Understanding and Delivering Group Work
to Children and Pre-Teens with Special Education Needs
Why is group work with special needs effective?
Structured group work with children and adolescents is known to be effective, be it in the classroom, counselling/ therapy group, or social skills groups such as ours. For children with social and special education needs, the effects of group work are not soley recognised through increased social and language skills, but include improvements in cognitive, emotional and behavioural development.
To design and develop groups that accommodate children's developmental needs, we must first understand the basic principles of group work. These include group process development and group dynamics at each age.
The Group Leader’s instructing, activities presented, and the outline of each curriculum apply generally to group work with children and pre-teens. However, some aspects will be adjusted by the Group Leader to account for children with special education needs, and how they individually process, and respond to tasks and follow direction.
Important points to remember for group work with children with special education needs:
1) Children form bonds with peers in a structured environment, one that enables them to interact freely and develop skills without pressure.
2) Groups enable (older) children to understand that their ways, ideas, thought processes and concerns are not unique to them.
3) Through appropriate structured activities, children explore their experiences and feelings through play, learning new skills by observing others and identifying with each other.
"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action."
Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977.
At Hometrain, our groups follow principles of small group work, and the Group Leader uses a range of appropriate interactive approaches to support and promote children’s learning.
· Play, and playful instruction. Making little demands on children on arrival, increasing instruction and interactions throughout the session.
· Attention to the activities and learning environment for the children.
The activities in our Curriculums provide the Group Leader with a range of teaching perspectives which they will adopt for both the whole group, and each child.
The Group Leader:
· Understands children as unique individuals: their interests, motivations, reactions to experiences, language and emotional development.
· Achieves the aim of matching children’s needs and the curriculum being taught.
· Encourages children to undertake activities that require a good deal of guidance and support which they may, under other circumstances, feel unable to achieve.
· Using appropriate language, and create opportunities to use relevant communication techniques such as signs and PECS for each child. Especially in the case of very young children.
· Older children, benefit greatly from interactions and opportunities to ask questions of the Group Leader and Support Staff. This is part of Curriculum 3, in the ‘Radio Show Interviews’ activity. These are designed to develop children’s social competence. Curriculum 3 uses role play and drama activities to model desired behaviour, skills and scenarios.
· Small groups allow the Group Leader to respond in a range of ways to handle difficult behaviours sensitively and in ways that might not be possible or effective in a whole class or 1-1 scenario.
· Talkative children can be helped to listen to peers, while withdrawn children, and particularly those with language difficulties can be given greater opportunities for participation. This includes prompting, and being offered time and space to respond.
· Small Groups enable the Group Leader to determine how children understand a particular task or activity. In a group, identifying children having difficulty understanding a task can be noticed easier than in a classroom situation.
Group Leaders in small groups continually assess children’s learning and development. The Group Leaders and Support Staff participate in all activities with the children.
· Use 1-1 and circle time to clarify understandings and purpose of the activity.
· Observe the child’s attention by listening to them, observing their behaviour and posture and thinking/reflecting on their reactions.
· Are sensitive to the child’s attempts to request help and by responding to requests for activities and reinforcers.
· Respond to the child’s efforts, and make way to change/simplify the structure of a task or activity.
Teaching Special Needs:
You could try simply sitting in a circle with a group of children who mostly have ASD, and spend ten minutes trying to get them to sit and talk. Would this work in a meaningful and effective way?
What is likely to occur? After 3 minutes, you will have a room full of individual children entertaining themselves in solo play. Then chaos as you attempt to re-group them.
Children learn by doing, which is why our curriculums are play-based. The ideal learning scenario for children who have special education needs, is where the Group leader actively engages the children in activities or structured play throughout each session.
All 3 Curriculums are constructed with 2 hourly sessions of planned activities, with a variation of teaching approaches throughout. What is important, is that the type and nature of play used has a purpose.
We begin with playtime, then 1-1 teaching, circle time, big and small group activities. Each session has a theme woven into the structure of the session. Each activity and section has a purpose, the Group Leader delivers each task or activity with the purpose evident throughout their structure.
As the age group’s increase, the level of structure and is gradually reduced (Bednar, Mel nick, & Kaul, 1973). Older children become less impulsive, and the relationship of structure and the nature of teaching changes. When and how to do this will be evident to the Group Leader as the cohesion and the group dynamics change over time.
The 3 Curriculums included in the manual ‘Teaching Hometrain Social Skills Groups’ are:
Pre-Schoolers 3-5 Years
School Age 6-9 Years
Pre-Teens 10-13 Years – ‘The Nest’ Drama Group
Our group work protocol for children with special education needs includes outlines for play activities as effective intervention.
Detailed Activity tables are included, and Template Activity Programmes are provided for Group Leaders to develop each Curriculum.
More details about Hometrain Social Skills Groups can be found here: Social Skills Groups
References for further Group Work Study:
Yalom, L D. (1995). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (4th. Ed.). New York: BasicBooks.
Association for Specialists in Group Work, (ASGW) formed in (1973). George Gazda.
Social Learning Theory, developed by Albert Bandura, 1977.