Circles of Adults:
Reflecting and Problem Solving Around
Emotional Needs and Behaviour
Original AEP Article
By Colin Newton
In this paper, I will first provide some background to working with adult groups. Then, I will highlight key influences on the development of a new approach to working with teacher groups, and describe how the approach was carried out with a group of secondary teaches. Finally, I will propose a working model for effective reflection and mutual support that allows for ‘pupil planning’ and look toward future circles of people who might usefully join together to reflect and offer mutual support.
So often the last person in the world to understand why you have done something is yourself. People you spend most of your life with may be much better placed to understand why you have done something, but may still find you difficult as a result of your presenting behaviour. So it is with children and young people when we are faced with understanding their emotions and coping with their behaviour.
Groups can and do make a difference to us all. They are an inescapable and significant part of life. Our groups may include our families, staff groups, professional organisations, friendships, social groups and so forth. Some we choose, some we are stuck with. Likewise young people find themselves in families or care situations, class groups, friendships and other forms of social grouping in and out of school. These groups may have a very significant impact on the way we and young people think about ourselves and the social world of which we are a part. Peer pressure as well as peer support are critical factors in human behaviour. This paper is about working with groups, particularly groups of teachers but may well be applicable to work with other groups such as young people and their carers or parents.
There is a long and well-established psychological history to group work 8n the mental health field, social work and more recently in education. Orientations have ranged from the traditional psychodynamic (Foulkes, 1957), family therapy (Skynner, 1989), problem solving (Cameron and Stratford, 1987) and non directive (Rogers, 1961) to the consultative approaches (Caplan, 1970 Gutkin and Curtis, 1990). The shared belief behind most of this work has been that groups can change individual behaviour. Early approaches from the late fifties used group consultation to develop the skills and personal resources of individual professionals, as well as to explore how social systems function as forms of defence. What has often emerged since is that groups can be more supportive and less personally threatening than individual work or therapy. They are thus well suited to learning about work on personal growth and change. Other themes have rejected the notion of expertise residing in other people and the need to urge individuals to develop their own resources as human beings.
Whilst mental health workers in the Health Service and social workers have increasingly benefited from individual or group support and supervision carried out in a structured way, it is clear that in education for individual teachers and other workers this has been much more erratic and infrequent.
Few school managers have been able to put in place a stable organised and effective means of support and supervision for their staff. This is despite widespread acknowledgement and recognition that individuals are experiencing a strong sense of low self worth. Also many are finding out that trying to meet the emotional and behavioural demands of their pupils can be personally and professionally debilitating. The reasons for this are well documented elsewhere and include initiative overload and excessive imposed government change on schools (Newton and Tarrant, 1992). Thus many individuals working in and with schools find themselves increasingly exposed and vulnerable with little opportunity to engage in reflection on their own relations to individual pupils or to think and plan proactively about what might be the best strategy in a given situation. Despite this teachers need to become ‘reflective practitioners’ if they are to tackle effectively the full range of individual needs to which they are exposed daily. (Ainscow, 1991).
Influences on the Present Work
One approach that has gained some influence in education in this country is that of Hanko (1990). Her approach is well placed to form the back bone to any work with groups of staff. Hanko stresses the need to ask answerable questions and encourages groups to find their own educational answers to the difficulties presented by the behaviour and emotional needs of young people. By this, she means that rather than simply advising individuals or groups, consultants need to ask questions which empower and lead the recipients to finding their own way forward from their own resources, knowledge and experiences. Thus a group might well be asked “Where do you instinctively feel this pupil needs emotionally to move to?” or “What ideas do you think might be worth exploring if we are going to improve this pupil’s educational experience?” Such questions do not prescribe, but rather invite perspective and experiences.
‘Each case was jointly explored, with consultative guidance towards asking oneself the kinds of questions which might lead to better understanding of a child’s exceptional needs and which might enable teachers to adapt their approach to the children in the course of their daily encounters. This took account of the teacher’s needs for immediate support as well as of their need for information which would highlight issues and evoke the skills necessary to put insights and principles into practice beyond the immediate difficulty. The solutions which they attempted were their own and arose from their active involvement in the joint exploration of workable alternatives.’ Hanko (1990).
Educational psychologists in Newcastle upon Tyne (Stringer et al, 1992) have used LEA Training Grant Scheme funding to set up teacher support groups using Gerda Hanko’s approach with considerable success. They established a programme to train teachers to facilitate their own school-based staff consultation/support groups. This work has significantly influenced what is described below.
Another important influence on my own work with groups comes from ideas originating in Social Services work, especially of Hawkins and Shohet (1989). They provide a model for group support and supervision, which, like Hanko’s is unapologetic in being psychodynamically, referenced, yet which seeks to avoid becoming too esoteric, impractical or impenetrable.
Problem solving approaches and approaches to consultation stemming back to Caplan (1970), together with plenty of other behavioural and action-oriented perspectives thrown in, have been a major influence on the work of most present day education psychologist. (These have been reviewed in Reynolds, 1984) The whole paradigm of problem analysis, target setting, strategy generation, review and evaluation has continued to be my own touchstone when working with teachers. It has thus influenced the work I have engaged in with groups and what follows.
I was also influenced by one of the groups in which I am presently a member, the Nottinghamshire Educational Psychology Service. As with any venture, encouragement form group peers, together with the sharing of ideas, useful resources and experiences support new behaviours and exploration. Fellow team members supported my work with another group but may well have been quite unaware of the fact. Mutual support is an ‘unsung hero’. It often occurs at a less than virtually undetectable level. It may also occur within a complex web of conflict and stressed relationships.
The Teachers’ Group
Out of frustration with the impact of the work of the educational psychology service on an inner city comprehensive school with individual staff and pupils with emotional and behavioural needs, it was agreed that I would set up a teacher support group to allow reflection and problem solving regarding pupil presenting behaviour difficult to manage and emotions difficult to understand. The group met approximately three times a term for four terms, each session lasting for 90 minutes after school. I worked together with a support teacher who also worked with the school to allow me more opportunity for reflection, planning and evaluation, as well as for mutual support and help when I inevitably made mistakes. We agreed a number of aims for the group and specific ground rules as follows:
• To provide opportunities for:
• Shared problem solving in a safe exploratory climate in which the group will find its own solutions.
• Individuals to reflect on their own intervention methods and receive feedback from the group.
• An exploration of whole-school processes and their impact on individual staff attempting to meet pupil needs.
• Emotional support and shared understandings of issues at a pupil, family, school and community level.
• Feed back to school staff on issues, ideas and strategies that are agreed to be worth sharing with them.
Effective group work requires clear boundaries and one way of providing these is to agree ground rules. I drew the following from the influences described above, which emphasised the need for individuals to take personal ownership of their own comments and to avoid giving others in the group ‘ good advice’. Many writers have described in detail the horrors of groups pouring helpful advice upon one member who ends up feeling deskilled, disempowered, dispirited, resistant or simply overloaded. Thus we agreed the following;
• Speak from your own experience. ‘Own’ your statements!
• Don’t give ‘good advice’/Don’t preach.
• Give feedback to other group members that is owned, specific and balanced. Speak for yourself and of your own experiences in detailed and precise terms, providing both positives and negatives in balance. For instance: ‘Fore me, my feelings about Paul are that he can be both likeable and totally infuriating.’
• Maintain confidentiality regarding all personal materials unless agreed otherwise. Don’t discuss outside group unless clearly in interests of those concerned
A summary of Working Group Processes
As a result of the influences outlined earlier, as well as reading, discussing and drawing together a number of experiences of past group work, the following group process was devised out of a synthesis of what appeared to be the best of the approaches examined:
1. Group members are welcomed:
Introductions are carried out, ground rules and aims clarified whilst coffee is drunk.
2. A recap from the last session is carried out:
To follow up developments and reflections after the last meeting.
3. New issues are gathered from the group:
One case is selected that appears to reflect shared concerns: For instance, the case of ‘John’ who was mentioned by several group members. He appeared to be pushing a number of staff to shout, reprimand, exclude or in any way reject him. At 14 years John still regularly soiled himself at night, was greatly underachieving in school work and was hated by other pupils. He was at great risk of permanent exclusion.
4. Case presentation:
The teacher who raised the concern is asked questions to elicit the child’s ‘story’, including their looks, and metaphors to describe them. The teacher is asked to keep a clear focus on the child and is guided so as not to let their own ‘ideological editor’ allow judgemental thinking or inaccurate generalisations. The teacher sis asked to make observations about what it is like being with the pupil. Positives and negatives about their behaviour are elicited. ‘What does it feel like being with the child?
5. Additional questions/information from the group about pupil is gathered:
6. Ground rules may need to be observed carefully here. Individual staff need to be kept focused and prevented from leaping to premature conclusions or to making ‘helpful’ suggestions about strategy. What is the child’s family situation? What other experiences of teaching him/her can others share?
7. The process of relationship is described:
The story of the teacher’s relationship with the young person is described. Metaphors and analogies are invited. How would a fly on the wall see your relationship? If you were alone together on a desert island, what would it be like?
8. Transference/Emotional resources explored:
Teachers are asked who or what situation they are reminded of? They are asked whether there has been any transfer of past relationships onto the child or projection of their feelings into the child? For instance, does this situation remind you of any of those angry but helpless feelings you had with your own son when he was and adolescent?
Exploring the child’s possible transference, questions are posed such as, is any role being transferred onto teachers by the child? For instance, are you being treated as if you were her dad? Is any emotional material being projected? For instance, are you being blamed for not liking or hating the pupil? Is she projecting her own anger into you? How much is being taken in? Are you beginning to feel that you too want to reject or exclude him just as his parents have?
9. Counter transference:
What feelings actions or thoughts are being used to counter this transference from child to the teacher? For instance, are you doing anything to avoid being treated as if you were his parent? Perhaps being extra strict or extra indulgent?
10. System/Organisation factors:
What aspects help or hinder this pupil’s emotional/behaviour development? What areas of the curriculum provide successful experiences for the child? For instance does the pastoral system of the school provide space, or time and skilled personnel able to counsel this young person and work actively with their parents?
11. What understandings/hypotheses can we draw out from above?
This is an important stage and it is essential to keep thinking rich and open ended, inviting as many as possible hypotheses. Participants need to be led through a creative brainstorm o understandings, and theories that might partly explain what is happening.
Avoid the thinking ‘locking in’ prematurely to a single way of understanding what is going on. Equally, either/ors need to be avoided, such as, ‘exclude him or give him support all day long, one to one’. Such thinking becomes rigid and unfruitful and will be unlikely to lead to practical educational responses to a young person’s needs.
Hypotheses might include the young person’s need for attention, the impact of the loss of their father, perceived rejection from the mother, the influence of the peer group, lack of support at school, physical abuse two years ago and so forth.
12. What alternative strategies/interventions are open to be used? Brainstormed and recorded.
’Either/ors’ need to be avoided at this time also. This needs to be a shared session in which the teacher who is presenting the concern contributes as much as anyone. Care is needed to ensure that this person is not overloaded with other people’s strategies. The final selection of strategy from the brainstormed list is their choice. Strategies might include: a special time for the young person with her head of year, a meeting with the pupil’s parents to explore how she is being managed at home and to share tactics, a home-school diary, counselling, or an agreed action plan that all staff are aware of, agreed sanctions and rewards and so forth.
Key themes that emerged during a typical session regarding ‘John’ included:
a) Rejection. This had occurred with both his parents, but there were many attempts by the young person to trigger rejection from pupils and teachers by behaving in a totally unacceptable way when at school.
b) Separation and loss. His mother had left the parental home at a critical point in his life and then his father had remarried and was working away a lot. A year manager who he was close to had less time for him as he moved year groups.
c) Desperate need for attention and acceptance. John was coming to school giving cash and sweets to other pupils, a desperate form of gift-giving. He was grossly underachieving and often clowning about in lessons.
d) Confusion, fluctuating between hating/rejecting and accepting/valuing. Staff related to him positively at one level but could not bear his behaviour and so wanted him our of sight. Adults described their pity whilst other pupils said they actually hated him. The group remembered other adults, about whom they had felt the same ambivalence.
e) Helplessness. What can we do, these difficulties are too immense and unfixable?
f) Testing out limits. Those who cared for him and taught him were constantly being pushed to see what would happen if all the boundaries were crossed.
g) Being ‘not there’/’scary’/’switched off’/’matter of fact’. John was regularly described in this way, a child who had developed a mask to hide his inner pain.
h) Not fitting in. Adults and pupils felt that John did not fit into the culture of the school. In some ways he was considered too tidy, too smart and too well spoken.
i) Transference. The group were aware of how they had behaved and felt about a fellow teacher who had eventually left the school. He reminded them of John and vice versa. The emotional issues regarding this colleague had been left unresolved for the teachers. Some members of the group remembered a similar child to John whom they had successfully taught.
j) Transference for young person from past ‘rejectors’ to key adults in his life in and out of school. This was well encapsulated by actual comments from the young person such as, ‘You’re just like my mum, I hate you’.
The group members were then provided with a professional development opportunity to lead other smaller groups taking other staff through the same processes as we had been going through. Being committed to giving away psychology and keen that such an approach could become embedded within the school culture, I was very keen for this to occur, especially as the number of pupils worrying the school was seemingly never ending.
I unpacked the process for the group by explaining the core theories and ideas underpinning it. They were then given a chance to run small groups in school focussed on pupils with severe emotional and behavioural needs. This work had mixed success highlighting the need for clear processes and ground rules. The follow up debriefing session was very valuable and gave clues as to the way forward.
Pupil Planning Meetings
The next development was to design pupil planning meetings and to train key staff in how to carry these out. The design was based on what had been learned already about the group processes of reflection and problem solving within a restricted time frame. Heads of year were encouraged to lead these groups and time was made available for this critical work to occur. Making time available to them for this work was the biggest obstacle of all.
This process not unlike what has been described earlier consisted of the following steps:
1. Accurate description of the situation gathered outlining the young person’s story so far and their present relationships. Both positives and negatives are listed.
2. Keyworker’ relationship with pupil explored and action carried out already is described and reflected upon.
3. Other information from the group members on the present situation and their relationship with the young person is shared. Strategies tried and implemented are shared, including any action plan already carried out by the pupil’s core support group.
4. The group members generate hypotheses.
5. What do we want to see happening? Both short and long term targets are stated and recorded.
6. A brainstorm of strategies is carried out, each one being carefully minuted.
Immediately After Meeting
7. Action Plan – This is completed by the pupil’s keyworker with support from another group member. This is negotiated with both the parents and the young person if they have not been involved in the group.
8. A fortnightly follow-up of the action plan implementation occurs, which allows for reviewing and amending as appropriate.
One Month After Meeting
9. Follow up review of Action Plan is called, to involve the keyworker, young person and their parents or carers. The action plan is amended and updated with new targets, and strategies, selected and agreed.
Outcomes, Reflections and Evaluation
Whilst the sessions were not without tensions, rivalries and conflict we were able to stick to the process and the discussions were well marked by the honesty of individuals, the open admission of mistakes, quality insights into classroom, school and family dynamics and mutual support. Understanding and tolerance at many levels appeared to be increased and tolerance also as the process allowed deeper exploration of individual stories. Self-reflection and exploration of transference and counter transference struck me as particularly rich. ‘Yes he reminds me of my sister, I really hated her …’ We explored unfinished emotional business brought to mind dramatically by individual cases where it was apparently unconsciously affecting teacher behaviour. All the time it was important to draw a careful boundary between what we were doing in the interests of the young person and for professional and personal development of staff and what could have been a full blown ‘therapy group’ for staff.
Simply asking good questions, such as ‘what would it be like if the two of you were on a desert island together?’ seemed at the heart of the success of what went on as did having a structured process for discussion. I continue to be unsure whether simply broadening the understanding of the group to the situation of the young person was sufficient, or whether it was crucial to agree strategies and plan of action. Similar ponderings and echoes can be found in the work of Hawkins and Shohet (1989) when they talk of having the courage not to know the answer. Similarly, Hanko (1990) talks of the problem solving process making it less likely that there will be a premature jump to a solution before the issues have been fully explored.
Evaluation was carried out by interviewing those involved myself, interviewing the deputy head who manages the pastoral team and by qualitative analysis of written notes maintained over the sessions with the group. An observer educational psychologist who sat in for one session provided further information. All participants rated the process very highly and positively, As did the EP observer and the school’s management tem. Comments made indicated that the work had been found supportive to individuals as well as developmental in that new skills and understandings had been acquired. Specifically, participants by the end of the process reported themselves better able to effectively chair ‘pupil planning meetings’ and more able to ask questions and to reflect on situations where pupils were presenting emotional and behavioural problems. The EP who observed one session made this comment about what was going on.
‘A troubled teacher able to talk through a major and threatening problem in
safety. Realisation that her problem is not unique. Recognition of her efforts
and successes however minor and encouragement to enable her to carry on.’
The negative issues that emerged related to frustration regarding the lack of time available for such work, and the value placed upon it in the school.
Two years later two members of staff who had been involved were randomly approached. They both still valued the experience positively, had felt the work to be ‘therapeutic’ to them, that they had learned more about emotional and behavioural needs and also a lot about how to get staff to ‘open up’ about pupil problems and personal, professional responses to these.
a) Specific Outcomes of the work encompassed the following:
b) One pupil was included longer term in school and brought back from the brink of certain permanent exclusion, by one of the participants in the group going out of her way to ensure that his social and emotional needs were better met in school.
c) Pupil Planning sessions were carried out by all key participants in school with other staff concerned regarding individual pupils.
d) Additional time was provided by the Service Management Team of the school to allow for ‘Pupil Planning Meetings’ to occur as part of the ongoing pastoral process.
On balance the work had some impact upon this school and ironically even more impact on a school down the road that took the approach on wholesale and now spends much more time engaged in such work that the target school itself!
Group work or circle work would seem to have a promising future and is only really in its infancy after 30 years or so exploration. The following circles may hold some very important educational keys for young people whose emotions are difficult to understand and behaviour difficult to manage.
a. Circle of Friends
This Canadian idea (Pearpoint, Forest and Snow, 1992) is concerned with maximising the inclusion of pupils and minimising their exclusion, by enlisting peer group support from individual’s classmates. Working with colleagues I have already found this to be a very powerful approach to the effective inclusion of pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties (see Newton and Wilson 1999).
b. Mixed Circles
Groups that include parents, carers, teachers, the young person and some of their classmates, plus other valued adults meeting with a facilitator to explore ways forward in a context of mutual support.
c. Circles of Parents
Mutual support and problem solving can be very rich between parents if set up supported and structured appropriately and seriously.
d. Circles of Teachers and Parents
Mutual support and shared learning can occur in such ventures if all involved are granted equal group status and encouragement.
e. Community Circles
Networks of statutory and non-statutory agencies can work together in mutual support if they share a set of aims and objectives. These can greatly improve and strengthen the effectiveness of individual efforts.
I have ended by looking forward to the development of a range of circles of people reflecting and problem solving. Surely money spent on mutual support and understanding to promote understanding and inclusion of young people must be to everyone’s long term benefit? The alternative may be much less effective and is likely to lead to the spending of even more thousands of pounds on segregated options for pupils when their behaviour becomes too challenging. We all exist in and rely upon groups, but participation in them requires encouragement, support and development. What price well integrated adult group members of society?
Ainscow, M. (1991) Effective Schools for All. London: Fulton
Cameron, R.J. and Stratford R.J. (1987) ‘Educational psychology: a problem centred approach to service delivery’, Educational Psychology in Practice, 2(4), 10-21.
Caplan, G. (1970) The Theory and Practice of Mental Health Consultation. New York: Basic Books.
Foulkes, S.H. and Anthony, E.J. (1957, 1984) Group Psychotherapy: The Psycho-analytic Approach. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gutkin, Tl and Curtis, M. (1990) ‘School-based consultation: theory and techniques’. In Reynolds, Cl and Gutkin, Tl (eds) The Handbook of School Psychology, Second Edition, New York: Wiley.
Hanko, g. (1990) Special Needs in Ordinary Classrooms. Hemel Hempstead: Simon Schuster Education.
Hawkins, P. and Shohet, R. (1989) Supervision in the Helping Professions. Milton Keynes: Open Univeristy Press.
McConkey, R. (1986) Working with Parents, For Teachers and Therapists. London: Croom Helm.
Newton, Cl and Tarrant, T. (1992) Managing Change in Schools. London: Routledge.
Newton, C., Taylor, G and Wilson, D. (1995) ‘Circles of Friends’ Paper in preparation.
Pearpoint, J., forest, M. and Snow, J. (1992) The Inclusion Papers, Strategies to make Inclusion Work. Toronto: Inclusion Press.
Reynolds, C., Elliot, S., Gutkin, T. and Witt, J. (1984) School Psychology – Essentials of Theory and Practice. New York: J.Wiley.
Rogers, C. (1961) On Becoming a Person. London: Constable.
Schein, E.H. (1987) Process Consultation (Vol.2) Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Skynner, R. (1989) Institutions and How to Survive Them, London: Routledge.
Stringer,P., Stow, L., Hibbert, K., Powell, J., Lomas, E. (1992) ‘Establishing staff consultation groups in schools’, Educational Psychology in Practice. 8(2).