From snatching to sharing…..the benefits of emotionally focused group work

When I first met Jake he was in the outdoor area of his reception class trying to negotiate with the teaching assistant why he should stay on the bike he was riding round and not let another child have a turn. His class teacher described him as very bright, but also demanding, manipulative and controlling. He found it very hard to share, would often take things from other children and had no friends in his class. Emily, on the other hand is the sort of child that can easily be overlooked in school. She is happy, compliant, has friends and is always happy to let other children have a turn on the bike…even if it is her turn. I decided that these two children together would be ideal candidates for me to model to a teaching assistant Donna, how to deliver a friendship group, as they are both polar opposites in terms of how their needs manifest in their behaviour, but both need help to make changes. Before starting the group I met with Donna and we discussed the changes we would be trying to help each child to make. We would focus on acknowledging how hard it is for Jake to share, listen to people talking, and not always be first and to identify and tentatively encourage Emily to do more of this, to be less complaint and eager to please and to start claiming some space for herself. We were both excited to be working with them, and eager to get started.

On the first session, Emily was very keen to please us, holding the door open for us on the way to the room and waiting to be directed where to sit, whereas Jake hurled himself down the corridor and burst into the room. After explaining to them both that our group was about being friends and helping them to practise things such as sharing and taking turns etc, we began our first activity. The children are encouraged to take turns with everything, with lots of acknowledgement of how hard this can be and validation of the child who is practising waiting. Emily is extremely good at this, and quite happy to sit and wait…and wait….unlike Jake who finds this very hard and is very articulate in his arguments as to why he doesn’t need to wait. “There are two pens Cath, Emma can have the green one because I want the blue one…” and so it began. After each session Donna and I would discuss in great detail every aspect of the twenty minute session we had just had, which would take us about forty minutes. I encouraged her to think about the minute details of everything, using the luxury of our time together to do this and she gradually became skilled at being able to do this herself.

We saw small changes with both Jake and Emily each week, as they became used to the sessions and had focused support from Donna and myself. Jake began being able to wait his turn, although he always made sure we knew that’s what he was doing as he proudly told us, and Emily stopped holding the door for us and instead began asserting her needs as soon as we left the class, “I think its my turn to go first this week” she told me excitedly as we went to collect her for their third session.

However, the activity on the fourth week saw the most dramatic shifts in both children. The activity is to build a model together with lego or bricks, quite a straight forward activity, but of course the group work activities are planned to get more challenging for the children each week and to enable them to keep practising the skills they are acquiring. Therefore, the activity involves them deciding together what they would like to make before they start, and then taking it in turns putting one brick at a time on the model. Some adults would find this activity difficult, let alone four year olds! I started explaining the activity and before I had finished Jake immediately said “boat, we want to make a boat don’t we Emily?” to which Emily shook her head and said “I want to make a house.”

Secretly delighted that Emily was voicing her needs, I acknowledged how hard it was when they wanted to make different things and wondered aloud about what we could do…”Make a boat house” shouted Jake excitedly, “Yes a boat house, a house with a boat on it “ shrieked Emily. I was once again delighted with the order she suggested, her idea of a house with Jake’s idea of a boat on it. Jake was so excited that Emily was beaming at him, as most children didn’t respond to him in this way, that he appeared not to notice, and so they began making their model. They started off really well, sitting watching each other as they took their turns and smiling at each other in excited anticipation, it was wonderful to watch and Donna and I beamed at each other like proud parents watching their offspring’s latest achievement.

It was all going so well….until Jake having just had his turn, noticed a small brick shaped slightly differently to some of the others and started sliding it towards him, beaming at Emily as he moved it. I gently enquired whose turn it was to which he replied matter of factly, “It’s Emily’s turn, but I’m just saving this one for my turn.” I responded using lots of reflections about how hard it was to wait but in here we are practising taking turns etc and Jake responded by sliding the brick back to the pile. I acknowledged this and turned to Emily, encouraging her to have her turn. She put her hand towards the pile of bricks, hesitated for a second and picked up the same brick that Jake had just put down. “I’d like this one” she said. Jake immediately sighed, folded his arms, put his head down and turned his back to us. “I wanted that one” he said, his voice quivering but loud. I moved to sit next to him and started to talk to him, acknowledging again how hard it is, how disappointing and upsetting it is etc, with no movement from Jake for several minutes. I had been encouraging his class teacher to use lots of reflections about seeing him and commenting on his facial expressions and he had been responding well to these, so I decided to acknowledge and describe exactly what I had seen. He hesitated, let out another big sigh and then turned round. “It’s your turn Jake” said Emily and he picked up a brick and they continued building until their house with a boat on it was completed. Donna and I took them back to class feeling both excited and exhausted and returned to the room to discuss the session.

It was after that session that their class teacher started to notice some significant changes in both children. Emily was now becoming more vocal in class and Jake and her had started playing together more. However, we still had two sessions left of the group and Donna and I were keen to see if the positive changes continued. The activity on the fifth session involves each child decorating a butterfly for the other child and then giving it to them. Both children were excited to do this, and after an initial comment from Jake to Emily “But I don’t like purple” as she picked up some tissue paper to put on his butterfly, to which she responded, “I do, and pink”, both children worked well and were excited to give them to each other, dancing around the room with them on the end of a stick.

On the last session, I acknowledged the ending and talked about all the positive changes they had made as they looked at the contents of their folder and reminisced about each activity. Jake said “I like coming here” and Emma said “Me too” and we talked some more about the feelings we can have when things end. Since the group both Jake and Emma have remained friends, and their class teacher is really pleased with their progress. Emily is more confident, not letting other children take things from her and generally being more assertive. Jake is more settled, practising waiting his turn and gradually being able to share, making sure he tells his teacher each time he has done it.

Last week I walked past their class last week to see them both sat at a table playing a game of snakes and ladders. It all appeared to be going well…although I wondered what would happen if Jake landed at the top of the long snake and had to go down it…..

Cath’s third book “Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviour through Group Work Ages 3-5: A child-centred programme” which contains the group work programme discussed in this article has been published by Routledge in April 2016. Please see her website for a discount voucher or for information about a whole days training on Friday 10th November in Hebden Bridge on implementing this programme.

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