Skip to main content

Solution Shop: A Solution-Focused Counseling and Study Skills Program for Middle Schools

“Solution Shop” is a counseling and study skills program designed to address the academic needs of struggling middle school students. In this program, the school counselor serves the critical role of developing and providing appropriate interventions, which range from individual and group counseling, study skills instruction, parent consultation, behavioral contracts, math and reading tutoring, and teacher meetings.

On this page:

Solution Shop is a data-driven counseling and study skills program that specifically addresses the underachievement of students of color and economically disadvantaged students. Solution Shop provides an example of the key role professional school counselors can play in the school reform movement. This program is based on solution-focused counseling strategies and is consistent with a new role for professional school counselors.

School reform is the business of every member of the school team and closing the achievement gap is the first priority of school reform (Stone & Clark, 2001). Professional school counselors, by virtue of their training and skills, are poised to play key roles in addressing the educational challenges facing schools. School counseling programs, as described in the American School Counselor Association’s National Model for school counseling programs (2003), should be aligned with the National Standards and linked to the academic mission of schools (Campbell & Dahir, 1997).

Solution Shop, a counseling and study skills program, provides an example of how a professional school counselor can develop a program that addresses the academic needs of students of color and economically disadvantaged students. Middle school students with two or more failing grades are selected for the Solution Shop program. Ten students meet for one period a day, for one semester, with the professional school counselor. Each student in the program develops individual academic and personal goals. The students participate in solutionfocused group counseling and study skill instruction for a portion of the class period and receive individualized tutoring during the remainder of the class period. At the end of the first year of the program, of the 35 students who participated, 57% improved their GPA and only 2 students (5.7%) had a lower GPA. Parents and teachers were involved in the referral and remediation process. Teachers and administrators were surveyed and report their perception that 75% of the students benefited from the program.

Connecting counseling programs to school reform

While experts debate the way to achieve equity for all children in schools, the facts are not in dispute. Despite early gain in closing the achievement gap in the 1970s and 1980s, the gap separating economically disadvantaged students and students of color from advantaged students began to widen (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). Students of color and economically disadvantaged students do not achieve at the same level as advantaged students. African American and Latino 17-year-olds, on average, read at the same level as White 13-year-olds (The Education Trust, 2001). Students of color drop out of school at higher rates than their advantaged peers; and even if they graduate from high school, they do not possess the necessary skills to be successful in the world of work or in college (Darling-Hammond, 1998; The Education Trust). The high school dropout rates for all students increased during the 1990s; however, for students from low-income families the increase was twice as high, 9.5% to 12.5%, as compared to the dropout rates of students from high-income families from 1.1% to 2.7% (NCES, 2002). The proportion of Latino and African American students completing high school and entering 2-year college programs has not changed in two decades (NCES, 2001).

Students of color and economically disadvantaged students are systematically excluded from the kind of educational opportunities that lead to success in high school, college, or the world of work (The Education Trust, 1999, 2001). While disadvantaged students complete elementary school with equivalent preparation to their advantaged peers, teachers at the elementary school level do not identify them as able to handle a more rigorous middle school curriculum. Students who do not complete subjects such as algebra in middle school are at a disadvantage in high school. They begin high school without the preparation that would qualify them for the more rigorous course work at the high school level. In addition, when these students are placed in an advanced academic curriculum they arc frequently not given the support needed to be successful.

Professional school counselors, for a variety of reasons, arc not typically included in the discussion of how to close the achievement gap (House & Hayes, 2002; House & Martin, 1998; Paisley & McMahon, 2001; Stone & Clark, 2001). However, efforts to clarify and transform the role of the professional school counselor have gained momentum. Recently, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) launched a National Model for School Counseling Programs (Hatch & Bowers, 2002). Evidenced by the work of the American School Counselor Association and The Education Trust’s National School Counseling Training initiative, a new vision of the role of the professional school counselor has emerged (Borders, 2002; House & Hayes, 2002; Perussc & Goodnough, 2001). The new vision for professional school counselors places the counselor in an active leadership role in the school (House & Hayes). The transformed professional school counselor embraces the academic mission of schools, works collaboratively with teachers and administration, and uses data to effect change.

Central to the new vision for professional school counselors is the role of advocate. Counselors are called upon to advocate for all children, especially students of color and economically disadvantaged students (House & Hayes, 2002). Professional school counselors have the skills and training to advocate for the educational needs of all students. Students of color and economically disadvantaged students have a greater need for caring adults to advocate for them. The advocacy role is supported by the American School Counselor Association and is infused in the National Standards for School Counseling Programs (Campbell & Dahir, 1997). The role of advocate involves working proactively to remove barriers and create a climate conducive to learning (House & Martin, 1998; Scheurich, 1998). It involves providing students with the organizational, test-taking, and study skills necessary for being academically successful (House & Hayes). Most of all it involves communicating to students and their families an underlying belief that they can achieve and succeed in school.

Solution Shop provides an example of a school counseling program designed to address the academic needs of all children and is consistent with a new role for professional school counselors. Solution Shop combines all the necessary components of an exemplary school counseling program: (a) program development is based on an analysis of data; (b) the school leadership, administration, guidance and counseling department, and teachers support the development and implementation of the program; (c) the program is based on counseling theory; (d) the program advocates for underserved students; and (e) program effectiveness is continually being assessed and evaluated.

Theoretical assumptions and current research

The collaboration, empowerment, and respect for a child’s unique resources and strengths are essential for effective counseling strategies (Murphy, 1997). When selecting a counseling intervention it is important to consider the worldview of the student. Solution-focused intervention seems particularly appropriate for the school counseling setting, given its future-oriented, positive focus and its attention to using strengths to solve problems (Kahn, 2000). A solution-focused counselor discovers competencies rather than labeling or solving problems for students, staff, or parents (Metcalf, 1995). The counselor listens attentively to the problem presented by the student to assure that the definition of the problem is clarified, but then refocuses toward solutions.

Wilson (1986) reviewed the research literature involving professional school counselor interventions with low achieving and underachieving K-12 students and identified successful strategies that were related to academic improvement. The findings of Wilson’s literature review concluded that:

  • Group counseling seems more effective than individual counseling.
  • Structured group programs were more effective than unstructured programs.
  • Group counseling programs of less than 8 weeks had positive results in only one of five programs evaluated. Programs of 9 to 11 weeks had positive results in five out of nine programs evaluated, and programs of 12 or more weeks had positive results in six out of eight programs evaluated.
  • Programs in which children volunteered for treatment were more successful than programs with nonvoluntary participants.
  • Programs that combined counseling and study skills were most effective.
  • Solution Shop is consistent with the components of successful counseling interventions as described by Wilson. Solution Shop is a structured group counseling and study skills program.

The Solution Shop program

The Solution Shop program was developed by a counseling graduate student during the last year of his school counseling master’s program in response to an identified need at the middle school where he was also a teacher. This school is located in an urban community on the East coast. The students at the school come from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The total enrollment is 691; and 160, or 23%, of those students receive English as a second language support. The school is 42.8% Hispanic, 25.8% African American, 22% Caucasian, and 9.1% Pacific Islander. This school, like many other urban public schools, struggles to reach students whose academic and developmental needs are not being addressed. A disproportional number of students of color and economically disadvantaged students at this middle school were having difficulties being academically successful. These students were not eligible for special education services and, for a variety of reasons, were failing or close to failing two or more of their core courses.

Solution Shop was developed to address the needs of underachieving students, specifically, students who have the capacity to succeed in school but were not being successful. The program was developed in collaboration with the school administration, teachers, and the guidance and counseling department. The program was structured to provide individual and small group counseling, study skill instruction, and individualized tutoring as needed. Solution-focused strategies were used as the foundation and theoretical framework.

Goals of Solution Shop

The goals of Solution Shop were to help students improve their grades and to develop positive feelings about their academic accomplishments. Students were expected to internalize successful behaviors, learn to use problem-solving skills, and to improve social interactions with peers and teachers. The specific goals of the Solution Shop Program were to (a) introduce and reinforce study skills; (b) establish specific academic goals; (c) involve parents; (d) monitor progress on a daily, weekly, bi-quarterly, and quarterly basis; (c) develop a positive attitude about academic achievement and understand future benefits; and (f) provide encouragement.

Description of the Solution Shop Program

Solution Shop was designed and implemented by a counseling graduate student during the last year of his master’s in school counseling program (he is referred to as the Solution Shop program director in this article). Hc designed the program in collaboration with the middle school director of guidance and counseling and his on-sitc internship supervisor, a professional school counselor at the school.

The middle school director of guidance and counseling and the Solution Shop program director met with administrators, teachers, and other staff members to establish the program framework and develop the goals of the program. Consulting and collaborating with staff members ensured school-wide involvement and support of the program.

Ten students chosen for the Solution Shop program met with the program director once a day for 9 weeks, or one semester, during an elective class period. The Solution Shop class began with a 10 to 15 minute group counseling time during which the program director led the group in a discussion of successes and challenges students were experiencing. Each period students were given the opportunity to use scaling (Murphy, 1997) to measure progress toward reaching particular goals. The group time was also used to teach and reinforce study skills. The remainder of the class time was spent working individually on core subject requirements. The program director worked one-on-one with students providing tutoring and encouragement. During die individual time, point sheets were reviewed, goals established and monitored, and specific issues discussed. Most of the students were in the program for one semester, but a few students electee! to stay in the program for a second semester.

Selection process. Selecting students for this program was the key to successful implementation. Classroom teachers and professional school counselors used a referral form (sec Appendix A) to recommend students for the program. Each classroom teacher could recommend up to five students and two alternates. Students selected for Solution Shop met the following criteria: core team teacher referral, more than two core grades of F, poor attendance, low motivation, and the professional school counselor’s recommendation. The referral form asked the referring person to identify the following concerns: being prepared, class work, homework, behavior, motivation, organization, and other concerns. The school counselor provided information concerning student grades, background, and academic history. An individual intake and screening session was held with each student being considered for the program. The purpose of this session was to talk with the student about the purpose of the program, respond to the student’s questions, and assess the student’s interest in the program and willingness to participate. Students were required to sign an agreement that stated that they understood the program rules and format. Parents were notified that their child had been referred to the program. A comprehensive explanation of the program was given to the parent either in person or by phone. Once a student was selected, parents were notified and required to sign a consent form. As this program is considered to be voluntary, students who were not interested in participating were not accepted into the program.

Solution Shop program procedures. Ten students chosen for the Solution Shop program met with the program director once a day for nine weeks, or one marking period, during an elective class period. Specific counseling strategies were used to help students meet their goals. Strategies included individual counseling, group counseling, peer-to-pcer interaction, study skills instruction, consultation with parents, use of behavioral contracts with students and teachers, tutoring in math and reading, and consultation with teachers.

The first week of the class involved establishing guidelines, building rapport, and setting goals. It is crucial to the success of the program that students become actively involved in the program goals and procedures. The students are given ownership of the program and are encouraged to choose goals that fit their personal and academic needs. During the first week, the program director meets with each student individually to set realistic academic goals and to develop action plans to accomplish those goals. Examples of students’ goals include: (a) Complete homework every evening it is assigned; (b) Ask the teacher tor help by raising my hand; (c) Pass the weekly quiz with a grade of C or higher. The program director and the students reviewed their goals and individual action plan on a daily basis. Students were required to check off goals met in class for the day or week.

As described previously, each session began with a group time during which the program director used solution-focused strategies such as scaling to conduct a review of progress toward individual goals. Peers were encouraged to notice each other’s progress, applaud successes, and brainstorm for new strategics. During the group time, the program director might also teach communication skills or specific study skills, such as using a homework notebook. After the group time, students worked individually on assignments, reviewed their individual goals and point sheets, and discussed specific challenges with the program director. Solution Shop peers were encouraged, when available, to help one another with homework and academic assignments.

Accountability. Success in this program was measured by improvement in the student’s overall quarterly GPA. Report cards and progress reports were used to establish each student’s overall academic success level. Most students used point sheets that were collected daily. The purpose of this daily monitoring sheet was to help students develop a greater awareness of how well they were doing in school each day. The point sheets helped students monitor their own progress. Each teacher signed off on a checklist of criteria such as being on time, being prepared, completing homework and class work, and exhibiting appropriate behavior. The teachers completed the point sheet at the end of each class period. The student took the point sheet home for parental signature. This proccdure allowed the parent to be informed of the student’s daily progress. Involving all three parties strengthened the home-school connection. The point sheet was returned to the program director (br daily monitoring and calculation.

Total points were tallied at the end of the day to determine whether or not the goals were met. At the end of the nine weeks, students met with the program director to evaluate progress and to chart grade changes. Key counseling questions are posed at the end of each counseling session, such as, “What will you do? By when? And how will you know you have accomplished your goal?” This format for ending the class period, creates accountability for the student to be purposeful and active before the next counseling session (Williams Sc Davis, 2002).

Program Benefits

A middle school student can benefit from a program like Solution Shop in a variety of ways. Strengthening the home-school connection is a key to the success of the Solution Shop program (Wilson, 1986). Many of the parents of Solution Shop students previously did not know how to access resources at the school and felt alienated from the school community. The program director communicates with the parents on a regular basis. Using solution-focused strategies, the counselor is able to send positive messages to the parents about their student’s progress. The counselor attends parent teacher conferences and is able to encourage and facilitate a collaborative relationship between school and home.

Solution Shop strengthened the students’ connection to the school. Often students from economically disadvantaged populations do not know how to connect or communicate with the school community (Darling-Hammond, 1998). The collaboration between the program director and the students resulted in positive outcomes. The program director coached the students on ways to effectively communicate with parents and teachers about school issues. The program director also encouraged the students to participate in school activities. For instance, the program director and students made a film advertising the Solution Shop program.

Identifying at-risk students at the middle school level can prevent future school failure by addressing students’ specific academic and social needs before high school. One of the most powerful benefits to Solution Shop is the empowerment of the student. Students are empowered to take responsibility for their own academic improvement.

Program Evaluation

According to American School Counselor Association’s National Model for School Counseling Programs, a comprehensive school counseling program should be data driven (American School Counselor Association, 2003). The National Model underscores the importance of carefully analyzing student achievement data in the development of the program. Equally important is conducting an ongoing evaluation of the program. The question of how professional school counselors are making a difference needs to be documented. The effectiveness of the Solution Shop program was evaluated in two ways. First, academic grade point averages (GPAs) were compared at the beginning and end of each academic quarter. Quarterly grade point averages were compared to identify an increase, a decrease, or no change.

Secondly, a staff survey was given to the administrators, teachers, and professional school counselors who had students in the program. This survey was a simple single sheet that provided bullets to circle answer responses. The surveys were administered after the student completed the program. The survey included three items: (a) effort in classroom/ homework, (b) preparedness for school or classes, and (c) behavior/attitude towards school. The choices after each category included: no change, little change, significant change. Participants were asked to complete a survey for each of the students in the program.

Findings. Thirty-five students participated in Solution Shop during the first year of the program. Of the 16 eighth grade students who participated in the program (6.25%). one student had a lower grade point average; (68.75%) 11 students had a higher grade point average; and (25%) 4 students maintained the same grade point average. Of the 19 seventh grade students who participated in the program, (5.26%) one student had a lower grade point average; (47.37%) 9 students had a higher grade point average; and (47.37%) 9 students maintained the same grade point average.

According to the staff and school personnel, 75% of the students who participated in the program made some or significant changes; 25% said that the students made little, or no changes. Teachers and administrators felt that the program was a big success in helping to reduce the number of students who would need to repeat a course or a grade.

Implications for professional school counselors

Solutions Shop is an example of a program with the central goal of addressing the needs of underserved students in schools. It accomplishes this goal through solution-focused strategies, student advocacy, and the use of data to guide the development and evaluation of programs. The professional school counselor plays an important role, collaborating with school leadership and teachers, working directly with students and parents, and evaluating student progress continually. Several specific recommendations generating from Solution Shop are offered. These recommendations have implications for school counseling programs and school counseling practice:

  • Use the data collected at school, such as GPA, report cards, attendance records, and referrals, to understand the academic issues that exist for students. Data can be disaggregated to show how students of color and economically disadvantaged students are fairing compared to their advantaged peers, and how school practices such as placement decisions for higher level courses are maintaining barriers to high achievement.
  • Share the data and your analysis of the data with school leadership, administrators, directors of guidance and counseling, teachers and parents.
  • Collaborate with leadership to develop programs that respond to the specific academic needs of students discovered in the analysis of the data. Partner with administration and teachers in the development of programs.
  • Use counseling theory and skills such as solutionfocused to guide development and delivery of new programs.

Change in GPA After Solution Shop Program

  • Be the caring adult in student lives. Advocate for students with teachers and parents. Use encouragement-based strategics and celebrate improvement.
  • Continue to use data to measure progress and evaluate program effectiveness. Share data with teachers, parents, and students so that they too can begin to monitor and measure their progress.


Solution Shop is an example of a counseling and study skills program that addresses the needs of underachieving students and places the professional school counselor in the role of developing and providing the appropriate interventions. Central to the school reform movement is how to improve the academic skills and provide an appropriate education to students of color and economically disadvantaged students. The professional school counselor can play an important role in addressing the achievement gap by advocating for all students in school, identifying students in need of intensive counseling and additional educational strategics, collaborating with administration and teachers, providing the interventions, and continually monitoring progress.

Reprinted with permission from the American School Counselors Association