Guidelines For Support Groups

Having a clear set of support group guidelines or norms is crucial. They set the tone for your group, and they help create the initial safety that group members need to begin to speak freely and build trust with each other, and with you as a facilitator.

Whether you offer an established list from the beginning, or you have students create the norms on the first day, here are some suggestions to get you started. You can get a printable copy of this list (minus my editorial comments below) by clicking the link at the bottom of this page.

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1. To have a safe place for us to share our thoughts, feelings, and needs.

2. To give support to each other in dealing with any problems we may have in any parts of our lives.


1. To learn how to express thoughts, feelings, and needs in healthy ways.

2. To learn to resolve problems and conflicts without hurting ourselves or others.

3. To learn healthy communication skills.

4. To learn how to be a good friend to others, by supporting them without trying to “fix” their problems.

5. To learn how to make the best choices for ourselves.

6. To learn that we are responsible for our own feelings, thoughts, and actions, and that by making good choices, we have the power to change our lives.

(If #6 were the only thing students learned, I would say the group had done its job. So much of what students struggle with is based in feeling powerless or disempowered, and if we can help them find their personal power, we've done them -- and everyone around them -- a great service.)


1. All beliefs are treated with respect.

(This doesn't mean a student has to "feel respect" toward another student. This is about behavior. A student can dislike someone and still speak and behave respectfully to that person. It's a good distinction to know.)

2. No putdowns to self or others -- even as a joke.

(If a student says, "I was just kidding," I don't spend my energy trying to determine whether that's true or not. If I have this guideline in place, I can say, "Well, kidding or not, it can still be hurtful to the other person, so please don't kid that way in group.")

3. Everyone has the right to pass.

(This is one of the key differences between a support group and a therapy group. In a school support group, the right to pass is essential. School support groups are voluntary, and students get to decide when and how much they participate. I suggest asking, "Do you want me to come back to you, so you can have more time to think?" If the student says no, I just let it go.)

4. Everyone’s participation is important.

(This is the flip side to the right to pass. If a particular student always passes, the sense of safety and trust in the group can be compromised, because the other students don't know what the silent one is thinking. I suggest saying to the entire group, "Pass when you really need to, but otherwise, please be part of the group and participate in the activities."

If a student continues to pass and be silent, a 1:1 conversation outside of group may be in order. Maybe the student has a particular concern, or another student in group he or she doesn't feel comfortable with, and maybe this student would benefit more from meeting with you individually.)

5. Be on time.

(Aside from being a basic respect issue, it's also less disruptive to the beginning of group activities if everyone is there on time.)

6. No side talk or cross talk.

(Side talk is anything distracting or disruptive, from whispering to another student to rustling papers, to making faces at someone else in group. Cross talk is interrupting the person who's speaking, either with questions or comments. I encourage you to deal with both quickly and consistently so the students in group can feel safe.)

7. Use “I” statements -- speak only for yourself.

(I encourage you to teach "I" statements to your group as soon as possible, since they are the foundation of healthy communication skills. For general group purposes, I encourage you to redirect students who speak for others, as in, "Everybody hates that girl," attacks with words, as in, "You're stupid and wrong," or gives away personal power, as in, "He makes me so mad." See my book, Tools For Your Emotional Health Toolbox or Ten Real Tools For Real Life, for more details about teaching "I" statements.)

8. No “shoulds” toward yourself or others.

(This is a pet peeve of mine. "Shoulding" on others sends a one-up/one-down message, and shoulding on ourselves is usually about guilt or shame. Even if I say, "I wish you would have..." or "Next time I'll... instead" evokes more compassion, whether to self or others.")

9. Confidentiality: What is said in group stays in group.

Exceptions to confidentiality include:

1) When someone is being physically or sexually abused
2) When someone is an imminent danger to self or others
3) When information must be shared in court.

(I usually let students know that if I ever do need to call someone, I'll always notify the individual student in advance, or include the student in the phone call, so there's no sense of ambush.)

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You may come up with additional guidelines, or change these to suit your group. Either way, by the end of the first group meeting, it's a good idea to have your list recorded, and refer to it often for the first few weeks of group.

I often laminate the guidelines page (or use a plastic sheet protector), and have students start each group by passing the page around and reading the guidelines (not necessarily the purposes and goals) out loud. It becomes an anchor for the beginning of group, and students are reminded of the norms each week.

Get a printable copy of "Support Group Guidelines" and a parent permission letter.

Go to the next page, "Five Stages of Group Development."

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