December 13, 2007

Professional School Counselors and the Practice of Group Work

By Steen, Sam Bauman, Sheri; Smith, Julie

An online survey about the use of small groups by school counselors was completed by 802 members of the American School Counseling Association. The vast majority of respondents offered groups in their schools, but were most influenced in that decision by time constraints. Qualitative analysis of comment data provided more depth and insight about school counselors' practice of group work. Implications and recommendations are discussed. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) includes group counseling as an integral component of comprehensive school counseling programs (Lapan, Gysbers, & Petroski, 2001). The ASCA National Model(R) (2005) provides the foundation and framework for responsive services, including small group counseling. According to the ASCA position statement (1999), group counseling is an efficient and effective way of dealing with students' developmental problems and situational concerns. "Group counseling should be an integral component of the school counseling program" (Thompson, 2002, p. 222). Small group counseling has a variety of applications in the school, including prevention groups (e.g., dealing with peer pressure), problem-focused support groups (e.g., dealing with parental divorce), and information-focused psychoeducational groups (study skills) (Cobia & Henderson, 2003). Group counseling can be helpful to students who are experiencing challenging life situations or failing grades (Gladding, 2003). Working with students in the small group modality is a viable way to assist students who are not achieving to their potential and who may be experiencing emotional or behavioral problems (Shechtman, Gilat, Fos, & Flasher, 1996).

Research evidence has consistently supported the effectiveness of group counseling in schools (Riva & Haub, 2004). Much of the research on group counseling for children and adolescents has been conducted in school settings, and more groups for children and adolescents are offered in schools than in other settings (Corey & Corey, 2006). Small group counseling provides an opportunity for students to develop insights about themselves and others, and it offers a safe setting in which to address developmental, situational, and academic issues (Newsome & Gladding, 2003). Thompson (2002) observed that small group counseling has been found to be efficacious for changing "attitudes, perspectives, values, and behaviors" (p. 223), and Davis (2006) noted that group counseling is an effective means to provide services to elementary, middle school, and high school students on a range of topics. Many factors contribute to the effectiveness of group counseling. For example, in groups children can experience universality-the knowledge that others have similar challenges (Greenberg, 2003). In addition, small groups provide a milieu for peer interaction and observation of peer role models (Brigman & Goodman, 2001). Students not only receive support from others, but have the opportunity to be helpful to others, which may increase self-esteem (Yalom, 1995).

Considering the rapidly increasing linguistic and ethnic diversity of the student population in schools, school counselors are challenged to provide effective, relevant, and sensitive services to culturally diverse students, and small groups are effective in this regard (Holcomb-McCoy, 2003). While the literature is replete with recommendations for group guidance and counseling programs in schools (e.g., Akos, 2000; Cantrell, 1986; Daigneault, 2000; Samide & Stockton, 2002; Sommers-Flanagan, Barrett-Hakanson, Clarke, & Sommers-Flanagan, 2000), there is scant information about the extent to which this modality is actually used by school counselors.

Therefore, the research questions for this study are as follows: To what extent are school counselors offering small groups in their schools? How do school counselors make decisions about offering small groups in their schools? How do demographic variables, including the level at which school counselors work (elementary, middle school, high school) and their years of experience, relate to group-work practice? Do school counselors utilize the ASCA National Model, ASCA's National Standards, and the Association of Specialists in Group Work's (1999) Diversity Principles in Group Work (knowledge, awareness, and skills) in planning and implementing small groups in their schools?



Survey respondents were 802 school counselors, all of whom were members of ASCA who consented to having their e-mail addresses listed in the membership directory. The majority (90%, n = 721) worked in public schools, with 9% (n = 71) working in private schools and less than 1% each at charter and Department of Defense schools (n = 6, n = 4, respectively). Twenty-nine percent (n = 234) were located in urban areas, 43% (n = 341) in suburban communities, and 28% (n = 227) in rural schools.

Eighty-four percent of the participants were female (n = 675). Age of participants was distributed in the sample as follows: 17% (n = 136) were 21-30 years old, 24% (n = 193) were 31-40, 26% (n = 209) were 41-50, 29% (n = 235) 51-60, and 4% (n = 29) were 60 years old or older. Eighty-seven percent (n = 700) of participants described themselves as Caucasian, with 4% (n = 30) describing themselves as African American, 3% (n = 26) as Hispanic/Latino, 1% (n = 8) as Asian American, and 2% (n = 19) checking "other" for this item. Native American was provided as a choice, but no respondents selected that category. Nineteen participants omitted this item.

Although most participants worked in high schools (31%, n = 249), other levels were well represented, with 25% (n = 201) working in elementary schools, 18% (n = 143) in middle or junior high schools, 20% (n = 159) in K-8 schools, and 6% (n = 50) in K-12 schools. The largest group in terms of years of school counseling experience was the group with 5 years or less (46%, n = 370). The balance of participants was distributed as follows: 21% (n = 168) had 6-10 years experience, 14% (n = 109) had 11-15 years, 10% (n = 81) had 16- 20 years, 5% (n = 43) had 21-25 years, and 4% (n = 31) had 26 or more years of experience as a school counselor.


The first author developed a survey specifically for this study, with input from the second author and counselor educators with expertise in group work. In addition to questions about the practice of group work, there were items that inquired about training experiences. Because of the nature of the survey, internal consistency measures are unsuitable, and temporal stability data were not obtained. The survey has a high degree of face validity, that is, the intent of the items is clearly discernible from the item wording. The survey consisted of eight items requesting demographic information, nine questions about training in group work, and 25 5-point Likert scale items about respondents' practice of group work, including how the respondent makes a decision about offering groups, the types of groups offered, the use of practices such as screening, and the use of published guidelines about group work. One item provided a list of group skills and asked respondents to check the ones they used, while a similar item listed techniques. Space for comments was provided. A copy of the survey can be obtained from the first author.


E-mails were sent to 8,352 e-mail addresses listed in the ASCA membership directory; 314 of those were invalid addresses, so 8,038 e-mail invitations reached ASCA members. The invitation included the Internet address (URL) for the welcome page to the survey, and the password required to enter the site. After the welcome page, potential respondents were taken to a disclaimer page that provided information about the voluntary nature of participation, their freedom to withdraw at any time without penalty, and their right to omit items. Contact information for the second author and the university's human subject protection office was listed. Participants' choice to proceed with the survey after reading the disclaimer was considered informed consent to participate.

Once the survey was finalized and Institutional Review Board approval obtained, an online version was created and put on the Internet. The online format for conducting this survey was chosen because of the benefits of Internet surveys over traditional survey methods. Although Internet surveys may have lower response rates compared to traditional mail surveys, they require minimal (if any) expense, need less time commitment, simplify data entry, and are relatively easy to execute (Dillman, 2000; Granello & Wheaton, 2004; Schonlan, Fricker, & Elliot, 2001). Experts' recommendations were followed when creating the Web survey for the present study, including using graphics infrequently, not "forcing" participants to answer questions, using passwords to access Web surveys, and ensuring confidentiality (Granello & Wheaton; Schonlan et al.).

Three e-mail messages were sent to potential participants. The first was an alert to prepare participants for the upcoming invitation. One week later, the actual invitation to participate was sent. A follow-up message was sent one week after the invitation, thanking those who had completed the survey and reminding those who had not done so that there was still the opportunity to do so. At the time the invitations were mailed, 37% (n = 6,855) of the total ASCA membership were either retired or student members who were not eligible to participate in the survey (Mera Smith, personal communication, March 14, 2006). Because a membership category was not included in information in the online membership directory, e- mail invitations were sent to all addresses listed, with recipients of the email informed that participation was restricted to current school counselors. If we assume that a similar percentage of the sample (as in the population of ASCA members) to whom invitations were mailed were retired or student members, then the response rate is 16% of those who were invited and eligible to participate.


Data Analysis

All quantitative analyses were done using SPSS 14.0 software. An alpha level of .05 was selected for all analyses. The data analysis strategy for the qualitative data is discussed at the beginning of that section.

Conducting Groups

Eight-seven percent of the participants indicated that they conducted groups in their schools. Participants' responses to questions regarding the degree to which various factors influenced their decisions about whether to provide small groups are presented in Table 1. Time available was the most influential factor in determining whether respondents would conduct groups in their schools. A chisquare analysis was conducted to examine whether the degree to which time available influenced the decision to offer groups differed according to the level at which respondents worked. The difference was significant (chi^sup 2^ [12, N = 799] = 10.80, p

Table 2 summarizes the responses to items about the use of professional standards in groups offered by participants, and it shows the types of groups that respondents conduct in their schools. The personal/social domain was most often included in the groups facilitated by participants, with counseling groups being the most often used type of group. Respondents' use of practices widely recommended by experts is summarized in Table 3. The vast majority (95%) of respondents discuss confidentiality in their groups, but only 36% always conduct screening interviews with potential members.

In order to determine whether the respondents' use of groups in their schools differed by demographic variables, a series of chi- square analyses were conducted. No differences were detected for respondent gender, age, race/ethnicity, setting (public, private), or community type. There was a statistically significant difference in whether groups were offered by the level of school in which the respondent worked (chi^sup 2^ [4, N = 802] = 85.62, p

Additional chi-square analyses were employed to determine whether the use of the ASCA National Model (2005) as it applies to small group counseling differed by demographics or training experiences. Use of the model did not differ by gender, age, community setting, school level, or years of experience as a school counselor. A significant difference was detected by school setting (chi^sup 2^ [3, N = 802] = 17.06, p

The two items listing skills and techniques used by counselors (items 43 and 44) did not yield useful data, as the vast majority of those who responded to those items endorsed all selections.

Qualitative Analysis

At the end of the survey, respondents had an opportunity to provide comments on their use of small group counseling in their schools. Following the guidelines of Strauss and Corbin (1998), open coding was the initial step in data analysis. The codes assigned to each comment then were searched to discover themes, groups of related codes with commonalities. Notes were made on recurring themes, with representative quotations identified. The themes then were grouped into conceptual categories. Comments in each category were counted. Once the categories had been identified, the relationships and networks among them were induced from the data and a model of these relationships created (Miles & Huberman, 1994). This model is presented graphically in Figure 1.

Several major themes were identified: value of groups; time constraints; support from administration, teachers, and parents; confidentiality issues; and types of groups facilitated. Several respondents expressed a strong belief that group counseling is beneficial to their students (e.g., one respondent wrote, "I believe that small groups are one of the most effective tools a counselor can use to reach his or her students"). The most common reasons that group programs were not supported were the lack of time during the school day and scheduling constraints. Those respondents who gave more detailed replies described large caseloads that greatly reduced the time available for individual and group counseling sessions. Additionally, administrative duties including scheduling, test coordination, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, 504 meetings, and new student enrollment left little time for group counseling. School counselors' job descriptions also included classroom visits throughout the school day, making counseling sessions impossible. Responsibilities such as coordination of college visits and representatives and helping large numbers of students prepare college applications left little time for group counseling.

The emphasis that is being placed on achievement on standardized tests and test preparation also has had an effect on counselors' ability to hold group sessions. School counselors in the survey reported that time that was once used for counseling sessions had been earmarked for test preparation and tutoring under new pressures for students to raise scores. Additionally, school counselors had increased testing-related responsibilities that diminished their ability to plan and facilitate small groups. Concerns about time available were exemplified by comments from participants:

Time is one of the most determining factors in having groups as teachers do not want to permit students out of their classrooms, especially in the upper elementary classes, which would be fourth and fifth grade in my school. Also, when I do have groups, I am lucky to have 20 minutes at a time, so groups are not the way I envision them to be.

Another respondent observed, "I have not gotten the chance to lead or co-lead a group at my work setting. We are simply too busy with other things throughout the year, such as 10th, 11th, 12th grade conferences, IEP meetings, registration, new student enrollment, 504 meetings, etc."

Some school counselors were working with teachers and administrators who were not supportive of group counseling. Of the 139 comments that related to this theme, 78% noted a low level of support for groups, and 17% perceived a high level of support. Most comments reflecting low levels of support included reasons that support was lacking. Sixty-two percent said time and scheduling constraints caused the lack of support, 19% believed that their administrators and/or teachers did not believe in the value of groups, 13% felt that the emphasis on test scores interfered with support for groups, and the remainder mentioned confidentiality concerns. School counselors in this sample reported working with teachers who were reluctant to allow students to leave class for group sessions or who simply refused to release them. Other respondents described administrators who did not see the value of group counseling and did not see it as a valid use of time for counselors or students. One school counselor even reported a total refusal of administration to allow any type of group counseling even in the event of a student death.

The school counselors who did not have the support of teachers and administrators were often unable to run any type of group program regardless of time available. Several comments illustrate this theme: "Removing students from class will also meet with resistance from teachers and parents." Finally, there was little administrative concern/support for running small groups. "It has become virtually impossible to do groups as the administration is only concerned with test scores-the emphasis is all upon public perception and not real student issues that interfere with learning."

Survey respondents reporting a high level of support for group counseling programs listed dedicated time for guidance and counseling during the school day as their strongest support. While some programs were topic-specific such as drug counseling or anger management, the school community saw the value of group counseling and made time for it. In response to the time constraints faced by many school counselors, some schools brought in outside social workers and counselors to help staff counselors facilitate group sessions or assigned staff counselors specific duties allowing one or two to run group sessions while others handled the administrative duties. Two of the survey respondents reported not only high levels of support for group counseling but also a requirement that all students be part of a group. School counselors who described mixed support for group programs were in two different types of situations. Some school counselors were assigned to more than one building in a district and found that one administrator was supportive while another was not. Others had the support of one or two of the interested groups involved (administrators, teachers, parents, students), but not the others. In both situations, school counselors found it difficult to run consistent programs.

School counselors who worked in small communities and in elementary schools listed confidentiality issues as a reason for lack of support for group counseling. With a small student body there was concern from parents and administrators that issues discussed in small groups would not remain confidential as everyone in the community "knows everything about everyone." Concerns also were raised about students knowing who is out of class during specific sessions. Elementary school counselors face concerns about the maturity levels of their students and their ability to keep the information discussed in group sessions confidential. Other support issues given included refusal of parental permission for participation and use of school facilities.

Many of the respondents who reported that they do use small groups listed the types of groups used in their schools (see Table 4). The three most common types of groups were those dealing with academic skills, anger management, and social skills. Academic skills groups were the most common of the groups listed. School counselors stated that even when their administrators were not in favor of group counseling, they allowed and often encouraged those types of groups that addressed academic skills, test preparation, study skills, and specific subject support. Anger management was the second most common type of group listed, though many of the school counselors who mentioned anger management noted that the programs were court ordered and some were facilitated by outside counselors. Social skills groups also were commonly listed; however, the specific types of skills that the groups focused on were not delineated.

School counselors who utilized group counseling chose the types of groups to run based on what was allowed by their administration, the need they perceived among the student body, and parental input. Many types of group topics such as college and career counseling, social skills, organizational skills, and stress reductions were discussed by those who utilized whole class or individual counseling rather than small groups, but they emphasized that the topics were still covered with students.


The results provided tentative answers to the research questions that guided this study. To reiterate those questions: To what extent are school counselors offering small groups in their schools? How do school counselors make decisions about offering small groups in their schools? How do demographic variables, including the level at which school counselors work (elementary, middle school, high school) and their years of experience, relate to group-work training and practice? Do school counselors utilize the ASCA National Model, ASCA's National Standards, and the Association of Specialists in Group Work's Diversity Principles in Group Work in planning and implementing small groups in their schools?

Most of the respondents provided some small groups in their schools. The most important influence on whether school counselors provide small group counseling to their students is time available. This finding is consistent with that of Dansby (1996) a decade ago, who found that lack of time was the major obstacle to implementation of small group counseling in schools. This factor appeared to be more salient for high school counselors than for those at other levels. The comment data enriched the item response data on this topic. School counselors reported having more duties and larger caseloads than recommended by ASCA (2004). Many also were assigned administrative tasks, further eroding their availability to conduct small group counseling. As a result of these constraints, school counselors who want to hold group sessions are left with lunchtime and before and after school to schedule groups. Students are often reluctant or unable to attend sessions during these times because of other commitments or wanting social time with friends. In many schools, offering small groups on a rotating schedule so that a group might meet on the same day but a different period each week has been an effective strategy to reduce the impact of absences from class.

Despite the efforts of ASCA to promote a national model and national standards, school counselors continue to face the same obstacles to using their expertise in the service of students. Some teachers and administrators seem not to appreciate the value of small group counseling, or to understand how groups contribute to increased academic achievement. A student who is distracted by grief (Abdelnoor & Hollins, 2004), or victimized by school bullies (Schwartz, Hopmeyer-Gorman, Nakamoto, & Toblin, 2005), or affected by his or her own or family members' substance abuse (Diego, Field, & Sanders, 2003), or upset by parental divorce (Kelly, 2000), is unlikely to demonstrate optimal academic performance. Small groups are particularly useful and effective in addressing such concerns (e.g., Samide & Stockton, 2002; Shechtman, 2002), which helps affected students to apply themselves to academic endeavors.

Results from this study indicate that the degree of support for groups from administrators, teachers, and parents plays an important role in the decisionmaking process. The ASCA National Model and the National Standards provide guidelines for the appropriate use of school counselors' time, but many respondents continue to be burdened with administrative and other tasks that do not require their expertise and divert time from more essential school counseling activities. Professional school counselors must educate all stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, and administrators) about their role and about the importance of small group counseling to the mission of the school and the well-being of students.

A couple of the demographic variables appeared to be important in the decision to offer groups in schools. The level at which school counselors worked was one important variable, with fewer high school counselors and more elementary school counselors reporting that they provide small groups for students. This finding does not support Sciarra's (2004) contention that elementary and middle school counselors do not offer group counseling because of their own resistance to the work involved in forming and facilitating groups, but it reinforces Dansby's (1996) finding that demands on school counselors' time preclude the offering of small groups.

It is important to note that the small groups being offered were primarily in the personal/social domain. It may be the case that the academic and career domains are more often addressed via proactive and preventive classroom curricula, as all students need and benefit from those lessons. The personal/social domain may still be the one that is most often addressed via individual and small group counseling, targeting those students whose personal and social issues detract from their ability to focus on academics. In this domain, small groups are known to be efficient and effective (Riva & Haub, 2004), and it is thus not surprising to see the majority of groups addressing this area.

Finally, school counselors who responded to this survey did not generally base their groups on a particular theoretical orientation or recommended practices. However, a discussion of confidentiality was used by most respondents all or almost all the time. The least frequently used practice was helping group members to establish goals. These practices (screening group members, establishing norms, articulating goals and individual goals) have long been promoted by experts. It is possible that time pressures and the need to accommodate teachers and administrators (in terms of screening interviews, for example) have assumed a larger role than essential group practices. Some counselors may be reluctant to tell a teacher or administrator that a particular student is not appropriate for a small group, fearing that this might reduce their support for small groups in general. Again, we offer the best remedy-education. School counselors must educate their teaching and administrative colleagues about groups, so that their expertise is recognized and the characteristics of an effective group counseling program are well understood.


In order to sample school counselors, a directory of members of the national school counseling organization was utilized. This sampling strategy was not random, and it clearly did not produce a representative or unbiased sample. School counselors who are not members of ASCA were not invited to participate, and only those who listed e-mail addresses in the directory could be contacted. No data regarding those who did not participate were available; no comparisons could be made between the sample and the population to assess the degree to which the former was representative of the latter. It is certainly likely that those school counselors who had some interest in group counseling would be more likely to complete the survey. The finding that 87% of respondents indicated that they conduct at least some group counseling may be evidence of that bias. Nevertheless, much of school counseling research is limited by the same challenges, and while the findings must be interpreted with caution, they should not be discounted.

In addition, self-report data are always problematic in that there is no way to assess underreporting or overreporting or the degree to which respondents were influenced by social desirability. Nevertheless, self-report questionnaires are widely used and are accepted as legitimate methods to gather information. Sampling limitations include missing data items and an inability or reluctance for some respondents to access the survey online. IMPLICATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Although the ASCA National Model (2005) has described the components of effective school counseling programs, it is clear from the results of this survey that many school counselors continue to struggle with familiar challenges: counselor-to-student ratios that are too high, noncounseling tasks consuming valuable time, and lack of support from other educators. We suggest that the profession as a whole, and individual school counselors, need to lobby these groups more consistently and more effectively so that these long-term barriers do not persist. Presentations to faculty, administration, and parents, in which the therapeutic factors in groups are explained, may increase their understanding of how groups work. Providing a forum for addressing concerns of stakeholders may foster the recognition that small groups are a valuable component of the school's counseling program.

In a time of data-driven decision making, such lobbying is most effective when accompanied by evidence. School counselors who provide small groups must gather data from group members, teachers, and parents (and control groups of similar students who do not participate in groups, whenever possible) to demonstrate how participants have changed as a result of their participation.

Despite the enormous pressure to improve test scores, children in this country should have greater access to one of the counseling services (small group counseling) that has consistent empirical support. In addition, school counselors need to continue to produce research and demonstrate that such programs not only impact the personal/social functioning of students, but improve academic performance as well. Doing so will convey the message that the counseling program, including the small group component, is aligned with, and supportive of, the academic mission of the school.

Group counseling can be helpful to students who are experiencing challenging life situations or failing grades.

Considering the rapidly increasing linguistic and ethnic diversity of the student population, school counselors are challenged to provide effective, relevant, and sensitive services to culturally diverse students.

School counselors who worked in small communities and in elementary schools listed confidentiality issues as a reason for lack of support for group counseling.

The most important influence on whether school counselors provide small group counseling to their students is time available.

School counselors who provide small groups must gather data from group members, teachers, and parents to demonstrate how participants have changed as a result of their participation.


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Sam Steen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in school psychology and counselor education, School of Education, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA. E-mail: [email protected]

Sheri Bauman, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Educational Psychology Department, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Julie Smith is a doctoral candidate in the Center for Higher Education Research, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Copyright American Counseling Association Dec 2007

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