Group Counseling Behavior Management

Small groups can indeed be an effective tool for school counselors to explicitly teach skills, create space for processing difficult life situations, and provide opportunities for in-the-moment learning. It is also true that this effectiveness can be impacted (maybe even lessened) by challenging student behaviors, which can be frustrating for school counselors. In this blog post, we are talking about how to manage behaviors in group counseling (including both proactive and reactive strategies).

Quick note: This post was written specific to elementary school counseling. Middle and high school people? You can probably take a few things away from here, too, but some things won’t land as well.

group counseling behavior management

What Are You Experiencing?

While we can’t predict every behavior you may be seeing because each child, and therefore each group, is different, there are some very common problems school counselors face when running groups.

Verbal Disruptions

This is maybe the most common problem among groups and can take on several different forms. You might have students who are constantly trying to talk over each other, interrupting, making comments that are off-topic, or trying to dominate the airtime.

Unkind Language

Separate from disruptions, we occasionally have group members who use hurtful words towards one another or someone outside of the group. This may be coming from a place of trying to express frustration, annoyance, or anger towards another person or could also be an attempt at making others laugh.

Refusal or Reluctance

You might also have students who refuse to participate in group activities. This could look like shutting down or withdrawing, verbally refusing, or responding in silly or off-topic ways. For example, if you ask students to share about how they felt when someone was unkind to them, this student might put their head down on the table.

Physical Dysregulation

When you have students who need a lot of movement and you do not plan ahead to meet that need, it can become disruptive to your group. You might have students up and walking around during instruction, grabbing things they find in your office, inappropriately using their bodies in the space, touching others, etc.

What Can You Do About It?


It’s important to have strategies in your toolbox for when behaviors arise (we’ll share those in this post, too!). However it’s equally, if not more important to be proactive when it comes to behavior management. You want to try and predict the needs of your students to create an environment that is comfortable, stable, and primed for learning.

Routines and Rituals

Routines and structure create a learning environment that is predictable; an environment where children know what to expect from you and what is expected of them. Rituals are routines that have meaning attached to them and intentionally build a deeper connection and encourage more trust between participants. When predictability, connection, and trust are present, children are less likely to engage in some less-than-desired behaviors.

I talked all about routines and rituals in small group counseling in a previous blog post, but here are a couple of things you might want to consider when thinking about routines in your small groups:

  • Schedule: For each group, consider creating a visual schedule. This will create fewer opportunities for acting out of boredom or the constant wondering (either out loud or in their minds) of “What’s next?”
  • Entering/Exiting: Think through how you would like them to enter and exit the room and model this for them. Have them practice, especially during that first session!
  • Seats: Do you want to assign seats or have them choose their own? Do you have more than one seating option? If so, how will you direct them to the right spot?
  • Supplies: Is there a specific way children should collect supplies like pencils, coloring materials, etc.?
  • Bathroom/Water: What about children who need to use the bathroom or get a drink of water? Do you want them to do this before they arrive? Is there a hand signal they should use to let you know? Define these routines and practice, practice, practice!
  • Hellos/Goodbyes: You might choose to have a ritual where students choose how they say “hello” and how they say “goodbye” each session. They can choose from a handshake, hug, high-five, fist bump, wave, etc.

Collaborative Expectations

Setting expectations during the first session of a group is hugely important. To proactively manage behaviors, this is something to do WITH your students. Going through this process together gives them a voice in what the group should look like, sound like, and feel like for everyone.

Some examples of expectations you could use:

  • Use Kind and Respectful Words
  • Only One Speaker at a Time
  • Try Your Best
  • Think Before You Speak
  • What is Said in This Group, Stays in This Group
  • Follow Directions
  • Use a Safe Body
  • Ask for Help

Prior to the start of each session, you may review these expectations quickly and have students renew their agreement. This could sound like:

  • “Before we get started, let’s go over our group rules. I’m going to read them and ask you to give me a silent thumbs up to show me you agree!”
  • “We’re going to start our time together by reviewing our group expectations together. Can someone show me what ‘using a safe body’ looks like in our group?”
  • “Last week we wrote our group expectations together. Can someone give me an example of ‘thinking before you speak’?”

To get children involved, you might even have children lead this part! Especially with your older students, having a job can be so helpful in getting them to internalize and really take charge of these rules. You might have this as a group “job” that rotates each week, you may ask for a volunteer, or it could be chosen at random using popsicle sticks. 

Predicting Needs

One proactive way to manage student behavior is to be intentional about which activities you choose, how many of them you will do, how quickly you will do them, and what your students might need to do them successfully.

If we choose activities that are too complicated, students might lose interest or not feel confident and that could lead to challenging behavior. The same can be said if they are too “easy”! If the activity is too short and you are left with too much time, children might engage in off-task behaviors we would rather they didn’t.

When planning for activities, here are things to consider and prepare for:

  • Pacing: Think ahead about how long you expect each activity to take. Do your students need more or less time to complete certain activities? What about setting up and cleaning up?
  • Early finishers: To avoid this problem and maximize collaborative learning opportunities, you can limit the amount of independent work (i.e. worksheets) in general. If that isn’t possible (there are some really impactful worksheets out there), have an activity ready for students who may finish before others.
  • Learning-related needs: Are there any modifications you need to make to this activity for your students in this group? Do you have any students with learning disabilities, ELL students, pre-readers?

If you’d like some support with planning activities, check out the group curriculum bundle!

Elementary Group Counseling Curriculum Bundle

Looking for some complete small group counseling curriculums to use with your elementary students? Here are eight amazing ones bundled together for you! Perfect for social emotional behavioral MTSS, IEP counseling, or group counseling within your school counseling program. They are engaging, hands-on, skills-based, and full of developmentally appropriate activities with relevant scenarios.


Physical Regulation

Some kids have a harder time sitting in school chairs for long (or sometimes even short) periods of time. and students with learning differences, such as ADHD, benefit from supports that provide them with additional stimulation or sensory input. If we are not meeting these needs, it can lead to some challenging behaviors that are disruptive to the flow of your group. Depending on how much space you have, some tools you may consider are:

  • Wiggle Seats
  • Chair Bands
  • Fidgets
  • Group Movement Breaks

Behavior-Specific Praise

We all have an emotional “bank account”, so to speak, and our students are no different! This “account” represents the balance of positive and negative interactions within any relationship. Positive interactions are like a deposit where negative interactions are like a withdrawal. We want this “bank” to be full so when you are working with students, try to focus on making deposits. The best way to do this is to give specific praise so students know exactly what it is that you are praising them for. The general rule is for every one redirection, there should be three positive statements.

Praise should sound like:

  • “You’re showing me that you’re ready to start by sitting safely at the table with your eyes looking and ears listening!”
  • “Thank you for using our hand signal to let me know you had something to share.”
  • “I’m hearing so many kind and respectful words from you today!”


You can use modeling when you want to intentionally demonstrate what you want students to do. It is usually much more powerful and effective to do this than to simply tell them what not to do. To use it proactively, you might:

  • When teaching your students important routines, you can show them exactly how to enter the room by getting up and physically walking through the process or modeling hand signals that you will use in the group.
  • If you are doing an activity for the first time, you can model what each step of the activity should look like.

This can also be used as a reactive strategy. Modeling (or re-modeling) expected behaviors might serve as a gentle, but useful reminder when misbehaviors start to pop up.

For example, if you have a student who is walking in a silly way to get supplies that is disrupting the group, you may want to pause and model what walking to get those supplies should look like moving forward.


Despite our best efforts when it comes to predicting and planning for students’ needs, behaviors will still pop up so let’s examine a few ways to respond in helpful and restorative ways.


We teach students to use I-messages, but they can be a powerful behavior management tool when we use them, too, especially once a relationship exists between you and the students in your group. You can use them to share how a behavior made you feel, to show the impact on the group, and to offer them an opportunity to correct their choice.

If you have a student who is interrupting a story you are reading you might say, “I feel distracted when there is talking while I am trying to read to the group. It also makes it difficult for your friends to focus. I need you to hold your thoughts until the end, or you can write them on this paper.”

If you have a student who is being unsafe in your office/room, you might say, “I feel worried when you are running in this space because you or someone else could get hurt. Let’s take some deep breaths together and come back to the group.”

Teach Alternative Behaviors

For some behaviors, it can be helpful to offer them a different way to meet that need that is more sustainable for the group. For example,

  • Hand Signals/Non-Verbals: When students are talking over each other or competing for airtime, you could adopt a special non-verbal signal that indicates they agree or have something to add. If a hand signal doesn’t work, you could try using talking tokens/sticks instead! Give each child a set number of tokens/sticks (maybe 2-3). Each time a student shares their idea, they use a token. Once everyone has used all their tokens, you can give everyone more.
  • Fidgets: If you have a student who is tapping loudly on tables or picking apart paper, you might want to offer a fidget to keep their hands busy. I’ve personally had some great luck with small stuffed animals!
  • Breaks: If a child is overwhelmed by the topic or assignment and trying to refuse or escape, you can teach them to ask for a short, calming break to replace that behavior.
  • Writing: If you have a student who is talking over others, dominating airtime, etc. You can offer them a way to express those thoughts in a more tactile way through writing on a sticky note, whiteboard, etc.


This is a technique you can use when you need to stop a student from saying something harmful towards themselves or someone else. We want to actually block them from saying the words, when we can, in an effort to protect them and the rest of the children in the group.

For example, your group is using some task cards, and one child is having a hard time reading them. You hear another child giggle and start to make an unkind comment. You might block them and say, “Oh, let’s pause. My job is to make sure that we are being respectful to everyone in our group and I’m hearing some laughing and words that are hurtful.”

By blocking, you also create an opportunity for them to fix the situation. You can choose to remind the student of the expectations that you set together, you can give that student an opportunity to repair the situation by rephrasing, you can model an appropriate way to share their feelings, or you can remind them of their social filter.

That might look like, “It’s okay to think something in your brain, but it’s important to think before we say it out loud, especially because using kind words is one of our group rules. I wonder how we can make this better.” Or “It sounds like you were really frustrated with your friend, do you want to try telling them in a respectful way how you were feeling?”

Restorative Practices

If someone is struggling with their behavior in your group, you might engage in a restorative conversation with that (or those) student(s) after the session ends. These are the questions I use in those moments:

  1. What happened?
  2. What were you feeling?
  3. What was your brain saying?
  4. How do you think your choice(s) might have affected you or me or others in the group?
  5. What do you think you need to do to make this better?

This can be used if you are having a student who is engaging in a behavior, despite your use of some other reactive approaches. Maybe this child is using unkind or disrespectful language in your group, and you have tried to use modeling and I-statements already. Having a restorative conversation offers an opportunity to dig a little deeper into the issue and help the child build their perspective-taking skills and find a path towards repair with your support.

Positive Reinforcement

Most of the time, I believe that with clear and consistent expectations, engaging activities, opportunities for regulation and connection, most students will be successful in a group. That being said, some children (and sometimes us counselors) need just a bit more, and that’s okay! Two ways to accomplish this are:

First/Then: For this type of reinforcement, you are outlining what is expected of the student(s) and what they will earn if/when they complete it. The hope is that they will engage in the less-preferred activity to earn the preferred activity. This is a simple system where all you need to keep track of is the time!

Some helpful tips about a First/Then system:

  • It may look like this, “First, we will do the activity I have planned and then you will have 5 minutes of drawing/Lego/fidget time” or “First, we will complete our agenda items and then you can have free time”.
  • For some students, it can be helpful to have a visual. Like a visual schedule, you can create a board where you change out the activities based on what you are doing that day. You may use words or pictures to describe the first activity and then the reward.

Points/Rewards: For a more traditional approach, you can use a positive reinforcement system. This system would be designed to have students earn tangible rewards (AKA “prizes” or “treasure box”) or activity rewards (AKA “free playdough time”) for following expectations. When creating your system keep in mind:

These expectations should be realistic and attainable for your group. If the students in your group are working on using a hand signal during group sessions, you likely wouldn’t start with the expectation that they will use a hand signal 100% of the time. Instead, you might aim for using a hand signal 50% of the time. Once that is mastered, move to 65% of the time, then 80%, so on and so forth.

How do you want students to know they are earning a reward? You can use a visual like a tally system where you add a tally or a check when they are following expectations or a token economy where they earn something like a bead every time they are caught doing the right thing.

Students respond to these systems and rewards in varying degrees so you may need to try out a few options before you figure out what is most motivating for your group of students. Some options to consider:

  • Tangible rewards: stickers, candies (based on your school’s rules around this!), pencils, fun erasers
  • Activity rewards: A preferred activity like playing with fidgets or Legos, minutes of earned “free” time, game time
  • “You did a great job waiting your turn to share so I’m going to put a bead in the cup!”
  • “I saw you walk safely to the door so that is a tally!”


It’s important to note that if bigger behaviors (think, behaviors involving safety or extreme emotional dysregulation) occur within your group, it will likely require you to stop and assist in the regulation and de-escalation process. This is a natural strength for school counselors, but some tips to keep in mind are:

  • Use a calm, steady, soothing tone of voice.
  • Check your body language to ensure you are promoting a feeling of safety by being on the student’s level (as long as it is safe for you to do so).
  • Avoid overwhelming the student with too much talking or other stimulation (lights, sounds, other people etc.).
  • Verbally acknowledge what they are feeling. Ex., “You’re feeling sad right now because you are thinking about your grandma.” or “You’re feeling angry because your friend said something unkind.”
  • Give simple, reasonable limits. Ex., “I know you are feeling angry, but your body needs to be safely on the floor.” Or “We can talk more about this when your voice returns to an appropriate level.”
  • Model using a coping skill like taking a deep breath, stretching your body, using a sensory tool, using positive self-talk, etc.

When Is It Time To Consider The Fit?

If you have done the work proactively and worked with the student reactively…and the behaviors are still negatively impacting the group? It may be time to consider if this group is the right fit for this student (or that specific group of students).

Some questions to guide your decision:

  • Is the composition of this group posing a social challenge for this child? Are their skill levels too diverse?
  • Are there too many or too few children in this group? Is this child’s behavior communicating some kind of over or under stimulation?
  • Could the time of day be contributing? What are they missing in their classroom? Are mornings or afternoons typically challenging for this student?
  • Does this child have needs that are not being met by this group? Do they need a different level of support, like 1:1 or outside counseling?

What Can You Do Next?

Behaviors can make running a small group hard and can certainly have a negative impact on the group’s overall success, but the good news is there are things you can do to minimize, or eliminate, those behaviors. This post talked about many different approaches you can take.

Proactively, you can create and maintain routines, set and review expectations together, intentionally plan activities with consideration for any student-specific needs, provide opportunities for physical regulation, share behavior-specific praise, and model appropriate behavior.

Reactively, you can communicate using I-messages, teach replacement behaviors, practice blocking, engage in restorative practices, or create more traditional reinforcement systems.

Because there was a lot of information shared, you might be wondering where to go from here. Here are some questions to guide your next steps:

  1. What groups are you running and what challenges do you find to be more inhibitive to the success of that group? Are there certain behaviors you’d like to address?
  2. What needs are those behaviors communicating?
  3. How can I meet that need in a way that is beneficial to all group participants?

There is no doubt that managing behaviors can be a frustrating and challenging task. I hear you and I hope you found one, or some, ideas here that you can implement!

2 Responses

  1. My office is TINY so I never felt like a “tour” was necessary, but this year, at the 1st group, I started giving a “tour” of my office and the things we could expect to use (whatever is on the floor in the center of us, items from the “art cart”) at group and areas that were NOT for group (my desk, my storage bins, files, game shelf). This made a HUGE difference in their ability to focus and reduced my frustration significantly eliminating questions like “When are we going to do/ use X?”. I also offered incentives like “If we get through all of our agenda items, we may be able to choose something from the game shelf or another area of my office.” BIG WINS!

    1. I love the idea of doing a “tour” as part of the first session! It makes so much sense, and ties into the idea of students needing to know what to expect!

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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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