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Solution-Focused Parent Conferences

By Russell A. Sabella | April 2018

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All too often, parent conferences become reporting and complaining sessions for what is going wrong with a student. Sometimes all parties quickly begin engaging in the blame game. The central questions of the meeting become, “How could this have happened?” “Who is to blame?” and “Who is responsible for making it right?” Preferably, the agenda for a parent meeting should instead be driven by questions such as:
  • How is the student sometimes successful, especially when they are overcoming a challenge?
  • On the student’s better days (or class times), what are they doing that would help explain some progress already made?
  • What will the student be doing more, both at school and at home, that would be clear signs of being back on track?
This would be a meeting that is more solution focused instead of problem centered.

Applying the same principles and techniques used in solution-focused brief counseling (SFBC) to parent teacher conferences is a natural choice given that each member of the conference (parents, students and counselors/educators) must be empowered to do their part. All members of the team should be working in a singular direction: helping the student more effectively achieve and succeed.

Another advantage of conducting solution-focused brief parent conferences (SFBPC) is that the approach incorporates a relatively clear road map with concrete techniques. This is especially valuable because parent conferences can be complicated and difficult to navigate. Without a positive focus and clear (solution-focused) strategy, school counselors and parents can quickly find themselves overwhelmed, discouraged and angry.

Becoming More Solution Focused: The PMS Approach to Parent Conferences

The SFBC model is flexible and dynamic, which means there are many possible pathways to developing goals and plans. One way might be to follow the PMS approach.

Step 1: Explore Problems
Step 2: Explore Motivations
Step 3: Explore Solutions and Scaling

A first step in this approach is to allow the parent to vent, explain their frustrations and be heard by school personnel. During this time, keep your solution-focused ears tuned to exceptions, strengths, resources, and potential goals which you can use later in the meeting.

Once you think the parent or caretaker is ready, ask, “How will things be different for you (or for the student) when these problems finally become resolved?” This is a solution-focused pivot, refocusing from problems to goals.  From here, the S in PMS stands for focusing on solutions, then finishing with scaling.

Throughout the process, you can use the techniques of solution-focused brief counseling in the parent conference meeting, as appropriate:

Detail. Make sure that you help the parent get specific about what they will be doing/thinking when the problem is better. For example, maybe they will take more time to go over homework each evening, take the student out to do a fun activity as a reward for being on task, or give the student a hug when they walk in the door instead of asking about problems and issues.

Mind map. Rather than detailing the “what,” mind mapping focuses on the “how.” Solution-focused mind mapping starts with a central idea, usually a desirable behavior or thought, and then helps parents and students to delineate connections and understandings of similar behaviors and thoughts, particularly those that help contribute to the solution. So, during better days, what was the parent doing that helped contribute to success (detailing) and how did they make that happen (mind mapping)?

Mine field. Keep in mind the statement, “It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be worth it.”  “Mines” are metaphors for threats to progress (barriers, adversities, challenges) that have the potential to push them off course. It is important for the counselor to help the parent remember how they were at one time doing better even though it was difficult or challenging. Counselors also should help parents anticipate future challenges and come up with a plan to overcome and succeed anyway during times of challenge.

Cheerlead. Cheerleading aims to provide encouragement, support and reinforcement for parents and student for their accomplishments. Accomplishments can be in the form of attempts, effort or achievement, to name a few.

Amplify. Amplifying questions help the parent and/or student envision how others would respond to changes in their behavior and, in turn, how a change in someone else's behavior motivates changes in them. The effect is a spiraling-up of progress for the parent/student and their support system. Questions include: Who noticed and what did they notice? What difference did it make to them? What difference does that make to you?

Scaling, Scaling questions invite students/clients to perceive their current situation along a continuum. To learn more about scaling in detail, check out this packet online.

The solution-focused brief counseling model can easily be adapted to work with parents, empowering them to become allies and motivating them to do more of what works. For counselors, conducting solution-focused parent conferences can make these meetings more enjoyable and more effective.


Dr. Russell A. Sabella is currently a professor in the Department of Counseling in the Marieb College of Health & Human Services, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida. Learn more at