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A group analytic approach to the education of children and teenagers

Slavin, R. L. (1997)

Paper reprinted with the author’s kind permission

Educational settings, from classrooms to entire districts, are besieged by numerous internal and external problems.  This paper presents situations that utilize group therapy concepts and methods within education settings.  Reasons for resistance to using group strategies are discussed as well as methods for resolving resistance.  The need for building basic trust and cohesion is examined.  Theoretical constructs are discussed.  Finally, current research is described.


The theories and strategies developed under the aegis of group therapy and group dynamics can play a significant role in revitalizing our educational system on district, state, and national levels.

In keeping with systems theory, teaching and learning are interactional parts of a larger whole (Durkin, 1964; Ganzarian, 1989; Kernberg, 1984).  This interaction, which begins in the dyad between mother and child, rapidly broadens in scope to include siblings, relatives, friends, teachers, and ultimately the city, the nation, and the world of related nations.  It is the responsibility of the educational, as well as the family system, to instill pupils with concepts and techniques to help them adjust appropriately to their society.  This responsibility has become more challenging and complex as our society has had to accommodate such powerful problems as multiethnicity, life-threatening epidemics such as AIDS, and powerful economic competition from other nations.  In a climate such as this, the chances for optimal emotional and intellectual development are severely limited.

The family is the child's first universe.  What one learns and experiences in relation to one's family group shapes one's first understanding of the world and other people, as well as one's own sense of self, security, and identity (Freud, 1921; Lax, Bach & Burland, 1980; Mahler, 1968).  The original family drama is played out time and time again within educational settings through the phenomena of transference and countertransference (Spotnitz, 1987; Yalom, 1985).  Unfortunately, this phenomenon is too often not understood or is ignored by school staffs as well as parents.  Despite the powerful hold of the transference/countertransference compulsion, there is ample evidence demonstrating that group therapy concepts and techniques offer an opportunity to resolve the repetitions that confine people to a frustrating cycle of negative attitudes: low morale, lack of confidence, and poor social and business relationships (MacKenzie, 1992; Slavson, 1964).

The Problem

Professionals on all levels within school settings are suffering an overwhelming loss of morale and motivation for positive change.  Parents are discouraged, and doubt the viability of their school systems.  As can be expected, children have become sensitive and reactive to the conflicts surrounding them.  On all levels within and around the educational system, people have become rampantly defensive.  This defensiveness is manifest in many ways: projection of one's own anger onto other persons and then blaming others for one's own feeling of anger, utilization of frustration as an excuse for adopting a helpless or hopeless stance, denial of problems and difficulties or of the need to correct them; and refusal to actively work toward problem resolution.

Napier and Gershenfeld (1973) have described the tensions that accrue as a result of faulty communication within classrooms.  They indicate that in a typical classroom situation, the teacher assumes all responsibility for decisions regarding course content, learning goals, and disciplinary standards.  Students are rarely consulted regarding their interests or considered capable of making contributions to the learning process.  Under these circumstances, the climate of the classroom is highly competitive, setting student against student, and creating distance between students and teachers.

One can imagine similar scenarios taking place between teachers and parents, administrators and teachers, and in many other dynamic interactions within school settings.  When individuals or groups operate under these dynamics, they frequently feel disempowered.  So there is a need to effect the type of interactional change that will encourage people to recognize that, as individuals or in groups, they can make significant, albeit, small changes in the world around them.  This process has been demonstrated to be successful through the work of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  Because school settings, like family settings, ultimately prepare future generations to meet such challenges as competition, illness, and war, there is a need to provide learning environments in which school personnel work in harmony with each other as well as with the community-at-large and beyond.

Group dynamics, when properly utilized, can aid in the resolution of such issues as school dropout, moral values, student aggression, and many other areas (Brader, 1989; Franklin, 1989; Grummet, 1989; Jackson, 1988; Kunisawa, 1988).  Such resolutions have been amply demonstrated by teachers who have instilled students with feelings of hope and self-worth, teachers who have been encouraged and supported by their administrators, and chancellors who have seen fit to utilize input from all levels of staff.  Most heartening to this writer has been observing classes in which students and teacher are able to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of very "different" or "difficult" pupil.  In order to instill respect for individual differences it is necessary to operationalize strategies that utilize these very differences to develop a system that has meaning and value for all its members.  Some examples follow.

At the beginning of the term Mrs. S. would yell at Juan when he jumped out of his seat or ran around the room.  Through attendance at a therapeutically oriented stress workshop led by the writer, she became more sensitized to her own anxiety and fear of her own impulsive behavior.  She became more empathetic toward Juan and held discussions with the students about ways that would help him.  The students assumed more responsibility in helping Juan with his anxiety.  The teacher and the students learned that Juan very often expressed the anxiety that they all felt.

Another example: Mrs. R. observed that when Pete looked at her, his facial expression registered both sadness and fear.  Her presence at a therapy oriented stress workshop (Slavin, 1996) led her to understand that her mood may have been having an effect on Pete's feelings.  Mrs. R. was then able to take responsibility for her own feelings and verbalize them to the class.  Not only did the class show less tension but was able to be supportive of her at times when she needed it most.

The role and leadership style of the leader are also important in such a model.  To understand this role involves exploring the following questions: which type of leadership works and under what circumstances, and what feelings and behaviors will be evoked by a particular leadership style?  Leadership in therapeutic group settings can serve as a model for educational settings.  The function of leadership, including degree of self-revelation, discussion of past associations, and current affective reactions, are important issues in group therapy, and certainly of equal importance in educational settings. (Berelson & Steiner, 1964; MacKenzie, 1992; Napier & Gershenfeld, 1973; Rutan & Stone, 1984).

Resistances and Their Resolution

Resistances, whether intrapsychic or interpersonal, are motivated by fear.  Some of the most familiar are fear of the unknown, fear of shame and humiliation, fear of abandonment, and fear of being scapegoated (Jourard, 1971; Spotnitz, 1987; Yalom, 1985).  Persons or groups who are afraid set up barriers in order to keep real or imagined aggressors at a distance and keep themselves safe.  Because group therapy strategies encourage risk taking, they are very likely to stir up resistance despite the fact that in the long run these same strategies will be perceived as helpful.  It has been the writer's experience as student and teacher that open and honest communication of feelings, experiences, and ideas have rarely been encouraged in educational settings.  Strenuous efforts were made in the 1960's and 1970's to install group methodology to address this issue.  School settings such as classrooms, playgroups, talking groups, and after school activities were included (Bany & Johnson, 1964; Durkin, 1964; Glasser, 1969; Kirman, 1977; Laquercia, 1977).  Although many of these groups were highly successful, resistances from various sources, which may not have been fully understood, finally undermined these efforts.  Some of the resistances have surfaced in statements such as "I don't have time for grouping in my class, " or "group dynamics will undermine the authority of administrators," or, "group dynamics will interfere with instructional time."  Upper echelons such as chancellors, mayors, and other officials may insist there is no room for frivolous changes.  The messages are fairly clear.  They say:"Don't rock the boat, I know what I have, but not what is to come!  I don't want to risk my vulnerability, reputation, or position within my professional setting."  Implementation of group techniques throughout the school system represents a formidable challenge, as therapy constructs, group as well as individual, have been traditionally but erroneously associated with pathology.  Few people would want to be identified as being out of control, particularly if they already feel that way.  It is noteworthy that the above resistances can be resolved with patience, persistence, and the building of trust.

One of the strategies basic to building trust and cohesion is to emphasize the similarities between the goals of education and the goals of adaptational changes in their respective populations.  Both seek to expand knowledge of the world and the learner's innate capacity to adapt to the world.  Once a bridge has been established, the participants are readied for the important task of mediating differences and utilizing these differences to enhance functioning within the educational system (Berelson & Steiner, 1964; Durkin, 1964; Kernberg, 1984).

Teachers are reluctant to accept the diagnoses and methodologies prescribed by the school psychologist for many reason.  School psychologists are viewed as "outsiders", not members of the school staff.  They see children on a one-to-one basis whereas teachers see their students as a class for hours at a time.  They give the appearance of autonomy because they move about the school but teachers must remain stuck in their classrooms.  Resistances of this nature were also resolved through the use of the therapeutic stress workshop.  The members of the workshop were able to observe the many roles of the leader who was also their school psychologist, their group leader, and as they were, also subordinate to the principal.  As positive identification with the leader grew in terms of understanding these multiple roles they began to view her as supportive rather than competitive.

Other methods of resolving resistance included sharing and availability.  Information regarding the writer's tools was always available to them at their convenience.  Their views of their students' problems were always incorporated into reports.  Ongoing teamwork and respect were pluses in resolving resistance.

Essential Theoretical Constructs

Many important group concepts have helped shape the writer's perception of group functioning in school settings.  For example, using a systems paradigm, units such as classroom, school, district, and city, can be viewed in the context of the relationships of the parts to the whole in ever-increasing size and complexity.  Systems theory also accounts for differences in functioning when persons are part of a system as opposed to when they operate as individuals (Agazarian, 1989; Durkin, 1964; Ganzarian, 1989; Kernberg, 1984).

Bion's theory of unconscious group operations sheds light on the negative effects of unconscious motivation in task-oriented groups such as classrooms or even administrative meetings.  The unconscious forces must be addressed if the work of the group is to continue  (Bion, 1999).

Stages of development and life cycle, have generally been more identified with therapy than educational groups (Yalom, 1985).  The writer believes that more attention should be focused on the life cycle of school groups as described by Yalom (1985). Such focus would enhance teachers' understanding of the phase of group development their students have reached and how the dynamics of this phase effect students' ability to respond to subject content.  For example, at the beginning or organizational phase, teachers might be persuaded to place more emphasis on adjustment to structure and rules.  At a more advanced stage, the challenge would be competition. And finally, the class emphasis would be more commitment to each other and to the main task and goal of the group.  Utilizing this model, teachers and students would then be in a position to recognize and be prepared for termination, the final important phase of the classroom group.  This phase lays the foundation for new beginnings.

Freud's concept of transference sheds light on students' and teachers' reactions to new situations and to strangers.  In order to make sense out of new students, new schools, new districts, new personnel, persons will look for characteristics in strangers or strange institutions that are most like those of important people in their lives.  They may then unconsciously try to provoke others into reacting in a manner similar to that of persons with whom they are familiar (Freud, 1921).  Many teachers have been called "mommy."  Many teachers have been told, "You can't tell me what to do."  Each of these statements may reflect the unrecognized presence of a transferential figure.  Or these statements may reflect the group reactions of the class to the teacher.  Understanding the dynamics of transference would enable teachers to ascertain the emotional level expressed in children’s' remarks and respond appropriately to that level.  Teachers would be less likely to be drawn into a negative transferential web.

Finally, the concept of "here-and-now" emphasizes the importance of staying in and reacting to what is happening in the immediate time frame (Agazarian, 1989; Ormont, 1992; Yalom, 1985).  It helps shed light on individual enactment of particular roles within classrooms, schools, and administrative hierarchy.  This concept allows for a thoughtful and objective analysis of current group roles and their continued usefulness within the particular group.

Operational Environments

Group dynamic strategies have the potential to operate effectively in various educational settings as well as in other community groups such as hospitals and governmental systems.  Operations could be put into place on all levels of hierarchical functioning.  The users themselves would decide the appropriate level.

Glassner (1969), a pioneer in his time, described classroom meetings in which the teacher led a whole class in nonjudgmental discussions about what was important to them.  He strongly believed that students of any age must participate in their own education in order to successfully achieve academic goals.  Several analysts from the Modern School of Psychoanalysis have described their success using group techniques in the classroom with very resistant children (Friedman, 1977; Laquercia, 1977; Welber, 1977).  During her tenure as a school psychologist, the writer successfully conducted on-going "stress" workshops for elementary school teachers (Slavin, 1996).  These workshops addressed the interplay between the group dynamics and the personal dynamics of the participants.  The workshops were successful in that group members were able to utilize their group experiences in and out of their classrooms.  The writer strongly feels that the study of group dynamics should be made a part of the curriculum in all educational programs as it directs the learner toward understanding the relationship of feelings and experience with academic material.

Current Research

Group dynamic and group analytic theory and process have become increasingly more highly regarded in their ability to effect positive change in student and teacher functioning within school settings.  This also has been the case with issues of class climate and intra-systemic processes such as teacher-administrator, teacher-parent, teacher-nonclassroom personnel, and so on.

Slavin (1995) has studied the effect of "here-and-now” and "there-and-then" disclosures on college students' attitudes toward specific courses.  The findings of her study of therapy groups (Slavin, 1993) in which "here-and-now" disclosure was the significant predictor of cohesion were unlike her findings of specific course groups.  When attitude toward specific course in which the student was a participant was added to the equation, "there-and-then" disclosure became the significant predictor.  Slavin speculated that the subject matter evoked strong, previously established emotional connections, which were not necessarily consciously recognized.

In another study involving perception of self, attitude toward one's class, cohesion, and grade, Slavin (1996) found that although students may have differing perceptions of self, they shared common needs for safety, genuineness, and meaningfulness of subject content.  She postulated that common needs would assist in the development of cohesion and mutual cooperation.

Clark (1993) studied the effects of school-based therapy with children of alcoholic parents.  In contrast to the control groups, children who participated showed some positive change in their grades, and a significant reduction in their disruptive behavior.

In Israel, Shechtman (1993, 1994), studied the effects of group therapy interventions on children from second to sixth grades.  She found that when therapy was started early, adjustment to school was greatly enhanced.  The earlier the interventions, the greater the gains.

Schonberg and Tellerman (1996) have described what they call a SUN Group Model, utilized with high-risk adolescents.  The teenagers met once a week for a total of eight to twelve weeks.  Supportive group process was combined with an experiential educational component and a ten-step program.  This combination encouraged students to learn and practice a systematic approach to problem solving.  It was found to be most helpful to ongoing school adjustment.

Below are some other cogent questions to which group theory paradigms could make a substantial contribution.

Would interaction among students lead to cohesion and a greater appreciation of each other's contributions?

Would greater respect for fellow classmates encourage greater and more successful learning efforts on the part of students?

How does the interaction between students and teachers affect the learning process?

To what extent does discord between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and administrators and teachers affect the learning process?

What strategies would resolve resistances within classroom groups and lead to greater learning on the part of students?

In what ways can we improve the climate of educational environments?

What role does the individual unconscious and/or the group unconscious play in setting the atmosphere for learning or non-learning?

Can we improve operations in a classroom, a school, a district, and so on, by treating a particular unit of the system?

This article was written with the hope and optimism that group therapists would become motivated to concern themselves and take action within a very important clinical area, i.e., the educational system which teaches strategies and techniques of group theory and practice, when actualized, could provide such help.  We often encourage our patients to accept responsibility for their actions.  We also have a responsibility to help resolve problems that would hamper the education of future generations.


The writer wishes to thank Dr. Richard Alperin and Mr. Alvin Slavin for their constant encouragement and support.


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Authors contact details:

Roberta L. Slavin, PhD
21 Pleasant Ridge Road, Spring Valley, NY 10977



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