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The Development of Group Dynamics

Each school year brings with it a host of both predictable and unpredictable opportunities and challenges for every member of the school community to navigate. Often, what may feel unpredictable to students and families is actually somewhat predictable to those of us who work every day in schools. We want to help students and parents predict, or at least understand, the challenges they are facing so that each bump in the road doesn’t feel like a mountain that no one else is climbing.

Schools are inherently social institutions, and even if one prefers solitude, you can’t escape the almost 500 bodies navigating the hallways as we move from class to class. Even though we embrace and provide opportunities for self-reflection and individual work, we also embrace the role of associations in the life of the school. Students participate on teams and clubs, are asked to work in groups academically, and of course develop social groups as a part of everyday life in school. These various groups function in some predictable and unpredictable ways. Understanding those patterns can help us to identify solutions when problems arise and can also help us to develop highly successful teams.
Psychologists and Sociologists have studied group dynamics for a long time and have published a variety of different models to explain and understand the normal stages and phases that groups go through. One of my favorite models to understand and apply the lessons group dynamics, was developed in the 1960’s and 70’s by Dr. Bruce Tuckman. Below is a summary of these stages.

Forming
In the early phase of any new group (a team, a grade level at the start of a new school year, a club, etc.) there is often little agreement on common aims other than what has been suggested by the leader or the institution. Members are often polite, accommodating, and task oriented as they get acquainted and try to understand what will be the group norms. Individual roles and responsibilities are often unclear in this phase.

Storming
As groups settle in, they begin to storm. Various levels of conflict can be common. Team members attempt to establish themselves in relation to other team members. Cliques and factions often begin to form and there may be power struggles in these changing dynamics. Clarity of purpose as a group usually increases but uncertainties persist in this phase. The team needs to be focused on its goals to avoid becoming distracted by relationships and emotional issues. Compromises may be required to enable progress. Effective communication and conflict resolution is critical to evolving beyond this phase. Storming is not only predictable, but necessary to move forward as a group.

Norming
Agreement and consensus largely forms among the team. Roles and responsibilities become clear and are accepted. Big decisions are made by group agreement. Smaller decisions may be delegated to individuals or small teams within group. Commitment and unity is strong. The group may engage in fun and social activities together. The group openly discusses and develops its processes and working style. There is general respect for any designated leaders and more of the leadership is shared by the team.

Performing
The team is more strategically aware; the team knows clearly why it is doing what it is doing. The team has a shared vision and is able to stand on its own feet with no interference or participation from a designated leader. The team has a high degree of autonomy. Disagreements and conflict occur, but now they are resolved within the team positively, and necessary changes to processes and structure are made. The team is able to work towards achieving the goal, and also to attend to relationship, style and process issues along the way. Team members look after each other. While delegating tasks remains important, the team does not need to be instructed or assisted. Team members might ask for assistance from a designated leader with personal and interpersonal development.

Adjourning
Adjourning is the break-up of the group, hopefully when the task is completed successfully, its purpose fulfilled; everyone can move on to new things, feeling good about what's been achieved. Adjourning is often both sad and celebratory.

In my work in schools I have seen these phases emerge and evolve predictably year after year, season after season, and with each new team developed. Helping our students understand that developing effective teams takes work, takes time, and is necessarily messy on occasion can help them to persevere through challenges as they arise. As teachers and as parents, knowing that developing these skills and understandings are as important to the work in schools as classroom content, can help us to honor the time and emotional energy that it consumes in the lives of children. Having the perspective that we can not reach the “performing” stage in any group without first navigating each prior stage effectively, can give us the patience needed to weather the challenges inherent in each phase.

October in schools is almost always marked by storming, particularly in ninth and tenth grade. Juniors and seniors have often been coherent groups with established norms for long enough to move more quickly through this phase as they begin a new year. Freshman and sophomores however are still developing a clear sense of who they are as a group, what they stand for, and how they will relate to each other. Working through the storming phase by addressing interpersonal conflict productively is the necessary path to norming and performing. It is also the phase where we develop important skills of communication, conflict resolution and perseverance.

Ben Dougherty
Head of Upper School
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