what they say at face value. The more we trust the child the more that trust will be reciprocated (and the more we doubt . . .).
6. Some questions are easier than others. If a child has not yet developed the capacity for abstract thought concepts like hope and future may be to difficult to work with. Remember, in the very early days of Solution Focused Brief Therapy the exploration of exceptions was the primary tool. Exceptions refer to past and present successes and for children, especially children used to disapproval, success stories can be very powerful.
7. Use scales: words, pictures, walking, objects, mountains, ladders, lined-up chairs. Scale something the child excels in and get a list of all the skills needed to excel and use this list to generate crossover ideas for improvement in another area of life e.g. much of what makes a successful sports person are the same skills that make a successful student. The younger the child the more repetitions of a successful story.
8. Lots of ‘required’ behaviours (e.g. those necessary to for building social and educational skills) can be performed in ‘playlets’. Ask a five-year-old to show you how to “sit on the carpet” with your arms folded – one of the requirements at the beginning of the school day which can set the tone for the rest of the day. Let them show you how they can walk ‘nicely’, play a ‘sharing’ game (“Please may I borrow your pencil?”) And where possible get others, including yourself, to join in.
9. Don’t be afraid of putting words into a small child’s mouth. Typically, with four- five- and six-year-olds they are less likely to be able to answer a question about outcome except in the most specific terms. As adults we have some responsibility to guide children so I will help children define an outcome. “My job is to help children become happy – would you like to be happier?” Or look out for evidence of ‘good’ behaviour and use it to build on: “That was very good behaviour, I can see you know how to be a good boy here; do you know how to be a good boy at school?” This is often my way into an enactment of arriving at school beginning with sitting on the carpet. (While I would never think of using the word “good” with older children I haven’t found a better word for little ones – suggestions welcome!)
10. Read! Harvey Ratner and Denise Yusuf’s book is one of the most recent and one of the first was co-authored by Therese Steiner. Therese led an inspirational workshop at BRIEF a few years ago which led Evan to buy most of IKEA’s toy department. Eager to try his skill he set out the toys at the first opportunity – a family with four children aged between six and fourteen. It was a team supervision day and we were all very excited until Evan, just as the family arrived said “I can’t do this! I’m just going to treat all the kids like adults!”
And he did. He asked them all the same questions, gave them all an equality of opportunity to answer and completed the interview (which transformed their life) in 45 minutes. But with each of the six family members it was a different Evan: different words different tones, different way of sitting and different face. The video of the session is a masterclass – one of BRIEF’s all-time greats!
Berg, Insoo Kim and Steiner, Therese (2003) Children’s Solution Work. New York: Norton.
Ratner, Harvey and Yusuf, Denise (2015) Brief Coaching with Children and Young People: a Solution Focused approach. London: Routledge.