Solution-focused brief counseling helps students complete more math homework

iStock_000008693718XSmallWhat do you do with an underachieving middle school student at risk of failing math because of incomplete homework?

Counselors use a results-oriented therapy to help clients construct a concrete vision of a preferred future for themselves called Solution-Focused Brief Counseling (SFBC) that could be a good model for educators, says a recent study in Education and Treatment of Children.

Researchers tested this model with 6 African-American 5th-grade students from an inner-city public elementary school who were at risk of failing math.   The students possessed sufficient academic skills but lacked motivation, confidence and perseverance, the researchers write.

“Relative to most other forms of counseling and therapy, SFBC is briefer and more direct, with the goal being to solve presenting problems by identifying and altering specific student behaviors in the natural environment,” the study says.

For this study, a school psychology doctoral student, met with each child for 30 minutes each week from mid-September to late November.

Five basic steps were used to encourage assignment completion by the student:

  1. Student was asked to rate the severity of the problem on a scale of 1-10 and to describe what needed to happen to achieve an improvement of at least 10% by the following week
  2. Student was asked the SFBC “miracle” question:  How would your life be improved if a miracle occurred and the problem was solved?
  3. The experimenter used cheerleading and positive blame techniques.  The experimenter actively encouraged and praised the student’s attempts to continue to do what was working.  The student also was asked to identify something positive that he accomplished and describe how he managed to achieve the accomplishment.
  4. Student was asked to identify potential obstacles and barriers that might prevent him or her from achieving the goal and to generate strategies to address these barriers.
  5. A written message was given to the student that contained at least 3 compliments and a bridging statement to the tasks the student should accomplish to achieve their goal.

Averages across the 6 students show that weekly assignment completion increased from 29% during baseline to 80% during the intervention phase and 84% during follow-up, the study reports.

Students nominated for the study by their teachers had returned less than 60% of their math assignments for 3 consecutive weeks prior to the baseline phase. When they turned in assignments, however, they received passing grades on the assignments.  Absenteeism also was not a problem for the students.

Each week the experimenter calculated the percentage of complete and percentage of accurate homework based on information from the teacher.  Assignments were considered complete if they were turned in and at least 50% of the work had been attempted by the student.

To ensure that increases in work completed did not entail higher rates of inaccurate work, the children’s work was also measured for accuracy. Across the 6 students, average daily assignment accuracy increased from 23% during baseline to 50% during the intervention phase and 47% during follow-up.

“Many researchers attempting to enhance assignment performance have not separated completion and accuracy contingencies, as was the case in this study,” the researchers report, adding that some research with college students has found that students performed better under the accuracy contingency.  “Future researchers investigating SFBC should consider separating these contingencies and focusing on accuracy of work as a primary dependent variable.”

“Increasing Math Assignment Completion Using Solution-Focused Brief Counseling,” by Jamie Fearrington et al., Education and Treatment of Children, Volume 34, Number 1, 2011.

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