How to Set Up Small Groups for Counseling: 8 Steps

School social workers run small groups on a variety of topics. In this post, we discuss some of the most important steps to setting up small groups for counseling/ school social work.

Male teacher with three students sitting in a circle.
A lively discussion in a small group

1. Conduct a Needs Assessment

The first step in setting up small groups is to determine a specific need. Some schools conduct formal social skills assessments throughout the year, whereas others conduct a pre- and post-assessment.

The targeted area of need for students on IEPs should be reflected in their social/ emotional goal. For students in general education, teacher or parent referrals may be the best route for understanding student needs.

Part of your needs assessment could also include specific goals or needs your school has as a whole. If your school is starting a new initiative or wants to promote a specific set of values, there may be ways you can incorporate these initiatives or values into your lessons.

2. Set Up a Referral Process

Once you have an identified need or skill you will be targeting, you can determine how students will be placed in the group.

Students on IEPs may have required time they need to meet with mental health staff at school, so you may not need a formal referral process for a group of students on IEPs. This post outlines a brief description of how I group students on IEPs.

In setting up a referral system for small groups, you will want to identify a person or a team that is responsible for determining eligibility for the group. At my high school, we had several students who were referred to groups but were already receiving services through other methods (group or individually) and so they weren’t selected for the new group we were forming.

We also selected students based on fit for the group. One quarter, we conducted a boys-only grief group. Though we received referrals for girls who would have benefitted from a grief group, we did not opt to include girls.

It’s also helpful if you know the students well beforehand, so that you can ensure personalities are the best match as well. For example, I ran an anxiety group which included a trans student and I also had a student with significant anxiety but who was very transphobic. It would not be beneficial for either student to be in a group together.

While arguably all kids benefit from any instruction on a range of social emotional topics, you’ll want to make sure the group is the best use of your time as well. Ensuring that the group is a good fit for the student helps to keep things effective.

3. Determining Size of Group

You’ll also want to consider how small of a group you will want. I would recommend no more than 10 students per group. Depending on other commitments, you may only be able to run one small group at a time targeting a specific need.

If there are 20 students who are referred for the group, but you only have space for 8, you will want to prioritize the students who most need the group or are more ready to engage in the group at that time. After the course of the first group, you could potentially run the group again with the students who weren’t in the first group.

The size of the group could also be determined by how the group will be delivered. If you are teaching a class or a whole grade level could benefit from the lessons provided in the group, the size of the group will be determined by the class size.

4. Determine If the Group Will be Open or Closed

An open group refers to a group where students can come and go throughout the course of the group. A good example of an open group is a lunch bunch. These are typically groups that don’t have a set curriculum or as specific of a structure.

A closed group is a group that has the same members throughout the course of the group. Closed groups are best for more sensitive topics where building rapport and confidence in group members is more important.

Here are some examples of groups that should be closed:

  • Anger management
  • Grief
  • Coping skills/ anxiety management
  • Divorce

3. Select a Curriculum or Structure for the Group

When setting up small groups for counseling, it is helpful to determine which curriculum you will be using or if you will have a set structure. Here is a post that outlines a few considerations for selecting the best curriculum.

If you are using an evidence-based curriculum, many have a set amount of sessions. It is important when setting up small counseling groups to know a general outline of the sessions.

Research Press Publishers (the publishers of Aggression Replacement Training) have tons of great, free downloadable forms/ worksheets especially about violence/ anger and divorce.

5. Receive Necessary Permission

Receiving approval and having support from administration at the school is essential. They may be able to purchase materials or curriculums for your groups and will likely have a good grasp of the needs for small groups.

For students on IEPs, you may already have permission to pull students from class. It is a good idea to send out a permission form or an informational sheet outlining the process for the group and the topics that will be discussed.

Some school districts have policies and forms already created, so it is a good idea to check with district mental health leadership.

6. Schedule Group Times

The scheduling step can often be the trickiest. Throughout all levels, it is ideal if you can pull kids for small groups during electives or individual work times.

In elementary, it may be easier to pull small groups from the same classroom teacher. In middle and high school, there is less importance on ensuring students are in the same grade level.

At the high school level, some of our students had “off” or “free” periods. We would try to set the group time for when most kids had their off period.

If you have your own class, scheduling these groups would be a lot easier! However, you may also want to consider a specific time when all students in a given class may need the supports you are planning to offer through the small group.

Some social workers and counselors schedule all of their small groups for one day, but that makes me feel really burnt out and it was unrealistic for me at the middle school level. Do what feels best for you!

At the middle school, our students on IEPs had a class called “advisement,” which was somewhat like a structured study hall where students would receive direct instruction and special service providers could work with students. Having small groups during this time was ideal, as well as teaching to the whole class for certain skills.

WISE Tip: If you are a radio user- turn your radio off or set the volume low. Put your groups on your calendar and have your cellphone with you in case of big emergencies. But- it’s important for the group to have your focus and feel that their time is valued also.

7. Set up System for Receiving Kids

Part of setting up small counseling groups in an effective way is determining how the students will get to group. If the group takes place in their classroom, there’s no need for setting up additional structures.

In middle and high school, sending a pass to the class may be an effective strategy. However, here are some questions to determine if sending passes is truly the most effective route.

  • Where is the classroom located from the small group location? I had several students who were in the classroom next to mine before group so it didn’t make sense to send them a pass.
  • What is the pass system? In many schools, the social worker writes a pass, then takes it to the main office and it is then given to a student assistant who then has to deliver it to the right class. For me, oftentimes this took longer and more work on my end than just getting the kid myself.
  • What are the student’s specific needs or skills? I had several students who enjoyed a meandering through the halls whenever they received a pass and would maybe show up to group halfway through. I also have had students who prefer I send a pass so other students don’t know they are being pulled for a group. I’ve had yet other students who know every Tuesday at 10:30 is group and don’t need a pass to remember. It’s good to consider each individual kid’s needs and strengths.
  • Has the student ever been to the group location? Especially for the first few group sessions, it may take kids a little bit to learn where the group is being held.
  • What class is the student being pulled from? Ideally, small groups would take place during a student’s “off hour,” however, this can make it difficult to send passes. I can’t send a pass to cafeteria bench #1 or Dunkin’ Donuts (we had an open campus). Typically in these cases, we would send passes to the class before group with a note to say come at the end of the class period. However, I also had students who were pulled from electives that they enjoyed and didn’t want to attend group, so they had a tendency to “lose” the pass.

While creating a reusable weekly pass seems like the most effective strategy on the surface, it may actually lead to more work in the end. Plus, getting your steps in and being present in the hallways is always a bonus!

8. Start Your Group!

Now that you’ve gone through all the steps to setting up small counseling groups, you’re ready to begin!

In your first group session, you will want to make sure you cover any important ground rules, confidentiality issues or specific structures/ expectations you will have for the group.

Happy small grouping!

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