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How to Structure Group Sessions in Elementary School

In case you missed it, we previously talked about using a consistent structure in classroom SEL lessons. In this post, we will focus on the same ideas for your group counseling sessions! Groups are an effective and evidence-based way to provide psychoeducation, intervention, support, processing opportunities, and connection with more than one student at a time (they are my favorite tier 2 intervention). Small groups can be so full of fun, silliness, and some really important relationship-building opportunities. What is the key to having all of that while using the time effectively to meet your students’ needs? Using a consistent structure!  

Why use a consistent structure in groups?

What makes small groups so powerful is that counselors can meet the needs of more than one student at a time while still developing a closer relationship than is possible in classroom lessons. And much like classroom lessons, groups can be FUN. The silly (occasionally) chaotic, and delightful energy that small groups of elementary kiddos can radiate is unmatched. Having structure doesn’t disrupt that! It can actually help to create MORE moments like that by promoting a strong sense of connection and safety

Routines are things that we do…well, routinely. Repeatedly at specific times and places. Routines themselves help promote safety because students can predict what is happening. When you use a consistent structure and your kiddos feel safe and comfortable, you’re creating an environment primed for growth! In small groups, counselors are usually asking children to be a bit more vulnerable than in a classroom lesson and for them to do that, they need to feel safe. That sense of safety can be nurtured by predictable routines

Rituals are routines that have meaning to them. Sometimes the meaning is innate, and other times we are making meaning by focusing our attention on specific elements or attaching intentions to the practices. Many of the elements of group counseling that we’ll dive into below are rituals that create a deeper sense of connection between you and your students and between the students themselves. These little moments when you’re all building trust and demonstrating empathy (such as with a fun handshake or empathic listening during a feelings check-in) are really where the therapeutic relationship develops. 

Your consistent structure will also make life easier for you! If you follow the same (or similar) set of activities each time, you will be able to start each session feeling prepared, you will lead the session with confidence, and you will feel like the time spent is productive and effective. 

Group Counseling Session Structure 

Important Note: The structure you choose will depend on the purpose of each group (Processing and support? General SEL support? Psychoed?), the age of the students, and how much time you have. You might follow the same structure for all groups you’re running at once, or they might each be a little different. 

You probably will not use all of the ideas listed – that’s okay! Pick and choose what will work best for the group(s) you are running. 

Here’s one example of the structure you might use for a group: 

  1. Welcome Ritual: Affirmations
  2. Review homework
  3. Activity
  4. Introduce Homework
  5. Closing ritual – affirmations 

While another group might look like: 

  1. Welcome Ritual: Movement  
  2. Progress Monitoring: Scaling
  3. Review From Last Session  
  4. Activity 
  5. Closing Ritual: Breathing 

Another note: The consistent structure you use may not apply to the first and/or last sessions of a group where you are focusing more on building group community, establishing group rules and routines, or termination of the group. 

Now let’s get into the details of each of these sections!

Welcome and/or Closing Rituals

The main purpose of an opening or closing ritual is to build connection, but they can also help to promote regulation. If you are using this as an opportunity for regulation, like if your group is just coming from lunch or recess or if they are leaving and going to a math class, it can serve as a helpful time to practice these important strategies and calm their minds and bodies. This predictable routine provides a clear and consistent mark to the beginning and end of your time together, supports connection among group members, and can also encourage a bit of autonomy through controlled choice. 

Depending on the composition and purpose of your group, this could look like: 

  • Hellos and Goodbyes: This quick and easy option allows kiddos to choose how they say hello or goodbye (handshake, hug, wave, high five, fist bump, etc.) at the start or end of each session. This not only provides a quick connection but also some autonomy over their body! 
  • Affirmations: For groups focused on regulation, confidence, friendship, worry, etc., affirmations can be a great choice! Either from a formulated list or from their own creativity, children can choose an affirmation to start and close the group that they feel connected to or empowered by.  
  • Breathing Strategy: For groups focused on worry, regulation, etc., you can have students choose a breathing strategy to “take with them”.  
  • Movement: Movement, such as yoga, can help them to feel ready in both mind and body to move into the next part of their day. A cool group handshake can be a blast and a great bonding activity! This can be especially helpful for your groups with wiggly kiddos or kiddos who have a tough time with transitions. 

Check-In

Checking in with the kiddos before diving in is hugely important for relationship-building, routine, and gauging their mindset before you get started. If you notice your group is feeling down or bringing some stressors in with them, that can help you to pivot the plan for the day to include more regulation and connection time. If you notice your group is coming in with LOTS of extra energy, you might switch up an activity to add in some more movement. You might pick up on a kiddo feeling a bit sad about something and make a note to check in with them privately. In any case, you’re collecting information that helps you to better help them. Plus, kids tend to enjoy and look forward to these check-ins as they become routine and can likely eventually lead this part! 

These can take on different formats like: 

  • Feelings Check-In: There are so many options and creative ways to do this! Some of your older students may be able to answer the more open-ended, “How are you feeling today?”, but for younger students, it may be helpful to use zones, engines, or visuals to help them answer that question. 
  • Highs/Lows or Roses/Thorns/Buds: Depending on the age and developmental level you’re working with and the purpose of your group, it can be a great tool to process what they are bringing with them into the group. 

Note: Check-ins that look like this are also a type of ritual because they become so meaningful to students! 

If you are looking to collect data in your group, particularly if you are evaluating the growth of a specific skill, tracking behavior, or the frequency or intensity of a certain feeling, your check-in is a great opportunity for progress monitoring. This data can be helpful if you need to report other stakeholders or evaluate the effectiveness of this particular intervention, but it is certainly not a “must-do” for every group. 

Some progress monitoring options could be:

  • Pre/Post Tests or Surveys:  You may choose to do one at the beginning and end of the group, or you can use these weekly (or bi-weekly). If you choose to do them as a weekly (or biweekly) check-in, you can shorten it to address only the skills you are working on at that time. 
  • Weekly Point Sheets: Similar to a check-in/check-out, this option is great for a quick review of how each day went when you are targeting a specific skill, behavior or feeling. As this requires self-monitoring, this is likely only an appropriate option for older kiddos. 
  • Scaling: For a quick and efficient option, this option targets a specific problem/feeling/skill and has the children identify the impact of that on their week using a scale. You can use numbers (like, 0-10 or 0-5) or get creative with it! 

Review 

For some of our elementary kiddos, the time in between sessions can feel long! There is so much that goes on in their lives during that time that takes up important brain space, so a quick review of group foci can be really helpful. This review can touch on a few different things, depending on the group. You may want to review group expectations/norms or go over a skill you learned the week before, or you might have homework that you asked them to complete. In any case, it’s important to review what they remember from previous sessions to activate and solidify those skills before we begin building on them. We also want to ensure they have an accurate understanding of what they have learned so a review is a good checkpoint. 

This can be done in a myriad of ways: 

  • Repeat Expectations: During your first session, you may have created or shared a list of expectations. You can have students take turns reading them, give a thumbs up if they still agree with them, or read them aloud yourself as a review. 
  • Direct Questions: For groups where you are directly teaching skills, you can activate their previous knowledge through questions such as,
    • “Can anyone share one way they showed self-control since we saw each other last week?”
    •  “Last time we were together, we learned about using I-messages with our friends. Can anyone remind us of the three parts of an I-message?”
    •  “We practiced finger touch affirmations together last week. Who can demonstrate that strategy for us?”  
    • “Today we learned about the difference between kind words and hurtful words. Who wants to share an example before we go?” 
  • Homework: For some groups, you may assign homework as a way to provide extra practice and continue their learning. This section of your group can focus on sharing their responses and discussing them together. Group counseling homework might look like journaling about the previous week’s focus or it could prompt them to practice a skill they learned.

Activity(ies)

When we think of what we are doing in group counseling sessions, this is what we think of. We think of the activity(ies) that are specific to the focus of the group and the session. 

An “activity” can mean a lot of different things and will not only depend on the objectives but also the age of your students! Your activities for kindergarten will likely look different than if you are running a group with 5th graders. 

Let’s look at examples of activities for different types of groups. 

Skills-Based/Psychoeducation Groups: In these groups, your focus is on skills that your students are still developing. You might be working on self-regulation, worry, friendships, social skills, confidence, resilience, etc. For this kind of group, your activity will likely have two parts: teaching/modeling and practicing. Some activities you might use could include: 

Process/Support Group: For students who are experiencing similar things in life, like divorce, death, a new sibling, incarcerated family members, moving, etc., having a place to connect with others can be so impactful. In these groups, you might try activities like: 

  • Books: There are SO many wonderful books about situations your kiddos may be facing. Check out some recommendations here!
  • Practicing Coping Skills:  You may choose to practice mindfulness, journaling, breathing strategies, etc. 
  • Creative Projects: Drawing, coloring, or other creative outlets can be a helpful way to process the emotions they are experiencing. If you are running a grief group, an ongoing project like a Memory Box could be a wonderful activity.  
  • Guided Discussions: Sometimes they might just need to talk and that can be a great opportunity for you to help guide discussions around their significant life changes.  

Activities pictured above from our primary social skills group, resiliency group, and primary feelings group.

Next Steps  

Intentional small groups can be an incredible asset to your students. Part of that intentionality comes from preparing structured groups that include consistent pieces such as welcome/goodbye rituals, check-ins, and a review component in addition to the core activities. While the structure of your groups will vary depending on your data and goals, the message remains – having a consistent structure allows you to deliver this intervention effectively and with confidence and creates a space for students to grow that is safe and predictable. 

Hopefully, you feel comfortable within our shared online space to grow. Start by asking yourself: 

  • Do your groups currently follow a routine? Is it working?
  • What is one ritual you could add to groups that would make them even more impactful?
  • Are there opportunities to increase your students’ sense of connection within your groups? 

If completely changing how you run small groups feels daunting, start small. Maybe you start by adding a welcome routine or a check-in and see how it goes! 

Do you have a structure or routine that you find meaningful and impactful for your kiddos? Share it with me in a comment below!

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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
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