G532: Introduction to Group Counseling

Module 6: Group Work With Children and Adolescents


During the past 15 years, groups with children have gained increasing acceptance as an intervention modality with children and adolescents, in school and non school settings. In this unit, you will learn the following information:

1. Frequent applications of group work with children and adolescents.

2. Developmental characteristics of children and adolescence that affect the ways in which groups are planned and conducted with them.

3. Differences between characteristics of developmental and counseling groups with children and adolescents.

4. Models of group work for children and adolescents.

4. Selected sources of group activities.

Part 1: Applications of groups with children and adolescents.

In schools, group work has been treated as an integral part of the counseling curriculum for several years in many states. In other states, such as Indiana, use of groups as a modality for delivery counseling services has evolved more slowly. However, with the adoption of the Indiana Developmental Guidance Plan by the Department of Education, group work is recognized as an essential element of the guidance program at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels. At the high school level, group work is included both as a Student Assistance Service (SAS) and Educational and Career Services (ECS).

In mental health settings, group has been a central component of children's inpatient treatment within private and state psychiatric and residential facilities since the middle 1980s. Group work has been somewhat slower to gain acceptance among outpatient providers but, again, practitioners are quickly coming to appreciate the value of group work in promoting child development.

Why are groups effective with children and adolescents?

Group work is an effective intervention modality for children and teens for many of the same reasons they are effective with adults, plus some additional reasons that are specific to childrens' levels of cognitive, emotional, behavior, and social development. Some of these reasons include the following:

1. Groups enable children to form bonds with peers in a structured environment that enables them to discuss feelings and ideas openly, with reduced risk of inappropriate negative interactions (e.g., teasing, ridicule) and discussion of individual differences that often hinder relationships among them in unstructured interactions.

2. Groups enable to children to understand that their concerns are not unique to them and that there is not "something wrong with them." Group discussions may assist children in discussing and coming appreciate that others share their problems, fears, worries, and the like.

3. Through the use of developmentally appropriate structured activities, children and adolescents are often able to articulate personal feelings and interpersonal feedback to their peers that they would have difficulty verbalizing to adults. Often, young persons accept more readily constructive feedback from peers than from adults.

4. As is the case with adult group work, groups with children enable counselors to reach more young persons more quickly and, in mental health contexts, at lower cost to families relative to individual counseling. In schools, group work enables counselors to serve ore children in an environment usually characterized by high student to counselor ratios and limited time to actually engage in counseling with students.

Part 2: Developmental characteristics of children that impact group work

From birth through late adolescence, children exhibit an increasing range of cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial skills. As children master each skill, their approaches to solving problems in their social and academic environments increasingly approximates those of adults. Thus, as children work to endeavor these skills, groups must be designed to capitalize on the skills they have attained, and adjust for the skills they have yet to attain.

Cognitive Development

Piaget  studied extensively the cognitive development of children from birth through late adolescence. He described cognitive development as a series of stages during which children gradually acquire an increasing repertoire of skills and engage in a gradual transition from preoperational thought to the formal thought of typical adults. At each stage of development, children exhibit what Piaget termed egocentrism, defined as a "block" by which children believe that the manner in which they construe a problem is the only way the problem can be construed. In order to progress to the next higher developmental stage, children must overcome the block or egocentrism of their current stage. Although there are "typical" age ranges during which most children exhibit a given stage's characteristics, these age ranges are merely approximations. Some children master the cognitive tasks of a given stage at younger ages, others (including children with developmental delays) at older ages.

At this point, please review the stages of cognitive development that you received in class (this is Exhibit 1). Then continue in this module.

Psychosocial Development

A number of writers have attempted to define the stages of psychosocial development through which children and adolescents progress. Psychosocial development refers to the process of developing a sense of personal identity and purpose, as well as the development of particular types psychological needs (e.g., needs for autonomy, sense of industry, sense of identity) and personal strategies to meet those needs through interactions with others in the social environment. Two writers, Robert Havighurst (1961) and Erik Erikson (1968) developed conceptually similar models of psychosocial development that have direct bearing on the planning of groups in schools and social service/mental health settings.

At this point, please review a summary of these psychosocial stages that you received in class (this is Exhibit 2).

Emotional Development

Children's emotional development is closely linked to their cognitive and psychosocial development. Broadly, emotional development can be summarized as follows:

The preschool child: Preschool -age children are characterized by limited understanding of emotions and limited awareness of their own and others' affect. Young children tend to be quite labile (emotional experiences may be intense, but shallow and often fleeting) and reactive (emotions come on quickly, without cognitive processing of them) in their emotional responses. Major developmental tasks are to learn the following: (1) what emotions are; (2) what typically brings about particular emotions in oneself and others; (3) empathy, the recognition that what makes "the child experience certain feelings may lead to the same feelings in others, and that specific feelings "feel" much the same to others. The acquisition of these skills requires several years and the skills become more sophisticated as the child develops. Interaction with other children through guided social interactions, as well as free and structured play, are essential to emotional development at this time.

The elementary school child: Children from kindergarten to fifth grade are continuing to learn what feelings are and, with each year, are acquiring increasing levels of impulse control which, in turn, reduces emotional reactivity and lability. Children begin to acquire the skill of empathy, which enable them to think about the impact of their behavior on peers and adults. However, children at these ages, having not fully acquired the skill of abstract (e.g., formal) thought, continue to exhibit substantial, albeit decreasing, levels of emotional lability. Again, interaction with peers in both structured and unstructured activities is essential to continued emotional maturity.

The young adolescent: Children in the middle school and, often, the first two years of high school, typically have acquired a fairly strong cognitive grasp of what emotions are, and have acquired the ability to distinguish subtle differences in feelings (e.g., irritable versus angry; sad versus embarrassed). However, as they concurrently acquire the ability to think in the abstract and to engage in metacgnition (i.e., thinking about their on thought processes), they must struggle with ambivalence, or having conflicting feelings. Feelings may thus be quite intense and confusing for young adolescents, which accounts in part for why middle schoolers tend to appear as labile, reactive, and self-centered as preschoolers (which most middle school and freshman high school teachers will confirm). Typical young teens are, however, able to engage in at least a rudimentary reasoning process. If, in group situations, their interactions are structured in ways that communicate the normality and universality of their feelings, they are able to learn much about themselves, the impact of their behavior on others' response to them, and the ways they can manage their feelings through the use of reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Part 2: Designing groups that accommodate children's developmental characteristics

First, please understand that the basic principles of group work, such as the stages of group process development, groups dynamics at each stage, and leader tasks and techniques, generally apply to group work with children and teens in much the same ways that they apply to adults. However, certain aspects of group work practice must be adjusted to account for the fact that children organize, process, and respond to information differently than do adults (assuming that adults have completed fully their development).

Some important considerations for group work with children include the following:

1. Children are active and "hands on."

You could simply sit in a circle with a group of kids or young adolescents and spend 40 minutes getting them to simply sit and talk -- if you enjoy chaos. Children learn by doing, which is why play is a central part of their daily lives. The ideal group with children is one where the leader engages members in activities or structured play during each meeting. These activities, as appropriate, can include physical movement, and games, board games, drawing, reading stories relevant to the group meeting's topic, manipulative, sensory stimulants (e.g., sand, clay) or other structured play activities. What is important is that the type of activity or play used in a meeting has a purpose in service of the group goal or the objective for a given group meeting.

2. Children are impulsive.

The older the child, the less impulsive s/he typically will be -- but the typical child is rather impulsive. Thus, groups should be structured and the facilitator should be an active manager of the group process. Groups with adults tend to have the highest levels of structure early in group development and,as the group develops cohesion, the level of structured is gradually reduced (Bednar, Mel nick, & Kaul, 1973). The relationship of structure to group cohesion in groups with children and young adolescents has not been extensively studied and, thus, is less clear. However, given that children normatively have less developed impulse regulation, it should be expected that some level of discernable structure will be needed throughout the life of the group. With children who possess age-appropriate impulse control skills, some reduction of structure may be desirable as the group become cohesive. However, groups for children who have delays in impulse control (e.g., ADHD, autistic disorder, anger management problems, emotional immaturity, some abuse victims), require high levels of structure throughout their duration.

3. Children tell stories to describe and understand their world.

Children, by virtue of their emotional (lifted awareness, understanding of feelings) and cognitive development (preparations or concrete operations), exhibit circumstantial thinking. They tell stories to make their points and express feelings, ideas, and feedback. Thus, facilitators must not only allow story telling, but at times encourage stories, particularly among younger children. What makes a story helpful or therapeutic, is what the leader does to help the child understand why s/he told it and what s/he can learn from his/her own and other children's stories. when a child tells a story in group, it is useful for the leader to intervene in ways that clarify:

a. the apparent point of the story -- by asking the child what the group should learn from the story, or by interpreting the meaning of the story yourself.

b. the child's feelings during the story -- through paraphrasing the story's main point and reflecting the child's feelings in the story.

c. the child's feelings in telling the story -- through reflecting the child's apparent feeling or asking the child how s/he feels after telling it.

d. the impact of the story on the group -- by inviting other children to give feedback to the child who told the story and asking them if they have similar stories to share.

4. Children are egocentric.

Children in groups may emphasize their own world views as the "only ones" or the "only correct ones."This is a product of cognitive egocentrism and their struggle to develop abstract reasoning about their environments. One reason groups are effective is that they provide a forum for children to learn others' world views and to empathize with others. Group activities may be designed to help children learn about others' experiences and to appreciate differences among themselves.

Part 3: The developmental group approach

Over several years of research and clinical practice, George gazda and his associates have developed a comprehensive model for developmental group counseling with children and adolescents. The model is linked closely to models of psychosocial and cognitive development and describes strategies for conducting groups with children from preschool ages (emphasizing therapeutic uses of play) through late adolescence.

At this time, please read Chapter 13 in Gazda, et al., that describes his developmental counseling model.

Developmental classroom guidance

Developmental counseling groups may be conducted in schools or social services settings. In schools, increasing emphasis is placed on providing these group both in small group settings (recommended group sizes of 5 to 7 students) and in classrooms. Classroom guidance has been found to provide an effective means of teaching life skills, such as caring, responsibility, and conflict management, while involving classroom teachers in the counseling process. The leadership interventions, process elements, and dynamics in classroom groups are much the same as in small groups, although the counselor often is cast in rather a teaching role, in addition to using counseling techniques to facilitate the group.

Other Developmental Groups

Other types of groups include play therapy and activity-interview groups.  Play therapy uses children's natural tendencies to express themselves through play as means to assess their concerns and needs, and express themselves freely.  Activity-Interview groups are more appropriate for older children and adolescents, in that they combine more sophisticated forms of "play" (e.g., games) with traditional "talk therapy" interventions used in adult groups.  Read an outline about these groups here.

At this time, please review the handout, Developmental Classroom Groups.

Life Skills Training

Life skills training groups are a form of developmental group counseling founded by George Gazda in order to assist developmentally delayed adults in achieving basic developmental milestones for self-care, domestic and occupational functioning, and social interaction.  Please read about these groups in Chapter 15 of Gazda, et al.

This concludes the module on group work with children and adolescents.