I’ve always loved group counseling – you get a big bang for your metaphorical buck! And then one year, for the first time, I had kindergarten classes on my caseload. As you all know, group counseling with kindergarteners is a totally different ball game! I’ve learned a lot over the years and now I’m sharing some tips to make the group sessions more fun, manageable, and effective – including some specific ideas for group counseling activities to do with kindergarteners.
Of course, all of these strategies also apply to all elementary grades! They just might be extra important with your youngest students. This post focuses on specific activities, but you’ll also want to make sure you’re providing opportunities for reinforcement and being intentional about relationships and routines.
Sometimes there are some important skills or ideas you need to teach the kiddos, like deep breathing, taking turns, or following directions. We know five and six-year-olds don’t need a 25-30 minute lecture, though! What you might consider is structuring your group sessions to include a brief teaching or modeling section, and then allow the students to play – ideally with you coaching to apply what they’ve learned.
Teaching and Modeling
This first section might look like telling the students a story that shares an important lesson. You could tell the story with puppets, show a video, or read a book. Occasionally, you might have a super short slideshow to go through with them.
The idea is to briefly introduce them to a skill, why it’s important, and what it looks like.
There’s LOTS of amazing books you can use for bibliotherapy. One thing to consider is that books that might work for tier 1/class lessons might not be direct or explicit enough for children in groups (they’re in the group because tier 1 wasn’t enough). With that in mind, you might need to select stories with even clearer, direct meanings. One set of books that I think is really genuinely a great match for kindergarten is the When I Feel… series by Cornelia Maude Spelman. The Cheri Meiners books, like Respect and Take Care of Things, are also good but a little old (affiliate links). Both of those recommendations are easy reads, but are more self-help/non-fiction. For fictional but direct stories for kindergarten social skills (and emotional skills), I recommend the stories in my Kinder/1st SEL Curriculum.
Most of us don’t have the means to display/project screens in our offices, but if you’re one of the lucky few that can, I recommend looking into:
- Sesame Street videos: “Crumby Pictures” has some great executive functioning slips, and I’ve used the Emmy Rossum Focus and Mark Ruffalo empathy ones as well
- For second-semester K students, my self-regulation and conflict resolution slideshows are an easy first-half of the session
For the second half (or second two-thirds) of the session, let them play! Depending on the group’s foci and needs, you might let them play with anything in a certain area in your office. Or, you might have out certain materials like Legos or figurines in a rice tray or a dollhouse or dress-up supplies.
You could let this section be entirely child-centered, incorporating reflection and limit-setting (more on child-centered play therapy below). Or you could be more directive, coaching and reinforcing the students on their target objectives.
- “I noticed that you were disappointed about not getting to go first, but you still tried your best to have fun!”
- “What might happen if we keep being rough with the spinner?”
- “How could the giraffe take care of that angry feeling he has?”
- “I notice you’ve had the kitten stuffy for awhile now, and that Jeremy has asked for it. What do you think should happen next?”
- “You started to grab the glue stick but then you stopped yourself and asked first – that was a really respectful choice.”
Make it Play-Based
You can still make your group counseling sessions play-based, even if you’re not a play therapist or “doing play therapy!” The younger your students are, the more you may want your sessions to incorporate play in some way. This doesn’t have to mean a sand tray or puppets or any of the traditional play therapy tools (although it could). It could just mean being playful and including therapeutic activities that feel like playing.
In one of my groups, the kids really gravitated toward my stuffed animal collection. Ultimately, I realized that I needed to lean into this and let them choose one to sit with them during sessions. This in itself was something that gave comfort to the students, but it also gave a natural opportunity for play-based limit-setting. It also made it easy to incorporate role play (which is not something that always comes naturally to me).
Have you ever gotten out a die or pair of dice in front of kids and had them immediately try to grab and roll them? Me too. It’s because rolling dice is fun! And you can incorporate dice into your group counseling sessions just by adding super simple prompts to each number. For example, in this activity set on following directions, each number goes with monster parts. Students are tasked with drawing a picture of a monster but they have to follow the directions indicated by the die.
You could also go super low-key with prompts like:
- Say X number of things you’re good at
- What are X number of things you’re grateful for?
- Let’s brainstorm X number of nice things you can say to a friend
- Pick X parts of your body to tighten and relax one at a time
Regular old games can be very therapeutic themselves. They often require impulse control, turn-taking, accepting disappointment, good sportsmanship, following directions, and more. Cooperative games like Hoot Owl Hoot also incorporate teamwork. With lots of coaching and reinforcing, a purely game-based group might be really helpful for some kindergarten groups!
You can also build additional counseling elements into simple games. Not all of my Any Game Counseling Prompts are a developmental fit for kinders, but some are and so I often incorporate them into kinder groups as well.
Figures and Figurines
You might not feel comfortable (yet) with puppets or even acting things out with people from a dollhouse. You can still use figures and figurines to add some play to your practice, though!
In my Monster Feelings group, we talk about how our feelings are like little monsters who visit. They come and go. To make this more concrete, and to give them practice expressing their emotions, we used little monster cutouts and a paper house and school. Students took turns moving a monster by one of the buildings and saying “My ____ monster comes to visit me at _____ when _____.”
Another easy way to use figurines is for practice with different types of communication:
- Asking for help
- Accepting feedback
You can model first and then let all the students in the group take a turn!
Make It Hands-On
Making sessions hands-on is another way to make group counseling more kindergarten-friendly! Not just because they may be less verbal, but because hands-on activities make big ideas more concrete. For some, it also gives multiple students the opportunity to be participating at once, which is super helpful for kiddos still developing patience.
One easy way to do this is through puzzles! Of course, any simple puzzle helps students with sharing, taking turns, thinking before acting, and perseverance. You can add in some specific social-emotional concerns by printing a photo or clipart showing a problem or skill. After assembling it, you can prompt the students to talk about what they see:
- What’s happening?
- How are they feeling?
- What choices are they making?
- What might happen next?
Hands-on might also mean literally touching materials! Building with blocks practices patience, flexible thinking, and sometimes teamwork. You can have students use dough to show their interests or strengths, demonstrate the size of a problem, or make feelings faces. You could also have students trace visuals on cards they practice different breathing exercises.
A hands-on activity I use a LOT in groups (and class lessons!) is sorting cards. You could use feelings face photos to sort by emotion, safe vs. dangerous behaviors, learning choices vs. not learning choices, or giving vs. not giving personal space.
I know that some of you work in SMALL spaces. Some of you are in actual former closets. If you have a somewhat decent-sized space, though, it’s wonderful to incorporate movement in your group counseling sessions. This could even be as simple as moving from your group’s table to the rug (and maybe back again). You can read a story on the floor, do a circle go-around, play a game…really anything!
There are other ways you can include movement as well:
In my primary social skills group, students practice empathy by jumping alongside a football field mat with feelings faces. Whichever football feeling is closest to their landing, they answer the following questions: What feeling does the face show? Why might someone feel that way? What can you do to show you care about them if they’re feeling _____?
That same group also uses movement to make discussing visual examples of choices more engaging. Pictures are taped around the room. As a group, you walk to each of them and discuss what’s going on, if it’s a helpful choice, and what the consequence (positive or negative) may be. It’s just standing and walking, but it prevents students from having to sit the whole time.
You can also use movement to have your kindergarteners show their thoughts or feelings. One way is to do Four Corners: ask them a question with four answer choices, and prompt them to move to the corner representing their choice. An even simpler example would be if the question is yes or no. The picture to the right is showing how students move from one area to another to show whether or not a trigger would make a specific feelings monster come visit.
Consider Child-Centered Group Play Therapy
In my role as a school counselor, I did not use child-centered play therapy very frequently. I wish I had used it more, though, because the research is actually very supportive of it! A meta-analysis of several studies found that child-centered play therapy in schools has a significant effect on externalizing problems, internalizing problems, self-efficacy, and academics. The age range for the studies was 4-14 and the number of sessions ranged really wide but the average was 12.
This research means we should consider using child-centered play therapy as an individual or group intervention because it’s free (minus toys) and doesn’t require prepping activities. As a quick refresher of what child-centered play therapy itself looks like – it’s some good old Carl Rogers but with play! It’s generally non-directive, it focuses on
- Reflecting feelings
- Reflecting content
- Tracking their play behavior
- Facilitating decision-making, creativity and relationship
(Citation: Ray, D. C., Armstrong, S. A., Balkin, R. S., & Jayne, K. M. (2014). Child-centered Play Therapy in the Schools: Review And Meta-analysis. Psychology in the Schools, 52(2), 107–123.)