With the start of the new year some school counselors make the resolution to try something new like running a small counseling group. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the idea, and before we know it, the weeks fly by and we find ourselves nearing spring break. Although it can seem like a daunting task to organize and facilitate a small counseling group, it really isn’t so bad! Here are 10 tips to help you put your plan into action!
1. Decide on the group you are interested and comfortable in running. Being the rockstar counselor you are, this may coincide with one of the groups you find students need the most. However, how do you really know? An easy way may be to do a needs assessment, which is a fancy way to say “short questionnaire to gather students’ interests.” Start small! If you think you may only have time to run one group, then only advertise one and see who is interested in that one group. You may get 5 students interested, or 15, which means perhaps running more than one group on the same topic. A needs assessment may be completed on a Google form or on plain old paper.
2. Timing is everything. As students complete the needs assessment, you may want to consider how long the group will meet and for how many weeks? If meeting on a weekly basis, a good rule of thumb is for a group to be anywhere from 4-8 weeks. Keeping it to that time limit will keep the students, and you, focused on the goal of the group. Think about the concepts you want to cover each week, while keeping in mind the first week should consist of establishing confidentiality and group rules, and the last week should consist of some kind of wrap-up activity. Thirty minutes is probably appropriate for grades K-5. Students in grades 6 and up have more to say and a bigger attention span, so more time may be needed.
3. When should the group meet? Fitting the time in the school day may be the biggest challenge of these three questions. As school counselors of course we know social emotional learning is just as important as all of the other areas. But do remember our working relationships with our teacher colleagues is key, so making sure a student is not pulled out of the same class week after week is important. This holds true for the core content areas and the “special” areas (PE, art, music, etc.). Unless your school’s schedule has some kind of study hall option, think about rotating the time of day. Lunch time is always an option too, but that may be better for middle school students and older, as they can multi-task (-aka- eat and listen) better than elementary students may (but perhaps not by too much!).
4. How many students should be in the group? Three makes a group, but more than 8 makes a crowd. Based upon the group topic and the students’ levels, you may want to limit the group members to either 5 students or 8, maximum. Having more than 8 students may either being chaotic conversations and/or leave the more quiet students out of discussions.
5. Group groupings. If 3-8 students were interested, you’ve got yourself a group! If many more expressed interest, you may have yourself a very busy schedule! This past fall I had 20 fifth grade sign up for a group. Four of them failed to have a permission slip signed (see point #6). With the 16 students able to participate I created 4 groups, which meant on the surface I was doing the same thing 4 different times. But in reality although the same concepts were being covered with each group, they all had a feel of their own!
6. Permission slips. Since the small counseling group is a “service” which (although being offered to all students) is not being provided to all students, obtaining a permission slip is super important. Explaining what the group is about, when you will meet, and for how long are all essential points to include in the permissions slip. Consider emailing a PDF version of the permission slip to parents/guardians OR making a Google form.
7. Be prepared (to succeed!). Take a few minutes to plan the discussion topic/activity in advance. Not every minute of your group needs to be planned, as you want to leave time for students to process and reflect on what is being covered. Also, document each group “lesson.” A formal lesson plan is not needed, but having your discussion topics/activities/reflection questions should be kept. This is not only great to have to share with parents and/or teachers, but also great to have so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel the next time you run the group.
8. Keep data. Do not bypass this point, do not collect $200, and do not be afraid! Data is not as scary as it sounds! Have students answer a few short questions during the first group session – nothing crazy, 5-10 questions is suffice. The questions should be based upon the concepts you will be covering. Then give them the same set of questions during the last group session. And of course, what good is data without being shared?! Consider sharing the data (perhaps in a powerpoint format) to administrators, teachers, and even parents. It would be a great way to promote the school counseling program, advertise the great work you’re doing, and show how much your students learned/improved (because they definitely will be learning and improving a ton!).
9. Student folders. While small counseling groups are not a graded class, you may do activities together and you want to be sure to keep it fun. But what do you do with all of the fun you’ll be doing together? An idea is to keep a folder for each student with the activities you do each week. At the end of the group, you can give them the folder so they have everything in one place. Students can keep it as a memento, or share with their friends and family. Great for the student, and great to advertise your groups and school counseling program!
10. HAVE FUN! Small counseling groups are a great way to share useful information, while building relationships with your students. If things don’t go as planned, it’s not the end of the world! Kids want to be heard and respected; through facilitating small counseling groups, you are providing them what they need (and more!), while helping them understand and process concepts which are useful to them!
Sounds like a lot, but again, start small! Once you do steps #1-7, the second go-around with groups will be a breeze, and you may even be able to add another group offering! Steps #8-9 may be a goal you set for yourself after establishing a group the first time. But step #10 (have fun)… that one is a must!
Vanessa De Jesus Guzman is an Educator and a Board Certified Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked with children and families for two decades. Vanessa is the owner and CEO of Free to Be Mindful - a private practice located in Ridgefield, New Jersey.
Vanessa is passionate about helping moms, kids and educators with mindful living, mental health and personal growth through efforts including:
Host of the Free to Be Mindful Podcast which provides bite-sized tips and guided meditations to anyone working with kids
Founder of Amiga Moms, a supportive network for 21st century moms offering educational events founded in mindfulness
Public Speaking and Professional Development for parents, educators and young adults on topics such as mindfulness, building healthy relationships with kids, self care, mental health and more.