Pick a Partner: Defining Roles for Group Success

In the last post about working in a group, we discussed ways to define rules and create boundaries so that students can work effectively. Today, we’ll wrap up this series by explaining how to teach students to take an active role in group work.

All students–those with hidden disabilities and their typically developing peers–benefit from clearly defined roles. We adults can relate to this. Imagine an office that lacked any defined roles…no defined sales force, project managers, product development team, or support staff. Who would want to work there?

Just as adults benefit from orientation when starting a new job, students need clear, specific instructions on how to be an effective member of a team. This takes time, and good planning. Remember, many students with hidden disabilities struggle with understanding how to interact with their peers appropriately. Therefore, teachers should plan time to explain each of the assigned roles.

A few tips to get you started:

Create roles that make sense for the assigned project. For a task in which students are asked to compare two people and create a poster about them (for a social studies or Bible class, for example), the following roles might work well:

(role cards from Prince George County Public Schools, MD)

Use visual supports. Remember that some students with disabilities have a difficult time understanding social concepts. Showing pictures of students engaged in group work can be helpful in conveying the expectations for various roles.
Practice, practice, practice. Allow students to do some role playing of both positive and negative interactions. Some students will be able to improvise, but others will need a script to follow.
Refer to the rules. Students need constant reminders of the rules governing group work. When specified roles are added, students will need to discuss how they can follow the rules while doing their group jobs.
Monitor and support. Remember…even adults have difficulty working cooperatively. Students will need supervision and support as they learn to collaborate effectively.

For the good of the group~

It’s April 2, which means Autism Awareness Day!  We’ll be talking about Autism Spectrum Disorders in the next few days. In the meantime, don’t miss Steve Grcevich’s series on Asperger’s Syndome. 

Also, you’ll want to register TODAY for and attend the Children’s Ministry Web Summit…FREE training, from the comfort of your home! Don’t miss it!


Pick a Partner: What are the rules?

Last week, we talked about what teachers can do–before the students even set foot in classroom–to make group work manageable for all students. Today, we’ll talk about the importance of including students in the planning as well, and why this should be part of the “big picture.”

Have you ever watched the reality show  “The Apprentice?” On this program, groups of entrepreneurs or celebrities work together on tasks in the hopes of eventually being named Donald Trump’s “apprentice.” As with most reality shows, it’s chock-full of drama, stemming mainly from the friction between team members…the group dynamics frequently ignite a firestorm of arguments.

The problem, it seems, is that the groups have very little time to talk about how they are going to work together. They’re immediately thrust into managing tasks; getting to know one another and establishing “norms” for the group are considered irrelevant. The result? Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, errors, and incomplete work.

My advice, then, to teachers who are planning group activities: “Be ye not so rushed.” The time you invest in helping ALL kids learn how to work together will pay huge dividends, not only in students academic achievement, but in their social-emotional development as well. And, if you’re teaching in the church setting, you’re helping kids to understand more fully how to be the Body of Christ.

Here are some steps for helping students work together…

Create rules Before we allow children in the cafeteria or on the playground, we give them a set of expectations  to keep them safe and to help them manage their interactions. The same logic applies to group work. I’ve quoted my colleague, Sheri Halagan many times on this blog, but her words are worth repeating: “Kids don’t know as much as we THINK they know about how to behave.” We need to remember, too, that some students with hidden disabilities struggle with social skills…and thrive on structure and rules. Before starting group work, gather the class together and facilitate a discussion about rules that should govern the tasks and interactions.

Make “Sense” of the Rules Many times, students can create appropriate rules, like “Be kind” and “Do your best job,” because they have heard the phrases before. However, we need to be certain they truly understand what the rules mean and why they are important. Jolene Philo, an author and veteran teacher, developed a method of helping students understand rules in a multi-sensory way. Instead of stopping at “Be Kind,” Jolene would ask her students, “What does being kind LOOK like? What does it SOUND like? What does it FEEL like.” She then recorded their responses in a chart to visually reinforce their discussion. This allowed for a deeper reflection about the need for these boundaries. (Download a copy of Jolene’s chart here: Look/Sound/Feel Chart)

Reinforce the Rules As teachers and volunteers who work with children and teens, we’re constantly reviewing and re-teaching. Anything we teach…from subtraction to science to Scripture must be reinforced so that it can be remembered. That’s just how students learn. In the same way, we need to review the social curriculum for students so they can internalize how to interact with each other in a positive and productive way. Responsive Classroom Consultant Margaret Berry Wilson writes,

It is important to keep discussing and practicing the rules all year long. Students cannot possibly learn all they need to about how to live and behave as a community during the first weeks of school. Time spent together deepens their understanding of how to truly care for each other. Also, keeping the rules alive and ever-present in children’s minds gives you the ability to ask “What do our rules say about . . . ?” when challenging situations arise. (full article here)

These comments readily apply not only to the classroom in school, but to church as well. In both settings, students need consistent, kind reminders about the rules that govern positive teamwork.

Your rule-based friend…


Next: Assigning roles that make groups positive and productive.

Pick a Partner: Behind-the-scenes planning

Last week, we discussed why working in groups might be tricky–or even anxiety producing–for students with special needs. To make this type of activity easier, teachers can take several proactive steps.

Think it through. As the adage goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” The danger with this, for teachers, is that lack of planning on the teacher’s part can result in failure for the students. Therefore, teachers need to define objects for both the product and the process. For example:
By working in a small group, students will create a booklet that summarizes the story they have read (product)
As they work in groups, students will take turns sharing ideas without interrupting. (process)

By clearly defining the end-results for product and process, teachers provide structure and purpose.

Do a little choreography.  Just as a choreographer plans each move of a dance, teachers must plan for group work. Moving from individual or large group work to small group work takes tremendous energy and concentration for many students. While some students move easily to new activities, students with hidden disabilities may face several hurdles such as  following multi-step directions, difficulty moving through a crowd without bumping into others, anxiety at the change of activity. Therefore, it’s critically important for teachers to plan where groups will sit, how the students move through the room, and what directions will be given to minimize confusion.

For example:
“Pick up your pencil and markers. When you’re ready, look at me….Students in group A can now stand and walk to the story corner….(wait until group A is seated) Great! Group B students can stand and walk to the art table…”

Create Boundaries Group work allows students some freedom to explore ideas and collaborate. However, this freedom requires boundaries and structure to ensure student success! Teachers can set students up for success by providing parameters that help productivity. A checklist for the components of the project provides a visual reminder of the directions, and prompts students through the task. In addition, some students with hidden disabilities have a poor sense of time. Teachers can support task completion by providing prompts to move through the activity, such as a bell or chime. Visual timers can also help students manage their time.

With all of the planning necessary for group work, it may seem easier to plan a teacher-directed lesson! However, the opportunity for students to take charge of their learning–and learn from and with each other–makes this behind-the-scenes planning worth all the effort.

From behind the scenes…

Next: Teaching kids how to work together