It’s a surprising concept, but solving problems and seeking solutions are entirely different…and seeking solutions works a lot better a lot of the time than trying to solve problems.

How could that be?

When we present this idea in our professional development sessions at schools, it makes teachers scratch their heads.

After you read this article, you’ll see how they’re different and why it matters.

First, consider this scenario:

Maria is a gregarious, cheerful sophomore who appears to like school and wants to do well. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to have made the transition to high school as well as expected. Her attendance is stellar, but it is not uncommon for her to forget something, whether it’s her homework, notebooks, textbook, or other items she needs. Her work is satisfactory, but she sometimes submits assignments late and doesn’t do as well on tests as her participation in class would would suggest. You never know what Maria’s story will be on any given day, but you aren’t surprised when on this day, she is missing her history textbook, which she left at home.

What would you say to Maria?

The common reaction is to problem solve; that is, find out why, when, and how the problem is happening so you can help Maria to solve it. Right?

Here are the kinds of problem-solving comments teachers at our PD sessions offer:

  • “Why did you leave your book at home?”
  • “You keep forgetting your materials at home and are coming to class unprepared. What’s going on?”
  • “Why aren’t your books here? Don’t you want to do well in this class?”
  • “Are you putting your book in a place that makes it easy to find in the morning?”

These are the kind of comments Maria’s teachers also make, but to no avail.

Why doesn’t problem-solving work?

Problem-solving doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to because problem-solving focuses on what’s wrong, emphasizes deficits, and assigns blame.

The comments teachers make suggest that Maria is forgetful, comes to class unprepared, has a bad habit, and may not care about how well she does.

If this problem-solving approach doesn’t work, what’s the alternative?

Focus on Solutions to Build Self-Efficacy and Empower

The alternative to problem-solving is to seek solutions. You may think that they are the same, but keep reading to discover the difference…a difference that counts!

The concept of finding solutions rather than solving problems comes from the breakthroughs in psychotherapy developed by Stephen DeShazer and Insoo Kim Berg in the 1980’s. The principles of DeShazer and Berg’s solution-focused brief therapy model apply not only to therapy, but to many other settings, including the classroom.

A solution-focused approach builds on what’s already working, triggers the imagination to consider a future when the problem no longer exists, marshals people’s existing strengths, and is founded on the belief that change is possible.

Four Easy Steps to Begin Solution-Focused Conversations

Here are four easy steps to initiate a solution-focused conversation using Maria as the example:


Start with a compliment and consider including an open-ended question to engage Maria in conversation. When you begin with a compliment, you are priming your student to notice strengths.

  • “Thanks for coming to class on time today, Maria. Your attendance shows that you’re a dedicated student.
  • “You do a great job getting to class every day, Maria. You’re conscientious about your attendance
  • “You’re such a cheerful person! What enables you to put a smile on your face every day?”


Focus on what’s working. Emphasize action rather than insights or feelings about why or how the problem has evolved because understanding the “why” or “how” doesn’t offer solutions about what students can do to make better things happen.

  • “Although you’re missing your book today, you had it with you yesterday.”
  • “You do a good job bringing all your material to class a lot of the time.”
  • “Yesterday you brought all your materials with you, even extra pens.


Examine what makes it work.

  • “On the days you do bring all your materials, what’s happening?”
  • “When you have all your materials with you, what are you doing to make sure you have everything?”
  • “How did you manage to make sure you had your book?”
  • “What’s different on the days when you do bring all your materials?”


Visualize life without the problem to trigger the imagination for solutions. Use the trigger, “Suppose…” or “Imagine…”

  • “Suppose you come to class tomorrow with all your materials. What will you be doing differently? How will others know? What will they see or hear that tells them something will be different?”
  • “Imagine that tomorrow you have everything you need for class and you feel very proud of yourself for having done that. What did you do to make that happen?”

Notice how this solution-focused approach works by:

  • Shining a light on what Maria is doing right.
  • Engaging her in reflecting on what’s happening when things are going right.
  • Reinforcing the idea that change is possible.

The next step is to help Maria decide which small behavior she can do right now based what she’s already doing that works for her.

Start practicing solution-focused conversations by offering compliments and looking for strengths. Then, follow up by noting what’s already working…even if it’s just a little bit.

In our next article, we’ll share the next steps in creating solution-focused conversations that lead to positive, lasting change.