Integrating academic interventions into small group counseling in elementary school.
Professional school counselors are challenged to efficiently and effectively provide guidance and counseling services to all students while responding to the current initiatives to address the achievement gap between poor students and students of color and their more advantaged peers (House & Hayes, 2002). Further, school reform has continued to encourage a more strategic focus on the importance of academic achievement for all students. The No Child Left Behind Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) requires that all states implement standards-based instruction and annually measure student achievement. The added pressure on schools and students to meet academic standards has affected school counseling programs.
The purpose of this article is to describe an elementary school counseling program that used small groups to help students increase learning behaviors (i.e., actions such as asking questions, completing assignments, and staying on task) and improve academic achievement, while addressing their personal/social concerns such as changing families, friendship, and/or anger management. The objectives of the groups centered on improving students' learning behaviors while including developmentally appropriate strategies to facilitate personal/social development. The ASCA National Model[R] (American School Counselor Association, 2005) was used as a framework for the development and delivery of the groups and for monitoring student success. Data were collected before, during, and after the groups documenting the impact of group counseling on the students' learning behaviors.
SMALL GROUP COUNSELING
The small group counseling program was designed by the school counselor as an efficient and effective way to provide services to a large number of students identified by their teachers and parents as having personal/social issues as well as academic difficulties. Small group counseling is part of the delivery system of the ASCA National Model and is an effective responsive service offered by school counselors to meet the personal/social and academic needs of all students (Cook & Kaffenberger, 2003). Topics for small counseling groups were developed in conjunction with teachers, administrators, and parents. School counselors, in many instances, consult with parents or guardians, school personnel, and other identified parties when developing plans and strategies for promoting student development (ASCA, 2005). In the case of the small counseling groups described in this article, the school counselor consulted with teachers and parents to understand their perceptions of the personal/social and academic needs of the students in the school. Small groups were offered that were consistent with the expressed needs of parents and teachers. ASCA's National Standards for School Counseling Programs provided the specific academic and personal/social objectives for the groups (ASCA, 2005).
The goal of the groups described in this article, therefore, was twofold: to address the students' personal/social needs, and to address their academic needs. Demonstrating the impact that school counselors have on student success is imperative as a new era of accountability exists and as school counselors continue to strengthen and define their roles.
THE SMALL GROUP COUNSELING PROGRAM
This small group counseling program was developed for the students attending a suburban elementary school located in Northern Virginia. Approximately 725 students attend the school. The racial/ethnic makeup of the student body is 74% Caucasian, 9% Latino, 9% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8% African American. The socioeconomic status of the students is primarily middle- to upper-middle-class.
Selecting Small Group Counseling Topics
The choices of small counseling group topics were based on information provided by a needs assessment completed by parents in the spring of the prior school year. The topics were anger management, changing families, friendship, social skills, grief, and an "other" category. The goals of the groups were listed under each topic and included academic achievement; therefore, the parents were alerted from the beginning that academic considerations would be integrated into all of the small counseling group sessions.
Student Selection Process
Approximately 120 students were given permission to participate in small group counseling by their parents. In order to ensure that the students who were most in need were provided with services, the school counselor consulted with the students' teachers to identify those students who also were having academic difficulty in school. The teachers checked the students' academic history to determine if they had an academic problem. For example, if a student was reading below grade level or performed below the 50th percentile on a standardized test in the past, he or she would be targeted as having academic difficulty in school.
Of the 120 students, 80 (67%) were confirmed by their teachers as having academic difficulty in school and consequently were invited to participate in the group counseling topic selected by their parents. Thirty-six students participated in the groups during the first semester. Twelve of the students were in the first and second grades, and the other 24 students were in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. The data in this study were collected on the 24 students in grades 3, 4, and 5 who participated and excluded the 12 students in grades 1 and 2 due to the large amount of missing data for these students. The demographics of the students participating in the small groups were as follows: 63% Caucasian, 17% African American, 12% Asian Pacific Islander, and 8% Latino.
Goals of Small Group Counseling Program
The purpose of the small group counseling program was to address the students' personal/social needs and to help them improve behaviors that have been identified as contributing to being successful in the classroom, such as attending to classroom tasks, completing assignments, and raising a hand to ask questions (Myrick, 2003). The school counselor also was interested in improving students', teachers', and parents' perceptions of the students' behavior related to school achievement, and communicating regularly with teachers and parents to get their support in assisting the students in conjunction with the group counseling sessions.
The objectives of the groups were divided into two sections, academic and personal/social, and were derived from the National Standards for School Counseling Programs (ASCA, 2005). The academic objectives of all the groups were (a) to improve academic self-concept, (b) to acquire skills for improving learning, (c) to achieve school success, (d) to relate school to life experience, and (e) to take responsibility for actions.
The specific personal/social objectives varied for each group due to the specific needs of the students participating. An example of the objectives for an anger management group was to learn how to deal with events that provoke anger, to know how to communicate feelings, to use strategies to relieve anger, and to apply anger management skills outside of group.
The groups were structured into 8 to 10 counseling sessions depending on the progression of the members through the group (Gladding, 2003). The sessions took place during the students' lunch and recess time once a week. As a result no student missed any instructional time. The main focus of the group discussions and activities centered on the group topic (e.g., anger management, changing families, or friendship).
The school counselor used activities including bibliotherapy, communication strategies, artwork, role-play, modeling, and a board game to facilitate the groups. The activities, strategies, and ideas were influenced by the information gathered from the preassessment and the group discussions that occurred during the sessions. The school counselor also used feedback and group processing as another strategy to facilitate group discussion during the sessions. Students were reminded of the importance of confidentiality; however, they were encouraged to discuss the meetings with their parents.
Collaboration/Communication with Parents and Teachers
Communicating with parents and teachers prior to and during the group counseling sessions had multiple benefits. The school counselor used the responses from parents and teachers to develop and modify specific goals for each student. The responses also were used during the group sessions for discussion. The communication from the counselor to the parents and teachers provided them with a positive story about the students' accomplishments, and it provided specific ways that parents and teachers could reinforce the students' participation in the groups.
Prior to the beginning of the groups, the school counselor asked if the teachers and parents wanted to be contacted regularly while their students participated in the small groups. For those teachers who were interested in communicating regularly, the school counselor offered a few brief comments on an index card following each session concerning the topic and any relevant insight. For the parents who were interested in communicating regularly, the school counselor contacted them either via e-mail, telephone, or a postcard with a few comments concerning the topic and relevant insights involving their child.
The focus of the comments shared with the parents and teachers related to the information provided by the parent or teacher from the preassessment. The comments to the teachers were straightforward and provided information related to classroom behavior and performance. The comments sent to the parents were phrased in a way that highlighted strengths, areas of improvement, and contributions made by their child within the sessions. The comments were informative yet confidential in nature, revealing only enough information to allow the parents and teacher the opportunity to inquire, reinforce, or follow up on what was discussed within the group session.
EVALUATION OF THE GROUP
Pre- and post-assessments completed by the teachers, students, and parents were compared to assess the effectiveness of the small group counseling intervention. The pre- and post-assessment questions produced two types of data, a targeted learning behavior score and responses to open-ended questions. The targeted learning behavior score was calculated as a percentage of eight learning-related behaviors displayed by the student (e.g., participates in class, talks at appropriate times, attends to a given task). The open-ended questions provided an opportunity to receive feedback and comments in writing from the parents and the teachers. The relationship between the group interventions and academic achievement was evaluated by comparing the language arts grades of the fourth and fifth graders before the group counseling interventions began and at the conclusion of the groups. The first- and third-quarter grades were compared for only the fourth and fifth graders (n = 10) and excluded the third graders (n = 14) because the grading scale of the latter group did not include traditional letter grades.
Program findings are as follows: Pre- and post=assessment data were collected on 24 of the students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades who participated in a small counseling group. The group counseling intervention had a positive impact on the ratings from students, teachers, and parents of the students' learning behaviors. Eighteen of 24 (75%) students who participated reported displaying a greater number of positive learning behaviors in the classroom, and 18 of 24 (75%) of the students' teachers reported that student learning behaviors had improved following the small counseling group intervention. The greatest increase of the students' self-rated learning behaviors was for the third-grade friendship group. The third graders' self-reported percentage of the eight learning behaviors that they displayed improved from 69% to 84%. The fifth-grade anger management group's self-ratings of their learning behaviors improved from 76% to 90%.
Additionally, communication was collected between the counselor and parents and the counselor and teachers. Out of the 24 students participating in the various groups, 14 (58%) of the students' parents were interested in receiving feedback from the school counselor and 18 (75%) of the students' teachers were interested in receiving feedback from the counselor. Although the professional school counselor offered more feedback than was received from parents and teachers, teachers responded more frequently to the professional school counselor's comments of the small group meetings than did the parents. Overall, the parents and teachers who offered written or verbal feedback provided positive comments about the program and benefits for the students.
Academic performance was assessed by comparing first and third report card language arts grades of the fourth- and fifth-grade participants (n = 10). Following the group intervention, 6 of the 10 (60%) fourth and fifth graders' language arts grades improved by at least one letter grade and 2 of the 10 (20%) stayed the same.
The purpose of this group counseling program was to integrate academic interventions with personal/ social interventions, and to use communication strategies to collaborate with teachers and parents to increase student learning behaviors. The initial results support the contention that group counseling interventions are effective in addressing student academic and personal/social concerns.
There are two important implications that result from this group counseling intervention. The first is the importance of collecting data and using external measures to inform the development and delivery of school counseling programs. The second is the value of linking academic objectives with personal/social objectives.
A limitation to this study is the lack of comparison data because a control group was not used. As a result, it is more difficult to state with confidence that the results were influenced entirely by the intervention. Also, a reliable and valid instrument used to measure student learning behaviors would strengthen the findings and allow for more appropriate statistical analyses.
This group counseling intervention provides an example of how professional school counselors can design and facilitate small counseling groups in an organized manner through the use of the ASCA National Model and ASCA's National Standards. The purpose has been to show how to collect and use data within group counseling sessions to contribute to the school's overall mission of assisting students in achieving academic success.
American School Counselor Association. (2005). The ASCA national model: A framework for school counseling programs (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author.
Cook, J., & Kaffenberger, C. (2003). Solution shop: A solution-focused counseling and study skills program for middle schools. Professional School Counseling, 7, 116-123.
Gladding, S. (2003). Group work: A counseling specialty (4th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
House, R. M., & Hayes, R. L. (2002). School counselors: Becoming key players in school reform. Professional School Counseling, 5, 249-256.
Myrick, R. D. (2003). Accountability: Counselors count. Professional School Counseling, 6, 174-179.
U.S. Department of Education. (2001). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Pub. L. No. 107-110. Retrieved January 3, 2005, from http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/ index.html
Sam Steen, Ph.D., is a professional school counselor with Loudoun County Public Schools in Northern Virginia. E-mail: email@example.com. Carol J. Kaffenberger, Ph.D., is an associate professor with the College of Education and Human Development, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.