Problem Solving Skills Training and Solutions Focused Therapy

The Intervention

Problem-solving skills training is an intervention that teaches students to apply decision-making skills to analyze and solve a variety of problems. Many students with emotional and behavioral problems often respond to challenging situations with an impulsive approach. Their responses to problems can be ineffective and sometimes counterproductive because the responses have not been carefully considered. Problem-solving skills can help students effectively navigate a variety of challenges including interpersonal conflict with peers and teachers, academic-related challenges, and intra-personal challenges (e.g., coping with disappointment, frustration, anger). Problem-solving skills training can be conducted in an individual or group setting and involves presenting the 5-step problem-solving process, practicing it in a controlled setting, and then practice in real-life settings. It is important to provide feedback and coaching outside of the group or individual sessions to facilitate skill development. Repeated practice with frequent feedback over an extended period of time is the key to success with this intervention. These steps can also be taught and applied through a solutions focused therapy approach.

Below are the Problem-Solving Steps. When teaching these steps, have your student(s) come up with a sample problem that you can use as an example as you teach these steps. Having students generate the problem can ensure that it is one they encounter in real life.

It may be helpful to first discuss the antecedents and contextual factors that put your student at risk for various problems.

  • I’d like to learn more about the problem. What led to this? If we can better understand what leads to the problem, we can better decide how to prevent it. What happens before this problem occurs? Who else is usually involved?
  • Is this problem creating other problems for you? What would be the benefit(s) to reducing the number of times this happens?
  • Let’s use a 5-step process to see if we can find a way to prevent this from happening (or resolve this problem).

Step 1: Define the problem.

  1. How would you describe/define the problem?
  2. How would you describe the primary factor that leads to this?

Step 2: Help the student define their goal for the situation.

  1. If this is what is occurring now, how would you like it to be different?
  2. How do YOU want this to end up?

Step 3: Brainstorm Solutions.

  1. Now let’s talk about options. At this point, let’s brainstorm all possible options, regardless of whether you think they will work. What are some possible solutions to this? The following may be helpful if the student gets stuck or cannot think of solutions: What might prevent this from happening again? What are some other ideas? Can you think of anything that helps other students facing this challenge?
    1. Do not critique the solutions at this point. There are no bad ideas when brainstorming.
    2. Write all solutions generated by brainstorming on a list.

Step 4: Select Solutions.

  1. Now, let’s pick one or more of these to try. (Use the following questions and others to select one.)
    1. Which one do you think would be the most effective?
    2. Are there reasons why some of these may not work?
    3. Which of these would you be willing to try? Any others? Let’s talk through this.
    4. How will you do this? (Discuss specifics about date, time it will be applied, what the student might do or say, specific action steps, possible barriers and how to overcome them)

Step 5: How to know if the solution is working?

  • How will we know that the plan is working? Are there objective ways of knowing the plan is working? (Online grading system, attendance tracking) Are there people who will see the plan in action? (Specific teachers, parents). Make sure that there are evaluation procedures for both aspects of the plan including:
    • How will you know how well the student is implementing the plan?
    • How will you know if the plan is achieving the goal?
  • Begin implementation
    • When will you start to use the solution?
  • When will we evaluate?
    • How long do you think it will take for this solution to work?
    • When will we meet again to discuss how it went? It may take different amounts of time for the implementation to occur and be measured to determine if it adequately addresses the problem. Both dates and measures should be decided and recorded.

  1. Teach the above 5-step problem-solving process.
  2. Talk through how to apply these steps with a variety of examples (tips are noted in the problem-solving steps above). You may want to use examples of various types of problems in a variety of settings.
  3. Have your students try to apply these steps themselves. You may want to provide scenarios for them to practice or they can come up with their own that they encounter in their life. If you are teaching problem-solving skills training in a group setting, you can break students into pairs to discuss and then share with the group. Consider offering multiple modalities for this work (e.g., worksheets, role plays, discussions, online tools).
  4. Students should then go and practice using these problem-solving steps in their daily life. Collaborate on specific take-home assignments for your students. Encourage students to set a goal about a specific problem and identify the steps they plan to take to achieve this goal during the week.
  5. Younger students may benefit from a reward system for using these problem-solving steps.
  6. The next time you meet, have students report back about a situation in which they used these steps, how they followed them (e.g., what went well, what has challenging, what could have gone better), and what the outcome was. As a group, evaluate and discuss how well the steps were implemented, if the problem was solved (or working to be solved), and if the student needs to go back and try again. Use the outcome criteria established in Step 5 (How to know if the solution is working) to decide if it is working.
  7. Repeat this practice process. Have your students take their feedback and try to implement it between your next sessions. When you meet again, review and repeat as needed.

  1. It may be helpful to involve and inform teachers and parents about this process. These adults may be a part of the solution to these problems and may be useful evaluators of the student’s success in using this procedure.
  2. What if your student does not implement the 5-step process despite multiple revisions to the plan? You may want to ask the student how important the problem is to them. Part of this process is ensuring that the student and SMHP are focusing on a relevant and important problem to the student. If it is not important, then you may switch your attention to a problem that is important to the student to increase the likelihood that the student will consistently implement the solutions..
  3. What if your student selects a solution that you think will be ineffective? Unless the selected solution is dangerous or will have serious consequences, proceed with the solution selected by the student. Allow the student to complete the process to learn about both effective and ineffective strategies. If the measures are good, then the verdict on the selected solution will come without you having to tell the student they are wrong. The most important goal of this intervention is to teach the students to use this process.

Intervention Scorecard

This intervention is recommended for the following presenting problems.

Select an age group:


Other suitable presenting problems