Problem-solving Brief Therapy: a model applied to schools in the 21st Century

The Problem Solving Brief Therapy (BTC) is applied to all systems of human interactions. The definition of a system in Pragmatics of Human Communication by Watzlawick, Beavin-Bavelas, and Jackson is: “A set of objects together with relationships between the objects and between their attributes, in which objects are the components or parts of the system, attributes are the properties of the objects, and relationships “tie the system together.” 

Under this definition, schools are a system, and as such, composed of members that create a structure– students and teachers–, which identifies the educational area… “and the structures of the school continue to be the same while there are students and teachers who perform the old roles, I mean, show the patterns of behavior that create the structure of the school” (Fritz Simon, 1991, 140).

If a member of the family gets sick, they impact the whole family system. The same happens if a member of the school gets sick: it has an impact on the whole educational system.  We offer help to intervene in the whole system. According to the premises in our model (BTC), we don’t need to see all the members of the school, since our model is minimalistic and systemic, we will see/work with only those people who are eager to work towards solving the problem situation. In other words, we enter the system through the open door where they invite us to come in. 

We can start with the parents of the troublesome kid in that moment, the mother and/or the father, or we can see the teacher who is more worried about the student’s behavior, depending on who calls to start the intervention. 

I’d like to introduce the reader to three key concepts in this process: circularity, feedback and context. All the parts of a circle or system are interrelated: if member A influences B and C, C also influences A. Feedback is the mechanism of response or control in which there is a reaction of B to the stimulus from A and vice versa and all this occurs in a particular context. We are looking for the answer to: who is doing what, to whom is this a problem and how is this a problem? We are talking about a context of circular interaction and from this point of view, it does not matter where we start to intervene, we can start to generate a change with the person that asked for help. 

There are usually many problems in the classroom so we can ask the person to choose the one that will make the biggest difference in their school life. What, if it were to change, would produce a major impact in your life as a teacher?

An example: a teacher who has a student with “autism” in her class, who screams and cries each time there is too much ambient noise in the classroom. From this model, we do not start with a diagnose but we “open boxes.” In this case, we are going to ask for a description, the longest possible, of what “autism” means in this kid: What does this teacher see? Who gave this diagnosis and when? We open the box of autism, or in other cases, we open the box of ADHD, or depression, etc. For this example, once we have a clear movie of what is the biggest disruption for this teacher, we will suggest strategies to intervene in the whole class. When this child stops screaming and crying, this will influence in the teacher’s work, she will be able to continue teaching, her students will learn better, and the next-door children will not be hearing the loud noise. What is more, the director will not be summoned to see what is happening and hopefully, everything will be a little quieter. However, it is also possible to intervene at a different place in the system, so the ambient noise is reduced and the crying by the child doesn’t ensue. Seen this way, many possible doors of intervention have been opened for this teacher. 

As the reader can imagine this same problem will be dealt with in a very different way if the person who calls the therapist is the mother of that same kid, claiming she receives too many calls from the school ‘because they do not know how to handle my son. He behaves pretty well at home because we have alternative solutions.’

Another possible example is if a teacher asks for help in his class particularly that causes him sleeping troubles because of a student who escapes from his class. This will be the open door to us to intervene in this school area. From the BTC model, something always happens so the student acts the way he does: it’s what we call the context. Figuring out the circuit of interaction will open doors to the solution so the teacher can sleep at night.

In the 21st-century school system, the aim is for educators to know how to handle different situations, unthinkable in other times. We are aware that, with the best intentions, they do what they can, but they need tools. From the BTC, we identify the client that will open the door to us, take circularity into account and specify the context in which the problem takes place. How do interactions occur to explain the problematic behavior so we can intervene in that particular situation? Our strategic proposal will be a reframe, a different angle to a list of attempted solutions applied by the clients.

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