January 2021

Five Strategies for Gender-Specific Groups

By Matthew McClain
The small-group setting not only allows students to be heard but also helps them gain perspective and strategies by hearing about others’ experiences. Groups provide a safe environment for students to practice new skills, build healthy relationships and gain confidence by taking risks and sharing their thoughts. This is expanded even further when groups are gender-specific. Boys and girls often view things differently, and having a boys-only or girls-only group can go a long way toward group success.

1. Purpose and Type

What type of a group do you want – and need – to run? Consider the needs of your specific population but also factor in what will make the most impact on your school counseling goals. Facilitating groups takes a lot of energy, commitment and intentionality, so it’s best to select a topic or theme in which you’re willing to invest your time and energy. Develop clear goals to ensure you’re selecting appropriate activities for your specific participants that are also aligned with the group’s purpose.

Make sure you know in advance what exactly you’re hoping to accomplish with this group. Are you working on helping students develop social/emotional skills? Study skills? Coping strategies? Organizational skills? Self-advocacy? Something else?

2. Group Make-up and Balance

Depending on your specific objectives, you may want a group made of students with a variety of personalities, strengths and challenges. That way, students can learn new strategies from others who may be having more success in a particular area. However, a specific group just for students who have experienced loss or for others who need coping skills for anxiety or depression may be appropriate and extremely beneficial. Having a balance between those who are struggling and those who have had some success in any particular area can be helpful and empowering, regardless of the group’s purpose/theme.

Select students who are at a similar developmental stage. For example, offer separate groups for sixth-grade girls and another for eighth-grade girls. This ensures you can address specific needs rather than the conversation being too immature for some or too advanced for others. Another benefit of a gender-specific group is you can keep the conversation germane to one particular gender. I’ve found both body image and sexual harassment discussions work best when gender-specific, not only because boys and girls have such different experiences in these areas but also because the discussions, video clips and content could be uncomfortable for mixed-group participants.

Do you want to make it open to new members at any time or keep it closed for students who have been in the group since the beginning? For the most part, I’m a fan of closed groups – these allow participants to develop group norms, create safety and build rapport. However, if the group is focused on building academic skills, for example, an open group could work and be appropriate.

3. Group Structure

Size really does matter when designing your group, and eight–12 members is ideal. This size allows you to manage the group dynamics and disruptive behaviors while also meeting individual needs in the group setting. Consider asking another school counselor to co-facilitate the group with you, or a faculty member with strong relationship skills. Not only is it helpful to you but this engagement is a great experience for your participants and the other facilitator.

Again, keep in mind that a room full of boys or a room full of girls can be very powerful – and chaotic. If possible, the group facilitator should be the same gender as the group members. When I had a girls group dealing with relational aggression, I asked a female colleague to facilitate the group, allowing it to stay homogeneous in gender. We do, however, find it helpful to sometimes bring in students from the opposite gender for a panel discussion. This gives group members a view of their group issue from the other gender’s perspective.

If you have access to older students, having them co-facilitate with you can be effective – and enjoyable. For example, in a social skills group for fifth-grade boys, ask an eighth- or ninth-grade boy to join you as a group mentor. As fantastic and hip as you may be, the younger students are much more responsive to their knowing and cool near-peers.

4. Trust and Safety

For your group to be successful, there has to be trust and safety within the group. This begins with creating guidelines/group norms. Draw from your own experiences with team-building and ice-breaker exercises, or check out the level-specific discussion forums on the ASCA SCENE for ideas and advice. Use your counseling skills by asking open-ended questions and encouraging students to talk. Your attitude will carry the group, whether you are hesitant or positive and enthusiastic.

5. Behaviors and Group Dynamics

Every behavior is an attempt to elicit a certain response or communicate a specific need. What may seem like misbehaving may actually be an attempt to be noticed or heard. For example, a student who seems to be disengaged might actually be confused and feeling devalued because his learning style is not being met. A student who may be falling asleep could appear bored but might actually need more activity and movement.

Instead of interpreting the behavior as disrespectful, ask yourself, “What does this student need right now? What is she trying to communicate to me or to the group?” By redirecting the behavior in a positive, caring way, you can address the disruption while also maintaining positive rapport. Ask the sleepy student to be a junior helper and take notes on the board. Ask the overly talkative student to encourage the person next to him to share his thoughts. These strategies help you turn what might be perceived as negative behavior into successful behavior, while also helping you without punishing the student.

If group members feel they are being punished or disciplined, they may feel shame, sadness or anger, which could result in more distracting behaviors and create tension between the facilitator and the child. If re-directing the behavior in the group setting does not work, have a one-on-one conversation with the particular student to offer encouragement and insight on how their behavior is affecting you or the group.

You might pull the student aside and say, “You are such a strong leader and usually have great input. Today it seems as if your negativity is taking over, and it is making me feel sad. What is one thing you can do to be more positive when we return to group?” Give the student another chance to change their behavior and re-join the group. Remember, the other group members are watching as you address the disruptive student, so patience, kindness and a smile will have a significant impact on the entire group. Some kids are just challenging. Having fun while learning will help manage behaviors for sure.

As we all know, having boys and girls in the same environment it changes the group dynamics, focus and level of comfort. By providing separate groups, we recognize the differences between genders and that each has specific needs that may require a different approach.

Matthew McClain is a school counselor at Baker Central School in Fort Morgan, Colo. He can be reached at mmcclain@coloradoschoolcounselor.org.