Do Not Forget The Rules!

Creating a safe environment for children's support groups.

Professionals facilitating support groups realize that one factor in having a successful group experience is their ability to create a safe environment. There are a variety of ways to do this, but one of the most important when working with elementary school-age children is to establish age-appropriate rules and consistently enforce them. Why, then, is this often the most difficult thing for counselors and facilitators to do? Anyone who has worked with kids or has their own children can testify to the fact that sometimes it isn’t as easy as it sounds!

When a problem is going on in a family, whether it’s addiction, death, divorce or major life changes, children are frequently placed in adult roles or begin to worry about adult problems. It is not uncommon for kids to feel like it’s their job to fix things. They feel uncertain and scared about what is happening in their families. Sometimes rules are not consistently enforced at home. In the midst of crisis, it can be unclear who is supposed to be in charge. Due to this, rules are especially important. Kids often report that one of the places they feel safest is at school. Why is that? Because they know what to expect, what their role is, and who is in charge. Part of doing so is providing rules and consistently enforcing them. It is giving children what they need in the developmental stage that they are at. It is your job to provide this type of safe environment when facilitating group.

Here are some DO’s and DONT’s for creating group rules for elementary age children:

DO establish ownership of rules and consequences.

Children follow rules that make logical, concrete sense to them and are framed in a simple way. Having kids identify and discuss why rules are important will allow them to have more ownership of the group rules. When reviewing rules on the first day, begin by asking the group why rules are important. You will notice that hands fly up into the air, as kids are eager to give input. Common comments you will hear from children are: “Rules are important so things don’t get crazy!”, “Rules are so nobody gets hurt.”, “Rules are there to keep us safe.” Once you’ve had the discussion, stress to the group that the main reason we have rules is that everyone stays safe and has a good time.

DO create rules that tell them what TO do, instead of what NOT to do.

Children respond better to rules that clearly state the desired behavior. In the Children’s Program at Betty Ford we use rules that are framed in the positive and cover many things, even though there are only five of them:

    1. One Person Talks At a Time
    2. You Can Pass
    3. Respect Each Other
    4. Put-Ups Only
    5. What We Say Here, Stays Here

DO review the rules frequently.

Group rules should be reviewed each group session and displayed in a prominent place in the room. This is especially true for younger children or kids who have trouble with attention or distractibility. It is unrealistic to expect a seven, eight, or even nine-year-old to come to group once every one or two weeks and remember the rules from the last time. It is also a set-up for failure. In the children’s program, we have the luxury of seeing the kids each day for three or four days in a row. Regardless, we still review the rules daily. When kids are processing emotional issues, it is too much to ask that that they be required to remember rules from one day to the next.

DO make the rules relevant to their own lives.

As much as possible, have the kids read and describe what they mean. This again allows for ownership. Start with asking a child to read the rule, then ask the group why that rule is important. Spend a bit of time really discussing rules in kid-friendly language, especially during the first group session.

DO enforce rules with simple but clear consequences.

You cannot have rules without making clear what the consequences are when a rule gets broken. It is also important to keep these simple and clear. In the Children’s Program we have three consequences:

  • Strike One – A Warning
  • Strike Two – Ten Minute Time Out
  • Strike Three – Parent Conference

The third strike is basically when a child does not come back to group. Although the third strike may sound harsh, it’s one that kids really understand. Almost every group I’ve worked with has shared their frustration with that one student in class who always breaks the rules and then the whole class gets punished. We tell kids that this does not happen in our program. One person will not be allowed to ruin it for everyone else. In my 12 years of group work with children using these consequences, I can count on my hand how many kids have actually reached a strike three.

DO follow-through from the beginning.

The biggest mistake a facilitator can make is not giving consequences, if needed, starting on the first day of group. Don’t wait until the 5th session when things are out of control to start enforcing the rules. By then, you have set the tone for the group. It’s much easier to be “strict” at the beginning than it is to backtrack toward the end. Being lenient and inconsistent at first is a recipe for disaster. By the time you try to re-establish the rules, it won’t matter, because you’ve already lost trust and credibility.

DON’T get stuck with too many rules.

There should never be any more than five rules in a kids group. More than that is too much to expect kids to remember. Too many times I have seen facilitators come up with a long list of 10-12 rules and then continue to add to them when issues arise. Remember that some rules cover many things. If you notice that the group is distracted by cell phones or other electronics, don’t add a rule about this. Simply remind them of the “Respect Each Other” rule. Being distracted by other things while their peers are sharing is not respectful. Another frequent issue that comes up is that of personal space. We’ve all worked with kids who may touch or poke at others when it is not appropriate. Keeping your hands to yourself is also about respecting others. Don’t get bogged done with rule saturation! It’s too confusing for everybody.

DON’T reinforce bad behavior by processing consequences with a child.

Every new group facilitator has made the mistake of giving a consequence for a rule break, seeing a child’s reaction to it, and then immediately going over to console them or explain why they received the consequence. A consequence, or strike, is given quickly, calmly, with limited discussion, no shaming and no judgment. If a child doesn’t understand why they received the consequence, take them aside after the session, but DO NOT get into a debate or discussion in the moment. 98% of the time children know exactly why they have received it. If you review the rules regularly and display them prominently, children understand them. For some kids, acting out is the way they get attention. If a counselor sits and talks with them during their ten minute time out, not only did they get the attention while they were acting out, but now they get one-on-one time with the counselor. The danger in this is that frequently the children who get the most attention or are identified as having the most issues in group are the ones that are acting out. The quiet, people-pleasing kids, who have just as many issues and needs, are often the ones that we forget about.

DON’T take back a consequence!

It is natural and developmentally appropriate for elementary age children to “test” facilitators. They want to know if you mean what you say and if you will follow through. If you give a consequence but then take it back, you’ve lost all credibility. It quickly becomes clear that the adult is not the person in charge. As much as they may protest, kids DO NOT want to be in charge – it’s not their job. Additionally, if you take back a consequence, you’ve also proven to the group that the rules don’t matter, and that you won’t stand up for the group to make it a safe place. Children become annoyed when their needs aren’t being met because one group member is continually breaking rules. They won’t trust you as a facilitator, and be less likely to share. Enforcing rules is non-negotiable.

Each Day a New Beginning!

Consequences or strikes should not carry over from one day to the next. Give children a chance to start out with a fresh, clean slate each group session. Do not start the next session talking about the rule-breaks from the last one, or saving a consequence until the next session. A consequence needs to occur in the immediate moment, not a week later. Kids will not remember why they are receiving it and it becomes ineffective. Additionally, if a child receives a consequence do not then take it to the parent at the end of the session, informing them of the bad behavior. If you’ve dealt with it in group, it is done. Rehashing the issue with the parent only sets the child up for a repeat consequence and can also be shaming. Unless the behavior has reached the point of “Strike Three” or it is a safety issue, parent intervention is not warranted.

Counselors new to facilitating kids’ groups can find it difficult to enforce rules or manage behavior. Some kids come into our group having had many difficulties in their young lives. I have heard facilitators say, “But I feel so badly for these kids. It’s hard to give a consequence. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. They’ve been through so much already.” Remember, facilitating kids support groups is very different than providing one-on-one therapy to children. In therapy, it is appropriate to focus on one child and help them regulate their own behavior, or recognize the issue behind their behavior. This is not conducive to group facilitation. Having high expectations of kids in an environment facilitated by a safe, supportive adult fosters resiliency in children. If you treat them like they are incapable of following the rules, they will prove you correct. They will also not have a positive group experience, and neither will the group. Children deserve to be in an environment that allows them to play, learn, and have fun in a safe way without the responsibility of being “in charge”. In other words, let them be kids!

Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.
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