© 2008, Coert Visser & Sue Young
Sue Young now divides her time between behaviour support to schools and training in solution focused practice. She advocates using solution-focused thinking to encourage success at every level in schools. Her initiatives include implementing national policies across schools, helping local staff encourage positive behaviours in their students and giving support to individual children and parents. One of Sue’s particular interests is promoting an anti-bullying ethos. In the mid-ninties, she developed the support group approach for responding to incidents of bullying. Later she discovered how well her approach fitted with solution focused thinking and ever since, has been applying solution focused principles to all areas of her work. So, what is the support group approach and how does it work? Is it hard to do? How does it help? Find answers to these questions and more in this interview.
COERT: Hi Sue, could you explain, for readers who haven't heard about it yet, what the support group approach is?
SUE: Briefly, the support group approach is a solution focused strategy for resolving complaints of bullying, particularly in primary schools. I think it is a good example of a ‘solution key’ (de Shazer) because the simplicity of the intervention enables it to fit a wide range of circumstances. The child who is upset is interviewed to find out who they are finding difficult to cope with at the moment, who else is around when they find things difficult and who is (are) their friend(s). They are not asked for any information about what has been happening. The child is reassured that things will begin to get better and told that a group of children, chosen from the names they have given, will be asked to help. The child is asked to notice anything that gets better so they can tell you about it when you review after a week. A support group is made up from these names, ideally 5-8 children. The group is seen separately and simply asked to help with the aim of making the target child happy in school. No explanation is given about why the child may be unhappy. It is important that whoever leads the interviewing does not use the word ‘bullying’ at all and tries to leave behind any judgement about what has been happening. They are asked for suggestions of small things they might try and an arrangement is made to review what they have managed to do a week later.
COERT: Okay, and what happens one week later in the review meetings with the bullied child and in the meeting with the support group?
SUE: In the review meeting the target child is asked about things that are better and is praised for how they have handled the situation. In the group’s meeting that follows, the children are asked how they think things are going and each one is given the chance to report back on what they have managed to do. They are thanked individually for the help they have given and then congratulated for their success as a group. A further review can be arranged in another week's time, if necessary. Sometimes there needs to be more than one review to ensure that any teasing or bullying that is happening, typically by someone outside the group, stops completely but it is rare for it to go as far as five meetings. The criterion for finishing the group is that everyone is agreed that the child is now happy in school: the target child, the members of the group, staff involved at school and the parents.
COERT: I understand how it works. What do you see as the main characteristics and advantages of this approach in comparison to other anti-bullying approaches?
SUE: It is unnecessary for a child to repeat over what has been happening, with the disadvantage of re-traumatising and demoralising a child who is often already feeling powerless and anxious about telling anyone about how they are feeling, plus talking it over may actually reinforce those feelings. It also feels less ‘risky’ for the child when they don’t have to ‘tell tales’ on anyone. Most other approaches presume that bullying has been happening, although in practice this can be difficult to be certain about, since bullying generally takes place outside the view of adults. Other children who know it's happening very seldom report it, and anyone accused of bullying tends to deny it. So ‘proving’ it can be very difficult. Thankfully proving it doesn’t matter with this approach, since no assumptions need to be made about what’s going on. None of the children are labelled by it – ‘bully’, ‘victim’ - whilst at the same time the opportunity is open to them to make amends, if they want to. That applies sometimes, surprisingly maybe, to the target child, too.
COERT: And what is different in the way parents are involved?
SUE: If a parent has made a complaint, they get regular updates at the reviews on how things are going and are involved in evaluating progress. This is reassuring for them at a very difficult time. Often in traditional strategies they get left out, don’t get feedback, and this can exacerbate the difficulties. They can even end up being blamed for being ‘over-protective’. There’s no need to tell other children’s parents that their child has been accused of being a bully – resulting difficulties between parents can become more problematic than the original complaint. On the contrary, parents can be told how helpful and kind their child has been. Parents get to know when their school deals with bullying effectively – and they value it highly because it is something that a lot of parents fear happening to their child.
COERT: How do children typically respond to the Support group approach?
SUE: The children enjoy it – we have interviewed children who have been in support groups and they say things like: I enjoyed doing it, I made more friends too, it made me feel important, it made me feel happier. It teaches children a more helpful way of responding to others and feeling good about themselves. Over the longer term, this can affect the whole ethos of a school. Some other approaches, e.g. assertiveness training, implicitly blame the ‘victim’. However, if you stop the bullying, assertiveness or low self esteem etc. are no longer a problem - and it's easier and quicker this way to stop the bullying.
COERT: This all sounds simple and attractive. What can you tell me about the effectiveness of the approach? Have you done some research for instance or have you otherwise gotten systematic feedback?
SUE: This approach has been subject to rigorous review of a large number of actual cases in terms of outcomes – we know it works, whereas with most other strategies there has been no evaluation based on outcomes (other than solution focused brief therapy, which we have also evaluated). It’s fast acting… and it is maintained longer term. Other approaches tend to rely on the assumed efficacy of the process e.g. traditional counselling, phone help lines, punishment of offenders etc. or anecdotal accounts of a few cases. In an article I wrote at the time (read it here), I describe two types of research: outcome based evaluation and process based. Firstly, and most importantly, evaluation based on the outcomes: in the first 50 support groups that I led, there was immediate success in 80% (40) of those cases, then it tapers off - 7 cases took up to 5 meetings before everyone was satisfied that the child was happy in school and there was no bullying, I called that 'delayed success'. In 3 cases (6%), although there was improvement, I was not completely satisfied, I called that limited success. Importantly, no case got worse. What is interesting, by the way, is that when the group was led by staff from within school, the outcomes seem to be even better - higher than 80% and fewer meetings on average!
Although this research was done about ten years ago now, I still haven't come across any other study of an intervention for bullying that is as transparent in outcomes or as successful as this, over a large number of cases (other than the one I mentioned on SFBT earlier, that Gail Holdorf and I did). I am both proud of this article for that reason, but also frustrated. All the research that has been done into bullying - 'admiring the problem'! - but so little done into what works in individual cases to stop it.
COERT: Can you give an example of an experience of a teacher who has used the Support Group Approach?
SUE: In terms of independent corroboration, I trained a teaching assistant to lead support groups in a primary school that had particular difficulties. She kept excellent records which she allowed me to look through later. Her records showed that she also had led over 50 groups and all had been effective. However, she always continued group meetings for about 5 sessions – even when her records showed there was no problem - I think she just enjoyed doing it! At this school they called them ‘Friendly Groups’. I referred to her work in my chapter in Solutions in Schools – but she wouldn’t let me put in her name! Other than this, I’ve had loads of feedback from individuals who have used it and been delighted. Of course, anyone who didn’t have success is unlikely to feed back. Nevertheless, so many people have tried it successfully, and at the first attempt, I’m certain that it is a very robust strategy.
COERT: You mentioned process research. Could you explain that?
SUE: Sure, I did research into the processes happening in the support group, the theories in social psychology about how groups work and the behaviour of bystanders. I was looking for the rational for why it worked so well, and so quickly. Whilst researching on this, I came across 'solution focused brief therapy'. It seemed to me that how I was doing support groups was a good example of solution focused work, although not therapy. More recently, I have done some research on what children who have been in support groups think about it – I made a couple of videos interviewing them. We took two of these children to the EBTA (European Brief Therapy Association) conference in Krakow and they took part in our workshop there. They were great! It seems obvious to them, if someone is unhappy in school you ask other children to help… of course it works…. of course they enjoy it…. what’s so hard to understand about that...?!
COERT: Sounds logical, indeed. Do you have any experiences with or thoughts on situation in which aggression and physical violence are involved? Would you recommend using the Support Group Approach in the same manner or should additional or different things be done?
SUE: I have used a support group where children have had bruises, black eyes or been kicked etc. and in long term cases where bullying appears to have been a problem for more than a year, maybe at successive schools. However, I recommend using support groups in primary schools – and children don’t generally do very serious harm at that age. I have never had a case in a primary school when I felt unable to recommend it. Although I have led support groups in secondary schools successfully, and I know others have, I would not recommend it universally for any situation. For example, one case I remember was of a teenage girl where there had been a sexual assault by two or three boys – I would not have felt comfortable leading a support group including those boys. (I’m not sure I would call this bullying, although on the news here recently a murder of a schoolboy was called ‘bullying’.) With anything so serious, the police would normally be involved and I would not want to interfere with any investigation. Generally, the student(s) would be suspended from attending school whilst this was going on, anyway. In serious cases in secondary schools, I would use solution focused brief therapy to support the ‘victim’, if that was wanted. I wrote an article with Gail Holdorf on the success of using SFBT, mainly with older students (read it here). There are other reasons why a support group may not be appropriate in secondary school, too - e.g. the student may not want anyone else involved at all and we would respect that.
It is interesting that the anti-bullying project very rarely had referrals of ‘bullies’ – almost all referrals were of perceived ‘victims’. Now I work part time for a behaviour support service, I get referrals of students for ‘anger management’, maybe violent outbursts, and bullying others may occasionally be mentioned. I deal with these individual cases using SFBT too – so I work with them individually on ‘staying calm’ or ‘getting on with work’ or ‘staying in school’ (i.e. not getting excluded) - whatever they identify they want to change. This is not as successful in terms of outcomes as I would like, although still far better than other approaches I have used in the past. It can be hard to get any progress noticed, or recognised as significant, by other staff. Generally, I find working in a solution focused way directly with teachers and other school staff to be more successful in terms of outcomes for children with serious behaviour difficulties.
COERT: As a last question I’d like to ask: what practical suggestions do you have for teachers reading who want to try this out?
SUE: It doesn’t need a lot of training or particular expertise – just a willingness to have a go with something different – so it’s accessible to school staff. I think it would be very helpful to read a case study – there’s one in Interviewing for Solutions and another in my chapter in Solutions in Schools, mentioned before. I am hoping to have a new book out soon – my old one, Solutions to Bullying, is out of print. Anyone leading the group needs to remember the suggestions for making the child happy in school should all come from the group - and resist the temptation to give them any other information or advice. When people have watched me leading a group in a school, as they usually did, they have said that the most surprising thing is that I don’t talk about bullying at all – either with the ‘victim’ or the group. And all the staff I know who have done it, love it! Staff and children learn the effectiveness of becoming solution focused. I would suggest just following the guidelines and keep it simple!
The most encouraging thing is that when used well, solution focused support groups contribute to an atmosphere in school where bullying is less likely to happen in the first place.
- Y. & Rees, I. (2001). Solutions in Schools: Creative Applications of Solution Focused Brief Thinking with Young People and Adults. London: BT Press
- De Jong P. & Berg I.K. (2008). Interviewing for solutions, 3d ed..Brooks/Cole.
- Young, S. (1998). The Support Group Approach to Bullying in Schools. Educational Psychology in Practice Vol 14, No 1, April 1998
- Young, S. & Holdorf, G. (2003). Using solution focused brief therapy in individual referrals for bullying. Educational Psychology in Practice, 19(4), 271-282.
- Young, S. (2002). Solutions to Bullying. NASEN.