Using Group Norms in a School Setting

groups[This is the final piece in a series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

By Sarah Gordon

When working with groups of student leaders, educators often jump right into event planning or skills training, hesitating to first set aside valuable time to focus on community-building and group dynamics. This year, I decided to dedicate time to discussing “group norms” with the student leaders at Ma’ayanot and to implement group expectation discussions modeled on those that I experienced with my cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

When students have the opportunity to share expectations of how their group should work together, they are able to initiate the rules rather than having rules forced upon them by a teacher. Students are much more receptive to suggestions such as arriving on time to events, turning phones off during meetings, and responding to emails on time when those suggestions come from peers. The process of these group discussions also allows students to voice the reasons why they feel a particular norm is important. For example, hearing a peer state; “I need people to respond to emails or it is extremely hard for me to get everything done on time” allows other students to hear what their friend needs from them in order to be successful and teaches them to be cognizant of each other’s working styles and strengths. Additionally, when students feel comfortable sharing what they feel are reasonable expectations for the group, they will often vote against or modify suggested norms. For example, students may suggest that members of the group may miss one meeting every month, instead of having to attend every week. In this way, the norms reflect their goals and expectations, not the goals and expectations of the teacher or authority figure. When the discussion is complete, it is helpful to laminate a poster with the agreed upon “group norms,” which can also be referred to as a group contract or group brit – and place it in a visible place, as well as email it out to the students.

This process creates a safe space for students to voice their opinions at the outset, instead of being asked to comply with rules about which they have no say and which they may choose to simply ignore. It also holds them accountable to their peers instead of to an outside authority. And in our school, it allows me to shift my role from instructor to moderator or facilitator, asking students to elaborate on their reasons for a specific group norm and encouraging other students to respond. I have found that most rules I would have wanted to impose myself are usually proposed by the students and if they are not, the process allows me to suggest norms of my own and allow the group to discuss them. And if circumstances change over the course of the year, the norms can always be revisited. Follow-up meetings where students can raise problems, such as, “I feel that the same people are the only ones staying late to set up for events,” or, “I want to suggest a new norm addressing this issue, “can be very helpful. In this way, the group norms are actually a living, breathing contract that can be adjusted in real time.

The time that I invest in these discussions may take away from planning time at the beginning of the year, but it is a valuable investment in smoother group dynamics throughout the year; managing less than optimal group dynamics would ultimately take even more time. It may have taken time to get used to, but now I can’t imagine running the student government any other way!

Sarah Gordon is the Director of Student Activities at Ma’ayanot High School and a graduate of Cohort II of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.