Small groups are an incredible opportunity for school counselors. They allow us to provide personalized intervention to multiple students at once. So why don’t we do them more? Or prioritize them more? Well, elementary group counseling in schools can be a real challenge. Groups with kids can be a lot of work to plan – because you have to have a plan and no one has extra time in their day. It’s also easy for groups to get low priority from both us and our faculty or administrators. And…I think the truth is also that groups are often not as effective as we’d like them to be! Partly because we’re not as intentional as we should be with them.
In my seven years as a school counselor, I will fully admit to running several not-so-successful groups. One of the biggest reasons I’ve found small groups to be unsuccessful is that they’re too short term in nature. This effectively means students aren’t getting a high enough “dose” of the intervention we’re providing. And sometimes our group goals and foci are too vague or too broad – we don’t narrow in enough. We just graze the surface of the skills or topics which is the opposite of what these students need. Unfortunately, our groups also can end up inconsistent – things come up and we have to miss sessions, or we just don’t plan well enough and get caught up in something else. And finally, we sometimes try to service kiddos with tier 3 level needs in a tier 2 format. Students that likely need ongoing individual therapy but are unable to get it, so we put them in a six week group and hope it helps.
With all my failings, however, I’ve come to some conclusions about how to make elementary group counseling in schools easier and more effective. It really comes down to be intentional with them!
Intentional with defining the objectives of our group and matching the activities to these objectives.
Intentional in measuring the success of our groups.
Intentional in building relationships and reinforcing skills.
This post is the first of three in a series about intentional group counseling. The first focuses on starting the group planning and focusing on objectives. Next up, I’ll talk about data collection in groups, and finally, I’ll share about intentional relationships and skill reinforcement in groups.
1. What type of group are you going to run?
Even in an elementary group, there’s some different formats and types of groups. Your first job is to identify what type of group you’re going to run.
Open Entry/Ongoing vs. Time Limited/Single Entry:
Most groups have a start and end date, with all students beginning and ending together. You can also run groups that go for the entire school year, with students entering and exiting as needed (and as indicated by data). These “open entry” style groups are well aligned to tier 2 RTI.
Play-Based vs. Activity-Structured vs. Combo:
It’s entirely appropriate to use elementary group counseling in an school that involves play. You can do client-centered play therapy in groups, you can do groups where students are playing the whole time but you structure the available toys/games, you can do a mini-lesson of sorts followed by coached play, or you can do a group entirely structured with counselor-led activities.
Situational Support Groups:
This is where you put students together that are all going through the same or similar life change. The group focuses on allowing students to learn coping skills, process their feelings, and reflect on the changes. Life changes might include parental separation, grief/loss, new students, etc.
Some students have “lagging skills”. They are behind in developing some of the social emotional skills needed to be successful students. Groups that allow students to learn and practice these specific skills are the most common. You might tackle conflict resolution, healthy friendships, communication skills, self-regulation, perseverance, etc.
Tier 2/General SEL Support Groups:
Some students need help with multiple skill areas. These might be students that have both internalizing and externalizing concerns. If your students need this type of support, then they will need a group that runs 10+ weeks because you need to cover a broader set of skills.
2. What are the group objectives?
Your next step is identifying your specific objectives. This step is one that I think we often skip when we’ve got some kids that we think need group support and we’re just excited to get going. We’ve got to ask ourselves first, though, “What are we hoping to achieve? And when the group is over, what do we want to be different with our students?” Ideally, these objectives are based on data – like through a skills assessment. Here are some examples…
- Ex. Increase use of positive conflict resolution skills.
- Ex. Increase emotional identification and expression.
- Ex. Reduce the number of absences by 25%.
- Ex. Students will be able to identify 3 or more helpful coping strategies.
- Ex. Increase positive attitude towards self and school.
- Ex. Reduce the number of level 100 behavior referrals.
I use an outline page like the one above for EVERY group I run and it’s mega helpful. Also, it’s free!
3. What are the key skills and attitudes?
Next, figure out what to focus on in each session. You might ask yourself “What skills do the students need to gain?” (like I-messages or using an appropriate tone of voice). Or ask yourself “What attitudes do I hope will change?” (like about personal worthiness or forgiveness). You might start thinking about specific activities at this stage, but the important part is just determining what each session needs to focus on. Here is an example of an outline for a coping skills and regulation group I did:
- Rules, Get to Know You Game, Introduce Routines
- Feelings Identification and Expression: Read In My Heart + Feelings Game
- Size of Problem
- Circle of Control (Identifying what is in vs. out of your control)
- Developing Hope: It’s Tough to Lose Your Balloon
- Helpful vs. Unhelpful Thoughts
- Flipping a Lid
- Choosing Resiliency: Bounce vs. Splat
- Coping Self-Talk and Problem Solving: I Can Handle It + Game
- Practice Skills: Coping Game + Termination
Something important I should mention here:
REPETITION IS YOUR FRIEND!
We often want to make things novel and exciting and so we try to make each session totally different. But students who need group counseling are students who need repetition – they need us to teach and practice and emphasize the same things over and over again.
4. What are you going to do in the sessions?
Ok – you have your group outlined, you know what to focus on. Now is when you plan what to specifically do in each session (the activities, books, etc.) How are you going to help the students gain the identified skills and attitudes? One thing I cannot encourage enough is for you to use your existing class lesson materials to make this easier on yourself. Nearly any class lesson can be pretty easily adapted for a group. If you have a class lesson about using I-messages and that is one of the skills your group needs to learn? Just adapt the class lesson! And the thing is that even if you’ve already done that particular lesson with the student, it’s not bad to do it again. They’re in the group because they need additional reinforcement of some skills and ideas.
Most of my group sessions follow a pretty similar structure of feelings check-in, activity A, activity B, then mindful breathing. What do I mean by “activity”? It could mean:
- Video clip
- Role play
- Coached “free” play
- Task cards/discussion cards
Here are some examples of session plans/outlines:
Example 1: 4th Boys Tier 2 Social-Emotional-Behavioral –> “What is self-control? What does it look like at school?”
- Highs and Lows
- What does a controller do in a video game?
- Match self-control coins
- Self-control bubbles
Example 2: 1st Emotional Identification + Regulation –> “When do I feel different emotions?”
- Feelings Check-In
- CandyLand w/Feelings Qs
- My Heart Coloring Sheet
Example 3: 3rd Girls Friendship + Social Skills –> “How do I respond appropriately to feedback?”
- Feelings Check-In
- Read and discuss Thanks for the Feedback (affiliate link)
- Brainstorm appropriate responses
- Role play giving and receiving feedback
In speaking with school counseling colleagues across the country, I’ve heard that grad programs aren’t able to prepare elementary counselors enough for groups. I hope this post was helpful for you! Want to talk more about elementary group counseling? Do you want to do a fun, simple, and powerful training to get yourself ready for running the best groups you can?
Click here or the image above to learn more about the training!