Group Counseling: Relationships, Routines, and Reinforcement

Last month, I wrote about group counseling planning AKA you have to have a plan, you can’t wing it. And then a bit after that, I wrote about measuring your group’s success through data. In addition to planning out your sessions and your data collection, it’s also key to intentionally plan out ways to build relationships in the group. Relationships between the students and you and relationships between the students. The therapeutic alliance is one of the most important factors in counseling. While the majority of that comes from us being empathetic and trustworthy and all the little interactions we have with the students, there are some ways we can strategically build relationships as well. Sometimes our brains are so helter-skelter during the school day that it’s tough to be fully present during groups. If we plan out some of these things ahead of time, we can excellent group facilitators even if it’s been a stressful day. group counseling relationships and routines

Relationships and Routines

One of the ways we can intentionally develop relationships is through routines. Establishing even just one or two routines brings a sense of stability and consistency. A routine that I implemented this past year was our hellos and goodbyes. I hung visuals just outside my door. As students entered my office, they touched a hello that we did and as they exited my office they picked another one. It was something the kiddos came to expect and love. It also gave us a structured way to connect before and after group. Movement breaks can also be a really great routine to add into group counseling. I’ve used them at the start of sessions if the students are coming from a heavy content area – I actually did a lot of quick standing yoga –  or at the end of a session if they’re heading into one. school counseling yogagroup counseling routine Some groups might require a behavior reinforcement system to be successful. Whether you’re doing tally marks or the happy puppy/sad puppy cups or something else, students earning points and then hopefully receiving a small reward or acknowledgment at the end is a helpful routine. Lots of us are trying to incorporate more mindful breathing into our work. In some of my groups, we ended every session with a kiddo picking a breathing strategy for us to all do. It’s a great way to re-center our brains and bodies. It also becomes something students come to expect and eventually become able to lead. Once students are invested in mindful breathing in group, they can start to carry it over outside of group! mindful breathing cards Check-ins are also a fantastic way to build relationships. Students express their feelings in a safe and structured way where they have the opportunity for their feelings to be validated by you and their peers. My favorite way to do this is for students to use clothespins to show their feeling when they walk in. Then we do a circle go around and they share with the group. I’ve also shown students a picture of a roller coaster and they’ve shared their “high” and “low” for the week. And if your students are familiar with some self-regulation lingo, or that’s the focus of your group, than they can check in with what zone they are in or how their engine is running. group counseling feelings check ingroup counseling check in And one last tangible way to build relationships within your group is by helping them to develop a group identity. You can facilitate this by allowing them to pick their group name or by having students create the group expectations. You can intentionally find and name commonalities between the students and their experiences. Students can also hold “jobs” during the group:
  • materials manager
  • rule reminder
  • reviewer
  • summarizer
  • complimenter
All of this helps students really feel like they’re part of something and feel connected to others.


No matter what type of group you’re doing, chances are you have some skills in mind that you hope the students will acquire and demonstrate. Of course, specific praise is one way you can reinforce them. I think it’s helpful to be proactive and plan out how I can reinforce the skills they need. A lot of this is just going to happen on the fly but if you take the time to think it through ahead of time, you’ll be way more likely to actually remember to do it in the moment. I think modeling skills and attitudes is a huge way to do this. Last year I focused on modeling I-messages, sportsmanship, listening, and empathy/perspective-taking. Sometimes I would even name what I was doing; “I want to be a good sport, so even though I’m disappointed I lost, I want to tell you all good game!” Coaching is another way that we reinforce skills in group counseling. Sometimes we might have a purposefully unstructured section of the group. We can spend that time coaching them on things like using their social filter, managing strong feelings, sharing and taking turns, and accepting feedback. feedback and coaching in group counseling One of the trickiest parts of group counseling is helping students to generalize or carryover the skills they learned. We want them to use take these skills into their classrooms! Providing parents and teachers with information about ways they can provide feedback and coaching, either through quick notes or emails. group counseling teacher reinforcement note You can also promote carryover through the use of exit tickets at the end of sessions. By asking students to identify in advance how and when they will use what they’ve learned, you prime their brains to do so! counseling exit ticket counseling exit ticket Again, so much of this happens in the moment. That said, if you take the time to plan this, you’ll be more likely to do them in the moment. Being proactive can have a huge impact!

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?

Check out:

group counseling training for school counselors

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
I get to serve in a different way now
– by helping fellow counselors and

I value quality over quantity,
effective practices and resources,
and meeting the unique needs of all
our diverse learners.

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