Group Work

We have repeatedly struggled with group work this year in room 10.  I matched them up, then rearranged them, then moved them to opposites sides of the room from each other, then moved them back.  Each iteration of the monthly learning partnerships and table-mates ended in frustration.  That might be an exaggeration.  Some of them did okay.  But for the most part we have been having trouble.

A few weekends ago, I sat down and did some stress detective work.  Why, I asked myself, did we continue to have difficulty?

I started by looking at the symptoms and signs of stress:

  • Whenever things feel apart for a group or partnership someone would cry and express the they felt nobody liked them.
  • Or, someone in the group would feel that they didn’t get any turns and nobody would listen to them.
  • Or, someone would say they had to do all the work.
  • Or, someone would say they didn’t get a turn.

On top of this, the volume in the room would get be way beyond “rock concert” level.  I already know that sound is a stressor for some of my people, and one of the things that I saw happening was that those people would get louder…and louder…and louder.

Looking at all of these symptoms, I felt that there were some really specific social, emotional, cognitive and biological stressors at play.

  • Social:  The children wanted to be seen as competent and capable by their friends (don’t we all?), and when someone else didn’t give them turns there were no opportunities to show their capabilities.  Another huge social stressor was that if someone disagreed it was seen as a huge offence. There were several who would come to me in tears saying, “They say I am wrong!” and then we’d figure they were wrong and they’d admit that, but still couldn’t believe someone had the audacity to point it out.
  • Emotional:  Tied to the stuff above were some pretty serious feelings: annoyance, disappointment, rejection.
  • Cognitive:  Having to negotiate with people can be tricky.  I felt that my students, at least a good chunk of them, literally didn’t know how to do that.  They didn’t know how to say they disagreed without shouting “NO!!!” or “YOU’RE WRONG!”  They literally didn’t get why their peers were having emotions because of something they said.
  • Biological: As I said before, quite a few of my students are very sensitive to loud noises. It hurts their ears.  Also, some of them can’t listen to one thing if there are other things going on in the room. I am actually like this.  If you are driving with me and want to talk, we will have to turn the radio off!  I can’t listen to both.

So there we were.  I felt good about my list of stressors.  Now, what could I do to reduce the stress?  I decided to have some explicit lessons on how to be a good partner.  I wanted the things we talked about to fit along with the stresses being exhibited in the room.  This is what we came up with:

I knew I was on to something when they had a lot of trouble contributing to this anchor chart.  I had to give them the first two.  They knew everyone shouldn’t argue, and that they should get too loud.  But the other ideas on the chart seemed like new knowledge for us.  Number 8 led to some really good conversation!

Three times now, before I have sent them off to work with a partner on something, we have reviewed our list. They have done pretty well!  I feel like we need to further discuss how to disagree with someone in a way that moves the discourse further along while also not offending.  It’s tricky for some adults!  But I feel confident we can get there.

After our activities, I have reviewed the list too.  I have complimented them on their volume, and on the “no arguing”.  Now I need to go around and watch for some specific examples I can highlight.

For me this is a Self-Reg success.  I feel like my detective work has led me to recognize some lagging skills that were leading to a whole class problem.  Now we are on our way to acquiring the skills we need for success in the future!

2 thoughts on “Group Work

  • February 7, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    Great example of digging deeper to find the underlying stressors behind some of the behaviour. I had a similar experience with a grade 2/3 class I taught years ago. I was excited to do cooperative learning and partner work with them but it was a disaster. I had to think about the skills they needed in order to work with a partner and then explicitly teach those skills.
    One of the anchor charts we developed was “What will it look like/sound like/feel like” if we are working well together. It helped them focus on what to do (as opposed to what not to do, which was a big challenge to their thinking) and the ‘feel like’ section of the chart gave us a place to record some of the emotional and social elements of partner and group work.
    Love reading about your class and all their learning!

    • February 8, 2019 at 11:52 am

      Thanks, Lisa! I feel like I have taught these sorts of lessons before. But this time around, as you said, I really knew exactly which skills to target instead of making a random list of good ideas. Thanks for following along!


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