Saturday, January 19, 2013

Winterized Small Groups - Part 1

As the years tick away, we test out new ideas or ways of doing things. Sometimes I feel like I'm constantly doing these "test runs" on my latest ambitious or crazy ideas. One of the areas that received a significant number of "test runs" was running small support groups.

I believe in small support groups - they are so important! I can meet the needs of many students at one 30 minute sitting. With my guidance, students can role-play and practice learned skills with their same age peers. Students expand their peer group and expand their knowledge base. The time in a group session is used to really focus in on areas of concern and highlight areas of strength. I am helping to build connections for these kiddos, with their peers and with a caring and trustworthy adult at school. So many positives...but, small support groups area REALLY time intensive to run! I can't say I enjoy all of the legwork. In fact, it is one of my least favorite parts of my job. I've been forced to find a plan that works for me so I can meet the needs of many students. I will be sharing with you my learnings about organizing, scheduling and planning for small support groups so maybe you can pick up a few ideas to test out!

I tried it all....
  • One session a day for 6-8 consecutive days.
  • One session a week/group. Rotate groups over the course of the school year. 
  • Group sessions before school.
  • Group sessions after school.
  • Group sessions at all times of the school day.
  • Group sessions during lunch.

So, after years of trying to run small support groups in a number of different formats, I have settled in on this particular way of doing things for at least the past 10 years. I block out the 8 weeks after the December Holiday Break for small support groups. The groups begin the week we return to school in January and continue for 6-8 sessions which carries us into February (sometimes March depending on holidays and/or snow days). Because I focus primarily on small groups during these months, I am able to do a lot of them. This year I have 21 small support groups servicing over 100 students.

Having groups at this time of year is also helpful when we head into the second round of parent-teacher conferences. Due to the time I have spent with the kiddos in small groups, I find that I am able to express to parents my professional observations and learnings about their children.

To note: depending on student need, I do sometimes run what I call "intensive groups." These would be those kiddos that really need more intensive attention all year long. I would create the group in September and maintain that group for the year if the students in the group have bonded and work well with each other. If they are not the right fit for each other - I shake things up a bit when I begin groups in the winter time. I have had a lot of success with these groups and I've even had students in these groups ask me to continue on with the same group of students the following year. How could I ever say no??

Which Kiddos Would Benefit?
I created a chit that tells teachers and other staff members that I will soon be organizing small support groups to begin in January. The memo tells these school professionals that they should write the names down of those students who they feel would benefit from being in a small support group with me. I express that they should include the most needy of their students. On the form, there is a table with a list of small group topic examples such as: social skills, impulse control, anger management, self-esteem, school success, friendship, and other in the far left column. Then, there are 3 blank columns next to the topics for staff to write the names of the students.

Parent-teacher conference time is just before Thanksgiving and teachers will be meeting with parents about the student successes and concerns. Staff will mention to parents that they are recommending a small support group. Staff always recommend a few additional kiddos after conferences AND parents /guardianswill often call to ask me about interventions I can provide. I often offer small groups as a possibility.

I also include, in our November and December school newsletter, a brief mention that I will be facilitating small support groups beginning in January. I direct parents/guardians to give me a call if they feel their child would benefit from a small support group.

Finally, I go through the rosters and write down the names of my own recommendations.

Compiling the Names of Recommended Students

As the chits start coming in from teachers and other staff, I start compiling a master list of names. I prefer the old school way of using a large steno note pad and a pen! I designate one sheet per grade level as indicated in the top margin (I do not tear off the sheets - I keep them on the steno pad). On each sheet, I list each group name and under each group name I list the student names and the teacher last name in paranthesis behind the student name. Also, behind the name I indicate if the student was in a small group in a previous year (I abbreviate). See picture below.

I keep the teacher recommendation chits, but the above lists become my master working lists. Keeping the teacher recommendation lists is important - I refer to them often when folks ask me if they recommended a kiddo or not. They are evidence! As the school year heads into December, I always get a host of additional referrals for groups come mid-December. I add those names to these master lists.

After the chit deadline date passes, I begin to ogranize which groups I will be running for each grade level and the students who will be assigned to each group. This process is tedious. I am constantly thinking about: Who will work well together? How many students per group? Behaviors? Needs? Strengths? Space?, etc. When I do this part of the process, I use a different large steno book and set up the pages in the same way I described above. But, this time I am actually grouping the students together in groups I'm assigning them to. Some grade levels may have two school success groups (for example) and no self-esteem groups. If that is the case, that grade-level page would only list the groups I will be running for that grade level based on identified need.  Every grade level can have a maximum of 5 support groups (due to scheduling limitations).

Once I start divvying up the students into groups, there will always be kiddos I don't know where to put. So, I start creating that list of students on the bottom right of each sheet. Question mark students are those who may need special consideration when placing with other students, maybe their needs span various topic areas, maybe they've been in a small group before and need something different (I look back on prior year's master lists to determine this), or maybe the teacher did not recommend the student but I feel the student should be a part of a group. I plug these kiddos into groups once I get a sense of who is in each group (how many in each and the mix of behaviors/needs in each) and sometimes after talking with the teachers to see if a student of theirs would benefit from a different topic area.

This list now becomes my master list. See picture below.

Permission Slips
Then, the FUN begins!! I have a parent/guardian form letter written for each group topic. In each group's form letter, I talk about the recommendation for participating in a small group, the purpose of small support groups, the topics to be covered in the small support group, when we will be meeting, number of sessions, a request for their permission for their child to participate, and a paragraph to call me with any questions. I staple a 1/3 of a page permission slip to each letter. On the permission slip I write the student name and group name (parents/guardians will sign and date the bottom). I fold the letter (with stapled permission slip inside) in half (backside out), staple the bottom, and address to parents/guardians of that student. I got a free self-inking stamper from Vistaprint that has From: My name - School counselor. I use this to stamp From on each of the letters. On the bottom right hand corner of this package, I write the last name of the student's teacher (makes it easier to quickly throw them in mailboxes).
Getting these permission slips back is extremely time consumming - hence why I send them home the first week of December. I work the entire month of December at getting permissions back before we head into winter break. I enlist the help of teachers, send home second and third copies, talk to students individually, and make as many phone calls home that I can. Still, there will always be students who do not return a slip. No Slip, No Group! 
Many parents/guardians call me with questions. For example, they will ask why their child was recommended, the purpose of the group, when we will be meeting, etc. There are always a number of parents that call me to thank me for including their child and there will be a number of parents that call me with a definitive NO (feeling the child does not have a need to learn the skills I will be offering in the small group).
As permission slips are returned, I put a check mark behind those student's names (on my master group list). If I send home a second or third form, I indicate 2nd or 3rd behind the student's name on the master list. If a parent says NO, I write that down. If I call the parent, I write down PC behind the name. Only students who return a permission slip may participate! Later I create an attendance card for each small group (see below). I keep permission slips for the duration of the group.
I must admit, this process seems never ending and can be very, very frustrating. Eventually the groups begin and unfortunately, not all recommended students will participate.

In December, using the plan book that I discussed in this August post (click here), I schedule my groups. I hold all groups in grades 2-5 during lunch time and each group has 6, 7 or 8 sessions (I try to hold 7 sessions each). I write in the group name next to the lunch time and in the day column the group will be held. Kindergarten groups are held in the morning and first grade groups are held at an agreed upon time between the first grade team and me. When filling in my planner, I write in/schedule all group sessions accounting for holidays or other forseen conflicts.This way I can see when groups will be ending and I can begin to plan out the rest of the school year.

There is usually no rhyme or reason as to which group I put on which day. I tend to make my Tuesdays and Thursday's heavy days because there are fewer holidays/days off on those days and the groups will finish sooner.

From here I create a Word Document master list and no longer use the written versions I mentioned above. Each page looks something like this (a page per day of the week). I list student name with teacher last name in parenthesis and the check mark indicates if a permission slip was returned. On here I also indicate if I sent home a 2nd or 3rd permission slip and if a phone call was made. This is the master list that I keep in my filing cabinet from year to year to refer to.

Elementary School Counseling
Small Support Groups at _______________________


2nd Friendship
Monday 11:30-12:00
Student Name (teacher last name) Ö
3rd School Success
Monday 12:00-12:30
Student Name (teacher last name) Ö
5th Anger Management
Monday 12:30-1:00
Student Name (teacher last name) Ö
1st Social Skills
Monday 2:30-3:00
Student Name (teacher last name) Ö

I create an attendance card for each scheduled group. Using Word and putting two cards on a sheet (I print on colored cardstock), I type in the student names followed by the teacher last name in parenthesis, and I make sure that the day and time of the group is accurate on the top. I put a check mark behind the names of those students who returned parental permission slips. When each group meets, I hand write in the date of the group and mark who attended or who was absent.

Finally, the cafeteria folks are my angels in all of this! Because the groups are back-to-back during lunch times, they get the group students in the lunch line first and then send them up to me. How do I organize this? Using the master list of groups (as I described above), I create a Lunch Shedule. I take out the group name and just leave the lunch time and student names. This is what the cafeteria uses to know which students to send to me. I update as necessary if new kiddos are added or as permission slips are returend (maybe late).

If at all possible, I plan out ALL of the group sessions ahead of time by writing a lesson plan for each and every group session. I must admit, this is not always I many times find myself planning the night before! I do not "wing it!" I never "wing it!" I am not a "wing it" type of gal! I only have each group of kiddos for roughly 30 minutes once per week. I need to make the most of that short amount of time.

I often receive questions on where I get my group session ideas....I pull ideas from all sorts of places - other blogs, internet searches, pinterest, resource books, and my own head! I often see an idea that someone else came up with and add a twist to it to meet the needs of my students. I want the sessions to be as engaging as possible in the hopes of maximizing learning. So, I create a lot of visuals, use games, and use different activities  - listenting, discussing, creating, etc. I hope to share some of these group lessons/sessions with all of you this winter!

Coming Up: Winterized Small Groups - Part 2

I needed to create a way, besides each groups lesson plans and attendance sheets, to be able to QUICKLY glance at what was accomplished in each small group session. I will be sharing these logs sheets with you in the next post.

With this number of groups and students coming in and out of my office each week, I definitely had to come up with an easy way to store all of the lessons and materials. My methodolgy has also been "personally tested" to come up with the way I do things today! I keep my sanity with binders, a shelving unit, plastic bins, and portable file folder boxes. I will be sharing how I store and organize (complete with pictures) all of the materials in the next post.

Also, last year I implemented a "Follow-Up" plan in which I got such positive feedback from teachers and parents that I have decided to continue to use it. I inform each and every parent what their child learned (session description) and then I write comments on their child's strengths and areas to work on. I will be sharing how I "Follow-Up" in the next post as well!


  1. What a wonderfully comprehensive post! I love how you laid this all out. You should share this with your principal! Our jobs are nuts - but so rewarding, and often really fun. I run most of my groups during lunch and recess and learned the hard way one year that I need to schedule at least one lunch group, and not all recess groups each day or I never get a chance to eat! If the school counseling gods are smiling, I can manage to eat most of my lunch over the course of four lunch periods. It usually takes me until halfway through July before I remember how to eat lunch like a normal person!


    1. Hi Rebecca! Glad you enjoyed the post! Eating lunch is always an issue and my lunch time is never "duty free!" I've been so busy lately that I find myself hungry and eating something before the first group arrives. Never fails...the kiddos ask me why I'm not "eating lunch" with them!

  2. That is an awesome post! There really is a science behind organizing and leading effective groups. I try a different strategy every year and after 7 years, I still don't have a great solution! One question: Do you also see children on IEP's during this time frame?

    1. Hi! If I have any students who require a small support group facilitated by the school counselor (as written in their IEP) during this time of year I include them in a group with the regular education kiddos. It is more authentic and I can get a better sense of the strengths and weaknesses. When the IEP is written, I discuss this at that time.

  3. As a school social worker I find it difficult sometimes to measure student's goals/progress. How do you decide when a student with an IEP has made enough progress/met their goals and can be off caseload? Do you ever find that a student (non IEP) may need continued support after the 6-8 week group ends? What do you do then? Can't wait for the next post!

  4. This is a great post. Small groups are so important in my mind. I have run several myself, and am always looking for ways to tweak that part of my program. I also have a blog at and will be posting soon about the successful groups i have run.

  5. I run my grief and divorce groups in November and December and then my behavior, friendship, social skills, etc. right after break. I like using the first parent conference as a way to get the word out that groups will be starting too.

    I require active parent permission slips for my divorce and grief groups, but just passive permission for my "educational" groups.

    1. Passive permission...because the small groups such as friendship, social skills, etc. are not being offered to every student and students may miss academic time or regular lunch/recess time, how does the passive permission work?

  6. I am curious how well the students participate if they are also trying to eat their lunch. Our lunch periods are only 20 minutes, but if I included the recess time before lunch, that would give 35 minutes total. It would be a great way to do more groups during that time, instead of having "lunch duty supervision" in the cafeteria for 20 minutes every day.

    1. Hi. In the age of state standards and high-stakes testing, lunchtime groups are a necessity (I may not be able to service them otherwise) - especially with the older grades. There are rare occurences when I may have to take a group at a time other than lunch. I do not take K or first grade over lunch - doing lunch and activities seems to be asking a lot of them. The other grades it works just fine. On those particular group days, they do miss lunch recess.
      "Lunch duty" - the good ol' "as assigned" duties! Years ago I had to lobby for why it didn't make sense for an elementary school counselor to have lunch duty every day. 20 minutes may not seem to be a lot each day, but, that is over 1.5 hours a week. Imagine all that you could teach 5 small support groups (1/day) during that particular lunch period!

  7. I am a school social worker too. The way I do IEP goals is to make them measureable so that I know the child has acheived them. "Can list 5 person triggers." "does some behavior 8 out of 10 tries.", etc.

  8. Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to post all this. I'm in my first year at a really large school and have been struggling with how to schedule small groups. I'm going to try your ideas, pretty much exactly as you lay them out. Your blog is awesome :)