The Power of Group Work with Kids
By Andrew Malekoff, CEO, North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, March 2007
(Note: This narrative is a reflection of a practitioner’s formative experience in the field as a VISTA volunteer, forming and working with a group of Mexican-American adolescents before receiving any formal education in social work or the human services. The reflection is highlighted by lessons learned that inform strength-based practice in group work with children and youth. The narrative concludes with seven principles conceived over the intervening years that guides his practice today. The article was earlier presented as a keynote presentation entitled: “Group Work: The Hidden Treasure in Group Development” March 8, 2002, Melville Marriott, Melville, NY; and published as: “The Power of Group Work with Kids: Lessons Learned” Social Work with Groups, 25:1/2, 2002; “The Power of Group Work with Kids: A Practitioner’s Reflection on Strength-Based Practice,” Families in Society, 2001, 82:3.)
Introduction: Tapping in to What One Has to Offer
Social group work’s origins are rooted by melding three early twentieth century social movements: the settlement house movement, progressive education movement and recreation movement (Breton, 1990). What all three have in common is the conviction that people have much to offer to improve the quality of their lives. Each movement realized this, respectively, by organizing neighbors to challenge and change unacceptable social conditions in the community, enabling students to practice democracy and learn citizenship in the classroom, and providing people of all ages opportunities to experience the profound joy of participation in a creative group.
The practice of tapping in to what people have to offer is another way of saying that strengths matter. Weick and Saleebey (1995) affirm that helping people to discover the resources to improve their situations is not an option for social workers but an obligation. It is our duty to understand what people know, what they can do, and what they and their environment have to offer. The lesson of strength-based practice was taught to me early in my career, before formal education tempted me with deficit-driven paradigms of practice. It was a time before I went to graduate school and in a place where I learned that strengths matter. I learned it from the people who, at the time, mattered most: my neighbors. In this narrative I will describe my first experience in forming and working with a group of adolescents. I will highlight what I learned along the way and conclude by presenting seven strength-based principles for group work practice with children and youth.
My First Kids’ Group
I formed my first kids’ group when I was a 22 year old VISTA volunteer (Volunteers in Service to America) living in Grand Island, Nebraska. The community that I called home for nearly three years was largely Mexican-American. None of the roads in that part of town were paved. When I first arrived I roomed with a local family. A short time later I rented a tiny two-bedroom house on the edge of a cornfield. The rent was one hundred dollars a month. A few blocks from my house pig and cattle auctions were held on Mondays and Tuesdays. Living in Nebraska was nothing like my early years growing up in Newark, New Jersey where the landscape was concrete and telephone poles and the closet thing to a cornfield was the corner bakery.
The group I formed in the spring of 1974 included six kids. There were three boys: Danny, Carlos and Marco; and three girls: Lilly, Mariel, and Toni. They ranged in age from 13 to 18. All were first generation Mexican-Americans. They all knew each other well, living in this close-knit place where everybody seemed to know everybody.
The idea to create a group started percolating after I was in town for only a few days. Danny, whose sister’s house I was rooming in, hot-wired a car and took it for a joy ride. It was a rainy night. The car spun out of control, crashing into the side of the sheriff’s house. Really! I learned later that Danny’s father and older brother had done time in the state penitentiary. I saw Danny headed down the same road. In what turned out to be a good financial investment, I kicked in a couple hundred dollars after being asked to contribute to Danny’s bail.
During the same time I met an 18- year old young woman Mariel, who was soon to become the senior group member. I found out through the grapevine that she had been through drug rehab more than once. I was advised by someone to go to Mariel’s home and meet her parents who were described as very conservative. I was warned that there was no way I’d get anywhere with Mariel without her parents’ consent.
It was a wonderful lesson. I learned never to cut parents out of the picture. It made sense to me that the parents of these kids would need to trust the gringo stranger who had suddenly appeared in town. Yet, over the years I have met countless colleagues who perceive anxious parents as a thorn in their professional side and use the cloak of confidentiality to factor them out of the helping equation.
One by one I got to know each of the prospective group members and their parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. Getting to know everyone seemed easy at first. I received many invitations to home cooked Mexican meals. However, accompanying the delicious food and great company were situations that I was totally unprepared for. For instance, there was the time I received a written marriage proposal from one of the group member’s cousins. I never considered a dinner invitation in quite the same way after that.
I got to know the prospective group members by hanging out in their homes, in the park, on the basketball court, and here and there. The kids were all children of parents who came a generation earlier from Mexico with their parents to work the local beet farms. I also hung out with the adults, often late into the night. I learned something that didn’t take any special assessment skills on my part. The alcohol flowed freely in this place.
There was a Latin club in town. Everyone turned out to dance and have a few beers on Fridays after work. It was a family atmosphere and a time for the community to unite, four generations dancing to contemporary and traditional Mexican music. If a newcomer had any intention of being more that a stranger the Latin club was the place to be.
I gradually began to feel less like a stranger. When I sensed that people had become more comfortable with me I thought it made sense to get a few of the kids together. I thought that forming a club might serve to address some of their needs like preventing alcohol abuse and strengthening cultural identity. Many elders in the community feared that assimilation was sucking the rich heritage from their children’s souls.
I had an idea. The kids loved to dance and listen to music, and could they dance. It seemed to me that sitting around and talking rap group style was one thing we could and would do, but that they would probably like doing a lot more than talking. This wasn’t, as they say, rocket science. It just made good sense to me to do what they liked, were good at, and might find meaningful and productive.
All these years later I continue to meet colleagues who assign second-class status to groups that dance and sing and laugh and run and jump and play. An air of condescension and professional arrogance often surrounds the use of nonverbal activities in group, especially in those schools and clinical settings where the spoken word rules the day. When the activity of the group is other than earnest and insightful discussion, parents, referral sources, administrators, and colleagues too often arch a collective eyebrow of disapproval as if to say, “This is nice but when does the real work begin.” There is nothing more deadly to the creative process needed to grow good groups that such uniformed, blind, authoritarian rigidity. Spiritual incarceration. That is what I call it. Learning from the Inside-Out.
As the kids’ group took shape I worried that I didn’t know anything about Mexican culture. I decided that the dance floor at the Latin club was a good place to start. The most spirited dances were communal, young and old circling the floor as a large group, accenting the need to stay connected in the present by preserving the past.
If I could learn Mexican dance at the Latin club, I figured that there had to be others in town that could teach me and the group other things we needed to know. I thought that if I could find such people and get to know them that I could convince them to help me, help us.
I didn’t know anything about alcoholism either. So I found out about an alcoholism program across the street from the cattle auction. I got to know Jim, the director of the center. We spent some time together and he provided me with literature on the subject. Jim told me that he was in recovery and invited me to an open AA meeting. I didn’t know what “recovery” meant, so he taught me. He agreed to help in any way he could. I also met an elementary school teacher who lived in the community. Dolores was a dynamic woman with a great smile, unlimited knowledge about her heritage, boundless energy and a burning desire to help the young people in the community. She was dying to help out. I told her about the group and she agreed to teach dance and sprinkle in some history lessons along the way.
Soon I met others who, as they learned about the group and its purpose, wanted to pitch in too. There were women who offered to sew traditional dresses for the girls to dance in, men who loaned their cherished sombreros to the boys, people in recovery willing to talk about alcoholism and the road to sobriety, and so on. Soon the group had a small army of helpers. And all I had to do was ask.
Giving Up Control
And so I made another valuable discovery. And this was a big one. I learned that I didn’t have to control everything. I could depend on others. Others being the kids themselves and the grown ups who had a stake in them. This took a lot of pressure off me. It meant that I didn’t have to know everything. I did have to be willing to trust others and have faith in what they might have to offer. I later discovered that this was a very unpopular way to think among colleagues who revere a one-to-one medical model, where professional is knowledgeable decision maker, client is passive recipient, pathology rules, and DSM is the holy bible. (“Hallelujah”, cried the lonely managed care clerk from his desolate outpost in the hinterlands of corporate America.)
We decided on a group name: Los Seis – The Six. As I got to know Los Seis better I realized that despite the overwhelming odds that they faced they had lots to offer. They were attractive, creative, talented, intelligent, energetic, passionate, and open-minded – open minded enough to give me the priceless and timeless gift of letting me into their lives so that I can share this gift, and all I learned from it, with others. Others like you, reader.
The group met several times a week. It was fun, exciting, and at times puzzling. One day a newspaper crew came to cover the story of the group. As the photographer readied for the shoot the group unraveled before my eyes. A simmering dispute between Marco and Toni exploded. In frustration, everyone threatened to quit the group. Several ran from the building. I chased them down and persuaded them to return. The full page spread of photos that appeared two days later in the Sunday paper was so impressive that no reader could have picked up on the chaos that transpired just moments before the photos were taken.
The kids always seemed to bounce back from adversity in the group. But there was more at work that individual resiliency. The group had become a force, a distinct entity with an identity and life of its own. There was an undeniable path that I couldn’t explain and didn’t understand at the time. Years later I learned about group culture, group process, and strength-based work and it all started to make some sense.
In time Los Seis became best know as a dance group that traveled throughout the State spreading a message of cultural pride and alcohol abuse prevention. In a sense they became advocates, extending the bonds of belonging beyond the group itself. A highlight was their first public appearance before a gathering of the local community. One of the poems chosen for the event is an epic of the Mexican-American people, the most famous poem of the Chicano movement in America. It’s called “I am Joaquin” or “Yo soy Joaquin”, written by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (1967), long involved in the civil and human rights movement of the Mexican-American people. The book length poem give voice to what many in the community felt.
As the lights were turned down in the community center, the group members took turns reading by candlelight as a hundred of their family and friends, young and old looked on and listened.
I am Joaquin,
Lost in a world of confusion,
caught up in the whirl of a
confused by the rules,
scorned by attitudes,
suppressed by manipulation,
and destroyed by modern society.
have lost the economic battle
the struggle of cultural survival…
or whatever I call myself,
I look the same
I feel the same
sing the same
I am the masses of my people and
I refuse to be absorbed.
I am Joaquin.
The odds are great
but my spirit is strong,
my faith unbreakable,
my blood is pure.
I am Aztec prince and Christian Christ.
I shall endure!
I will endure!
Working with Los Seis has been one of the enduring pleasures of my life. Nevertheless, at the time I couldn’t help but wonder, how did this happen? What did I do to help make it happen? Was it a fluke? Could I do it again?
Practice Principles for Strength-Based Group Work
It has been 30 years since Los Seis and my belief in the value of good group experiences for kids has only grown despite countless obstacles. In time I became a student, and then a teacher and author, of what was at first the product of an intuitive journey. As I continued the journey, later in graduate school and then in agency work I became disheartened to see so many talented people bailing out and abandoning group work with kids. But who could blame them. Higher education, with a few notable exceptions, has failed. And there is little or on reliable support and supervision in most work places.
Too much of what passes as group work these days is nothing more than curriculum-driven pseudo group work with little interaction amongst group members, no mutual aid, cookbook agendas, and canned exercises. The emphasis is on controlling kids, shoving education down their throats, and stamping out spontaneity and creativity.
Somewhere along the way I became a missionary of sorts, encouraging others to stay the course and attempting to demystify group work so that it could be more easily understood and purposefully practiced.
And so, with the spirit of Los Seis in mind and heart, I’ll conclude with seven principles and a poem that I hope you will embrace, seven strength-based bricks accompanied by a lyrical message to begin building a foundation for the important work ahead:
(1). I hope that those of you who work with young people in groups or who administer programs that include group work, will learn that a group shouldn’t be formed on the basis of a diagnosis or label. I want you to be crystal clear that a group should be formed on the basis of particular needs that the group is being pulled together to address. Felt needs are different that ascribed labels. Understanding need is where we begin in group work. Such a simple concept, yet so foreign to so many.
(2). I hope that you will learn to structure your groups to invite the whole person and not just the troubled or hurt or broken parts. There is so much talk these days about strengths and wellness. This is hardly a new and revolutionary concept. But it has been neglected for too long. However, good group work practice has been paying attention to people’s strengths since the days of the original settlement houses over 100 years ago, mostly without any fanfare.
(3). I hope that you will value the use of verbal and non-verbal activities and will, for once and for all, learn to relax and to abandon the strange and bizarre belief that the only successful group is one that consists of young people who sit still and speak politely and insightful.
(4). I hope that you will come to understand that losing control is not where you want to get away from, it’s where you want to get to. What I mean by this is, when control is turned over to the group and when the group worker give up his or her centrality in the group, that mutual aid can follow and then members can find expression for they have to offer. Encouraging ” what they have to offer” – that’s the kind of group work we need to practice, that’s what real empowerment is all about.
(5). I hope that you will stay tuned in to the near things and far things, the near things of individual need and the far things of social reform. Our young group members need to see the potential of changing not only oneself but also one’s surroundings, so that they may become active participants in community affairs, so that they might make a difference, might change the world one day where we have failed to. A good group can be a great start for this kind of consciousness development and action among young people.
(6). I hope that you will learn that anxious and angry parents are not our enemies and that we must collaborate with them and form stable alliances with them if we are to be successful with their children. Many parents suffer from profound isolation and self-doubt. We must learn to embrace their frustration and anxiety rather than become defensive and rejecting. They get enough of that as it is.
(7). Finally, I hope you will learn that a good group has a life of its own, each one with a unique personality – what we group workers refer to as a culture. We must learn to value the developmental life of a group. Because if people can take this from today, when those that inhabit the world outside of our groups question the value of our efforts, amidst the noise and movement and excitement of a typical kids groups – and when they raise an eyebrow or toss puzzled and disapproving looks our way and ask us, ” what is going on in there?!?” We’ll have more confidence to move ahead and to hang in there and not bail out as too many and adult already has.
I’ll leave you with a poem that I wrote on the existential plight of those of us who work with kids in groups and the faith that is needed to stay the course. The poem, which I wrote while watching a group of kids in a roller rink, is my attempt to demystify the concept of group process (Malekoff, 1997).
What is Going in There? Question and response
What is going on in There? (The question)
We bring our kids to you,
To see what you can do;
They meet a bunch of others,
See, we are all their mothers;
We hear a to of noise,
And, yes, boys will be boys;
But what is going on in there?,
Nothing much we fear.
Our rooms are side by side,
And it’s not my style to chide;
But your group’s a bit too crazy.
And what you’re doing’s kind of hazy;
After all they’re here to talk,
Yet all they do is squeal and squawk;
What is going on in there?
Nothing much we fear.
Hi I’m from the school,
And it’s not my style to duel;
But Johnny’s in your group,
And I know that you’re no dupe;
But his dad has called on me,
To gain some clarity;
So what is going on in there?,
Nothing much, I fear.
Now here we are alas,
Facing you in masse;
We haven’t got all day,
So what have you to say;
About this thing called group,
This strange and foggy soup;
Just what is going on in there?,
Nothing much, we fear.
What is Going on in There? (The Response)
If you really wish to know, have a seat, don’t plan to go.
It will take awhile to get, but you will get it, so don’t you fret.
A group begins by building trust, chipping ways at the surface crust.
Once the uneasy feeling is lost, a battle rages for who’s the boss;
Kings and Queens of what’s okay and who shall have the final say.
Once that’s clear a moment of calm is quickly followed by the
slapping of palms.
A clan like feeling fills the air,
the sharing of joy, hope, and despair.
Family dramas are replayed, so new directions can be made.
Then in awhile each one stands out,
confident of his own special clout.
By then the group has discovered its pace,
a secret gathering in a special place.
Nothing like it has occurred before,
a bond that exist beyond the door.
And finally it’s time to say good-bye,
a giggle, a tear, a hug, a sigh.
Hard to accept, easy to deny,
the group is gone yet forever alive.
So you’ve asked me “what is going on in there?,”
I hope that my story has helped make it clear.
Maybe now it is easier to see,
that a group has a life, just like you and like me.
Breton, M. (1990). Learning from social group work traditions. Social Work with Groups, 13:3, 21-34.
Gonzales, R. (1967). I Am Joaquin. New York: Bantam.
Malekoff, A. (1997). Group Work with Adolescents: Principles and Practice. New York: Guilford, 50-52.
Weick, A. & Saleebey, D. (1995). A postmodern approach to social work practice. The 1995 Richard Lodge Memorial Lecture, Adelphi University School of Social Work, New York.