Case Study

Weiwei and the Spider

Translating Problems into Skills to Learn

Ben Furman & Liu Haiying
Magazine Issue
January/February 2019
An illustration of a young boy threatening a spider with boxing gloves

Six years ago, I received an email from a Chinese woman named Hongyan Li. “I enjoyed your book on Kids’Skills,” she wrote. “Parents and teachers here are in desperate need of better tools than corporal punishment, which is legal and commonly used with children. Can we meet next time I’m in Finland?”

She’d worked as a telecommunications engineer for many years in Finland, where I live. When she returned to China in 2008, she decided to change career tracks and trained as a coach. This training, which gave her some psychology building blocks, combined with her exposure to the Finnish education system, had made her painfully aware of the problems with Chinese education: the severe competition, anxious parents, overstressed children, outdated teaching models, and use of scolding and even public humiliation as methods of discipline. She felt she needed to do something about it.

I’ve since collaborated with her to teach Chinese teachers and parents Kids’Skills, a solution-focused and child-friendly approach to helping children overcome emotional and behavioral problems. Now, I visit China twice a year, and we have local trainers in most of China’s provinces. Hundreds of people are helping children and families use this solutions-focused approach. Liu Haiying, a freelance counselor from the city of Hangzhou, is one of them. This is her story of how she applied it in her work.

– B.F.

Liu Haiying’s Story

Schools in my city are required by the local government to offer counseling to students, but in reality such services are either nonexistent or of low quality. Even the concept of counseling remains a foggy idea to most people. The common practice is more or less like a moral education given by specially trained teachers.

Before I participated in a Kids’Skills training course, my work mainly entailed giving parents and teachers lectures about positive discipline, an Adlerian approach I learned many years ago. Now, I show them how to convert a child’s problem into a useful skill, and then help the child learn that skill in collaboration with family, friends, and teachers.

The idea of engaging a larger social network to help children overcome their problems fits Chinese culture, which has always valued interdependence, collaboration, and collective responsibility. Still, I wanted to put this method to a test, so I asked my son if we could try using it together when I returned from the workshop.

My son had a habit of dragging his feet in the morning. As a result, we never succeeded in getting to school on time. His dawdling and slowness was a problem, and I’d tried everything to change it—nagging him, opening the curtains to let the light in, putting on his favorite music, promising him rewards—all to no avail.

“There’s one skill that I think you’d benefit from learning today,” I told him. He looked at me curiously. “It’s the skill of being quicker in the morning.” To my surprise, the idea of learning a skill seemed to appeal to him. We went through the rest of the Kids’Skills steps, and it worked! The next morning, he was at school 10 minutes early—and the change has lasted.

I was so impressed that I went on to try this approach at one of the schools where I worked. Sure enough, the success stories spread, leading to requests from other schools, including the one where I met Weiwei.

The Case of Weiwei

Weiwei was a seven-year old boy who’d recently moved to a new school from a neighboring district. He’d been having difficulty getting along with his classmates because of anger issues and his tendency to get into fights. The situation was so dire that other parents were already pressuring the principal to expel him from school.

I started by meeting with Weiwei’s mother, who gave me some background information. Weiwei had been close to his father, whom she’d divorced when Weiwei was three. A few years later, his father had passed away, which is when Weiwei’s behavioral problems had started. Although she’d tried many things to help him, including taking him to Singapore at one point to see a child therapist, nothing had worked.

I listened as she spoke about Weiwei’s problems, but rather than focusing on them, I moved quickly to talking about solutions. When I told her about how well Kids’Skills had worked with my son, she was more than happy to try it with Weiwei.

The next day, I met with Weiwei, his mother, and the teacher who’d referred him to me. I started the session by asking the mother and teacher to say some good things about Weiwei to ensure that he was at ease and the atmosphere felt optimistic and collaborative.

“Weiwei takes care of me, and he’s very sweet,” the mother began. “When I’m tired after work, he sometimes massages my shoulders and helps Grandmother wash dishes.”

“How about you?” I asked his teacher. “What good things can you say about Weiwei?”

“Weiwei likes to help me when I need to tidy up the classroom and sometimes volunteers to help his classmates with homework,” she said.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“He listens to my instructions attentively,” she added.

Weiwei had been scolded a lot in the past few years, and I could see that he enjoyed a conversation where people were saying good things about him for a change. Turning to him, I said, “Wow, it sounds like you’re a good boy. Do you also want to say something nice about your mother?” I had learned in my training that it’s not only children who need compliments: parents and teachers also need to be recognized for the good things they do.

Weiwei didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to push him, so I posed the question to his teacher instead. “She’s a responsible mother, and cares very much about Weiwei,” the teacher responded. “She’s always willing to speak with me whenever I need to talk with her about him.”

“Now it’s your turn,” I said to Weiwei. “Can you say something good about your mother or teacher?”

“I hope Mother stops smoking,” he said after a moment. “Smoking isn’t good for her health.”

It wasn’t exactly a compliment, but Weiwei clearly meant well. “I understand you care about your mother’s health and want her to take care of herself, right?” Weiwei nodded. I turned to his mother and said, “Weiwei clearly loves you. Is there anything you want to say to him about this matter?”

Mother spontaneously gave Weiwei a hug. “You’re such a sweetie,” she said. “I know it’s a bad habit. I’ll try to stop smoking.”

“What can you say about your teacher?” I asked Weiwei.

“She cares about me,” Weiwei said.

Beginning the session this way generated a positive and caring mood that was conducive to a constructive and collaborative way of approaching whatever problems or difficulties needed to be discussed.

Choosing and Naming a Skill

Now it was time to turn the wheel a bit. “Thank you for saying all these things,” I said to Weiwei. I understand you’ve recently had some trouble in class. I’m sure both Mother and Teacher want you to be happy at school. Would you be willing to learn some skills that could help you overcome your difficulties?”

Weiwei nodded. So I showed him a deck of 24 cards that I’d received at the Kids’Skills workshop, each one depicting a social skill that children with behavioral or emotional problems often lack. “Take a look at these cards,” I said. “Could you pick some skills from this deck that you think would be good for you to learn?”

I spread the cards on the table for him, and after some time he selected six: resolve a conflict, calm myself down when I get angry, respond humorously to rude remarks, have the courage to speak in front of the class, wait patiently for my turn, and praise others.

“That’s a good selection of skills. Well done, Weiwei,” I said. “I can tell that you really want to improve. Now, I want you to decide which of these skills you want to try first.” There are many ways of helping children identify a skill to learn. The method I used here, letting the child select some skills with the help of the cards, saves time and ensures that the child is in the driver’s seat.

Weiwei carefully looked at the cards he’d selected. “I want to start with this one,” he said, pointing at the one that read “calm myself down when I get angry.”

“Can you tell me why you chose that skill?” I asked him.

“So I can stop getting into fights with my classmates,” Weiwei said.

“And if you don’t get into fights with your classmates, how will that be good for you?” I continued.

“I will have more friends,” he replied quietly.

“Anything else?”

“My classmates and teacher will like me more,” he murmured, looking at his shoes.

“What about you?” I asked Mother. “Will you also benefit in some way from Weiwei learning to calm himself down?”

“Certainly. I wouldn’t need to worry about him all the time,” she said.

“Can you think of any other benefits, Weiwei? Would there be some benefits for your classmates?”

“They wouldn’t be afraid of me,” Weiwei said.

“I see. And when they’re no longer afraid of you, then what would happen?”

“They’d want to play with me.”

“And that’s what you want?” I asked. Weiwei nodded. I imagined that this was the one thing he desperately longed for.

Next, I asked him to give his skill a name. When he couldn’t come up with anything, his mother stepped in and said, “Maybe the name of your skill could have something to do with—” she waved her arm in a peculiar way. Weiwei smiled.

It turns out he was a big fan of a video game called China Boy. It’s a traffic game, hosted by a character who explains the rules using wide hand gestures, such as the one Weiwei’s mother had made. So Weiwei decided to call the skill The China Boy Skill. The name didn’t make much sense to me, but that wasn’t a problem. I’d learned that it doesn’t matter what children call their skills, so long as they’re happy with it and feel a sense of ownership over it.

Identifying Supporters and Imaginary Helpers

It’s hard for children to acquire skills without support from family and friends, which is why selecting supporters is so important. “Who do you want to ask to help you?” I asked Weiwei. He selected his mother and teacher.

“Sounds good. Would you also like some of your classmates to help you?” I asked. Weiwei nodded. “Do you want to ask them yourself, or do you want your teacher to do it for you?” Weiwei shyly pointed at his teacher.

“You probably need an imaginary helper to help you as well, a power creature,” I said. “It could be an animal or hero of some sort. What would you like to pick?” I like the idea of asking children to choose an imaginary character because it mobilizes their creativity. However, my question took Weiwei by surprise, and again he seemed blocked.

Although his mother stepped in and offered some suggestions, he turned them down one by one, shuffling his feet impatiently under his chair. I was afraid that Weiwei’s interest was waning, and I found myself wondering whether the approach would work for him. Suddenly, he leaned over and whispered something in his mother’s ear. She smiled.

“Seems like you two have a secret,” I said. “Will you tell us what it is?”

“He wants his power creature to be a spider,” the mother said.

“Oh, a spider. That’s interesting,” I replied. “Why did you choose a spider?”

“When I think of a spider,” he explained thoughtfully, “I get scared and that makes me stop what I’m doing. I can use that to calm myself down when I get mad.”

“Wow, that’s a great idea!” I exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see how learning this skill will help you.”

Reminding and Celebrating

The next step was to let Weiwei decide how he wanted other people to remind him of his skill. To prevent children—and their supporters—from becoming frustrated by setbacks, it’s important to plan how to handle those hitches in a constructive and kind manner.

“Suppose you forget your skill and become so angry that you feel like you’re going to hit someone. How do you want your supporters to help you in that situation?” I asked.

Weiwei waved his hand in a circular motion, a gesture the China Boy host makes in the video game.

“That’s a great idea,” I said enthusiastically. “Let’s test that out to see if it works? Let’s pretend that I’m one of your schoolmates and you’re mad at me, okay?”

Weiwei played along. He pretended to be angry at me by shaking his fists in the air. His teacher then caught his attention and made the China Boy gesture. Weiwei turned his head, looked elsewhere, and pretended to calm himself down by leaning affectionately against his mother.

One of the ways to further motivate children to learn their skills is to suggest that they can celebrate with their supporters when they’ve learned their skill. “There’s one more thing we need to think about,” I told Weiwei with a smile. “How do you want to celebrate when you’ve successfully learned to calm yourself down?”

Weiwei and his mother spent several minutes brainstorming. “We’ve decided that when Weiwei masters his skill, he and I will go to see a movie together,” his mother finally said. “Afterward, we’ll invite some of his friends over for cake.” I nodded approvingly, but before I could respond she added, “I’ve been thinking that perhaps I could set a good example for Weiwei by also learning a skill.” “That’s a great idea,” I replied. “What skill were you thinking of learning?” “I’d like to spend more time with Weiwei,” she said, “I’d like to have some quality time with him every day and I want to attend some of his sports events at school. And I promise you, Weiwei, that if for whatever reason there’s a day where I can’t find free time, I’ll tell you beforehand and explain why I’m busy.”

Following Up

The next day, the teacher informed Weiwei’s classmates that he’d decided to learn the skill of calming himself down when he became angry and that he wanted his classmates’ help. She explained that if they saw him getting angry, Weiwei wanted them to remind him of his skill by using the circular gesture of the host in the China Boy game.

A week later, I met with the teacher, and she was happy to report that there’d been no incidents with Weiwei at all since our session. The following week, however, she called to say there’d been a setback: he’d had an argument with one of his classmates that had ended with him shoving the boy—except this time had been different. In the past, it had been next to impossible to calm Weiwei down when he got angry: this time, right after shoving his classmate, he’d run away. The teacher had eventually found him on the first floor of the school, hiding at the bottom of the stairs.

“When I asked Weiwei what he was doing there, he said that he was trying to calm himself down,” the teacher explained. “I complimented him, said that it was a smart thing to do, and escorted him back to class.”

After three weeks, when there’d been no more incidents, Weiwei’s mother took him to see a movie. I’ve been in contact with the school many times since and have only heard good things about Weiwei. With the help of his mother, teacher, and classmates, he managed to turn the corner. Today, he gets along well with his classmates and receives plenty of positive feedback from his teachers. Since working with Weiwei, I’ve used the Kids’Skills approach with many other children. They clearly dislike talking with adults about their problems, but they enjoy talking about skills they might learn to be happier and get along better with their peers. I’ve also noticed that for children to learn their skills, they need to feel that they’re making progress. To this end, I’ve started using charts that allow them to see their daily progress. And I’ve come to see setbacks as a natural part of the learning process.

Living in a stressful environment characterized by high parental expectations and fierce competition, Chinese children experience many of the same problems that plague children in the West. In fact, Big Pharma seems primed to start spreading the idea that this huge population should be diagnosed and put on medication. Instead, I hope this solution-focused method, exhibited here by Liu Haiying, inspires Chinese parents and teachers to try to help children overcome their problems in a collaborative, child-friendly manner.

– B.F.

Case Commentary

By Christopher Willard

This is a culturally rich and complex case, in which the therapist focuses on solutions, skills, and existing strengths, rather than the more traditional “problem-focused” interventions that have been already tried with little success. Opening the treatment by asking seven-year-old Weiwei what skills he’d like to learn empowers him from the very beginning. This emphasis on empowerment continues as Weiwei is asked what he’d like to change, establishing a goal that Weiwei—not his mother or teacher—wants. Through this question, Weiwei’s underlying longing for connection emerges clearly when he describes wanting acceptance by his classmates.

As an isolated and disconnected child, likely still angry and grieving the loss of his father, Weiwei may hold residual anger or blame toward his mother about the divorce that preceded his father’s death. And while our adult minds understand the parents’ divorce and father’s death are not connected, it’s possible that Weiwei may link them in his. Regardless, the loss of a parent will certainly make a child feel powerless in a world that often feels confusing and cruel.

Furman’s approach is designed to help children feel firmly in the driver’s seat throughout the process. While his mother’s and teacher’s agenda help shape the therapy, Weiwei’s own goals and interests continue to drive the treatment, including naming his new skill after a favorite video game character and choosing who can be his helpers on the journey. Weiwei’s choice of his mother and teacher, his two primary attachments, as helpers, is a good sign for his recovery. The playful and creative aspect of the approach is highlighted by Weiwei’s choice of a spider as a “power creature” to serve as an extension of his own personal strengths.

I was impressed with the concern for making sure Weiwei’s behavior change transfers to his everyday life with a role-play in which Weiwei both pretends to enact his classroom outbursts and then practices calming himself. This kind of fun use of role-play is an invaluable tool for helping children begin to practice and internalize new skills, an approach far more active and more effective than just talking about what to do in the abstract, especially with children.

Weiwei and his mom together brainstorm a reward for his changed behavior, eventually settling on an outing to the movies. But I was struck that Weiwei’s mom also set her own goal of spending more quality time with him. Even as I was half expecting a Hollywood ending in which the mother was able to honor his request to quit smoking, I was pleased to see the focus on starting with small, achievable skills for everyone in the family. Too often I see parents overpromise with outsized rewards for small progress, leading over time to what I think of as “reward inflation” that quickly grows out of hand. That kind of promise usually leads to parents letting down both themselves and their child when the goal goes unrealized.

Weiwei’s ability to enlist the support of his classmates in helping him calm down is a nice touch, but one that may be more possible in a collectivist culture like China than in most second-grade classes I can imagine here in North America.

While this case ends on a positive note, I do wonder if Weiwei will need to more directly address his grief about both his parents’ divorce and his father’s death at some point in the future. My sense is that more challenges may emerge for Weiwei at significant developmental stages until those upheavals in his life are more deeply addressed. Ultimately, I hope Weiwei’s empowering experience in therapy will lay the groundwork for another fruitful therapy experience down the road, when he’s developmentally capable of some deeper work.

Ben Furman. MD, is a Finnish psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and one of the developers of the Kids’Skills method.

Liu Haiying, originally trained as a political and ideological educator, worked as a teacher in various schools. She’s now a certified Kids’Skills coach and offers freelance counseling services.

Christopher Willard, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and author of multiple books including Growing Up Mindful. He leads workshops internationally and serves on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.