How a Twentieth Century Philosophy of Language Can Advance Health, Well-Being and Healing in Schools

Dr. Cynthia Franklin discusses therapeutic intervention in schools in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley and Clare Callahan

As Professor and Associate Dean for Doctoral Education in the School of Social Work, Dr. Cynthia Franklin currently works with at-risk students, most visibly at Austin’s Gonzalo Garza Impendence High School, where she implements solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT). Developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg in the late 1970s, SFBT, as Dr. Franklin described it in the HI Faculty Fellows Seminar, is “a brief therapeutic intervention”—taking place over only four to six sessions—that strives so build solutions to patients’ current and future problems, on the individual level and within “groups, families, communities, and organizations.” Specifically, SFBT works through the co-construction of meaning between patients and therapists and specific action-oriented techniques.

Dr. Franklin describes the co-construction of meaning in her introduction to SFBT in the Handbook of Contemporary Psychology as a “process in communication where the speaker and the listener collaborate to negotiate meanings” of words. Solution-focused therapists employ co-construction to help clients change their thinking and behavior in order to solve problems. This approach draws from a theoretical framework introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, an early 20th century philosopher who argued that “the meanings of words are established through rules created over the course of social exchanges.” Solution-focused therapists also introduce action-oriented techniques that work to translate emotion into behavioral action. SFBT is both strength-based,

Solution Focused Therapy Flowchart
Solution Focused Therapy

meaning that it focuses on the clients’ strengths rather than dwelling on perceived deficiencies, and future-oriented, meaning that clients are encouraged to “identify goals and future hopes” rather than focus on “present and past problems.”

The most well-known therapeutic question that SFBT therapists pose to their clients is “the miracle question.” A therapist will ask his or her client to imagine a future in which his or her problem (or problems) is miraculously solved, and to reflect on how he or she would know the miracle had occurred. What would be different? The miracle question encourages clients to think toward the future and to work with the therapist (or the person using the intervention) to imaginatively construct a future that contains solutions to the problem.

At Gonzalo Garza Independence High School, where Dr. Franklin implements SFBT therapy, all faculty and staff are trained in and use SFBT when interacting with the students. Students’ time at Garza concludes with a “Star Walk” where each graduating student discusses his or her plans for the future and leads a processional of students, faculty, and staff through the school to celebrate students’ accomplishments.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophies are not typically found in social work. And so in the Faculty Fellows Seminar discussion of Dr. Franklin’s work with SFBT, Fellows expressed surprise at the influences of Wittgenstein in SFBT, evidenced in the therapeutic principle of the “co-construction of meaning.” Several Fellows expressed interest in learning SFBT techniques to improve their own work with students, raising the potential for SFBT to be employed as a pedagogical tool. Fellows, however, also shared concerns with the brevity of SFBT interventions. Given that the populations with which SFBT is most frequently employed do not have the financial resources to participate in long-term therapy, Fellows questioned whether the fundamental brevity of SFBT worked to reinforce that disenfranchisement. Dr. Franklin clarified that in SFBT, these brief interventions are not, in fact, truncated, but are more efficient, since its therapeutic goal is to solve a particular problem, rather than to provide long-term self-growth and insight. She also added that social workers do not tend to cater to privileged classes, but instead treat the populations who are most in need of their services.

Dr. Franklin noted that in lower-income and ethnic-minority communities, the mental health resources available at schools often act as a substitute for private care. Schools become the de facto mental health intervention people receive in American society. In her work, Dr. Franklin advocates for greater integration of mental health services into the school system. Currently, school social workers are often the first resources slashed when budget cuts take effect. In response to these circumstances, Dr. Franklin recently wrote an editorial arguing for more accountability for charter schools, as public funds are being shifted toward those programs and away from public schools.

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