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Understanding Group Formation is Key to Successful Group Mentoring

JANUARY 18, 2016

Editor’s note: This week we are excited to be releasing the first in our series of publications exploring the research evidence on mentoring in certain program models or for certain populations. Dr. Gabe Kuperminc of our Research Board has authored a summary of what we know, and where we need more research, on group mentoring models. To supplement his evidence review, we’ve asked an experienced practitioner, Vida Sanford of Project Arrive/Mentoring for Success, to share her thoughts about what makes group mentoring effective and how practitioners can help their groups thrive.

I was recently at a meeting of mentoring program professionals where everyone in attendance was involved in running traditional one-to-one mentoring programs, except for me. During lunch, someone asked me about the program I work with. I explained that I manage a school-based group mentoring program in San Francisco called Mentoring For Success: Project Arrive, designed to support 9th grade students who had struggled academically and socially in middle school. The colleague replied "I tried to run a group once or twice. I couldn't get them to do anything. They wouldn't stay on topic, they did whatever they wanted, talked over each other and didn't listen to anything I said. I had no idea what I was in for."

I knew exactly what she meant. It's hard to run a good group! When San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) received funding from OJJDP in 2010 to pilot a group mentoring program for students with truancy issues, we struggled to find viable research and resources to guide us on how to train and coach group mentors to lead effective groups. Nevertheless, we remained confident that a successful group mentoring experience could bring many unique benefits to students that SFUSD’s established one-to-one model could not.

Project Arrive forged ahead and we have learned a lot along the way, especially around the importance of group formation when developing a group mentoring program, one in which participants feel a sense of belonging, connection, and trust. Creating cohesive, connected and purposeful groups, especially for high-energy adolescents, doesn't happen without time and effort. Group mentors need to be trained on the same principles and practices that apply to 1:1 mentoring, but they also require additional awareness and understanding of the process of group formation and dynamics to better understand and address what is happening within their group at a given point in time.

In attempting to develop meaningful training content for our mentors, psychologist Bruce Tuckman's simple and memorable phrase "forming, storming, norming, and performing" is both useful and accessible to mentors, especially those who don't have a clinical or social work background. He described the 4-stage path that most teams follow on their way to high performance, and later added a fifth stage, "adjourning". We have found these to be highly applicable to the context of school-based group mentoring and offer some suggestions here about how mentors can support their groups in moving successfully through each stage.

Forming: Coming Together

This is the first stage when the group comes together and mentees begin to get to know each other, and learn the expressed purpose for the group and what is expected of them by their mentors. Everyone is usually on their best behavior at first. Group members are generally tuned in to what is and isn't considered acceptable behavior by the group, and the reactions of the group mentors and peers often determines if disruptive behaviors (i.e. inappropriate use of cell phones, swearing, interrupting) will be repeated or not. Mentors often need frequent coaching throughout this stage, as much of what they do during the first few sessions can help prevent or lessen the problems that the next stage (storming) usually brings.

Strategies to Support Forming

The goal during the forming stage is to create an environment that fosters trust and builds commitment to the group. Plan to incorporate a variety of activities that help youth find things they have in common with each other, and also ones that draw upon mentees' diverse strengths and backgrounds. We’ve found it's wise for mentors to have a very structured game plan for the first 4-5 group sessions. This lessens anxiety mentees may have about being in a new group, and also builds their confidence in the mentor's ability to maintain a safe and engaging space in which everyone feels respected.

It's worthwhile to spend time up front discussing the main purpose and goals for the group. For example, during the first session, our group mentors explain that Project Arrive is designed to help 9th graders transition successfully into high school and have a consistent (weekly, throughout the school year) place to check in, get support, and learn skills to stay on track, in and out of school. Mentors should also encourage feedback from mentees about what they perceive as the purpose of the group, and give them an opportunity to share their ideas about what the group ought to be about. It's also critical to devote ample time to developing basic group agreements, and also to address issues of confidentiality and mandated reporting from the outset.

At this stage, we introduce activities and topics that do not require a high level of risk or vulnerability on the part of mentees, as the level of trust is naturally pretty low at this stage. Identify simple, interactive games aimed at team building, as such activities generate a sense of inclusivity and joy, which in turn increase mentee motivation to continue to participate. They can also allow more self-conscious adolescents to "drop their guard" a bit, as games often give mentees a legitimate excuse to be goofy. We also encourage our mentors to ensure they are engaging multiple learning styles (i.e. plan sessions that integrate a mix of group discussion, writing/journaling, physical games/movement, and/or music and art...mix it up!).

Storming: Struggling Together

When mentees get to know each other and their mentor(s) better, the storming stage usually sets in. This stage is often characterized as a power struggle. Each mentee is determining whether or not they feel respected by other members, and this can sometimes result in discomfort. Mentees are deciding who has power in the group, and are beginning to take on different roles within the group (i.e. clown, over-talker, under-talker, etc.). Mentees may challenge the group mentor(s) for control or form cliques within the group. Left unaddressed, the group can quickly become chaotic and unproductive. If the group isn't clear (or bought in) about its purpose and doesn't agree on goals, the group may fall apart at this point (or stay miserably stuck in storming throughout the school year).

Strategies to Support Storming

The group mentor's main task at this stage is to help mentees get “back on board.” The storming stage is natural and inevitable and offers valuable opportunities for mentees to practice working through conflict in a healthy way. It is important to address rather than avoid conflicts as they arise, and to clarify and reaffirm the group purpose, goals and agreements. Training and coaching mentors in advance on how to use group problem solving strategies can help them empower mentees to take an active role in working things out. It also increases accountability and commitment to the group. We’ve found this is also a good time to introduce mentees to activities that are designed to help them learn to practice active/empathic listening, as being able to hear and respect one another is what it takes to keep the group moving forward.

It is also important for mentors to be thoughtful and reflective about their own implicit biases that may be blocking progress or preventing a given mentee to be treated fairly by them. Are they unconsciously showing favoritism to particular mentees over others? Mentors need to be ethical and fair when dealing with challenging behaviors, and careful not to shame individual students, especially in front of their peers.

If a particular mentee’s challenging behavior persists, mentors are encouraged to consult with program staff and to meet with the mentee individually, outside of group time, to consider effective strategies for addressing the situation. In addition to allowing a mentee to "save face" by not embarrassing them in front of their peers, meeting individually can also help boost trust and rapport between a mentor and an individual mentee, which often helps redirect future behavior in the group setting. We often utilize “restorative practices” to help resolve conflicts that arise in the group setting, or ones that happen outside of the group that may be affecting relationships within the group. If an individual mentee persists in behaving in ways that undermine the trust and safety of the group, it may be necessary to consider whether or not the mentee is able to stay in the group. We have found that most mentees enjoy being in their group and are able to successfully adjust their behavior in order to stay in it. On rare occasions, we have had to ask a student to leave their group. This is always a last resort, after every effort to resolve the situation by mentor and staff has been attempted.

Norming: Being Together

Once the group works through its initial conflicts, it should begin to stick to the group agreements and "get things done." There is a sense of predictability and flow to the group sessions that allows mentees to feel more grounded and engaged. Expectations are now clear and mentees are ready to start taking more responsibility for the functioning of the group. The focus of each mentee starts to be "how can I help the group?" rather than "what's in it for me?" The mentors’ focus at this stage becomes how to strengthen relationships, deepen trust, open up communication and provide positive and constructive feedback to one another.

Strategies to Support Norming

We’ve found this is a good time to integrate topics and activities that may require a bit more vulnerability and a higher level of risk than those used in the forming and storming stages. It's also a good time to begin to delegate more leadership to the group. This stage presents many opportunities for mentees to practice "stepping up" by actively contributing to the group. The unique strengths and differences among mentees are more understood and appreciated, and a sense of true belonging and group identity begins to emerge.

At this stage, we look for opportunities to give mentees more "voice and choice" about how the group will use its time. For example, mentors can encourage mentees to suggest topics of interest to the group, and step up to take part in planning and/or facilitating related activities or discussions. Start with small tasks that they are likely to be successful with, such as being the "scribe" or "time-keeper". Mentors should continue to actively plan for future sessions, while simultaneously increasing ways to integrate and adapt topics and activities to reflect the diverse interests and abilities of the group members.

Performing: Achieving Together

If it manages to get to this stage, the group is now focused on its purpose, and is able to work intentionally and effectively to accomplish its goals. Mentees may start to acknowledge that they have grown in positive ways by being in the group, and express pride in belonging. During this stage, mentees can work independently, in subgroups, or as a whole group with ease. Mentees may show more willingness to try new things, and are better able to express and clarify their opinions without fear of losing approval from their peers or mentors. Mentees feel empowered and energized by being in the group, and may decide that they need less structure than they did in earlier stages. There are, however, some challenges at this stage. One of these is that the group may become too complacent about its strengths and take for granted all that needs to be done to maintain a cohesive group.

Strategies to Support Performing

At this stage, the mentor's emphasis is on supporting mentees in ways that allow them to "flex" their new-found power as a cohesive, productive group. Integrate topics and activities that propel the group into scenarios that enable them to find creative solutions for puzzles or problems. Encourage and empower mentees to learn new skills and to share roles that keep things fresh and exciting.

This is often a good time to introduce the idea of taking on a service project (such as organizing a clean-up day for a local park, or serving meals at a shelter), or to plan a special field trip that will require shared decision making and various leadership roles to pull off. It's important to acknowledge and celebrate big and small accomplishments, while continuing to be attuned to conflicts or disengagement.

Adjourning: Saying Goodbye Together

Tuckman’s final stage is about bringing the group to a graceful close. Ending a group can be really difficult for mentors and mentees, as this requires letting go of the sense of belonging that mentees have come to value. It's common to see mentees behave in regressive ways at this stage. For example, they may stop attending regularly, show up late, or stop participating as fully as they did previously. Some mentees may suddenly decide it's time to share a deep dark "secret" or to create unnecessary conflict that effectively distracts the group from the painful task of saying goodbye. Many mentees have experienced abandonment and loss, and are ill-equipped to know how to say goodbye in a positive way. Appropriate and thoughtful termination can be healing on multiple levels.

Strategies to Support Adjourning

Mentees will often express a desire to continue meeting as a group, but don't make any promises. It's important to terminate as if you will not be back. Keeping in mind the program timeline, plan to start discussing what it will be like to have the group come to a close at least 5-6 sessions before your last one. It's ok to tell mentees they will be missed, and it's important for mentors to pay attention to the feelings that termination brings up in them. Help mentees reflect on the experiences and accomplishments they have had in the group, and give them time to discuss feelings surrounding termination. For example, some mentors have taken group photos and had everyone sign each other's copies (a mini "yearbook"). Others have used positive "shout-out" ceremonies to honor and celebrate each group member, while some have organized a special meal or presented mentees with elegant certificates of completion. Some have done all of the above!

Paying attention to these stages has provided our program with both relevant mentor training and the ability to offer the right kinds of activities at the right time. We hope other group mentoring programs find value in thinking about what these stages look like in their work. 

You can learn more about the work of Project Arrive on their website at

Comments (1)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

It sounds like a group-based model is effective for middle school age mentees. I'm curious if as students get older and transition to high school and college, does the same stages of progression hold true.

Comment was last edited about 2 years ago by Mandy Howard ANWAR TAYLOR
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Tags: Mentor/mentee activities, Relationship development

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