According to the Toseland and Rivas text, "The first and most important question that can be asked about a proposed group is, 'What is the group's purpose?'" (p.153) Purpose is certainly important, but it should not be so fixed in the social worker's mind that it gets in the way of the group, once formed, developing their own ideas about the reason for the group's existance. One of the ways to think about these issues is to label the worker's ideas about the group before it starts as "purpose" and to use the term "goals" as a way to identify the group's direction after other members have contributed to the process. Purpose is therefore an initial starting point, and that does need to be clear in a worker's mind as she prepares to meet with the group for the first time.
In a helping group, establishing purpose is best done with a clear knowledge of the needs of group members. Needs assessment or some other process should be used to determine strengths as well as the problems that people may bring to the group. This may be accomplished through individual assessments of each client being considered for group membership or through an assessment of the population from which the group is drawn. In most cases, the agency or organization sponsoring the group will have an intake process that includes assessment before the decision to have a client enter a helping group. The worker responsible for the group may or may not have prior contact with each client. In some cases it is certainly helpful to have such contact. All too often time or budgetary considerations make this difficult. Some workers even prefer not to have contact with clients outside the group, although this has never been my preference.
In a task group, purpose is commonly defined by the task. One of the difficuties in these situations is to be sure that the group is clearly aware of its role and responsibilities with regard to the task. Is the group going to make a decision or a recommendation? What is the probability that the recommendation will be followed? It can be very disconcerting for a group to go though a long process then find out that the result of that process is not acted upon. This can really deflate morale in a agency or community.
The statement of purpose should be simple and relatively general. Again, it is important not to inhibit the group from the development of its own goals. Memebrs should be able to identify with the purpose, and that first means that they should understand it. Purpose needs to guide the formation of the group, and this will be done with various degrees of rigidity or flexibility depending on the capacities of the members to make decisions. We too often assume that people in client roles need direction, but it is important to remember that the priciple of client self-determination extends to the group as well as to decisions made by individuals.
Purpose should be clearly presented in a way that all members understand early in the first meeting of the group. It may have been communicated in some way prior to that meeting but that does not eliminate the need for its statement to the group. It should be stated as open to discussion and a distinction needs to be made between purpose and goals: purpose is the worker's starting point; goals will be developed by the group. A good range of examples of purpose is provided in the book, Group Counseling: Strategies and Skills by Jacobs, Masson, and Harvill:
- Learning to survive the pain of divorce
- Orientation to prison life
- Adult Sunday school discussion group on church-related issues
- Dealing with fears of going to middle school next year
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