No one is really sure what’s going on around here — is it the water? — but our school is becoming Boyland. In some grades boys account for more than two thirds of the population. In fifth grade last year we had only 13 girls, which presented some challenges, but also provided a great opportunity to do a lot of group work. Because their numbers were so small, we have been able to work on issues as they arise and do a lot of practicing of the skills we have learned about in class councils. They all participated in groups each year they have been here. The girls were good at handling conflicts and even emerging bullying situations, and we didn’t have too many times when someone felt excluded.
Nevertheless, we had some friendship issues to work on, so instead of planning specific groups for them at the beginning of the year, I decided to try a drop-in group for the first six weeks. The girls loved having their “day” and the group ended up running all year. It was so successful that the need for topic-specific groups never arose! Almost all the girls attended every week, and the others came most of the time. The one who was initially most hesitant to attend (she has some social anxiety issues) became the town crier who reminded everyone that it was girls’ group day.
I offered the group once a week at recess. I asked every girl, plus the fifth grade classroom, special ed, and Title I teachers (all women) to attend our first meeting, which was held during lunch. Kids were invited to stay for recess, and everyone (other than the teachers who had duty) did. During the group we talked about how friendships had gone in fourth grade — the successes and the challenges — and everyone wrote down their friendship wish for the coming year.
Here are their wishes:
- to be friends with some of the new kids
- to make a lot of friends
- to play with all of my friends this year
- to have more friends
- to make a new friend
- to be with everyone in 5th grade
- to meet a good friend
- to make more friends than last year
- to make lots of friends this year
- to get my best friend back
- that all my friends do not get bullied by other people
- to get along with everyone
- to make a ton of friends
I typed up their wishes in a large font, made them some templates, got out the glitter glue, and the following week they made posters for each classroom and my room featuring all the wishes. Here is one of them:
Our group activities varied from week to week, but were usually based on a concern or interest expressed by the girls, or on some issue that the teachers or I had noticed. Sometimes I would read a book and we would discuss it. Other times we would talk further about topics we had been covering in class councils. We did crafts and played games. They worked on creating new bulletin boards or posters about ways to stop bullying or keep your brain healthy. Sometimes they broke into smaller groups — playing with my dollhouse and treehouse, decorating my whiteboards, cleaning out my craft cabinet. Really, how amazing is that?!!! They LOVED it, mostly because it gave them ideas about what they wanted to use next — Feathers! Jewels! Glittery fabric! I loved it because it meant I didn’t have to clean it out myself! On those days I mostly just sat back and observed unless they specifically asked for my input. It was delightful! All the time they were talking, talking, talking with each other (within and between the smaller groups), complimenting each other, inviting others to join in, asking each other for advice, laughing. Some days, of course, we had tears, as we worked through an issue, but they were mostly able to comfort each other and resist taking sides. They had learned that they needed everyone to feel okay in order for the group to be okay. There were times when some girls were “taking breaks” from each other, but they still chose to come to group and other girls quietly helped them to maintain physical space, and sometimes even to laugh at the same silliness.
Someone peering through the window in my door might have thought everyone was just having a good time. And mostly, they were. But a lot of amazing work got done, and most of it was done by them. They barely needed me. I was a touchstone, a finder of supplies, an occasional shhh-er who reminded them that kids were working in the room next door.
What they accomplished in the group showed up outside of the group. Oftentimes I would get notes that said things like:
“We had a conflict and were going to write you a note, but we solved it.”
“So-and-So was teasing someone about not being good at inline skating but we told him to stop because people might think he was a bully and we helped her practice skating without holding onto anything. Maybe So-and-So would like to come to lunch with you because he’s sad that he bullied and if he wants we can come with him because we’re still his friends, he just made a mistake and we can help him if he wants.”
Even when I got a note specifically asking for help, about 75% of the time when I arrived to pick a girl or girls up from their classroom they would tell me that they had already talked the problem out.
Ah the life of a school counselor: becoming redundant = job success!
In the spring we started a treasure box project. I told them we were going to use the boxes for an activity, but despite their pleas, didn’t tell them what it would be. I let them chose their favorite shape (The heart was the most popular this year, but other years another shape has been the favorite, or the preferences have varied. This year the girls worked out the conflict of not having enough hearts to go around fairly, and wihout my help. Like I said, they did an amazing job!) Here are the boxes, which I got from School Specialty:
To do this project the way my girls did you will also need tempura paint, acrylic gemstones, and some kind of decent glue (we used glue guns), which you can also get through School Specialty or at any decent craft supply store. (The closest one to here is an hour’s drive, so I have to plan waaaay ahead.) You can use anything to decorate the boxes, but paint and jewels seem to be the favorites. In the past kids have also used glitter glue, but sometimes the thrill of squishing out that sparkly wonderfulness ends up making the completed boxes look less than beautiful.
While we were creating the treasure boxes, I had only half of the girls (6 or 7) come at a time so that we could reasonably manage paint and gluing, given the size of my table. If a larger room had been available or if I had found an extra table, we could have done it with everyone. It took 3 sessions:
Session 1: Select box and paint the base coat. Important: they can paint the inside of the lid, but should be careful not to paint the inside of the lid’s rim. If they do, the lid will not fit well. I provide egg carton cups (I tear them into sets of two) so that they can custom mix colors.
Session 2: Paint decorative features.
Session 3: Glue on gemstones.
Here are the completed boxes (one chose to use paint only, and lots of it – there are many, many layers beneath that pink!):
At our next-to-last group of the year I gave the girls 13 small pieces of paper, each labeled with a girl’s name. I asked them to privately write a compliment to each girl, including themselves, and sign their names. (A couple of the girls had to finish this activity outside of the group.) I checked all the compliments to make sure that everyone had 13, that none of them were backhanded, and that they referred to the girls’ personality or behavior and not to clothing, etc. They were all fine, but you can never be sure unless you check! Here are some of them:
For our final meeting of the group, I once again invited the teachers we had included at the beginning of the year. The girls had chosen root beer floats for a treat, so the other teachers and I made and handed those out. Here’s my table as it looked when the girls arrived. They thought it was SO PRETTY! And they wanted to know if they could keep the cups (they could!) They had decorated the whiteboard behind the table with many hearts and friendship words after a couple of them discovered that I was writing something called School Counseling by Heart! Sweeties!
I gave each girl her treasure box and the pile of compliments she had written and we sat in a big circle. Then we focused special attention on each girl, who got to wear a big pink lei for her moment in the spotlight. We went around the circle and each girl read her compliment to the chosen girl, who got to decide whether or not she wanted to read her compliment to herself out loud. After each girl’s compliments were read, they were passed to her, and she put them into her treasure box. The compliments were beautiful, and true, and many of them brought tears to the eyes of the adults in the room. The girls took this activity very seriously, although we did have moments of laughter. It was a really powerful experience — for all of us.
The treasure box activity is one I have done many times (I save it as a special treat for fifth graders — both boys and girls. Younger kids who have seen them in my room really look forward to making their own boxes.) The year-long drop-in group was something new, but I will definitely run them again. It will be more of a challenge with a larger group, but perhaps a monitored sign-up sheet, weekly lottery system, or occasional mixing of separate groups will work.
Of course, this coming year my fourth grade has only 15 girls in three classes. Like I said, Boyland — which is a whole different post!