Have you ever done a small group and things were going really well and then when the group is over (or while the group is still going on, but in the cafeteria, at recess, etc.), it’s as if your students never spent time in your office? Yeah, me too. Especially before I started trying to incorporate reinforcement strategies.
The research says that the majority of evidence-based group counseling curriculums include at least 1 reinforcement component. Most have some piece that is meant to reinforce what is learned in the group. This helps the skills to be generalized – so they “stick” and students actually use them outside of the counseling session.
Below are four ideas for including reinforcement strategies in your groups (if an example is from one of my resources, I linked the picture – just click on it):
Reinforcement could look like, at its most simple form, taking a few minutes at the start of every session to review what they learned in the previous week. This is just about keeping it fresh in their minds, although it sometimes also leads naturally into conversations about how the idea or skill was relevant to them in the previous week.
It might also look like homework – I like to call it “home practice.” Here’s one example that is for practicing relaxation strategies, and another that’s for journaling about using the skill of paying attention to how others are thinking and feeling. Whether or not I give homework often depends on what the homework load is from their teachers – I don’t want to pile on! And I always make it optional, though I occasionally offer a small incentive for doing it (sticker, treasure box, etc.)
Self-monitoring is a form of reinforcement. It’s basically asking students to pay attention to their own symptoms or behaviors. This helps them to gain self-awareness and possibly set goals around their experience (whether it’s behavioral/choices or mood/symptoms). One example you see below is something a lot like a point sheet you’d use with check in/check out, looking at behaviors. Another example would just be a student monitoring their level of worries each day.
And last, but certainly not least, reinforcement can be sharing information with stakeholders, specifically caregivers and teachers. For many of the evidence-based curriculums out there, this looks like having 1-3 parent psychoeducation sessions. This is awesome! But let’s be real, it’s not so feasible as a school counselor (especially if we’re running multiple groups…on top of everything else). So I recommend something more low-key, like notes that you can give teachers and parents after each session – or even just key sessions. The note could just be about the focus of the session (eg. knowing when being silly or telling a joke is funny or not). Or, it could have specific scripting the parent or teacher can use to reinforce or coach the skill. Last year, I was not ever prepped enough to do notes, so I sent brief emails with the info – no printing or copying necessary! I would draft the emails in the morning based off what we had planned for the groups, then make any tweaks after dismissal if we’d deviated from the plan.
Planning and implementing reinforcement strategies takes time. Because it seems we are alway pressed for time, it can be hard to allow ourselves time to do this. The mindset shift I’ve made recently is that for some groups, not being intentional about reinforcement makes the time spent on the groups less impactful. Using reinforcement strategies is then not an “extra” for those groups but instead a key piece of the group as a whole, and maybe a necessary component to make the group time worthwhile.