Why your group’s not working and what you can do about it

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

Group dynamics is one of those things you can’t see but has a big impact. If you do group work as a youth worker or school chaplain and find it difficult to get through your program, look at the dynamics.

A few readers have asked for help with group dynamics, so I thought I’d write an article.

It’s the nature of work with children and young people that you often end up with similar kids in your groups. That creates tricky group dynamics straight away.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

HELEN KELLER

Most theories of group work centre around the idea that members of a group bring different strengths and weaknesses. Different qualities and abilities. But when you’re running support programs with young people, your group members often have the same needs.

Your group might have kids who need to develop social skills, well that’s something that helps a group run well. Or they might have issues with anger. Again, having a few hot-heads in a group can be like tip-toeing around broken glass.

So if you’ve found yourself struggling to get a group to work together, here’s some thoughts.

How to amplify the positives when it comes to group dynamics

When you’re working with children and teenagers, you just have to work with what you’ve got.

If you have a group and each session feels like a trip on the Titanic, then start with a bit of evaluation. What is the purpose of the group? What stage of development would you say your group is in? If that makes no sense to you, then stop reading and head over to my article on the basics of group work first.

Once you’ve thought about why you have the group and how far along they are in actually being one, list their strengths and weaknesses.

If you’re working with 10 year old girls, there’s a fair chance that you’re going to be dealing with shifting alliances and up and down moods. It’s also likely that they will have a herd mentality and want to like the same things.

If you can find an interest for a couple of them, you’ve probably found one they all like. The positives of girls this age is that they can be great talkers. They often share their feelings and thoughts much more than a group of boys the same age.

Having an idea of what you can work with and what you can steer clear of helps you to manage group dynamics.

Working within your limits

The next step in dealing with dodgy group dynamics is to look at what limitations you have to work within.

If you don’t get to choose who’s in your group, then that’s a limitation. If you could invite some kids who already have the skills you’re trying to work on, then your group dynamics might change.

Look at the age of the kids you’re working with. If you’re dealing with 4 year olds, you’re going to have a different set of limitations to someone who works with teenagers.

And time can be a big factor too. If you have to fit your sessions into a 20 minute break, you don’t have much time to deal with behaviour.

As a side note, if you have less than 20 minutes for a program, talk to your manager about that. There’s no way you can do good group work with 10 or 15 minutes. The kids would be better off having a run on the oval.

Write a list of any limitations. Think about these things:

  • Age.
  • Time.
  • Location. If you have a small room but expect 20 kids, you have to be wise when choosing activities. If you’re working outside in the middle of summer, heat could be an issue.
  • Resources. If you’re running a program with few resources or without the tools you’re expected to use, that will impact on the quality. Spend time looking at the resources your program needs. Are there resources that you don’t have but your could borrow or beg from someone else. If you have a bit of money but not enough, prioritise the costs or approach someone to sponsor you.
  • Training. If you haven’t done the training for a program, it can be difficult to understand the theory and principles that lie beneath it. Get some training to wrap your head around the concepts. If you don’t agree with a program, talk to your manager or your professional supervisor about your thoughts on it’s limitations. Don’t do some half-baked job with the time you have with kids.
  • Energy. If you find yourself with a low or empty tank, you might not be the right person to be wrangling a group of kids with difficult behaviours. Think about who you could recruit to help out.

“Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed people.” – Neil Gaiman

Solving common problems with group dynamics

If you’ve done all that evaluation and still can’t get your group to move towards the norming stage, then think about these common problems.

My group just won’t listen

When you have a group that seems to be all over the place or talking over one another, 15 minutes can feel like an hour. Try these tips to wrangle a wayward group:

  • Get them focused. The common rule of thumb is to start group sessions with an icebreaker. If that’s not working for your group and seems to just wind them up, try some deep breathing or guided imagery activities. For some ideas, check out these scripts from the Human Performance Resource Center and The Mindful Word.
  • Keep their hands busy. This works well with younger children who just can’t stop fidgeting. Have a bucket of play dough, toy cars, Lego, magnetic sticks or connector pens for them to play with while you’re doing a talking activity. Or you could print out an activity sheet for them to do. Remember that for kids to change they have to be motivated, so having half their attention is better than none.
  • Use games to reinforce teaching. If you’re trying to develop a skill or response, choose activities will test it. Make opportunities to guide them to use it. This sort of training is always going to be messy, particularly with children, so be patient!
  • Quit while you’re ahead. If they’re not having a good day, finish early. Then catch up with each of them one-on-one to reinforce the lesson. There’s no point struggling on. Be clear why you’re having to finish and what they need to do next time to stay for the whole session. This is definitely a good time to review your program. Take a second look at the purpose and structure to make sure you’ve set it up to keep the kids engaged.
  • Have a signal to get their attention. Many teachers will use a bell or whistle. What could you do different? Having an action response can work well and save your voice. One that’s working well for me at the moment is to call out “Bolt” and then the kids do their best Usain Bolt salute.

My group has lots of strong personalities

Kids can have a lot of determination, so when you bring a group of these together it can create chaos. If there’s a few roosters in your group, give these ideas a go:

  • Keep bringing them back to your ground rules. You should always start a group off with a chat about the rules. Once you’ve got a list, revisit them at the beginning of every session. Use them to correct behaviours you don’t want to see.
  • Be the boss. When the group has a lot of strong personalities, you need to have the strongest one. They need to know that you’re in charge and you have a backbone.
  • Don’t let the kids make too many decisions. Getting a consensus takes time and if one child disagrees you could find them storming off in a huff. That then takes more time to draw them back to the group and agree to give it a go. If you want to include them in decisions, either find out what they want one-on-one or by survey. Appoint one child each session to be your adviser. But everyone needs to feel safe that they are going to get a fair turn or it will unravel quickly.
  • Have a few options to get your point across. The trick to great group work is to have a plan for your sessions but to be flexible. To have some options up your sleeve if the original plan isn’t working. If talking to the group is falling flat, then have an idea that would get the same message across, but through a game.

My group has people who won’t join in

Sometimes there will be just one young person who doesn’t want to join in. And then they can all be glaring at your and frozen solid. Here’s five tips to help you get yourself out of this one:

  • Talk to them alone. Find out why they don’t feel comfortable participating. Look for ways to tweak your program to make it more appealing and inclusive.
  • Don’t push. Invite kids to be part of your group, don’t let it feel compulsory. Think about how you can make the group inviting for the quiet kids.
  • Have a “bring a friend” session. Adding a couple of extra people can change the feel and energy of a group. With more people you can also choose different activities to do.
  • Follow up any resistance. If there are kids in your group by force not choice, talk to your supervisor about it. If they’re refusing to join in, it might be better to do some one-on-one support, rather than having them draining the group’s energy.
  • Use novel environments. Creating an inviting space can engage the most stubborn participant. Go one step forward and create a different space every time. Set up an expectation of surprise. Equipment for novel spaces doesn’t need to be expensive. A big net, a bucket of soft toys, a rope, fairy lights, colourful sheets and carpet squares, hoops… You can build up a great collection over time without spending a lot of money. Visit some garage sales if you’re starting from nothing.

Another option for all these issues is to get another facilitator on board. It can be hard to run a group and manage the dynamics when they’re not functioning well. Find an adult who’s happy to be a model participant. To show the kids what they need to do throughout the session.

Dysfunctional group dynamics can be draining. But if you can tweak the structure or types of activities you do and set up some good expectations, it doesn’t have to be a lost cause. Just remember that when you’re dealing with change it can take time. Young people need to find motivation to change, so you’re going to have to be patient.

You can find more tips on helping kids change in my articles on the theory behind how people change and how you can help kids get motivated.

Have I missed a common problem? I’d love you to let me know! Share your thoughts in the comments section and I’ll add it in.

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