Problem Solving through Group Initiatives

k4-flower-of-handsI’ve been trying to incorporate elements from my challenge course training earlier this summer by using what are known as “group initiatives.” In a nutshell, a facilitator provides a problem or challenge to be solved by the group. It can be made as silly or serious as desired – silly will often engage the kids well. The facilitator has to read the group to determine what level of challenge they can handle while pushing them to improve their skills, and the key component of a challenge is the debrief time afterward. We did two challenges on Friday, and they went well … and  I see things to do differently. Right now, I recognize the similarity of our group debrief and this written reflection. I get to notice what went well in addition to what I still need to work on.

I gave the kids a challenge that stepped up the difficulty level from our first week’s introduction. They had to put themselves in a line based on the number of letters in each student’s first name  WITHOUT talking. There were clarifying questions, of course: What if I have a nickname? Can I use the name my mom calls me at home? Who decides which name to use?

They got to work, and I watched. I noticed things that went well and things that did not. After their completion, we circled up and I asked the key question, “What did you notice?” Open-ended intentionally to see what THEY noticed. They noticed what I noticed: Kids got in a line. Kids argued without using words. Kids disagreed. Kids helped point others to the right place in line. They assessed that they succeeded at solving the challenge and failed in the process.

I loved the next challenge … mostly. I let everyone know that there was a secret ingredient in our lunch that day which “glued” our hands together. We had to interlace our two hands together and could not use the fingers separately. (That was fun, and the kids enjoyed the silliness.) I challenged them to make groups based on their family size, without talking or using their hands at all. Of course, we had questions to clarify before getting to work!

It was fascinating to watch! Students tried a variety of methods to communicate family size – bending one leg to make the body look like a 4, stomping feet for family size, swinging arms up and down to count, and more. There were a lot of families with four members, and initially students created two separate groups. Someone in the group figured it out and led the way to bring them together. The kids had learned from their experience, and I was so proud of them. Once they were done, we circled up. What did they notice? For one thing, stomping slowly worked better than stomping quickly – it was easier to count. They shared their observations. The group assessed that they succeeded at the challenge and did better in the process.

While they were at recess, I discovered a place where I failed. One of the kids was triggered and left to have private time with one of our teachers. It was something that I should have thought of ahead of time because I knew backstory. I got the scoop from my colleague, and I immediately went to this student and apologized for letting him down. I had to take ownership for an oversight on my part. And I praised him for taking care of his heart. He did the right thing that he needed to do in the situation.

I know that we all make mistakes, and while this impacted his emotions in a big way, I also know that he will continue to be triggered from time to time in ways I can’t protect him from. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I took ownership and I will think a bit more carefully in the future for prevention.

I noticed more. Things that I can do to improve my facilitation skills. Part of our “5-finger agreement” that I taught the class includes not pointing fingers or blaming others. Their debrief comments in circle were sometimes finger-pointing. I’d like to avoid that. I wonder if I can get at it with more specific questions. “What did you notice that was helpful for you?” “What did you notice that YOU did?” A gentle reframing could be – it was helpful when people accepted my number of letters without arguing with me. Fourth graders can do that. And some of these kiddos need more support in looking for the positives. That will carry over in valuable ways into their lives.

I also need to create more dialogue around volunteering and self-care. A good tool for that will be to play “Have You Ever?” Students can learn that it’s okay to keep things private, one doesn’t have to share information if they don’t feel safe in the group. It’s an individual’s choice to share or not.

Overall, I think I succeeded at both the task and the process. I still have a lot to learn to be even better.

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