Connecting in Groups

“Stick Together.” “No hurts.”  “Have fun” (Theraplay ®). These are three very simple phrases that guide our Kids’ Connection Group at Holt-Sunny Ridge.  In July and August of 2016, eight adopted children, ages 7-11, gathered once a week for five weeks to connect, learn and have fun. The group is founded on six main components: Rules, Check-in, Band-Aids, Activity, Feeding and Closing. These concepts are adapted from both Theraplay ® and Trust-Based Relational Intervention ®. The concepts help children learn skills that meaningful relationships are built upon: the ability to give care, the ability to seek and receive care, the ability to practice autonomy and the ability to negotiate needs.

The group starts with the clinician or leader asking the parent’s permission to be in charge of their child during the group as well as permission to hug their child if they ask for one or need one. This simple interaction assures children that the person in charge is someone that their parents trust and they will be safe. It also teaches them that they can voice their needs and have their needs met by a safe adult. Then the children learn about the three simple rules for their group: stick together, no hurts and have fun. They learn that sticking together means treating each other with respect, listening to one another, taking turns, working as a team and meeting each other’s needs. “No hurts” means that there will be no inside or outside hurts. We will not hurt one another’s feelings or bodies at group. There will be no bullying, no using mean words and no hitting, kicking or pushing. Then they learn that we will have fun by keeping the other two rules in mind!

Our check-in time usually starts out with an easy question for the first group meeting. As the weeks progress, we work our way up to deeper questions. “Check-in” is a get-to-know-you time when whoever is holding the “spinning light wand” gets a turn to speak and answer the question. During this activity, the group members learn how to listen, be respectful and to use their words. Members can pass if they feel uncomfortable — applying what they’ve learned about how to negotiate their needs by requesting to pass respectfully. At our first group, I started by asking what their favorite type of candy was. Toward the end, I started to delve deeper — asking what their peers have asked them about adoption that they didn’t know how to answer or they found difficult to answer.

“Band-Aid time” teaches group members to seek and receive care from their partners. Each child gets to choose a Band-aid that they like and their partner will ask if they have any hurts. Each child either tells about an inside hurt (feelings hurt, something someone said) or an outside hurt (scab, cut, scratch) and their partner will ask if they can put a Band-aid on their hurt. Then each member says, “I’m sorry for your hurt.” In the first group meeting, this is usually awkward and uncomfortable, but by the next group they are excited to choose a Band-aid and begin to feel as if they can share their feelings and thoughts with the other children. So often, we dismiss our children’s needs by saying, “Oh, you’re O.K.” We worry that we are “coddling them” or becoming “helicopter parents” if we nurture and care for our children. But in group, during Band-aid time, we acknowledge how words can be so hurtful and we take time to empathize and care for inside and outside hurts.

Activity time in the Kids’ Connection Group usually involves a fun game that purposefully dysregulates kids. Wait, what? Yes, we get their heart beating faster and dysregulate them in order to teach them how to self-regulate and calm down! During one group session, we had a large parachute in which we tried to work together to pass a ball from one person to the other. We also used the parachute to raise high above our heads and then two names were called. Those two children then had to run under the parachute and switch places before the parachute started to fall down. In another group, we worked together to see how many times we could keep a balloon in the air using various body parts. Once the activity was complete, we learned several different coping techniques to help “get our engines calm again” (“engine plates” are used to help kids understand how their body and brains are feeling — too high, too low or just right). The children learned: deep breathing, pushing on a wall, magic mustache, chair sit-ups, using fidgets and chewing bubble gum. Each of these coping mechanisms can be regulating and help children calm down faster. They also learned that sometimes they need to use their words and ask for a hug or check to see if they are hungry or thirsty. A simple drink of water or snack can also help regulate their system!

After the activity time, we had “feeding time.” Similar to Band-aid time, the children divide into partners and feed each other by using straws and gummy lifesavers. One child will ask the other what color they would like — which teaches them how to choose and give voice — and then they will ask if they can feed the gummy lifesaver to their partner after putting it on the end of the straw, which offers a lesson in gaining permission. A lot of giggling usually takes place on their first night of doing this because once again, it’s just sort of awkward. After the first night, though, they all enjoy this activity and look forward to it. In fact, on the last night, I had some special things planned and I said that we weren’t going to have enough time for feeding. They all protested and said that they wanted to do it, so we made time!

At closing, I typically bring the parents back into the room to inform them of what we focused on, what we learned and how the kids worked together. Then we stand in a circle and go over the rules — stick together, no hurts and have fun — using hand motions that they made up. After that, we do a fun activity such as a “hand-squeeze-pass” where everyone holds hands and then we pass a squeeze around the circle. Or we hold hands and try to pass a hula hoop around the circle without releasing hands. It takes teamwork and cooperation to figure out how to get the hula hoop over and around, especially with height differences. The children and parents were able to do it each time by making suggestions or learning how to help one another.

Although some of the activities or concepts might sound strange or atypical, they work because they teach children how to care for one another and voice their needs. They learn to self-regulate when they are upset and use their words to express their feelings. The children feel comfortable because the activities are fun and everyone participates. Teamwork and cooperation are taught in simple and easy-to-learn concepts.

Holt-Sunny Ridge in Illinois will continue to offer various groups for adoptees of all ages. Our teen/young adult group takes place every first Tuesday of the month from 6:30-8pm. Our adult adoptee group meets on the last Tuesday of each month from 6:30-8pm. Our TBRI ® workshop series will meet on September 17, October 15, November 12 and December 10, 2016. We also offer individual and family therapy and accept Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO and United Healthcare (Optum/United Behavioral Health). Call or email Pam Shepard, LCSW and Supervisor of Clinical Services, at or call 630-754-4522 to find out more about our clinical services and programs.

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