Solutions Focused coaching in schools – Impact16

Closing the gap in behaviour, engagement and achievement.



The first green shoots of spring were showing when I was contacted by the ‘Teach First Impact16’ conference organiser to be asked if I could run four workshops on Behaviour in summertime Leeds.

On Monday this week I was late getting to the main arena for the keynote speakers – I’d had a problem setting up the IT in my session room – and entered a space with 4000 enthusiastic people tiered to the roof, loud music, Twitter feed and live speaker video on a huge screen. ‘TFImpact 16’ in action!

The keynotes overran a bit and then I was just one of a torrent of educators making for ‘The Rosebowl’ building. I was a minute late, the room already filling up fast, lots of glass and heat.

‘Behaviour? Relax. You can do more by doing less.’

The name’s on the door. The room’s full, everyone’s settled. I ask my very welcome crowd of student and beginning teachers an open question to begin the Solutions Focused conversation; ‘What’s your best hope for our time together? When you walk out at the end what would tell you it’s been worthwhile staying in the room?’ People in the room have two broad best hopes; one is to hear more about conventional behaviour management, how to start off with a new class, how to put a stop to low level disruption; the other is to find out if what they can do in place punishment as a means of control, as one puts it ‘to be nice in a structured way’. Perfectly positioned questions, as they would be of course coming from engaged professionals. They’ve come to the right place. So let’s get started.

To connect what we’re going to be doing with what they’ve got already so I ask them; ‘Do you know what the solutions focused approach is?’ One person says he’s heard of it but doesn’t know any details.
‘OK then. By the end of this session you’ll be on the pathway to Solutions Focused coaching.’

Success and solutions instead of failure and problems.

‘The Solutions Focused approach is a slim and elegant way of working compared to the problem focused way of solving behaviour problems. I emphasised the fact that all teachers and support staff have a dual role, as a referee controlling the boundaries set by essential school rules and a coach developing their empathetic relationship with students as the basis for engagement in learning and performance. When behaviour is a problem the teacher as the Solutions Focused coach needs to know only the few elements of the Solutions Focused approach to promote a student’s strengths and resources in generating change. In contrast the problem focused behaviour manager has be the expert, analysing the student’s problem, matching it to diagnoses and disorders, to defects and deficits and delivering a psychological theory. One approach develops Dweck’s Growth mindset, the other fixes the fixed mindset. One sees a behaviour difficulty as a challenge to get working on and the other sees it as a sign of failure, of deficit.

Putting ‘behaviour’ next to ‘relax’ was my hint to people looking for a session to attend that there’s another way of working other than being the universal expert with a head full of advice on children’s failure and how to remedy it, and the room was packed. The idea of looking positively for strengths and resources in teaching and supporting children and young people facing challenges has come of age, after a period of slow and steady growth. Ten years ago the Department for Education’s National Strategies included ‘Focusing on solutions – a positive approach to managing behaviour’. That was a first step, but to judge from people in my room at Impact16 and professionals I am working with in Lincolnshire it hasn’t generated a general change in practice.

‘That would be to mistake lethargy for strategy’ (a line from ‘Yes, Minister’)

My project over the last twenty years has been to find and put into practice an educational approach to ‘behaviour’ as an alternative to the dominant non-educational practice of reward, punishment and extrinsic control. I’ve got at it by putting my research and practice together, working and studying full-time. What’s driven me on is the knowledge there has always been something wrong with the use of punishment, control and coercion to try to make children behave the way we want them to and incidentally modelling the unbridled use of unbalanced power. But there’s never been a well-worked, properly structured, more effective and kinder alternative until now – and now the Solutions Focused approach has emerged into the full light of day it’s irrepressible, happily confident and here. In education we’re always seeking structure and that explains why we stick to old routines even when we know they don’t work, and adopt new ones before we know they do. Behaviourism is well-structured and works for things that don’t matter much, like exactly how high the heels on girls’ shoes should be. It’s handy for setting arbitrary boundaries – school rules.

‘It’s structured niceness!’

We know conditioning doesn’t work for things that do matter for children whose needs show clearly that we must take a different approach, because thousands are excluded from school every year, removed because punishment has failed them. But kindness, empathy and inquiry? Too easily disrespected as just being soft and the road to anarchy and chaos. That’s where the Solutions Focused approach finds its place, with structure, practical action and theory underpinned by the values of respect, inclusion, cooperation and and the assumption of resourcefulness, success and hopefulness of all students in all schools.

I’m not joining in battle with the profligate punishers. I’m Solutions Focused, being mindful, calm and reflective, holding up a strong alternative and knowing people have the resources they need to change their own minds. Thoreau observed that when a man’s only got a hammer, everything he sees is a nail.

But when we take a person’s his hand in kindness and compassion, they may put down the hammer and put on the mantle of the teacher without even noticing it.