Understanding Treatment Groups in Social Work
Social workers can expect to be constantly navigating and working in group spaces and dynamics, no matter their specific level of practice or specialization. Additionally, social workers can be reasonably sure that at some point in their career they will be in the position of leading a group, so it is important to understand treatment groups in social work.
Whether leading group therapy, community organizing, a peer task-force, or advocacy campaign, group leadership requires a capacity for structure and fluidity, intention and openness, and exhibiting those traits in a well-organized group may help foster them among group members and establish cohesive group norms.
Leading treatment groups in social work might be a big part of your job description.
As a social worker and member of the International Association of Social Work with Groups, I have specialized in groupwork (an early sibling to social work).
One of the first readings that I feel resounded through my core disposition about groupwork (and social work in general) was Glassman’s Humanistic Values 1 & 2, from the Encyclopedia of Social Work with Groups which describe group work’s emphasis on the inherent worth and capacities of members and their responsibility for and to one another; “the norm for building cooperative rather than competitive relations in the group fosters member’s collective abilities to create a caring and supportive social milieu poised to facilitate member change.”
The following are the basic guidelines for general social groupwork:
Tasks of the Group Leader
- Mediate & facilitate the working through of conflict
- Prepare agenda for group (provide rationale for using either structure or laissez-faire approach)
- Maintain posture of intentionality, openness, curiosity, and interest
- Provide members & set time/place to meet
- Model behavior for group members e.g., respect, punctuality, vulnerability, expressing here and now feelings tend to be most helpful.
Remain Aware of 3 levels of Focus:
- Individual (what is happening with each group member)
- Interpersonal (what is happening between group members)
- The group as a whole (the collective dynamic)
As a Group Leader in Social Work
As a group leader, one of the earliest lessons I learned was the importance of being organized, and setting and maintaining the frame of group treatment, the physical space arrangement and the time boundaries.
Knowing how many members are in the group, maintaining a space or seating arrangement that accounts for everyone (including absentee members), how many meetings there will be, and announcing or following up on sessions led by others are parameters of professionalism and mindfulness that impact the confidence of the group in the leader, and thus the capacity of the group to meet their needs.
Understand the Power of Silence in Treatment Groups in Social Work
I have also learned more about the power of silence, and allowing the group to hold it. In many of my group sessions, I have had to face my impulse to “rescue” groups from their silence at times by commenting or questioning, and in so doing recognize that my own anxiety was a driving force of my choices to alleviate what I perceive as uncomfortable or unproductive treatment groups in social work.
Furthermore, I have come to acknowledge the immense potential value of silence as both a symptom of work being done by the group as well as a refuge or respite for group members who may not have opportunities to indulge silence in their social and family groups.
The Importance of Modeling Group Behaviors and Norms
Overall, group leadership has reinforced the notion and power of modeling group behaviors and norms, and guiding the development of the group culture through carefully challenging and stirring while also safeguarding members from harm. Toward this, I am convinced of the leader’s obligation to respect each individual’s place within the group journey while working to cultivate a safe and brave space that makes speakable the member’s strengths and struggles, and stimulates shared awareness.
I also found great resonance with McRae and Short’s Racial and Cultural Dynamics in Group and Organizational Life, in which they assert that “every transaction between two or more people depends on the unique personalities of the individuals and the messages that individuals receive and internalize from their own group.” I found myself constantly reflecting back to the notions of group boundaries, power differences, unconscious parallel processes and the role of cultural identity that highlights the systems perspective with which we as social workers may be most importantly equipped as we position ourselves to serve helping processes.
Taking Group Coursework in My MSW Program
Taking coursework in social work with groups provided me with opportunities to more consciously and confidently organize the group process and dynamic into theoretical frameworks which galvanize my clinical intuition.
This, in turn, has led me to recognize my valence for leadership or co-leadership roles in groups, due in part to a confidence in speaking to groups of individuals toward a shared experience or goal, while endeavoring to maintain and model a mind of openness, curiosity, and humility. Moreover, social workers are unique in that we are often called to lead, attend, and form all manner of groups, as we intervene across many areas of impact on client’s lives in a number of settings.
While this reflection has focused more on my experience with clinical groups, it is important to recognize that groups are steady features of whether we are attending hospital discharge meetings with nurses and doctors, leading training seminars with law enforcement or school staff, working on our agency teams, or facilitating clinical groups, we are engaged in forms of group work, and an understanding of group work theory and practice is essential to effective social work.