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Using Solution Circles to collaboratively solve problems in your classrooms

Following the announcement that all students are expected to return to school in September, Pauline Holbrook, Head of SEND at SSAT, considers how Solution Circles could support the development of COVID-19 safe working practices and personalised solutions to meet the needs of students who are finding the transition back to school challenging.

How often do we look to our colleagues for help when we become “stuck”, when we have tried all the strategies in our personal toolbox but still we are not fully meeting the needs of a particular student, or we are not totally happy with the plan of action we have developed. This is the point at which solution circles can be useful. It is important to emphasise that where this method of problem-solving works best is in a supportive culture where everyone’s views and opinions are valued and where it is OK to ask for help. This is certainly not a hierarchical model and from my own experience of working in special schools, solutions can come from any quarter, and I feel it is important to value the contributions of all. In fact, I remember when a student was struggling to access transport at the end of the day, it was the site manager who suggested a possible way forward. The solution was for the student to take the school dog for a walk at the end of the day and once he was in his seat with safety belt on, he was allowed to give the dog a treat before saying goodbye and handing the lead to the site manager. A simple and effective solution that had been tasking several staff for about a week.

What are Solution Circles?

‘Solution Circles’ have been designed to help build “community capacity” and are a short and powerful tool which can be effective in getting a person or team “unstuck” from a problem in life or work. They assume and demonstrate that nearby people – in any community or workplace – have the capacity to help if asked. The process of presenting a problem to the group and coming up with actions should take no more than 30 minutes.

Solution circles ideally consist of no more than 8 people from which you need to establish the following roles:

  • Presenter of the problem (focus person)
  • Facilitator/Timekeeper
  • Notetaker
  • Creative or brainstorm team

Once established, the group follow an agreed four step approach:

Step 1 (6 minutes)
The person presenting the problem to the group has six uninterrupted minutes to outline the issue. The facilitator keeps time and makes sure no one interrupts. The recorder takes notes. Everyone else (the creative team) listens. If the problem presenter stops talking before the six minutes elapse, everyone else stays silent until the six minutes pass.

Step 2 (6 minutes)
This is a brainstorming activity where everyone contributes with ideas about creative solutions to the problem presented. Anything that you think may be a way forward; it is not a time to clarify the problem or to ask questions. It is not a time to give speeches, lectures or advice. The process facilitator must make sure this is a brainstorm with everyone having opportunity to contribute their ideas. It is important that no one person is allowed to dominate. The problem presenter listens — without interrupting; they must not talk or respond.

Step 3 (6 minutes)
During this step the problem presenter chooses two or three of the ideas mentioned in Step 2 that they would like to hear more about. At this point, the group can have a dialogue led by the problem presenter. This is the time to explore, ask questions and clarify the problem. At this stage it is important that the conversation is positive and doesn’t lapse into conversations such as ‘We can’t do that because…”.

Step 4 (6 minutes)
With the support of the group, the problem presenter decides on first steps that can be achieved within the next three days; at least one of these steps should be initiated within 24 hours. This is critical. Research shows that unless a first step is taken almost immediately, people do not get out of their ruts. To support this, it is helpful if someone from the group volunteers to check-in with the problem presenter within three days to check if they took their first step. Finally, the group does a round of words to describe the experience and the recorder gives the record to the focus person.

Looking forward to September

As we welcome students back to school in September, some students and staff may not have been in the building since lockdown began in March. Some students will skip through the doors as if nothing has happened and cope with the changes you have made to ensure everyone is safe. However, for others, this will be alien and may take a little time to adjust, but you will have a plethora of tried and tested ideas and resources that will soon see the vast majority of students and staff fully engaged in learning. There may be one or two students who have experienced significant trauma by being away from their friends, teachers, support staff and the safety of school routines who are not responding to your usual strategies and you may feel “stuck”. In this situation it may be useful to call upon colleagues within and outside of your bubble, so you may wish to consider trying a Solution Circle – socially distanced of course.

During their recent webinar for SSAT members (download a copy of their presentation), Dr Lucy Ball, Senior Practitioner Educational Psychologist, Merton, and Kim Bulman, Assistant Headteacher and Behaviour Lead at Perseid School, shared how Solution Circles have been used to identify solutions when development with individual students has stalled. However, it is worth remembering that this method of problem-solving could also work equally well as part of a senior leadership team meeting, with whole-class, wellbeing and multi-disciplinary teams, and also when working with parents.

Like all new initiatives, the key to success is demonstrating its value to staff, creating time to focus on the exercise, and ensuring staff have the appropriate skills, particularly those taking on the role of facilitator and celebrating the success and impact the process is having. You may consider starting with a small group and sharing your successes to encourage your wider community to get involved.

Related resources
Download a copy of the presentation shared in the ‘Solution Circles’ webinar

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