By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking: 78 Ready-to-Use Group Discussions About Anxiety, Self-Esteem, Relationships, and More (Grades 6–12)
It was just a hunch. When I was tasked with creating a program for gifted students in a large high school, I decided to include small-group discussion as an option. Previously as a teacher, I had observed and heard about anxiety, depression, self-harm, stress from high expectations, social tensions, and other common struggles in gifted students. I wondered if these bright students would be open to discussing such concerns with peers—essentially talking together about growing up.
I also wondered if school administrators would be open to this. I credit strategic advocacy for small-group discussion becoming an important part of these gifted students’ school life and, eventually, of the school life of general population students in many middle and high schools and high-risk students in alternative schools.
One key element of advocating for these groups was the curriculum I developed. The curriculum helped inform adult school personnel and parents about the groups. The introduction to each session included background information for group leaders about the topic. The materials also provided clear focus and a good level of control, while offering flexibility for pursuing new strands of interest. The curriculum developed over time as new developmental concerns came to light during discussions. Session details soon became the first edition of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking, which was originally published as two volumes and has continued to be revised and retitled through the years. Today any edition of the book can help veteran or novice leaders guide discussions safely and skillfully.
Objectives for these discussion groups are about supporting social and emotional development:
- to develop listening skills, expressive language, self-advocacy skills, and skills in articulating concerns
- to discover common ground related to growing up
- to learn how to deal with anger, stress, fear, anxiety, worry, and perfectionism
- to understand and interact effectively with authority
- to understand difficulties related to developmental and other personal transitions
- to gain perspective about peers, teachers, administrators, siblings, and parents
- to develop compassion
- to learn how to give and receive compliments and other feedback
- to develop coping skills
- to learn how to ask for help
- to develop trust
- to improve self-esteem and self-confidence
- to gain insights about self and others
- to challenge thinking only in stereotypes
- to normalize developmental challenges (related to identity, direction, relationships, autonomy)
- to reduce the stigma of counseling
- to gain communication skills for employment, romantic relationships, parenting, leadership, and school and family interaction
All children and teens, regardless of ability level and circumstances, can benefit from this kind of small-group discussion. When I eventually became an educator of counselors in my second career, I emphasized using small-group discussion—but not for intervention, which is typically emphasized during counselor preparation. That kind of discussion addresses an existing problem such as bullying, disruptive behavior, self-harm, low morale, poor attendance, poor peer relations, or poor self-care.
The groups I emphasized were for prevention—ideally helping students avoid problems or at least prevent problems from becoming worse. I believe school counselors should focus mostly on this latter kind of discussion. When counselors meet with 10 or more weekly groups for six to eight weeks, with multiple six- to eight-week-long series occurring over the course of a year, potentially several hundred students can have that rare experience during a school year. School climate can be positively affected with this kind of systemic approach. The secret seems to be in helping kids “be known.” Social aggression is less likely when peers are known beyond first impressions.
Small-group discussion was new at that school where I first led these groups. The three principals were receptive after I presented a carefully constructed proposal.
I applied the same small-group approach later in alternative schools and elementary and middle schools. I used the same advocacy strategies for gaining administrators’ and teachers’ support:
- I made sure they understood what small-group discussion was and was not.
- I communicated clear objectives, just as I would have done for any school curriculum.
- I emphasized potential benefits to school climate: fewer behavior problems, a sense of safety and security because of new connections to other group members, and positive cross-cultural and cross-socioeconomic communication.
- After approval, I prepared information for the parents of the students I had invited to join a group—and for the prospective group members as well.
- I explained legal and ethical concerns, such as respect for student and family privacy and mandatory reporting of suspected sexual or other physical abuse, neglect, or danger.
- I explained why a layperson (not a credentialed counselor) could lead this kind of group—because of the curriculum used and because of the focus on developmental topics, both of which help the leader stay within appropriate boundaries.
- I explained that the curriculum included detailed guidelines for group leaders, including actual open-ended questions to generate discussion.
- I explained that, ideally, each group’s members would be at the same grade level because of developmental similarities.
Setting up small-group discussion usually involves logistical challenges, which should also be addressed when advocating for the groups:
- finding an enclosed meeting space that does not have student or teacher traffic
- scheduling meetings so that they do not interfere with classroom activities
- routinely sending reminders about meetings to group members, because students forget
- ensuring that each group is sufficiently heterogeneous to challenge common cultural, economic, and ability stereotypes
- planning how members can get their food if the meeting is held during a lunch period
- communicating with teachers who might object to the hassle of students leaving even a study period
- problem-solving about how to recruit group members, including how to provide information meaningfully, efficiently, and appropriately
- making sure administrators, including school board members, are adequately informed, ideally face to face
In the school where I first organized small-group discussion, the invited students were open to the idea, but not immediately. They wondered about this program option. Would it be comfortable? Would their friends be involved?
By the end of the first semester, after many one-on-one conversations to present the group idea, 30 students had signed up, and the groups quickly became popular. By the third year, 90 to 100 students were spread among 10 groups each week, with two groups meeting each day during the two lunch hours. Students stayed in their assigned group, becoming increasingly skilled and comfortable with one another. Each meeting had a new topic, making more than 30 topics related to social and emotional development available per year.
By the end of the first year, administrators were receiving positive feedback from parents about the effects of the groups. The support of both continued.
The following are general suggestions for negotiating with administrators:
- Assume an undemanding, collaborative posture.
- Be prepared to articulate purpose, objectives, and logistics clearly.
- Be prepared to explain whether and why there will be several series per year or only full-year groups.
- Express gratitude for approval and any accommodations.
- Make sure parents and teachers are well informed.
- Say that you will be patient when recruiting students (after all, it’s something new for them, and they are likely concerned about social repercussions).
- Promise that administration will be kept informed about plans, curriculum changes, successes, and challenges along the way.
Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books, journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.
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