Group Counseling for Social Skills

By Jennifer Oden, Loyola Marymount Los Angeles, Masters in School Psychology
Image of kids developing social skills

Developing social skills in a group context is a powerful method

Sometimes group counseling for social skills development can be a helpful way to assist students who do not cultivate these skills on their own. For whatever reason, some students have more difficulty building the social skills required for making and keeping friends. Most students who struggle with peer relationships have been (or are eventually) identified as having cognitive, behavioral, and/or social development disorders. Thankfully, students who undergo group counseling interventions that focus on developing prosocial skills are likely to experience positive treatment outcomes.

Description of Population

According to research, between 17% and 22% of children and adolescents experience stressful life events that have detrimental impacts on their emotional well being and social lives (Shechtman, 2007). Students who experience stressful circumstances such as family break-ups, substance abuse, academic failure, or social isolation and rejection are commonly found in social skill intervention programs. Another specific population to consider includes children who qualify for special education services. Interestingly, students with learning disabilities (which make up about 25% of all children worldwide), will attest to the fact that school performance is the least of their concerns. More so learning disabled students are bothered by social rejection and loneliness. Whether their problems are due to developmental disorders or can be attributed to mildly or severely stressful life events, there are high volumes of these types of students in schools who exist in social skill intervention groups.

Taking a closer look at learning disabled students will offer further perceptive on the types of student populations who are in need of social skill intervention programs. The learning disabled constituent, one of the major clusters of children who are involved in prosocial groups, is disproportionately represented by students of ethnic minorities. Currently the unbalanced representation of ethnically and linguistically diverse students in special education is quite obvious. The Twenty-Second Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act included information on ethnicity and noted the ethnic discrepancy among students in special education. When compared to white pupils, African American students have a 135% chance of being identified as mentally retarded. Native Americans have a 24% greater probability of being identified as learning disabled, along with Hispanics who are 17% more likely to be identified as learning disabled (Rhodes, Ochoa & Ortiz, 2005).

There are high levels of co-morbidity among students who are learning disabled or who have individual education plans and students who are involved in social skills intervention programs. Beyond these demographics, there does not seem to be any outstanding research that shows higher tendencies for male versus female students to join social skills groups. Clearly students need to have developmental and cognitive abilities that are advanced enough for participation in a group. Students in the 7- 11 age range tend to be most favorable for participation in group counseling because at this stage, children are industrious, eager to learn, demonstrate abstract thinking and are empathetic toward others; however successful groups including students of all ages and grade levels can exist.

Goals of Treatment

It is suggested that the first major goal of the group should be to help students release stress and to help students feel better about their issues and social difficulties (Shechtman, 2007). This goal can be achieved through either structured or unstructured activities that help students express their emotions and concerns within an understanding and accepting environment. In addition to appeasing the cathartic process, another treatment goal should be to help students understand themselves, their problems and their behaviors. At the group level, goals should be aimed at establishing a climate of warmth and support, creating close connectedness among members and the counselor, evoking mutual sharing, and providing honest and constructive feedback. Beyond general treatment goals for counseling groups, further treatment goals can be established regarding common problem trends among students in social skills groups.     

Considering the ethnically diverse learning disabled population, research clearly indicates the contribution of expressive-supportive group counseling to children’s progress in social and emotional success. A study of 142 learning disabled students revealed that students who participated in group counseling (the experimental condition consisting of 73 students) made observable gains on scores of self-confidence and social acceptance. Treatment goals for children in prosocial counseling groups can include heightened measures of self-esteem, self-concept, and social acceptance; in addition to heightened measures of classroom survival skills, friendship making skills, skills for dealing with feelings, skill alternatives for aggression, and skills for dealing with stress (McGinnis & Goldstein, 1997). Goals that focus on increased measurements of the aforementioned aspects are important for a working social skills intervention group.

Learning disabled students’ academic difficulties and lack of appropriate social skills lead to increased experiences of negative affect: higher rates of anxiety and depression (Morris, 2006), low self-concept and low self-worth (Swanson, Harris & Graham, 2005) and high rates of isolation and rejection (Nabuzoka, 2000). To successfully achieve treatment goals, interventions should help children combat their affective difficulties, as well as provide cognitive-behavioral treatment. CBT uses therapy that focuses on group dynamics and the development of cognitive behavioral techniques such as setting goals, problem solving, and risk assessment to change dysfunctional attitudes, beliefs and behaviors (Shechtman, 2007). It would prove beneficial for treatment goals to be centered on CBT and aimed at increasing prosocial behaviors.

Assessment of Student Progress

Assessing student progress is often most accurate when evaluation procedures are multi-modal so that cross validation of progress is possible. One way to assess student progress is by directly observing the child in particular situations at particular times. Observations might consist of taking frequency counts of how often a child deals with being teased or reacts to frustration in a positive manner (McGinnis & Goldstein, 1997). Keeping note of observed student progress not only provides assessment, but it provides the group therapist with feedback to report to the child.

A skill checklist might be used in order to assess progress as well. Checklists which rate the frequency of certain behaviors can be offered to individuals who interact with the student on a daily basis (teachers, school staff, and parents). For instance, teachers might be asked to gage how often the student was able to show understanding of others’ feelings, offer help to another student, share, or apologize. The student can complete his or her own version of the progress checklist as well. Once again, checklists not only provide a means for assessment, but checklists can also be used to help the student and the student’s parents and teachers appreciate the positive changes that are noted daily.

Problems of self-esteem and self-concept are two of the most prominent concerns regarding children with social difficulties. Taking into account that most students in prosocial skill groups struggle with issues of self-esteem, one way to provide an assessment of student progress would be to offer students the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale (Wylie, 1974). The scale can measure students’ levels of self-respect, appreciation of personal merits, and it identifies what faults the student realizes require overcoming. Student self-reports such as the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale, in addition to therapist observational reports and parent/ teacher checklists, can provide a wide span of assessment data while determining the student’s level of progress. 

Empirically Based Group Interventions

One empirically based theory suggests skill-streaming interventions which educate students on 60 prosocial skills, divided into 5 sub-social groups: classroom survival skills, friendship making skills, skills for dealing with feelings, skill alternatives to aggression, and skills for dealing with stress. Within the ‘friendship making skills’ sub-group, specific prosocial skill activities focus on introducing yourself, beginning and ending conversations, playing games, accepting and giving compliments, apologizing, sharing, and offering assistance (McGinnis & Goldstein, 1997). The skill-streaming intervention program takes a long time to conduct because it instructs children on all 60 skills; however it is possible to cut down the curriculum and only focus on select skills that the therapist believes are most important.

Other group counseling interventions that have proven helpful to children in social skill groups include bibliotherapy, phototherapy therapeutic card exercises (Shechtman, 2007). Bibliotherapy refers to the use of written text to provide therapy. Along with the use of other expressive art therapies (such as musical, drama, dance, and paint therapy), bibliotherapy allows students to explore their feelings through reading and discussing literature. Reading a story about the ‘ugly puppy’ that was rejected by his classmates might promote conversation among group members who have experienced social isolation at school. Phototherapy allows students to express their feelings and relay their personal experiences to the rest of the group by viewing and discussing photographs. A group member might bring in a photo of his grandfather as a way to inform the group about his feelings of depression since his grandfather’s death. Therapeutic cards can also be used to discuss the emotions, thoughts, and experiences of group members. Using the cards as a catalyst, students can play a variety of games that encourage communication techniques and coping methods. Coping cards consist of two decks: one deck that displays pictures of traumatic situations (fires, arguments with friends, loneliness, etc.) and another deck that names sources of coping (body, beliefs, imagination, etc.). Students are asked to select an event card that they wish to talk about and then chose coping cards to help them handle the event. All three of these therapeutic interventions can help students build their communication, coping, and expressive skills; all of which are necessary for successful social interactions.

Benefits and Contradictions

The group counseling experience itself is incredibly beneficial for students in need of social skill interventions because group dynamics provide excellent preparation for future social situations. When students interact within the group therapy setting, their developmental obstructions tend to break down and the student’s own resources begin to rebuild (Yalom, 2005). Therefore the group counseling format itself serves as an intervention strategy, regardless of what activities the therapist chooses to use during sessions. Research indicates that group therapy is most specifically beneficial for individuals with social difficulties. Group therapy is superior to individual therapy in developing social support, providing social learning, and improving social networks.

Although group counseling seems advantageous for students who require socially based interventions, it is debatable whether group therapy leads to more positive patient outcomes than individual therapy. There is evidence that group therapy is at least as effective as individual therapy; however group therapy has yet to be utilized as the primary model of contemporary psychotherapy. More than any other factor, client variables impact the outcome of the therapeutic experience (whether therapy is held in the individual or group setting). Within the school setting, the group counseling format is ideal in that students are readily accessible and treatment can be provided in a cost effective and time effective manner. Researchers may not have determined that group therapy prevails as the most effective treatment, but counseling groups appear to be the recommended choice for students with social difficulties in schools.

Ethical and Legal Issues

Personal boundaries and confidentiality are clearly relevant ethical issues in group counseling. Most likely, children who attend group counseling sessions in schools are referred for counseling by their teachers, school administrators, or through their IEP goals; therefore caution is needed in regard to what is expected of them (Shechtman, 2007). Both the counselor and the other group members need to be respectful about what others chose to self-disclose or how others chose to participate. It is the counselor’s job to create a secure environment for group sharing and to establish the rules and limitations of confidentiality.

The culturally diverse children and families who are involved in social skill intervention groups also present important ethical and legal concerns. Best practice suggests that group leaders should have cultural competence when working with diverse students and their families (Thomas & Grimes, 2008). Group leaders should take initiative to gain knowledge about both the school and the family culture. The ability to communicate with students and their families, in their native language, is crucial. Legally, school psychologists are required to use an interpreter if they are unable to communicate in the native language of the student or the student’s family. Finally, self-awareness on the part of the group leader is important, because recognizing that one’s own views differ from others serves as the first step toward developing competence in working with diverse families.   

Conclusions and Future Directions

Additional information should be gathered concerning the affects of the group process on individual outcomes. It would be interesting to identify group variables instead of individual variables to measure and predict positive change. Determining successful group outcomes might include measuring the bonds between group members, seeing as bonding relates to gains in social competence. Measuring bonds between members can be used instead of measuring each individual’s level of social acceptance as discovered through self-report measures. There is still much more to learn about ideal group structure as well. While research has shown that group size has had no effect on how participants work within the group and that structured group activities can produce effective group functioning, these structural issues require further attention (Shechtman, 2007). Furthermore, it is important that researchers expand upon the concept of outcomes itself. Measuring knowledge of a particular skill is not as important as a measuring how that skill is manifested into actual behavior in real life. The benefits of group counseling, especially for groups of students who experience difficulty in building social skills, are certainly evident and with future exploration of group structure ideals and heightened achievement of positive outcomes, the prognosis of these students will look even brighter.


McGinnis, Ellen, & Goldstein, Arnold P. (1997). Skillstreaming the Elementary School Child.

New Strategies and Perspective for Teaching Prosocial Skills. 87-150.

Morris, Richard J. (2006). Disability Research and Policy: Current Perspectives, 175- 197.

Nabuzoka, Dabie. (2000). Children with learning disabilities: social functioning and adjustment. 31-40.

Rhodes, Robert L., Ochoa, Salvador Hector, & Ortiz, Samuel O. (2005). Assessing Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. 16-21.

Shechtman, Zipora. (2007). Group Counseling and Psychotherapy with Children and Adolecents. Theroy, Research, Practice, 6-206.

Swanson, H. Lee, Harris, Karen R., & Graham, Steve. (2005). Handbook of Learning Disabilities, 229-235.

Thomas, Alex. & Grimes, Jeff. (2008). Best Practices in School Psychology V, Volume 5. 1729- 1735.

Wylie, Ruth C. (1989). Measures of Self-concept, 24-36.

Yalom, Irvin D. (2005). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy- Fifth Edition. 232-233.

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