20 Steps To Setting Up
Your School Support Group

When you're starting a new group, here are some things to consider and steps to take. I’ve included lots of editorial comments, but beyond following organizational policies, I encourage you to do what feels right for you. Once you’ve done this a time or two, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what works for you.

Step 1: Find out if your school or organization has structures and policies already in place for support groups. As always, there's no need to re-invent the wheel. Ask your principal, lead counselor, or other supervisor for information.

If you find policies already in place, follow them. Not all administrators support the idea of support groups in schools, so following guidelines closely can prevent problems and keep your group out of any kind of negative spotlight. If you have some leeway, consider the following topics.

Step 2: Decide how many facilitators your group needs. I suggest two, for several reasons. First, if a student in group needs one-on-one attention, one facilitator can talk to that student separately and the other facilitator can continue working with the rest of the group. Second, it’s nice to bounce ideas off another adult in the room, and third (sadly), it helps prevent liability issues that can arise from having only one adult in a room with several kids talking about personal issues.

Step 3: Decide (or follow your organizational policy regarding) how you want your facilitators to be trained. See if your organization offers training, or contact an agency (or me!) to organize a support group facilitator training.

Step 4: Decide what age group you want to work with. Some facilitators who are teachers want to work with kids from their own classes -- others want to work with another age group, having concerns about the conflict between playing an authoritative role (teacher) and a supportive role (group leader) with the same kids. You can also decide whether you want to work with only one grade level of students, or have a mixed-grade group.

Step 5: Decide how many students you want in your group. As a general rule, I suggest six students if they’re in second grade or younger, eight students if they’re in third through eighth grades, and eight to ten students if they’re in high school or older, including adults.

Step 6: Decide whether you want a mixed gender group or an all girls or all boys group. I usually enjoy a mixed group, but I’ve also had some wonderful “women’s” groups (usually middle school or high school girls). A strong suggestion: If you do a one-gender group, stick to your own gender! There are probably exceptions to this, but I think a group of boys of any age would benefit more from a good male group facilitator than from working with me.

Step 7: Decide how you'd like to identify students for your group. If you haven’t had groups in your school or organization before, you may need to recruit. Some suggestions:

~ Early in the school year, you can put out a memo to teachers and ask them which students they had last year who would probably benefit from group this year. This is a more reasonable request than asking them which of their new crop of students needs group. Except for the most obvious ones, they may not know yet.

~ You can go around to classrooms, talk about your group, and leave permission letters with the students to be returned to you by a certain date. Or you can pass out interest surveys to all students and collect them from all students, even those who indicate that they’re not interested.

~ You can leave permission slips in the office, in the school library, or in some other central location, with instructions on where to turn in the completed slips.

~ You can introduce your support group to parents by putting a blurb in your school’s weekly or monthly bulletin (or on the school website), and give a phone number and contact person (probably you) in case parents have questions or want to put their child in a group.

~ Once the idea of support group catches on (which may take two or three years), chances are that you’ll have more students volunteering for groups than you have facilitators to run them. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If groups are successful, you can usually find more people willing to be trained as facilitators.

Step 8: Decide how long your group will last. I like year-long (school-year) groups with all kids fourth grade or older, and semester-long groups for third graders or younger. I want to be with them on a consistent enough basis to see some real changes, and to watch the groups bond and do some really substantial work. Some facilitators prefer eight-week or ten-week groups, due to time commitments or other factors. Whatever works for you is better than not doing group at all!

Step 9: Decide whether you want a focus for your group (children of divorce, grief group, etc.), or whether you want to do a general group where kids can process whatever issues they’re dealing with.

I like a general group unless there’s something very specific happening on a certain campus, such as kids dealing with the death of another student at the same school, etc. I do also like grief and loss groups, mainly because everyone has losses and hardly anyone knows how to process them. Grief and loss groups usually aren’t specific enough to exclude anyone.

Step 10: Decide when and where your group will be held. If you’re in a school setting, you may be doing groups during a prep period or recess, at lunchtime, or before or after school. If you know before the school year starts that you’ll be doing groups, you may be able to switch prep times with someone so you and your co-facilitator can have a common prep time. In future years, the best time to ask is in late spring, when the master schedule for the following year is being made.

~ Ideally, try a 30 to 40-minute group for second graders or younger, a 40 to 50-minute group for third through eighth graders, and a 50 to 60-minute group for high school students and older. Most groups will meet once per week.

~ As for location, if you have a large enough office, that would probably be best. Otherwise, a conference room or classroom where you won’t be interrupted is good, preferably somewhere you can put up copies or posters of the check-in process, feeling words, etc., and leave them there. If you can’t do that, laminate copies of your most commonly used handouts so you can refer to them whenever you need to.

Step 11: Pick a start date and stick to it! Many groups don’t get started until late in the school year because the facilitators keep planning to start it “pretty soon” or “when things settle down,” which, if you’ve worked in a school recently, you know is not likely to happen.

Step 12: Choose confidentiality guidelines according to your school or organizational policies. See a list of suggested guidelines in this Confidentiality Guidelines Article.

Step 13: Put your group guidelines in writing and make sure your students know them well. (See #14 for an example.)

Step 14: Send home a parent permission letter and have a signed permission slip in your hand before allowing any student to come to group. Here's a printable sample of a suggested set of Group Guidelines and a Parent Permission Letter.

Step 15: Once your group guidelines are in place, stick to them! Hold kids accountable for following them, or your group risks becoming “unsafe.” It’s been my observation that kids prefer a fairly structured group, even if they gripe about it at first. Once they know what to expect, they’re freer to share real thoughts and feelings. If group is too unstructured or a “free for all,” the talk will stay superficial and you won’t see the same kind of bonding or progress.

Step 16: Choose a general format or structure for your group (such as a highs and lows check-in, a group activity, and a simple group closure) and stick to it. As with the group guidelines, students generally enjoy having the same format week after week, and may surprise you with things like their vehement insistence that they sit in the same chair during every group session until the end of time.

Step 17: Decide ahead of time how you want group attendance to work, and whether you want to use student contracts.

Step 18: Seek cooperation from teachers about group attendance, make-up work, etc. Teachers may want to give input on your student contract or guidelines about turning in the work they missed when they were in group.

Step 19: Once you’ve finished a year (or semester) of group, and are forming another group, consider adding student facilitators. Student facilitators are students who have been in group before, and would like to come in and help operate the group. Your student facilitators need to have enough maturity that they will actually be helpful, but they can also be students who could use another year of practice.

For the most part, I suggest having at least two years’ age difference between student facilitators and general members of the new group. When they’re the same age or one year apart, there tend to be power struggles. I tried using student facilitators one year as an experiment (two eighth graders in a fifth grade group and two more in a sixth grade group), and we had a great time. All the kids benefitted from it.

Step 20: Relax and enjoy your group. It’s all a trial and error process, and you’ll notice that perfection isn’t one of the group goals.

Go to the next page, "Guidelines For Support Groups."

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