Treasure Hunting for Exceptions to Homework Struggles

Paying attention to when things go right can help resolve homework struggles.

Posted Aug 24, 2019

Our brains have been shaped by evolution to notice and react to problems more readily than successes.  We are wired to pay more attention when things go wrong than when things go right.  We tend to see problems as constant and unchanging.  We find it hard to recognize and learn from exceptions–the times when things go well, or at least better than we expected.

Solution-focused therapists realize that problem behaviors do, in fact, vary over time.  Change is always happening.  They invite us to go on a ‘treasure hunt for exceptions,’ to keep an eye (and ear) out for islands of better functioning, to notice when something works and make it bigger, to take (and give) credit when things get better, and to recognize and reinforce step-by-step progress.  

In my practice, parents are often quick to tell me, “My child refused to do their homework–again” or “My child always melts down when told to stop playing video games and do homework.” 

When we go ‘treasure hunting for exceptions’ parents may instead report, “My child completes some homework–sometimes” or “That day my child put down the video game with less upset than usual.”  

These kinds of partial successes are worthy of discussion.  Attending to even partial homework successes can facilitate the development of effective individualized homework strategies and offer opportunities to build children’s and parents’ positive beliefs about themselves and the future. 

Here are some ways to keep a solution-focused attitude toward homework by focusing on the exceptions to typically unhealthy behavior:

Keep an Eye (and Ear) Out for Exceptions

‘Exceptions’ are times when a problem behavior does not occur or (even better) a positive alternative behavior does occur where and when the problem has typically occurred in the past.  ‘Partial Exceptions’ are times when the problem behavior occurs but is not as long or intense as is typical or when at least some version of a positive alternative behavior manifests.

When Something Works Do it Again and Make it Bigger

Exceptions, even partial exceptions, can be ‘clues to solutions.’  They can point to strategies that may work if repeated and expanded.  We do not always have to learn new strategies.  We can sometimes simply do more of what is already working.   

Ask Exception Questions

Exceptions can be identified using ‘exception questions' that help highlight when more positive behaviors occur: “When and where and how did my child transition away from another activity/attempt homework/persist when frustrated?” “What was different about that time and place?” “What did I do differently?” “What did my child do differently?”  “Is there a pattern?” “Can we try this again and observe what happens?” "Can we build on this?” 

Make it Interactional

When things have gone well, and especially when they might have gone badly but did not, ask questions that help identify the ‘solution sequence.’ Make it interactional. Ask: “How did your parent/teacher respond when you did things differently?” “How did their reactions impact you?”  “Who else changed when you did that differently?” “How did they change?” “How did that help?” Making it interactional helps people stop blaming and start changing by asking, “How do we both contribute to the problem?” and “How can we both change?”

Use Exceptions to Build Self-Efficacy

Long-term homework struggles can result in ‘demoralization,' or internalized beliefs such as, “I am helpless” and “this is hopeless.”  Highlighting and discussing exceptions can help children and parents develop a sense of self-efficacy and hope for the future: “I can do some of this/help my child with this sometimes” or “I am becoming a person who can do homework/help my child with homework.” 

There is a lot of psychology research out there to suggest that a sense of self-efficacy, a person's sense of confidence in his or her ability to complete a task correctly, is one of the best predictors of willingness to attempt tasks and ability to persist when frustrated.  Awareness of even small successes can motivate people to attempt bigger and more far-reaching goals.

Agency Questions

Agency questions can be used to increase sense of self-efficacy by bringing awareness to the potential causes of the success.  Children and parents struggling with homework may dismiss exceptions as anomalies, out of their control, random and unpredictable.  Agency questions ask people to reflect on their contribution to their exceptions. They invite children and parents to take credit for progress and success.  

Agency questions include: “How did you do that?”  “What part did you play?”  “What did you do differently?” “How were you thinking differently?”  “What is it about you, your talents and abilities that made a difference that time?”  “How did you get your parent/teacher to respond to you in a way that was positive and helpful?” “How did you turn them into allies?”

Positively Reinforce Exceptions

Experienced parents, especially parents of neuro-developmentally atypical children, have likely read and heard the ‘positive reinforcement’ mantra over and over again: positively reinforce (with attention, praise or rewards) the behaviors you want to increase. Ignore, or react as little as possible to, the behaviors you want to decrease. It's also good to avoid punishment, as punishment can inadvertently negatively reinforce (e.g., with attention) problem behaviors.  A common problem with this approach reported by parents in my practice: It is hard to positively reinforce goal behaviors if they do not, or at least do not seem to, occur. 

Focusing on exceptions, including partial exceptions, provides parents with more opportunities to positively reinforce their child.  Reinforcing partial exceptions can help build more complex goal behaviors via a process of ‘successive approximation’ or ‘shaping’.  Compliments and enthusiastic praise can call attention to positive behaviors that lead to change and to the child’s and parent’s roles in creating successes. 

Look for Success Inside the Failure

Setbacks are inevitable.  Look for signs of success even when you think you and/or your child have ‘failed’.  First acknowledge how difficult change is and how discouraging setbacks can be.  Then focus on even small things that went right.  Help your child and yourself to attend to even partial successes.

Ask, “How did you and/or your child keep things from getting worse?” “How have you and/or your child continued to try to make things better despite discouraging setbacks?” “What can be learned from the setback and applied to future work?”

EARS

You can use the ‘EARS’ mnemonic to help remember solution-focused strategies:  highlight Exceptions, Amplify exceptions, Reinforce exceptions, Start this process over again.    

Try ‘Hunting for Treasure’

Try using a focus on exceptions, successes, solutions, and agency as a tool to take on a ‘treasure hunt’ for resiliencies, resources and capacities to cope and thrive.   Keep an ‘eye and ear out’ for information about strengths and abilities.  Practice shifting to a ‘solution focused’ approach to homework struggles.

References

De Jong, P. & Berg, I. K. (2013). Interviewing For Solutions (4th  Ed.).  Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Stith, S. M., McCollum, E. E. & Rosen, K. H. (2011).  Couples Therapy for Domestic Violence: Finding Safe Solutions.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Press.

Taylor, E. R. (2019).  Solution-Focused Therapy with Children and Adolescents: Creative and Play Based Approaches.  NY: Routledge.