Professor profile: Focusing on the solution

Johnny Kim, assistant professor of social welfare

Too often when someone is trying to help an individual correct a problem behavior, they focus only on the problem. Johnny Kim specializes in a way of helping solve problems by focusing on what they do right.

In a new KU YouTube video, Kim, assistant professor of social welfare, discusses solution-focused brief therapy, how it can be used in schools to help both disruptive students and frustrated teachers and the importance of educating future social workers.

“solution-focused brief therapy is a strengths-based intervention that has really gotten very popular, especially among social workers and mental health professionals,” Kim said. “It’s a different way of working with clients. Usually the typical approach when working with clients in a therapy session is around what we call ‘problem talk.’”

Kim, a specialist in solution-focused brief therapy, studies how the practice can be applied in schools. A classic example of focusing on the problem, schools for decades have removed disruptive students from the classroom. Then, conversation focuses on the problem behavior. Kim has studied how focusing on what students do right can help them be more successful.

“We wanted to see how we could implement solution-focused brief therapy in school sessions, especially around the issue of class management behaviors,” Kim said. “We train teachers to use solution-focused brief therapy techniques in interacting with their students to try to focus on their positive strengths.”

Results from Kim’s studies have shown early success in using the technique as an alternative to simply removing students. The idea has the potential to pay dividends for teachers as well.

“We know through research that teachers who are dealing with classrooms that are highly disruptive can lead to higher burnout rates as well as frustration and stress levels,” Kim said. “So we’re hoping to examine how this WOWW (working on what works) intervention will impact those issues for the teachers themselves so that they’ll be more effective and have less stress and less teacher burnout.”

The technique has also proven to be a valuable resource in not only minimizing troublesome classroom behavior, but in helping students who have fallen behind catch up and graduate. It has also been shown to be effective in helping prevent dropouts.

Kim said one of the reasons he was drawn to KU was its reputation for strengths perspective, an approach very similar to solution-focused brief therapy. The School of Social Welfare places great emphasis on teaching in addition to research. The work students do once they are in the field is too important not to.

“We take teaching very seriously because we’re training students to go out and work with vulnerable populations,” Kim said. “These are people who are going to be in crises, who may be suicidal, that may be at a point where they feel like they have no hope, that they have no outlets to help them with their issues and problems and so they turn to professional social workers to help them.”


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Kevin Liu, associate director, Confucius Institute

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