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Roberta L. Slavin
First published in Group, Vol 26, No 4, Dec. 2002
Email:  rlslavin@fcc.net

Author's instructions regarding copyright/distribution: 
This paper is under copyright and may not be quoted without the author's permission. Colleagues should honor this as though the paper were published. The author would welcome all comments, especially critical ones, and will cite these comments appropriately.



This article will describe the dynamics taking place in school settings, particularly in classrooms. Literature pertaining to the use of group dynamics in classrooms will be presented. A number of significant group therapy concepts will be addressed. These will include “group as a whole,” group structure, transference-counter-transference, the school and the classroom as holding environments, and therapeutic factors. Some practical dynamic strategies that are meant to strengthen group operations in classrooms will also be included. The article will be guided by the writer’s personal experiences within school settings and classrooms.

KEY WORDS: group dynamics in school settings, dynamics in classrooms “group as a whole” in classrooms, holding environments, transference-counter transference in school settings, emotional progress.


                In the early 1900s, the Superintendent of Schools in France proudly noted that he knew exactly what subject was being taught to every student, nationwide, every hour of the school day. This type of rigid curriculum is now used in many school districts all over the United States: however many educators realize that a myriad of factors other than curriculum affect how and why children learn. These include relationships with parenting figures, emotional development, health, trauma, and group dynamics. Unfortunately they are not being recognized and considered when the academic curriculum is being developed. Kubie (1960) has stated, “both the intellectual development and creativity will continue to be seriously hampered unless we find out how to make emotional maturation a part of our education” (p. 242).

                Kubie further espoused what he called “the child’s fifth amendment freedom, that the child has the right to know what he or she feels, but that does not mean  he or she has the right to act impulsively on his feelings” (p. 242). The conspiracy of silence, not being allowed to talk about what he or she feels, must be replaced. Children must be encouraged and helped to talk about love, hate, jealousy, fear, curiosity, and so on. As these topics are articulated and recognized, children will be better able to deal with the academics of their school lives. The pressure of internal needs and conflict will no longer be sabotaging their curiosity, creativity, and motivation.

            Although group process and group dynamic therapy have generally been viewed as the domain of clinicians in institutional settings or in private practice, many of the theories expounded and use in group practice can easily be transferred and utilized within the arena of educational settings in order to help children learn without undo conflict. The writer is convinced by her own experience as a group participant and group leader, as well as a teacher, school psychologist, and teacher mentor, that increasing teachers’ and clinicians’ of the many dynamics occurring in the classroom would enable them to create a more successful educative process, academically and emotionally. Group therapy theory can play a positive role in understanding and resolving conflicts that have led to serious school problems such as student dropout (Garnier, Stein, and Jacobs, 1977), inadequate handling of student diversity (Grossman, 1955), and delinquency (Downs & Rose, 1991).

                Sigmund Freud, in his introduction to Wayward Youth (Aichhorn, 1935), postulated that the application of psychoanalysis to education was exceedingly important because dynamics give teachers a means of understanding their students. Anna Freud, who was originally trained as a teacher, also discussed the relationship between psychoanalysis and pedagogy. This connection would allow teachers to view educational methodology more critically in terms of both emotional and intellectual development. While all facets of children’s minds, such as their need to explore, their creativity, and fantasy should be used, it is also important for the teacher to know to create boundaries that would temper the expression of their traits in order to allow maturation and appropriate behavior to take place. The writer believes that the above tenets within a group dynamic model would help teachers to better understand their complex roles as well as those of their students. Both teachers and students must work in tandem in order to develop classroom climates that would facilitate greater academic achievement (Slavin, 2000).

                Slavson and Schiffer (1975) have noted: 

Children {and teachers} spend more time in schools than anywhere else except the home. For better or for worse, the school represents a large part of their daily lives. The school is not only advantageously situated with respect to the identification of developmental {and relational} problems, but also has the potential  for carrying on preventive and rehabilitative programs. The children {and teachers} are in a position to experience the effects of corrective measures in the same setting in which, in most cases, was instrumental in exposing their difficulties (p. 427). 

This article will focus on several dynamics occurring within classroom settings. What causes these dynamics to occur, what they are responsive to, and how they might be relined in order to improve emotional and academic functioning of pupils within the classroom setting are all issues to be examined. 


            Early literature on group dynamics includes references to classes in which students were experiencing emotional or adjustment problems (Aichhorn, 1935; Long, Morse, and Newman, 1965) as well as dynamics occurring within regular school settings and classes (Bany and Johnson, 1964). Hopkins, (1941) and Baxter & Cassidy (1943) focused directly on the class group and its interaction in the classroom. In the late 40’s Bradford, Benne, and Lippitt (1948) emphatically maintained that the study of group dynamics could bring a greater understanding of behaviors in classrooms. Trow, Zander, Morse, & Jenkins (1950) observed that the conduct and beliefs of pupils were often influenced by small cohesive groups within the classroom, and that these groups demanded that their members conform to certain group standards. The more cohesive the group, the more power it had over individual members. In many area of education, group process in classroom was being defined and its importance noted. Passow and Mackenzie (1952) emphasized the need to recognize group dynamics because children are taught in groups. They believed that classroom difficulties such as discipline problems, failure of well planned projects, and resistance of the class to change could stem from a misunderstanding of the group process in the classroom. Johnson and Bany (1970) and Slavin (2000) also postulated that some of the salient issues included classroom climate, classroom management, and the use of peer groups to attain social adjustment and further scholastic achievement. 


                Freud (1921/1960) and his cotemporaries Le Bon (1920/1977) and McDougall (1922/1973) recognized that there were underlying, unconscious patterns and processes that cannot be directly accounted for by members’ personalities or interpersonal relationships. The knowledge of this concept would enable teachers to understand and appreciate how students, and teacher, without realizing it, unconsciously join together with each other to enact socially shared processes that relieve them of tension and anxiety.

                In a similar vein, Ettin (1999) has conceptualized the “group-as-a-whole” as a shadowy phenomenon, lurking, hardly seen, yet ever in evidence, the grouping that provides the common ground in which individual members “give it an identity” (p. 148). This so-called invisible group must make itself known through its members, since by definition it has no means of expression on its own. Therefore individual members unconsciously take on the roles and voices of the collective group. Without any knowledge of the group-as-a-whole phenomenon, a teacher may easily believe that he or she has a class of misbehaving individual children rather than a class group that is signaling their group needs and concerns through their members.

                Once teachers become sensitized and responsive to the unspoken emotional signals of the classroom group, they are in a better position to communicate and make emotional contact with the class in a manner that helps the class alleviate tension.. This would involve the teacher and students working together to develop tactics helpful in alleviating their tensions. A teacher who attended a “stress workshop” led by the writer (Slavin, 1996; 1997) noted that she felt giddy and wanted to throw chairs. As the topic was discussed in the group, the members complained that they were working too hard. They wanted more play and less work. They finally realized that they wanted the leader to do the work for them. But is she did the work for them, they would never learn to do it for themselves. This conclusion helped them become more understanding of their students when their students rebelled against doing their work. 


                In all classroom settings with which the writer is familiar, the teacher is the designated leader and the students are the followers. A set of rules and regulations, as well as designated punishments for breaking those rules, is placed in a highly visible position in front of the students. It has generally been assumed that formal structures permit the leaders to function effectively, help members perform their tasks, and see that the purpose of the group has been achieved (Bany & Johnson, 1964). In classes where rule infractions are overly stressed, and the pupils criticized, the writer has observed a large amount of reporting and blaming others, on the part of the students. The children also seem unable to work together collaboratively.

                In classes where the need for rules is discussed with the children, and the children are encouraged to understand why rules are needed and how they can help each other follow the rules, there is a minimum of scapegoating and tale-telling.

                In order to be able to follow rules, children have to develop a sense of responsibility. This is a maturational task that includes emotional, social, and psychological growth. 


                In order for students to work together as a group, they must first learn how to work together, set goals, and develop a sense of cohesion and respect for the students with whom they are working.

Developing a sense of responsibility is complicated and dependent on the children’s emotional growth (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). Without an ability to accept responsibility children would have a difficult time making an adjustment to society, in this case to the classroom and the school. From a dynamic stance, some of the areas necessary for the development of a sense of responsibility are: 

Ego development The ability to differentiate between fact and fantasy, the development of perspective
                and judgmental skills (Blanck & Blanck, 1974);

Superego development The development of concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, and formation of
                ideals (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973; Walrond-Skinner, 1986);

Object relations Interaction with important others who may or may not show consideration for the growing
                child (Winnicott, 1965). 

                Jean Piaget (1962) has pointed out that children’s first sense of responsibility is to the dictates of their parents, that is, what parents declare to be right or wrong, good or bad, or important or meaningful. These perspectives change as children get older and come in contact with other children and adults outside the family circle. While extra-familial experiences may enlarge vistas, they may also create conflict and confusion if these experiences deviate too much from those that the children have learned to expect. Clinicians with group dynamic training and experience, who have the support of the school administrator, are in an excellent position to work dynamically with school personnel to help encourage a growing sense of responsibility in the students. 


                Transference is a phenomenon that has been noted by Freud (1921/1960) and other group and individual analysts Scheidlinger, 1980; Spotnitz & Meadow, 1976). This concept sheds light on students’s and teachers’ reactions to new schools or classes, strange new teachers, students, administrators, and so on. In order to cope with newness and strangeness, each pupil or teacher would unconsciously look for characteristics of important people or familiar settings. Without conscious recognition, they would try to provoke others into behaving like important, familiar others, even when such behavior would not be appropriate.

                In schools, counter-transference, the companion of transference, represents the teacher’s emotional reactions to the children in her class and to the class as a whole. Although Freud would have considered personal reactions to be neurotic and would have urged the teacher to seek treatment, a broader approach would view counter-transference as the total emotional reaction of the teacher to his or her students, teaching environment, and the class as a whole (Fromm-Reichman, 1950; Racker, 1957; Spotnitz & Meadow, 1976; Winnicott, 1965). During a session of a stress workshop led by the writer, a hostile argument erupted in which one teacher accused the group of picking on her. A heated discussion followed in which the group expressed annoyance because this member always made herself seem superior to them. The teacher acknowledged that rather than feeling superior, she felt insecure, and was trying to conceal that feeling from the group. She really wanted to be accepted. The climate of the group changed and more members were able to acknowledge their insecurities. As the session ended, the group concluded that what they had learned in this session about insecurity and defensiveness could also be utilized in their own classes where they were the leaders. They realized their importance in the social and emotional of their students.

                In short, group and individual processes operate all the time, both in an out of the classroom setting. These processes have a lasting effect on children’s ability to learn, socially, emotionally, and intellectually (Bany & Johnson, 1964). Both processes are the effect of past experiences and feelings toward new experiences (Ursano, Sonnenberg, & Lazar, 1991). No person is exempt from psychodynamic processes engendered by previous experiences that have brought back fear associated with life threatening disasters or ongoing emotional traumas such as sexual abuse. An example of of unresolved conflict occurred in a teacher’s stress workshop (Slavin, 1996). The members were engaged in a paradoxical debate about eating. When one eats what one likes, one is sinful, but not to have eaten what one likes is depriving. The members felt they were in a dilemma they could not win. They were able to realize that in their classes they may be setting rules that make their students feel they are in no win situations. This realization gave them the opportunity to develop positive classroom strategies leading to a safer holding environment. 


                Winnicott (1965) symbolized the holding environment as the mother who acts as a holder for those feelings that threaten to overwhelm the immature baby. If the mother provides adequate protection, the child feels safe and is gradually able to take back and master his or her difficult feelings. Similarly, the holding environment is important to the well being of all school staff, as well as that of the students.

                Within educational settings, it is the school administrator who carries the responsibility of setting parameters for the holding environment of the school. Yalof and Lubin (1991) have aptly noted that: 

The educational environment affects the spirit if the teacher, and the quality of student experience. In the best of times, the teacher feels wanted by, committed to, and enthusiastic his or her own [school]. The result of this positive attachment is a beneficial cycle, in which a positive feedback loop operates among administration, faculty, and students. If on the other hand, the teacher feels jeopardized or frightened by the perception of [weakness], then positive feelings wane, to the detriment of all [p.58].          

The writer also agrees with Yalof and Lubin that: 

The manner in which school administrators think, feel, and respond to programmatic concerns represents powerful communications not only about their capacity to lead, but also about their perceptions, the program, its participants, and the tasks [p. 229]. 

It has been the writer’s impression that when the administration has been perceived as non-supportive, staff morale is low, and academic achievement remains low. When the administration is perceived as supportive, morale is higher, and students are apt to be higher achievers. The writer was able to forma dynamic stress workshop for teachers within an elementary school because the principal favored the use of group dynamics in order to improve the mental health of her staff (Slavin, 1996, 1997). In this workshop teachers were able to work through problems such as “no-win” situations created by confusing rules, and the use their insights in the class. They were also able to develop responsiveness to the emotional needs if their class.

                The importance of the “holding environment” as well as the importance of the group dynamic administrative leadership also derives from the work of Bion and Rickman (Harrison, 2000) during the Northfield experiments. They reconfigured the relationship between patients and physician to one of mutual endeavor, so that the patients took part in their own recovery. The emphasis was on adjustment rather than illness. The tasks to be achieved were: operating effectively in a social environment, carrying out their responsibilities, and sharing comradeship. They observed that the power of the group resided in the “here-and-now” experiences of the participants. Thus the individual was able to explore the impact of his behavior on others and modify his relationships to make improvements. It was expected that, once the patients had a say in what was happening to them, they would begin to take charge of their lives. Once teachers begin to feel they understand and have a say in what is happening, they too will be able to exert more positive leadership with their students. With some modifications, depending on the ages and maturational level of the children and the curriculum to be followed, these principles could be used with children in classroom settings. The writer again emphasizes that it is the classroom teacher who has the most important role in setting the emotional climate for the class. 


Yalom (1995) offers some therapeutic factors that would be of great value to both teachers and students if they were actualized in and out of classroom settings. They include: 

Installation of hope Teachers should do whatever they can to increase their students’ belief and confidence in themselves and in the help and support they will get from fellow students; 

Imparting and sharing information This increases the horizons of the students and the teacher. New information may not have meaning right away, but may become significant at some other time; 

Altruism Many students, because of previous experiences may feel they have nothing to offer others. Or, they may be so needy that they have a constant need to be fed or taken care of. Within the classroom, they can be encouraged to believe that they have something to offer others, and that they will receive something valuable in return. 

Development of socializing techniques In the course of the term, students will learn which behaviors encourage harmonious interaction and which behaviors cause friction. 

Imitative behavior Students will imitate the behaviors or attitudes of someone they admire or respect, so it is important to emphasize respect for each other in classroom settings. 

                Bion (1959) also offers some valuable suggestions that could be adapted to school settings. Among them are the following that have been extrapolated for use in class settings.

  1. Helping the class develop a common purpose.
  2. Helping members of the class develop self image and set boundaries between ones self and others.
  3. Helping class members become more comfortable with each other,
  4. Recognizing the value of the contributions of each class member.
  5. Helping each class member develop the capacity to face discontent and cope with it in the classroom.


                Children and teachers do not have much control over how many students are in a class or where students will be paced. Cluster teachers are assigned an assortment of grades, several of which they may not want to teach. Children may be separated from friends. These conditions may make them feel unhappy and frustrated. Add to this their personal ideas about authority figures, individual needs, mandated assignments, and personal expectations. Under these circumstances, class cooperation and cohesion are difficult goals to achieve. Following are several examples of classroom dynamics. In one case the holding environment was destroyed. In the other,  the holding environment was restored. 

Mrs. B., a cluster  teacher, met her class for the first time, She smiled, introduced herself, and proceeded to give her class five rules of behavior, one after the other. She frequently paused in the lesson to inform her class in a very strict manner, “You are breaking rule 1, rule 5,rule 4, etc..” This continued for about 15 minutes. During this time she ceased teaching her lesson. The children were becoming more and more restless and more frequent infractions took place. She finally focused on a singing activity. Instead of involving the whole class, she requested that an individual child sing solo. The individual child felt uncomfortable and self conscious, and the entire class was now jumping out of their seats, yelling and striking out at each other. Mrs. B. then berated the children and called them a bad class. She had lost control and felt physically and emotionally drained. When the writer, her mentor suggested that she try to talk to them more quietly and avoid punishment as a means of discipline, she complained that the mentor did not understand her.  

                There are obviously many dynamic forces at work. Some have to do with appropriate classroom management that should be applied not for punishment, but for providing a stable, safe environment with specific parameters, in order to motivate and keep the attention of the students. Another had to do with the teacher’s personal conflict regarding discipline and punishment, and still another involves the willingness and ability to develop basic trust and respect within the class setting. Both teacher and students would benefit from programs that encouraged group dynamics that foster positive interaction and cohesion. 

In another situation, the writer was having a conference with another intern. The door to the room suddenly opened, and 8 children were commanded by their teacher to enter the room. Their teacher loudly exclaimed that they were very rude and disrespectful. She then left the room. The intern immediately attempted to teach them a lesson and was met with very strong resistance. One child did not have a pencil, another did not want to do the lesson,, others said they did not understand. Finally the teacher said, “O.K. guys, what happened?” At first the students talked angrily, all at once. The intern quietly encouraged them to talk one at a time. He could see that they had a tough time, but remained neutral as far as blame. He then asked if they were ready to go on with the lesson. They agreed, and worked until their teacher came for them. When the incident was discussed, the intern said he was in conflict. He did not want to appear to be on the student’s side because this ‘experienced’ teacher would turn against him. At the same time, he had to do something to alleviate the tension. Fortunately, he had the ego strength to use the correct strategy. 


                Despite the challenges and resistances to be overcome, there have been many group strategies that have been successfully utilized within school settings. Some of them are described below.

                Craig Stevens (1998) a school psychologist at a private school in Philadelphia, developed a model for children from first to sixth grades called “Feedback.” This exercise is designed to encourage children and teachers to offer constructive ideas, feelings, and criticisms. Each child is offered the opportunity to ask a question or offer a comment to another child. The child addressed has the right to refuse. In that case, the first child withholds comment and the procedure moves to the next child. The children learn to ask questions or make comments in a non combative way. The model helps children become more verbally expressive, more responsible for their words and actions, and more sensitive to the feelings of others. The sessions take place once or twice a week, and last for 15 or 20 minutes, thus respecting the time limitations of a school day program.

                A similar model was developed by Lewis and Maccarone (1997). These social workers described a short term classroom group that ran 15 sessions. The group was created to help first graders learn team-building and cooperation, respect for others even if disagreeing with them, and problem solving and anger management techniques. The group was considered successful, particularly for the facilitators, in that they learned: 1) to alter patterns of interacting to suit the needs of the children; 2) to require the children’s input and  participation in order to understand the group’s ability to process information; 3) to recognize the class as part of a larger system, the larger system often having a great effect on the dynamics of the class; and 4) to involve the classroom teacher as a consultant

The writer, a school psychologist, led a stress workshop for teachers in an elementary school in the Bronx, N.Y. The workshop ran for five years, terminating when the writer left the school. The group met on a 50 minute lunch period, once per week. Two of the positive results of this workshop were a more positive interaction between the teachers and their students and a greater trust level between teachers, social worker, and educational evaluator, and school psychologist, all of who were members of this diverse group. They recognized the similarity of goals among the professions. They also developed an understanding of the juxtaposition between leading and following. In the classrooms, they were the leaders, in the group the writer was the leader. And in the school we were all subordinate to the leadership of the principal (Slavin, 1996).

                Finally, Glasser (1992) has formulated a program applicable to administration, staff, and students. He believes school personnel should start convincing students to work hard because there is a quality both in what they are asked to learn and the methods utilized for learning. He strongly believes, as do other clinicians utilizing a agroup therapy approach, that if we start teaching students in a way that satisfies their social and emotional needs students will find more satisfaction in doing well in school. The writer sees Glasser’s message as emphasizing that the teaching/learning process is an interaction in which both protagonists, the teachers and the learners, can be winners.


                This article was written to illustrate some important uses of group therapy concepts and strategies in order to understand classroom dynamics and to develop methodology that would ameliorate difficulties that arise within the classroom.

                Group dynamic theory enhances the understanding of dynamics in classrooms because it serves several functions. One of them is that it operates as an organizing function for unrelated activity that can be more meaningfully related by adopting a theoretical position. Group dynamic theory also operates as an integrative function in which inconsistencies can be explained. Finally, group dynamic theory serves as a foundation for clarifying and organizing existing data which otherwise would have no meaning (Sugarman & Kanner, 2000).

                Health group dynamic strategies and theoretical constructs also serve the function of allowing teachers to understand that both they and their students may be resonating to similar anxieties, thus allowing for the development of cooperative efforts to alleviate these anxieties rather than taking on an adversarial role with each other. It is through the resolution of conflict that teachers will demonstrate their most capable leadership qualities.

                It is through the tactful teaching, administration, and application of group dynamics in all its aspects that professionals trained as group therapists will be able to help school staff and student body adopt a more positive way to live and work together in harmony. 


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