“My group helped me to freely express my feelings not only about school matters but also about personal matters.”
“It gave me a safe space to be completely open without any judgment.”
“I felt peace in my world of trauma and was relieved to not hold onto my last string so tight.”
“It not only allowed me to be open, but it brought me helpful solutions to any problems I had.”
“It gave me friends who I will cherish and want in my life forever.”
With comments like these, why wouldn't you do groups? Although one-on-one counseling might seem easier, effectively run groups allow the participants to do the work while the school counselor only facilitates the session. With large caseloads and so many individual needs, spreading the support most efficiently through groups makes sense.
Effective groups have more value, develop stronger interpersonal relationships and have and a broader impact on more participants than individual sessions with students. Group counseling is not about a school counselor imparting wisdom but about the impact that a nurturing, safe and collaborative environment of peers can have on one's school and life experiences.
Studies demonstrate that the group process teaches prosocial strategies while allowing participants to practice new learning and life skills in a safe environment. Shared feelings based on group interactions can translate into more effective emotional management of real-life situations while providing peer support. Group experiences have even enhanced achievement scores, responsible behaviors and healthy decision making. Through small groups, students can find a sense of belonging and practice social competence in a safe environment where they are defined not by their deficits but by their strengths.
Creating Effective Groups
Establishing a safe environment from the very beginning is critical, but safety within a group does not occur organically. It must be an intentional process facilitated and modeled by the group leader from the start. Even as students walk in the door on day one, a warm welcome or high five will send a message that the group is safe, fun and inclusive.
At the forefront of planning are physical and psychological safety. No one wants to come to a group and be disrespected, judged, or marginalized, so the facilitator must manage all participants' psychological and physical safety at all times. Questioning whether an activity is safe is key. A standard mantra for group success is that all members are included in all activities.
Intentional session planning supports group safety. Structuring the first session with fun activities, including a preview of future sessions, will engage students from the onset. Then, in the second session, the members develop group guidelines (not rules), prompted by the leader to reflect on how to make the group a safe space for everyone. Members are more likely to adhere to the guidelines if they create them. Of course, some absolutes must be included, such as confidentiality and no bullying. Displaying the guidelines during each session is a reminder and an effective group behavior management technique. If the group is not abiding by the guidelines, the facilitator can ask if they should be modified.
5-Step Session Structure for Effectiveness
1. Check-in: This quick 1-2-3 question round allows every participant to have a voice while focusing the members on the day’s topic. It is an excellent chance for the facilitator to gauge the group's affect.
First, each group member identifies what level they are on from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best day ever. At this point, no member should try to justify their level, nor should probing questions be asked.
The second question can be fun, such as “What makes you smile?”
Question three focuses on the topic, such as “What kind of bullying do you see in the halls?"
2. The Hook or introduction is what you do to engage the members – a story, picture, video clip, song – whatever might help get the members’ attention for the activity and the topic.
3. Activity: An experiential activity, rather than sit-and-get, allows group members to interact, build team cohesion, stay engaged and stimulate new behaviors and critical thinking.
4. Debrief: If you don't have time to do the debrief, don't do the activity. The debrief is where personalized learning is applied. Our facilitators structure the debrief questions by using a specific questioning format:
What questions include what just happened in the activity (immediate). Most of the questions are in this category.
So what questions are the purpose questions. There may be only one or two of these, such as “Why did we do this activity?”
Now what questions are the essential application questions. Participants reflect on how to apply their new learning and identify future behaviors. For example, “After learning the antibullying steps, which one do you think you might most easily use?”
5. Check-out is the bookend to check-in. Asking all participants to respond to their level keeps the group's structure. Adding one other question about what they learned in the session brings closure and helps members focus on their learning.
All these steps are invaluable for the group process. This consistent format gives the group structure and the all-important culture of safety.
Effective Facilitator Do’s:
Allow the participants to do the work.
Maintain physical and emotional safety at all times.
Always consider ethical guidelines for groups.
Ask questions of group members; don't tell members the answers.
Manage group interactions without being a director or dictator.
When possible, allow the group members to have decision-making power and behavior management.
Be structured, with flexibility.
Let them learn by doing; don’t rescue.
Consider heterogenous vs. homogenous groups. Some groups with a specific life experience may need to be in a homogenous group, such as grief groups. However, our theory is that heterogeneous groups are more productive, with a diverse population of students. Heterogenous groups allow for positive behavior modeling from their peers.
For more on group development and examples of group activity-based curriculum, see the 2019 book “Create Connections,” by Rhonda Williams, Sameen DeBard and Joseph Wehrman.
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., is professor emerita in Counseling and Human Services at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Contact her at email@example.com.