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Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: A Solution- Focused Brief Therapy Approach in School Settings

W. Sean Newsome PhD & Michael Kelly MSW

To cite this article: W. Sean Newsome PhD & Michael Kelly MSW (2005) Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: A Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Approach in School Settings, Social Work With Groups, 27:4, 65-84, DOI: 10.1300/J009v27n04_06

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Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: A Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

Approach in School Settings

W. Sean Newsome Michael Kelly

ABSTRACT. Over the last decade, grandparents have increasingly taken on the role of primary caregiver for their grandchildren. In fact, re- search of school principals in some urban communities report that 30% to 70% of their students live with grandparents or other relatives at some point in their lives. As a resource to many grandparents, social work practitioners in schools are in a unique position to assist this vulnerable, but valuable population. With such considerations, this article has three purposes. The first purpose seeks to sensitize social workers to some of the adversities and prospects faced by grandparents raising grandchil- dren. The second purpose seeks to provide an overview of current solu- tion focused brief therapy (SFBT) group work in facilitating and using the model with at-risk populations. The third and final purpose seeks to advance the work done by SFBT researchers and practitioners on using the model with primary caregivers. We then describe and recommend an eight-week SFBT group with grandparents and highlight the key compo- nents of each week’s focus. [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: <> Website: <> © 2004 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

W. Sean Newsome, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Michael Kelly, MSW, is a doc- toral candidate, Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chi- cago, Chicago, IL 60607-7134.

Social Work with Groups, Vol. 27(4) 2004 Available online at

 2004 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Digital Object Identifier: 10.1300/J009v27n04_06 65



KEYWORDS. Grandparents, caregiving, SFBT, group work


Grandparents have increasingly taken on the role of raising their grandchildren. A national study, based on 1992-94 survey data, found that 10.9% of grandparents reported having primary responsibility for raising a grandchild for six months or more at some point during their life (Fuller-Thomson, Minkler and Driver, 1997). Most recently, Cen- sus Bureau statistics revealed that 4.5 million children are living in households headed by grandparents (Davies, 2002). Of these house- holds, the fastest growing group was skipped-generation families in which the children’s parents were not present (Casper and Bryson, 1998).

The increase in grandparents raising grandchildren has been attributed to a number of social concerns. Foremost are traumatic events that often lead to parental absence or one’s inability to parent. As such, factors such as drug or alcohol addiction, incarceration, homicide and AIDS represent some of the leading issues contributing to this new trend (Fuller-Thomson and Minkler, 2000; Pruchno, 1999). Along these same lines, factors such as teen pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence and mental illness have re- sulted in imminent concerns affecting the trend of grandparents raising grandchildren (Fuller-Thomson and Minkler, 2000; Jendrek, 1993; Kelley, Whitley, Sipe and Yorker, 2000). As a result of these factors, school princi- pals in some communities report 30% to 70% of their students live with grandparents or other relatives at some point in their lives (Minkler and Roe, 1993).

In reaction to these trends, there has been increasing attention to the needs of grandparents raising grandchildren. Over the last decade, studies have documented the challenges these families face and the social service interventions developed to address their concerns (Burton, 1992; Pruchno, 1999; Minkler and Roe, 1993). In most cases, the interventions addressing grandparents raising grandchildren have been staffed by pro- fessionals and organizations external to the school system (Dannison and Smith, 2003; Grant, Gordon and Cohen, 1997; Rogers and Henkin, 2000). However, given the complexity of the issue and its potential im- pact on the adjustment and performance of children cared for by grand- parents, professionals in K-12 settings must begin to address this important issue.




A group of professionals who can begin to address the complex issue of grandparents raising grandchildren are social work practitioners in K-12 settings. As part of the school system, social work practitioners in K-12 settings are placed in a unique position for on-going work with grandparents and their grandchildren. Specifically, social workers in K-12 settings are positioned to identify grandparents raising grandchil- dren as well as raise awareness of the issues faced by these care provid- ers. In addition, social workers in school systems are expected to develop support groups that address the multitude of needs presented by vulnerable and underserved populations.

From an intervention standpoint, a practical and perhaps effective group approach in addressing the needs of grandparents raising grand- children in K-12 settings is solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT). In particular, the use of SFBT grandparent groups may provide these care providers with the opportunity to present their strengths, shed light on their “old” world wisdom, and reenact for a second time their parenting role. As a result, the advantages of using SFBT may provide grandpar- ents with an optimistic picture of the future and the self-reliance neces- sary in addressing the needs presented by their grandchildren.

With the aforementioned considerations, this article has three pur- poses. First, it seeks to sensitize social workers in K-12 settings to some of the adversities and prospects faced by grandparents raising grand- children. Second, it seeks to provide an overview of current SFBT group work as well as provide considerations in facilitating and using the model with at-risk and vulnerable populations. Third, it seeks to ad- vance the work done by Selekman (1991, 1993, 1999) and Seligman and Petersons (2004) on identifying signature strengths when working with primary caregivers. As such, the article describes the nature of an eight-week SFBT group with grandparents and highlights the key components of each week’s focus.


The process of becoming a grandparent raising a grandchild is often a protracted and painful one that results from a traumatic event. In fact, many grandparents do not ask for this new role, instead it is thrust upon them as they approach or live out their “golden years.” In the United States, the prevalence of grandparents raising grandchildren has reached alarming rates. In the last decade, the United States Census Bu-

W. Sean Newsome and Michael Kelly 67



reau found that 3.9 million grandparents were raising their grandchil- dren and that as many as 3.75 million grandchildren under the age of 18 were living in the home of their grandparent or grandparents (Casper and Bryson, 1998).

In their expanded new role, grandparents are faced with a myriad of daily, weekly and monthly obstacles that must be negotiated and managed on behalf of their grandchildren. One of the more common areas that grandparents raising grandchildren must suddenly take on the responsibil- ity of is the educational system (Waldrop and Weber, 2001). The impor- tance of managing this system is vital, given the potential impact the school-home interface may have on grandparents as well as grandchildren. In fact, research over the last two decades has documented the importance of the school-home interface between parent involvement and student achievement (Epstein, 1995). Benefits for students include lower drop out rates (Rumberger, 1995), fewer suspensions (Comer and Haynes, 1992) and greater enrollment in postsecondary education (Kellaghan et al., 1993).

Equally important, educators and researchers have recognized the potential impact of parent participation on parents themselves. For ex- ample, when parents are involved in the educational endeavors of their children, parents develop an increased sense of self-efficacy (Davies, 1993), an increased understanding of school programs (Epstein, 1996), and greater appreciation of the role they play in their child’s education (Davies, 1993). However, despite the positive advantages of having parents participate in the educational endeavors of their own children, grandparents may be ambivalent about assuming this role in school set- tings. They may lack role models and sources of information for dealing with the school and may feel overwhelmed with the logistical details of dealing with the various types of services in K-12 settings (Pelt, 2001).

On the other hand, these new responsibilities and adversities provide grandparents raising grandchildren with an opportunity to reenact their role as parent and primary care provider (Cox, 2000). This is particu- larly important for grandparents of adult children with problems such as substance abuse, incarceration, and mental illness. In Minkler and Roe’s (1993) study of grandmothers raising the children of sub- stance-involved parents, grandparents described their new role “as a ‘second chance’ to ‘raise kids right’ ” (p. 127). Similarly, some grand- parents said they viewed their activities as a way to demonstrate love and concern for their own adult child, whom they could help in no other way (Minkler and Roe, 1993).

For other grandparents who have removed their grandchildren from an uncertain situation there is a sense of relief knowing that their grand-




children are safe (Baird, John, and Hayslip, 2000; Minkler and Roe, 1993). Indeed, both African-American and White/Caucasian grandpar- ents raising grandchildren reported a greater purpose in life by provid- ing a more caring and safe environment for their grandchildren (Jendrek, 1993; Minkler and Roe, 1993; Pruchno, 1999). Within the Af- rican-American community, research has found that women may derive special meaning from their fulfillment of a cultural legacy, with grand- mothers serving as caregivers who are “keeping the family together” (Minkler and Roe, 1993). With such considerations, primary caregiving for grandchildren can provide a productive, meaningful new role to many grandparents (Giarusso et al., 2000).

Lastly, and perhaps even more compelling, is that grandparents rais- ing grandchildren bring practical wisdom to their new role. As such, grandparents can draw on their previous life experiences raising their adult child in addressing the complex issues of becoming a second-time parent. Drawing on these previous life experiences make grandparents raising grandchildren prime resources for solution-focused practice in- terventions that emphasize client strengths and resourcefulness.

SFBT Group Practice

Group practice may offer the most advantageous modality for ad- dressing the adversities and prospects faced by grandparents. Groups allow for the development of mutual aid and support among those in similar circumstances and make efficient use of potential time con- straints for social work practitioners in K-12 settings (Essex, Newsome and Moses, 2004). Researchers and practitioners have documented the use of psycho-educational support groups, educational workshops, and classroom formats with this population (Burnette, 1998; Cohen and Pyle, 2000; Cox, 2002; Rogers and Henkin, 2000). Along these same lines, the use of a specific model such as SFBT may offer social work practitioners in school settings an optimal group approach that helps to facilitate the continued growth of grandparents raising grandchildren.

Beyond the most recent and positive developments of SFBT in school settings (Franklin et al., 2001; Newsome, 2004; Watkins and Kurtz, 2001; Thompson and Littrell, 1998), the SFBT group model helps to cre- ate new meanings, perceptions and solutions with group participants (Coe and Zimpfer, 1996; Lafountain and Garner, 1996, Lafountain, Gar- ner and Eliason, 1996). Group practitioners using SFBT in school set- tings look to emphasize what individual members are already doing well, or have the potential to do well, as a way to facilitate goal achievement

W. Sean Newsome and Michael Kelly 69



among all group participants (Banks, 1999; Lafountain, Garner, and Elison, 1996; Selekman, 1999; Vaughn, Hastings-Guerrero, and Kassner, 1996). Similarly, SFBT with parental and primary care-giving groups seek to utilize the strengths presented by its members while also shifting beliefs and unproductive interactions they have with their children (Selekman, 1999).

To achieve such proactive change, many SFBT practitioners structure group sessions so that they (1) utilize the resources and strengths presented by individual group members, (2) recognize that change, particularly posi- tive change by individuals is inevitable, (3) focus on a present and future orientation, (4) are cooperative and collaborative, (5) point out that prob- lems are not solved, but rather solutions are considered, (6) discuss excep- tions to problems that then become the building blocks for solutions, and (7) are goal-directed and goal driven (Berg, 1994, Lafountain and Garner, 1996, Lafountain, Garner and Eliason, 1996).

From a practice standpoint, client potential is discovered through the use of purposeful language and questioning. Since the model’s incep- tion, SFBT practitioners in various settings with various clients readily assert the importance of language, dialogue and questions as a way to help build and uncover strengths in clients (Fish, 1997; Franklin et al., 2001; Geil, 1998; Greene, Lee Mentzer, Pinnel, and Niles, 1998; Kral, 1995; Metcalf, 1995; Thompson and Littrell, 1998). Indeed, de Shazer (1994), in his clinical trails of SFBT, found that purposeful, goal ori- ented questions resulted in client recognition of possible solutions. Ac- cordingly, questions such as the miracle question, scaling question, relationship question and the exception-finding question, seek to em- phasize client strengths and exceptions to problem situations. Such questions, according to de Shazer (1994), encourage clients to reinter- pret their options in life while also providing them with an opportunity to assess their own future.

In practice, the use of purposeful, goal-oriented questions might take on the following form: Miracle Question: “Suppose that tonight, while you were asleep, there is a miracle and the problem that brought you here today has been solved. However, because you were asleep you were unaware that this miracle happened. Could you tell me, what would be different in the morning that would tell you a miracle has taken place?” Scaling Question: “On a scale form 1 to 10, with 1 being the least confident and 10 being most confident, where on the scale would you say you are now, and where on the scale would you like to be?” Additional techniques include the Relationship Question: “Who would notice that you had reached your goal on the scale? If a close




friend was here right now, what would he or she say about how reached your goal?” Exception-Finding Question: “Can you tell us when the is- sue that brought you here today was less of a problem?” As pointed out by Greene et al. (1998), such questions help clients develop an image without the problem as well as empower clients to recognize and build on their own strengths.

Solution-Focused Grandparent Groups

Many SFBT practitioners endorse a perspective that says it is possi- ble to effect change in clients both meaningfully and quickly. For many SFBT practitioners, this means limiting their clinical work to 6-10 ses- sions. As such, SFBT gives social work practitioners in K-12 settings an excellent opportunity to apply the model to as many grandparents as possible without overwhelming their traditional work in the school.

The group model discussed here is an 8-week GRG (grandparent raising grandchildren) “Solution Group.” The group would meet on school grounds, preferably at a time that most grandparents could at- tend. While it is not absolutely essential that GRGs be grouped homogenously, we suggest that novice SFBT practitioners try to imple- ment a group from a specific population first, to both learn the specific needs of GRGs and to apply and test SFBT ideas with them.

The groups have the following topics for each week: Week 1: Introductions and Orientation to SFBT GRG Ideas Week 2: Identifying your Signature Strengths as a Grandparent and Applying Them to Your Mission as a GRG Week 3: Starting Small: How Small Changes Can Become Big Solu- tions

(Note: The first three weeks are held consecutively; after that, GRG groups take place on a three-week/monthly basis to empha- size the belief that GRGs can both support each other and act cre- atively and effectively on their own, without the aid of “experts.”) (Selekman, 1993)

Week 4: What’s Already Working? Identifying Exceptions to Pre- senting GRG Parenting Problems Week 5: The “Doing Something Different Day:” Using SFBT Inter- ventions in Daily Life with Your grandchildren Week 6: Maintaining Change: Ways to Keep Change Going as a GRG

W. Sean Newsome and Michael Kelly 71



Week 7: GRG Wisdom Night: A Panel of Elders Share their Life Les- sons Week 8: Change Party: A Celebration of the Changes Already Made with the Help Of SFBT and those Changes to Come

Week 1: Introductions and Orientation

SFBT Technique: Sharing the SFBT Approach to Practice; Mobiliz- ing Around Small Changes and Grandparent Strengths.

As with any training or group offered to primary caregivers, the first session is crucial. Here we offer grandparents a chance to get to know us, the other members in the group and the basic tenets of the SFBT ap- proach. While it is likely that many GRGs will approach the first group with some nervousness and/or anxiety (this may be the first time such a GRG group has been convened, and they may feel self-conscious about that), it is important to normalize both their particular circumstances as GRGs as well as the need for collaborative problem-solving. Therefore, a primary function of session one is to emphasize the importance of change and the consistency of change. In addition, the SFBT practitio- ner must also acknowledge the inevitability of change and think in terms of their clients as being “stuck” and not “sick,” and the likelihood of “change” instead of “stagnation” (Davis and Osborn, 2000). As Selekman (1993) states, it is helpful to think when change will occur with clients, rather than if it will happen.

Similarly in session one, social workers in K-12 settings who are working from a SFBT approach should gain familiarity with GRGs and their story. By carefully gathering GRG’s “stories” in session one, we pay attention to their struggles, their successes and their problems. However, we are clear with our GRGs that even in their struggles and problems there is a hopeful solution to be discovered that lies outside problem explanations and conventional deficit-oriented thinking. With such considerations, the following questions may be used to help guide week one with grandparents:

• What is the most important part of the problem that brought you here?

• What part of that problem would you like to work on first? • What is/are your thought(s) about the problem you’re having with

your grandchild? • What is the one thing you would like to learn as it relates to this

problem from this group?




Week 2: Identifying Grandparents’ Signature Strengths and Applying Them to Their “New” Role as Caregivers

SFBT Technique: Identifying Personal Strengths and Creating New Options

Most GRGs have a wealth of strengths and qualities. For many, there is the love, understanding and passion they have for their grandchildren, the intrinsic understanding of hard-work, the patience needed in raising a child, the importance of being consistent, and the practical wisdom they have used in raising their own children. These strengths can be part of any primary caregivers’ makeup; however, what makes GRGs dis- tinct in this endeavor is their experience practicing these strengths over time. Many GRGs have also had these strengths tested and perhaps am- plified by their experiences in K-12 settings. Unlike other grandparents, they have not only demonstrated their strengths with their own children, but also uncovered new ways to cope as a primary caregiver to their grandchildren. We believe that GRGs have done this by utilizing their signature strengths.

Seligman and Peterson (2004) offer a taxonomy of strengths and virtues to complement the conventional ideas of psychopathology documented and measured in the DSM-IV. The Values in Action Questionnaire (VIA) is an instrument that Seligman and Peterson (in press) are currently offer- ing to educators to help children, teachers, and parents identify their five “signature strengths.” We propose administering the VIA in our second session with GRGs to help them identify their signature strengths. Then, in written exercises and discussion, we ask them to analyze where they may be applying their strengths as a primary caregiver to their grandchildren.

Recently the benefits of using the VIA was found to be quite helpful with a GRG who had become the primary caregiver of her grandchil- dren. As such, the grandparent stated to the second author that she was hesitant to use her artistic and imaginative ability with her grandchil- dren (drawing, painting, building things, making games out of chores) because her daughter had raised them much more rigorously and harshly before she passed away. Through the use of the VIA and a dis- cussion that helped the grandparent identify her signature strengths, the GRG recognized that she could still honor her daughter’s memory while also applying her creativity with her grandchildren. With such consider-

W. Sean Newsome and Michael Kelly 73



ations pertaining to “signature strengths,” the following questions as well as the VIA may be used to help guide week two with grandparents:

• What are your signature strengths as a grandparent raising your grandchild?

• How do you use your signature strengths as a grandparent raising a grandchild?

Week 3: Starting Small: How Small Changes Can Become Big Solutions

SFBT Technique: Using “Exception-Talk” to Identify Proactive Change

Week three starts by teaching three key aspects of SFBT practice; (1) identify exceptions to problem situations, (2) mobilize resources around those exceptions to problem situations, and (3) mobilize re- sources around those exceptions. Each of these key aspects is then put into practice through the use of “exception-talk.” The power of excep- tion-talk helps clients identify times when the presenting problem was not always affecting them or when they felt more able to handle the problem (Berg, 1994).

In practice, social workers in school settings who use exception-talk must help GRGs view small changes as crucial to changing big prob- lems. The use of exception talk, therefore, seeks to provide the ingredi- ents and building blocks of solutions. Primarily, this is because SFBT practitioners recognize that conventional problem talk often robs peo- ple of the hope that they can affect change at all without some type of major intervention from outside sources.

In addition to setting the stage with exception-talk, we also acknowl- edge to our GRG group members that chronic and debilitating problems do exist. However, it is equally important to ask GRG group partici- pants the ways they and their grandchildren have coped and managed despite these debilitating problems. We then help to identify exceptions of when the problem was not so debilitating and then amplify these ex- ceptions. It is our belief that exceptions to these problems will increase hope and resilience that will produce positive outcomes and change over extended periods of time. Given the aforementioned consider- ations, the following questions may be used to help guide week three with grandparents:




• Since our group has started, what have you noticed that is already different about the main problem you came in with?

• What did you do to make those changes? What do you need to do to maintain those changes with your grandchild?

To help illustrate the use of the aforementioned questions, the following dialogue recently took place with a GRG during the group process:

Group Leader: Welcome back, everyone. Tonight we want to start by discussing a time in the last three weeks that the problem or problems affecting your grandchild were not so overwhelming, and what you did as a grandparent to help ease or lessen those problems. Do we have anybody who can share with us tonight?

Ms. Valdez: I will. I think my grandson is getting better at school.

Group Leader: Really? Tell us how you know that.

Ms. Valdez: Well, my grandson was having trouble on the play- ground, getting in fights and all that, and they called me in.

Group Leader: Who is “they” here you’re talking about?

Ms. Valdez: The school staff, they wanted him to stay off the play- ground.

Group Leader: And all that was because they didn’t think you’re grandson could handle being on the playground? Have you seen times when Juan could handle being on playgrounds with other kids?

Ms. Valdez: Yes, I told them “he’ll find his way,” we just have to pay attention. To prove it I went to school to watch him play on the playground. I saw that he was alone, and nobody was playing with him. I thought, “No wonder he’s getting in trouble, he’s trying to find any way possible to fit in.” I told him to go see if he could play soccer with some of the kids on the playground–he loves to play–and he did!

Group Leader: And you were able to show the school that some kids “can find their own way.” You recalled how much your grandson loved playing soccer, and you helped him get in a game. And all that fighting stuff on the playground went away.

W. Sean Newsome and Michael Kelly 75



Ms. Valdez: Yep. All it took was a little attention. That’s what these kids need, our attention.

The above practice vignette helps to highlight the use of how small changes can become big solutions. More importantly, the dialogue helps to illustrate how the group leader and Ms. Valdez uncovered an exception of how the problem (i.e., fighting on the playground) became less debilitating to her grandson (i.e., when he started playing soccer with other kids on the playground). Similarly, it helped to increase the hope and resilience of Ms. Valdez as a primary caregiver to her grand- son as she faces the many challenges and opportunities presented to her throughout the academic school year.

Week 4: What’s Already Working? Identifying Exceptions to Presenting GRG Care Giving Problems

SFBT Technique: Refinement of “Exception-Talk” and the Use of Self-Reports and the Scaling Question

The fourth group begins with some time devoted to asking and an- swering two SFBT questions; “What is better?” and “What further progress have you and your kids made?” (Selekman, 1993) The use of such questions, which emphasize ways GRG group members can act in the present to affect future behavior and experience, is a natural and respectful fit to their overall goals. In addition, such questions help to provide a seamless transition from week three by building on the ex- pectations of potential, proactive change rather than problematic is- sues that may never be resolved.

The use of the aforementioned questions proposed by Selekman (1993) helps to embrace the possibility of change and provides primary caregivers with the opportunity to share what is working. Such an approach, we be- lieve, is in direct contrast to the stereotype some individuals might have of grandparents in our culture. As such, the stereotype of a grandparent who is obsessed about the past and complains about the present is challenged with the use of the exception-talk. We also believe that the use of exception-talk empowers GRGs which, given their rich mixture of past-informed wisdom coupled with future-oriented optimism, aids in the daily task of being the primary caregiver to a grandchild.

As with all aspects of SFBT work, session four and the use of excep- tion-talk challenges the role of playing the “expert.” Rather, SFBT group leaders act as coaches, encouraging the group members to use their own “practical wisdom” to do more of the things that work. When done successfully, this approach is deeply respectful of client strengths




and, given the age and wisdom of GRGs, seems especially well suited to this population.

With the aforementioned considerations, the following questions may be used to help guide week four with grandparents:

If you can imagine our final meeting and being able to rate your prob- lem as being low, what will have changed between then and now? What is the first thing you might d

"Is this question part of your assignment? We can help"