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Understanding Group Processes
The foundation of the summer camp is the group. Throughout the summer, in addition to the attention we give to the individual camper, our focus is continually on the various group configurations. We attend to the cabin group, the same-age groups, and the camp as a whole. As camp professionals, continually engaged in the training of young staff, it is critical to revisit various theoretical bases for the understanding of group processes, and equip our staff with a conceptual as well as practical understanding of the group. The framework developed by Dr. Bruce Tuckman, is particularly applicable to the summer camp setting. Tuckman describes five stages in the progression of small group development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.
Familiarity with these stages can help staff to be more effective as counselors and as group leaders, and guide us in appropriate responses to camper behavior.
As individuals come together as a group, we can readily observe the five stages referred to by Tuckman.
Stage 1 Forming
As the cabin group comes together, campers go through an “orientation” characterized by testing. This testing helps to identify the boundaries of interpersonal relationships, camper-counselor expectations, and a sense of group identity in relation to other cabin groups in the same age group. Pre-adolescent and adolescent youth are driven by a desire to be liked and accepted by others. In the initial stage of group development, campers tend to avoid conflict. They are busy focusing on the good feelings of coming/returning to camp, learning/readjusting to the camp routine, meeting new friends, and reconnecting to old friends. Campers are also busy gathering information and forming impressions about each other, the staff, and the camp schedule. This is a comfortable stage, with little conflict, but also minimal creativity.
Stage 2 Storming
As the cabin group adjusts to being in camp, it moves into the second stage, characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues. At this point, there may be resistance to group influence and task requirements. Campers may become impatient with each other and minor confrontations will occur. Often these confrontations can be dealt with quickly. Some counselors will prefer to ignore these issues, wanting to retain the good feelings typical of the first stage of norming. However, if ignored, the conflicts will continue to simmer under the surface and may develop into more serious confrontations. It’s important at this stage to utilize problem-solving techniques that give all involved a sense of being heard, and to look for win-win solutions. Often at this time campers will also need to have a good sense of structure and rules, as well as a clear understanding of expectations for group living.
Stage 3 Norming
In this stage, resistance to the group is overcome, and the feeling of cabin cohesiveness and identity develops. If conflicts have been successfully overcome, campers are willing to share on a deeper level with each other. Children and adolescents have a natural and healthy resilience, which enables them to move forward. They have had their arguments and disagreements and have developed ways of adapting to each other and living together as a group. They’ve developed bunk rules and expectations; they understand their differences and have made peace with them. It takes hard work to get to this stage and a lot of input from counselors. This is the stage when counselors feel that their cabin is fun to be with. If the cabin group stays stuck in the “storming” of the second stage, counselors begin to feel like they can’t cope.
Stage 4 Performing
This is the stage that gives counselors and campers alike a sense of pride in their group. At this point everyone knows each other well, and hopefully, they feel that they can rely on each other. There is a sense of interdependence among group members and also a sense of trust. The group is able to work together to accomplish common goals. Group identity, loyalty, and morale are high. The cabin group has a lot of creative energy that can be channeled in ways which benefit both the small group as well as the larger group of which it is a part.
Stage 5 Adjourning
The end of the summer/session marks the end of the cabin group as a unit. Campers and counselors often feel a sense of loss as the end of the summer/session approaches. When a group has worked really well together, we often hear comments like “it’ll never be the same.” Sometimes there will be a premature sense of disengagement, especially if cabin members or counselors leave early, before the summer/session is over. A challenge for counselors at this stage is to help the group retain its cohesiveness, its sense of identity, and its focus on task accomplishment until the moment that the campers board the buses to go home. As part of this last stage of the summer/session, and to allow the group to successfully move through all of its developmental stages, it is important to enable the group members to recognize their accomplishments and achievements throughout the course of the summer/session.
Based on the model developed by Dr. Bruce Tuckman, 1965, 1977.
Minda Garr, M.S.W., has been on the faculty of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1981 as a lecturer in social work practice courses and academic advisor of the school. Since 1979, Garr has spent her summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as camp social worker and staff trainer.
Originally published in the 2006 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.