Groups are a natural part of school — whether it’s a grade, a classroom, a group of friends, or a cohort of teachers. However, educators often enter schools without an understanding of how groups dynamics make or break a learning environment.
“The key point we all know but nobody explicitly talks about is that in any group people look at their peers for the right signals about how to behave — whether that’s a group of teachers looking at each other or a group of kindergarteners looking at each other,” says psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School instructor Adam Silk. Those signals about behavior can make or break a class culture. “Every teacher knows some groups are easier to teach and some groups are harder to teach. But what teachers don’t get trained in is, if you have a difficult group, how do you help them evolve.”
RELATE to One Another
Silk hopes to bring an understanding of group psychology to the field of education through his organization, RELATE. Informed by the work of HGSE faculty members like Monica Higgins and Katherine Boles, RELATE organizes teachers into support groups where they can work through problems they encounter in the classroom and study the ways in which group dynamics help or hinder these issues. Working together with their peers, teachers soon recognize the symmetry between their struggles and those of their students in the classroom.
“It’s experiential learning. You learn how groups work by being in a group,” Silk says.
A qualitative evaluation of the program (currently in three Boston area schools) has found that the process of experiential learning for the participants in the groups:
- created an enhanced, strongly connected, supportive professional environment in the schools
- prompted teachers to make changes in their classroom practices
- offered opportunities for learning that improved professional practice.
Considering the following four aspects of group psychology can help teachers and school leaders improve the way their school community functions:
- Boundaries: For a group to be successful, there must be a clear understanding of who is in the group, who is not in the group, where the group meets, the length of those meetings, whether or not the door is open, and defined roles for participants.
- Leader’s Job: Protect the boundaries of the group. Signal that members are a unit, that they all belong, and any issues that arise are problems for the group to solve as a unit.
- Simple Action: When taking attendance, take a moment to acknowledge who is missing. When that child returns to the classroom, welcome them back. Noting a child’s presence or absence signals belonging.