Feet in Water
Feet in Water
By: Rosalie (Rose) J. Russo-Gleicher, DSW, LMSW
I was a social casework/clinical major in the second year of the MSW program, and I was doing my social work internship at a nonprofit organization that provides job training services to young adults with learning disabilities. I was delighted to be starting my first group. At the same time, I was a bit nervous about the responsibility of nine teenagers without a co-leader.
I hoped that my experience working as a camp counselor doing arts and crafts with children, and observing my supervisor run a group session, would make me ready for the challenge of working with nine teenagers. I hoped that I had learned enough from having taken an elective course in group counseling. My supervisor suggested that I read the client charts, speak with the job training teacher, and read about the stages of groups. She gave me encouragement and told me to "relax and go with the flow.”
In reading the charts, I noticed that these nine individuals were “involuntary.” They had not asked for counseling but were referred by their teacher for issues like attendance, punctuality, dress code, and other work behaviors. Also, many of them had not selected food service training as a first choice. The group contained almost equal numbers of males and females from age 19 to 21 years old. It was a diverse group of Caucasians, African Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. All but one were single and lived at home. They were all high school graduates or had received completion certificates, and all were in the food service training program. As a result of reading the charts, I developed preliminary empathy, which is an understanding for the clients and their situations.
A pre-group meeting is usually held to meet clients individually to discuss group purpose, rules, risks of participation, and to screen for suitability. A written agreement between the group member and the group leader is recommended, because it can be referred to later on if someone breaks the rules. All nine individuals referred by their teachers were found to be suitable and accepted for this group.
At the first meeting. I welcomed everyone to the 10-week group and explained that the group purpose was to prepare everyone for working. I talked about confidentiality, and its limits if someone indicates harming him or herself or others. To convey empathy, I acknowledged that I was aware that they had not asked for counseling, might think they didn't have a problem, and might think they didn't need to be in the group. However, I told them that groups are helpful because everyone has experiences to share and can learn from each other. I gave my introduction first, modeling self-disclosure and hope, as I talked about my experiences working with youngsters in summer camp doing arts and crafts.
Going around in a circle, I asked group members to introduce themselves by first name, stage in the program, and to mention possible topics they would like to talk about. I welcomed each person while modeling listening skills, eye contact, and hope. Client introductions were going smoothly until suddenly, Kate and Joan (all client names have been changed) shocked me when they displayed confrontation consisting of lots of questions to the group leader, which I later learned is typical for this stage.
Kate asked me, “Is this going to be one of those groups that meets every week?” “Yes, for the next 10 weeks,” I answered. Kate had another question: “Is it going to meet here in this room?” I answered, “Yes.” Kate had another question about why she was put in a “group thing” again when she had finished the prevocational program. I explained that groups are helpful to talk about things, learn from each other, and help one another. Kate went on to make more comments about hoping that group members did not say the same thing every week.
Soon after that, Kate, Joan, and the others expressed complaints about confidentiality in prior group experiences. Joan said: “Some people don’t like to talk in groups...it’s like a crowd...or they are shy...and they don’t know where it is going.” Kate jumped in: “There is no tape recorder in here, is there, or I’m not talking?” I was surprised to hear their concerns and responded to both of them: “Well, let me respond to both Kate and Joan. I am hearing some concerns about confidentiality. Let me assure you that nothing anyone says here will go back to the teachers. What we are talking about is confidential, and there is no tape recorder in this room.”
Kate continued on about confidentiality concerns: “Well, I was once in a group and they lied to us, and one day we heard the tape recorder click!” I responded to Kate and the others by saying: “I am sorry to hear about that; it should not have happened. It sounds to me like you were very angry about being recorded. Is anyone else in the group feeling the same concerns as Kate about the smallest chance that this group is being tape-recorded?” The group responded overwhelmingly, “Yes.” I assured them once again that I would not be recording any of these sessions. At last, we talked about scheduling next week’s session.
After the first session, I felt some relief. I was pleased with their participation, good questions, and smiling faces. I learned about how negative prior group experiences may play a role in current group involvement, and that it is important to answer questions and concerns early on. The theories about stages of group development opened my mind to the great possibilities of change and hope in the group. As this group continued, I saw the growth of group members in how they helped each other and ran the group.
The group member with the most noticeable progress was Kate. She helped the group choose topics and took on a leadership role of helping quiet members to participate. In one session, Kate helped Nick to express feelings that it is okay for big, tall people to be afraid of coming in early at 7 a.m. to job training once a week, and she helped Joan and the others to understand the purpose of the group. In another session, Kate and Paul discouraged Bill from dating co-workers and supervisors because of their past experiences.
A very memorable session focused on gay/lesbian co-workers. Kate helped Paul express his feelings and unrealistic concerns. One of the most beautiful things that Kate said that I can never forget was, “They are people just like you and me. You know, I don’t care if they are heterosexual, bisexual, or gay, or if they are the color pink, green, or blue, but if they treat me with respect, that’s all that matters to me.” The fact that Kate said this to Paul was so much more meaningful because it came from her and not the group leader, because the peer group is very important for adolescents.
In addition, the group succeeded in talking Kate out of an unrealistic idea to bring a significant other to deal with a difficult boss in the workplace. They discussed proper behavior of supervisors, role played job interviews and how to act at job fairs, and discussed feelings about Eve leaving the program without completion. They talked about Bill’s graduation and new job, expressed feelings about the group ending, and reviewed their progress.
In leading my first group, I learned many things. I learned the leader is most active in structuring the first and last sessions. I learned that although it is good to write down detailed notes after each group session, to prepare for group by reading the prior week’s notes, and to have possible topics ready for discussion, it is rarely needed, because group members will usually find topics to talk about on their own. I also learned that the group leader has to be a good listener and always be ready to intervene at any time, if conflict arises among group members.
Moreover, leading a first group helped me experience the power of groups, which exceeded my expectations. After getting through the first few sessions, which were a bit stressful to me, I saw the amazing personal growth of each of my clients and the impact of peer influence with adolescents. The group process was especially rewarding, as I saw group members helping each other, sharing information, and taking on leadership roles. I was proud of myself for learning this awesome new skill to help people to help themselves and make a difference in people’s lives.
In conclusion, I graduated with my MSW in 1995 (DSW, 2002) and went on to lead many groups at a nonprofit organization and in government. Group skills are seen by agencies as a valuable asset to save time and money, and to address high caseloads, reduced funding, and staffing shortages. Since 2008, I have been teaching part-time in a pre-social work program at a community college, where I enjoy using group skills with 25 students. I am glad that I “got my feet wet” in group work as a student, and I recommend that all social work students experience the challenges and rewards of running a group.
Malekoff, A. (1994). A guideline for group work with adolescents. Social Work with Groups, 17 (1), 5-19.
Rooney, R. H. (1988). Socialization strategies for involuntary clients. Social Casework, 69 (3), 131-140.
Shulman, L. (1992). The skills of helping individuals, families, and groups (3rd ed.) Istasca, IL: Peacock.
(Rose) Rosalie J. Russo-Gleicher, DSW, LMSW, is an adjunct Assistant Professor of Human Services at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine, Summer 2013, Vol. 20, No. 3. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 White Hat Communications.