Searching for Strengths: Focus on Abilities

Once the initial excitement of the new school year has subsided, teachers and other school professionals begin the task of discovering strategies to make school a successful experience for all students. As teachers become better acquainted with their students, they begin to match the curricula and instruction to students' needs. When a student's needs are complex, a problem-solving process is often utilized in a teacher assistance team, peer consultation, or child study team . In order to maintain the positive momentum of the initial school days, it is important to revisit the manner in which we discuss student problems.

How we describe problems, that is, the language we use, not only influences the interventions developed, but often determines the environment in which the problem is resolved (Rosenfield and Gravois, 1996). Care must be taken to describe problems in ways that promote positive student development and growth (Rosenfield and Gravois, 1996; Walther-Thomas, Korinek, McLaughlin, & Williams, 2000). The nature of questions asked during problem-solving meetings can establish a focus on student strengths rather than weaknesses. Questions should emphasize the specific desired behavior needed for classroom success. The purpose is two-fold: to focus on the target behaviors and to facilitate the creation of positive solutions (Walther-Thomas et al., 2000). Given that students are referred due to weaknesses, sustaining a focus on positive behaviors and interventions can be difficult. Therefore, it is helpful to prepare an array of questions to explore the nature of the student's strengths.

A solution-focused problem-solving format is one strategy for accessing new information that may provide a more complete picture of students (Carlson & Hickman, 1992). The goal is to create a match between the student's skills and the demands of the environment (Conoley & Conoley, 1992). Specifically, this problem-solving approach examines exceptions to the problem by looking at times when the problem is not occurring. Clarifying the circumstances under which the child is or was successful provides a place to begin this process of exploring abilities. Questions concerning past or current successes may provide clues necessary for solutions to emerge (Carlson & Hickman, 1992). The solution-focused problem-solving meeting creates an expectation of change. A basic assumption crucial to this process is that only a small change is necessary to start the student on a successful path (Carlson & Hickman, 1992).

Such "problem dissolving" questions have three goals: (a) to focus on the exceptions to the problem, (b) to underscore competencies, and (c) to use the resources and strengths of the student and the involved professionals to "dissolve" the problem. Questioning strategies include: (a) searching for exceptions to the problem, (b) searching for strengths, (c) searching for past problem resolution success, (d) using language that presupposes change in a positive direction, (e) identifying clear goals, and (f) identifying the smallest change toward the goals (Carlson & Hickman, 1992).


Carlson, C. I., & Hickman, J. (1992). Family consultation in schools in special services. Special Services in the Schools, 6(3/4), 83-112.

Conoley, J. C., & Conoley, C. W. (1992). School consultation practice and training (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Rosenfield, S.A., & Gravois, T.A. (1996). Instructional consultation teams. New York: Guilford Press.

Walther-Thomas, C.S., Korinek, L., McLaughlin, V. L., & Williams, B.T. (2000). Collaboration for inclusive education. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Date: November/December 2000