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Planning and implementing group counseling in a high school. (Perspective From The Field).

Group counseling is a direct service offered to students as part of a comprehensive school counseling program (Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Gysbers & Henderson, 2000). Although group counseling is cited as an effective intervention (Gladding, 1999), we found that many high school counselors struggle to effectively plan and implement ongoing group counseling services. In fact, the overall frequency of group counseling in high schools has been found to be remarkably low (Tennyson, Miller, Skovalt, & Williams, 1987).

One of the major impediments to planning and implementing group counseling is that the academic culture and climate of high schools often runs counter to the type of environment necessary to implement group counseling (Bowman, 1987; Schmidt, 1999). However, we found that collaboration with administrators and faculty can lessen the logistical and bureaucratic concerns of the school environment that hinder group counseling initiatives.

The purpose of this article is to offer strategies we found to be successful in planning and implementing group counseling. These strategies are consistent with the professional principles of group counseling (Gladding, 1999) and were designed and revised between 1987 and 1997 during our experiences as high school counselors. These services were implemented in a rural high school with approximately 1,000 students.

Logistical Strategies

School Structure and Student Need

In planning and implementing group counseling services, we focused on the contemporary needs of high school students within the parameters of the school's structure. Student need necessitated a focus on preventive, developmental, and crisis-oriented groups (Myrick, 1993). The focus of the groups included drug awareness, effective relationships, study skills, career planning, senior transitions, divorce, and bereavement. These groups were planned and implemented based on the developmental maturity of high school students and the constraints of a high school schedule. For example, when we began offering groups, the school structure was defined by a traditional six-period day with each period lasting approximately one hour. This structure simplified implementation as it allowed us to conduct one-hour groups, which seemed appropriate for adolescents. This planning strategy was flexible enough to allow us to adapt it over the years when our school structure changed to block scheduling.

Developing Awareness

Once our focus was clear, it was essential to develop teacher and administrator awareness of the centrality and importance of group counseling services in the high school. To accomplish this, we utilized the program components of responsive services and guidance curriculum as presented in Gysbers and Henderson's (2000) comprehensive school counseling program model. We used group counseling as a method of direct service delivery within these two components. By offering groups that addressed issues in both components, we reduced the disproportionate amount of time spent providing responsive services to only a few students, leaving more time for the proactive dimensions of both program components. For example, to address reactive needs, we routinely offered groups to assist students with issues of family separation, divorce, and bereavement. The pervasive nature of these issues affected many of our students, creating an ongoing need for these types of groups. Additionally; proactive and developmentally oriented groups focused on post-secondary planning for juniors and seniors and transition groups for seniors as they prepared for life after high school (Goodnough & Ripley, 1997). Proactive groups complemented other guidance curriculum initiatives that were infused into the school's curriculum. Delivering group services in this way helped develop an awareness that group counseling can be a powerful venue for reaching students.

Policy Considerations

Group counseling services that reached into the mainstream of the school required and were facilitated by administrative support. This support was strengthened when adopted as policy. Our request for this need-driven policy change gained acceptance when it was incorporated into other policies. This type of policy revision demonstrated that need-driven change did not have to threaten or undermine the orderliness of the school. This strategy fostered collaboration among school personnel and provided access to all students without penalty or partiality.

We worked with administrators to foster policy changes in the following ways. First, we incorporated group counseling into existing policies that regulated students being excused from class to attend school-sponsored activities.

Next, we proposed that two other policies should govern group counseling. The first policy stipulated that the time students spent in group counseling could not be counted as an absence from a class. The second policy stipulated that teachers could not deny students the opportunity to attend a group counseling session. For example, teachers were required to allow students to leave class to attend a group session in the same way they excused students to participate in a sporting event without counting them absent from class. Accordingly; existing school policy allotted students a given amount of time to make up work, without penalty, when they missed class for illness or other school-sponsored activities. Since group counseling now came under the rubric of a school-sponsored activity, students were responsible for following this rule on making up work when they missed class to attend a session. This eliminated an added burden on teachers to monitor the assignments missed by students who attended group counseling (Wittmer, 2000). In turn, because group counseling was a voluntary school-sponsored activity, we needed to be flexible if students chose to remain in class rather than attend a group.

Finally, we incorporated the start of group sessions into the existing policy that required students to be on time for class. When group meetings started at the beginning of a class period, students were required to be in the group room by the ringing of the bell. If they were late due to a meeting with a teacher, they had to present the appropriate hall pass. We found adherence to this policy particularly important as administrative and faculty support can be quickly undermined by student tardiness to group counseling sessions.

Educating Faculty

Garnering and revitalizing faculty support throughout the school year remained an ongoing element in planning and implementing group counseling. Orienting faculty during an in-service at the beginning of the year familiarized them with the need for group services, the associated policies, and the benefits students may gain from participating in counseling groups. Informal sharing with faculty during these activities provided opportunities to dispel any myths or concerns regarding group counseling. This activity was followed by a thank-you letter to teachers for their support. These introductory efforts were instrumental in educating faculty and gaining their support. Throughout the year, we continued to follow up with teachers through informal communications, which slowly developed trust and resulted in teachers referring students to group counseling. At the end of the year, teachers and administrators received a summary report detailing the types of groups offered and the number of students served. This elevated our visibility and credibility and fostered a sense of collaboration.

Access to Students

Ongoing relationship building and sensitivity to teachers' schedules resulted in access to students to conduct a school-wide needs assessment. Each year we gained permission to conduct such an assessment as part of a brief classroom presentation in every language arts class. A prearranged presentation schedule was collaboratively developed and distributed to teachers. Teachers willingly accommodated us in their classrooms and, in turn, we adhered to the schedule, arrived on time, and presented in a time-efficient manner.

The presentation familiarized students with group counseling services and provided a means for them to indicate interest. Assessment forms were distributed to every student; however, students' initial indication of interest did not commit them to group participation. Students could also become involved in a group later if they chose not to indicate interest on the assessment form. All students, regardless of their interest in group counseling, signed and returned their assessment forms to the counselor at the end of the presentation. This uniform response procedure served to maintain students' confidentiality. Completed needs assessment forms were forwarded to the appropriate group leaders and used during screening. This provided a common starting point linking the classroom presentation and screening.

The presentation also helped students understand how group counseling fit into the everyday school environment, which assisted them in making decisions about seeking counseling services. For example, it was helpful for students to know that groups met once a week during different class periods over 8 weeks.

Counselor Planning and Preparation

Group Procedures

All groups were facilitated using an established set of group procedures that were collaboratively developed by group leaders. These procedures ensured that we offered consistent and ethically appropriate experiences to students. During the development and ongoing revisions of group procedures, we encouraged a sense of ownership and cohesiveness among group leaders by soliciting their input. This process was especially important as various combinations of school counselors, social workers, community agency counselors, school psychologists, and graduate student interns served as group co-leaders. One example of this process was the collaborative development of group ground rules that standardized the program and created a safe group environment consistent with school policy. Additionally, a copy of all materials for each group facilitated was placed in a central location in the counseling office. Materials were open for inspection to parents, teachers, and administrators to demystify the counseling process and promote counselor accountability (Kaplan, 1996). Available material did not include names of students in the group or any other material that would breach student confidentiality.

Finally, approximately one week before the first session, group schedules detailing class period, date, and day of the week were distributed to each group member. Hall passes were sent the day before each meeting. In a traditional nonblock schedule format, groups met once a week for one 50-minute class period. In a block schedule format, groups met for the first 50 minutes of a 90-minute class period. In the latter format, at the conclusion of a session, co-leaders gave students a signed pass to return to class. Though we remained the primary directors of the group counseling services, these practices minimized potential turf issues and encouraged professional support and collegiality.

Counselor Preparation

There were occasions when a student need was beyond the expertise of the counselor. In these instances, we either solicited agency counselors to assist with co-leading a group or group leaders sought additional education. In this way, services remained need driven, and also became an integral part of our ongoing professional development. For example, we thought counselors needed additional expertise to lead groups for students returning from substance abuse treatment programs. These students have specific reentry issues that need school support. The assistance of an experienced substance abuse counselor in our group program provided an added dimension to aiding these students.


Our group counseling services promoted co-leading as the norm. Thus, in instances in which agency counselors were invited into the school, they were paired with school counselors as co-leaders. This practice enhanced the program in three ways. First, it ensured consistency among group practice and procedure. Second, it provided an ongoing school-based link, as students needs often extended beyond the group session. Third, this collaborative effort strengthened our professional relationships and credibility with outside agencies. Whether counselors were paired with school personnel or agency counselors, all co-leaders shared the responsibility of preparing for each group facilitated. Co-leaders developed overall group goals and specific objectives for each group session. In addition necessary materials were gathered prior to beginning a group.


We found implementing group counseling in a high school was contingent upon supportive school policies and personnel, thorough planning, and advocating for programmatic initiatives. These guidelines helped us plan and implement successful group counseling services. We think the strategies presented are flexible and can be adapted to meet the unique needs and structure of other high schools. Moreover, with appropriate modifications, these strategies may be applied to other grade levels. In this way, school counselors can address the challenges of developing and implementing group counseling services as part of a comprehensive school counseling program.


Bowman, R. P. (1987). Small group guidance and counseling in schools: A national survey of school counselors. The School Counselor, 34, 256-262.

Campbell, C. A., & Dahir, C. A. (1997). The national standards for school counseling programs. Alexandria, VA: American School Counselor Association.

Gladding, S. T. (1999). Group work: A counseling specialty. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Goodnough, G. E., & Ripley, V. (1997). Structured groups for high school seniors making the transition to college and to military service. The School Counselor, 43, 230-234.

Gysbers, N. C., & Henderson, E (2000). Developing and managing your school guidance program (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Kaplan, L. S. (1996). Outrageous or legitimate concerns: What some parents are saying about school counseling. The School Counselor, 43, 165-170.

Myrick, R. D. (1993). Developmental guidance and counseling. Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media.

Schmidt, J. J. (1999). Counseling in schools. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Tennyson, W. W., Miller, G. D., Skovalt, T. G., & Williams, R. D. (1987). Secondary school counselors: What do they do? What is important? The School Counselor, 36, 253-259.

Wittmer, J. (2000). Managing your school counseling program: K-12 developmental strategies (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media.

Vivian V. Ripley, Ed. D., is an assistant professor and assistant director of School Counseling Program, Department of Counseling and Human Services, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA. Gary E. Goodnough, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Counselor Education, Education Department, Plymouth State College, Plymouth, NH.
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Article Details
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Author:Goodnough, Gary E.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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