At SUWS, we often talk about “the milieu” of the group. The milieu is referring to a person’s social environment. The milieu changes as the group has diﬀerent students enter and graduate, also as the individual students themselves evolve and change. Part of the process while being a student in the milieu at SUWS is to experience the group dynamic, and naturally, the ebbs and flows of group formation and development.
A framework that is often referenced when describing group dynamics is from the 1965 article by psychologist, Dr. Bruce Tuckman, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.” In Dr. Tuckman’s article, he identifies four stages of group development; Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.
What is useful about this identification of phases is that it helps normalize the experience that many students (and staﬀ) have while in the experience of the group process. The staﬀ exchange that happens each week helps stimulate the cycle of group formation anew, and therefore opportunities arise for new challenges to be faced and new repairs to be made. This process allows for the internal growth of each student to expand their individual capabilities to adjust to change and develop leadership skills. In the milieu at SUWS, a student may experience this cycle of stages over again many times throughout the duration of their course of stay.
A simple overview of these phases goes as follows:
This is a time when a group is getting to know each other. There is often excitement, anxiety, sometimes individuals are overly polite, or superficial in this stage. Leaders will dominate often in this stage, be that the staﬀ, or a more senior student. The newer students will often follow direction and try to assimilate. This is a time for the staﬀ to use clear directives and teach skills.
As students learn the boundaries, they begin to push against them, testing where they are held in the framework of staﬀ and peers. This is where process is established and social structures are formed. It is a time for building trust and relationships, also for exposing a lack of trust and breaking relationships. This is where conflicts emerge and the need for repair occurs. Staﬀ and senior students find themselves being questioned, challenged and needing to stand firm with boundaries and clarity. This is also a good time to teach this model of change and development, teach assertive communication skills and conflict resolution. It is a time to ask questions and learn from one another. While this is an uncomfortable stage, it is also where the growth edge expands the most. Some groups will land in Storming for a while before finding ground to move into the Norming stage.
In going through the Storming stage, the patterns of each individual emerge and are be`er understood. Empathy and compassion are cultivated as the individuals witness each other in one another’s growth. In the Norming stage, the group knows each other more, and they become a cohesive unit. Roles are negotiated, leaders can emerge and pass the responsibilities. The group tends to have more fun in this stage than before, they enjoy one another by accepting one another. Goals can be tackled, conflicts are more easily resolved, feedback is given and received with openness. It is quite common that the Norming stage and Storming stage overlap as new issues arise, and students slip into old patterns.
This is where the group unifies and can achieve big goals together as a group. This is where hard work leads without friction, team goals are made, team building activities are fun and the group has their own identity. Leadership is supported and delegation is honored. When working with a group at this stage, some therapists will put the students to the test by throwing out a lofty goal for the week (For example: everyone busts a fire, makes check oﬀ every day and each student oﬀers a teachable moment in order to earn a pizza at the end of the week). The success of achieving such a goal is often a sign that a group has arrived at Performing. Everything is dynamic, and as new students and experiences arise, the group dynamic shifts and changes.
How it can look in a group:
A few weeks ago, the two Seasons groups were brought together for a hike up Snooks, an eight mile loop overlooking some pretty stunning views. Before the groups were brought together, Seasons 1 kids (who only days before had been arguing with each other and said some mean things) stated, “I heard the kids in Seasons 2 are monsters!” The kids in Seasons 2 (who only days before had been defiant and uncooperative) were heard saying, “I heard the Seasons 1 kids are chaotic and mean!” This is common assumption making in the early stages of Forming.
When the groups came together for the hike, the staﬀ exposed what was said about each group to the other, and the two groups looked at each other sheepishly and shrugged. The storming process rolled into the Norming process as they hiked up the first part of the mountain. Some kids struggled, some charged ahead, as they found their way in the new formation of the two groups together. At the top, they all enjoyed the view and the feeling of success from making it up there. The rest of the hike was long, and there were stream crossings and ups and downs. The group showed that they could keep pace with each other and be supportive. They had made their way to Performing.
The only constant is change, and so the cycle of Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing continues throughout the life cycle of a group.
Being a part of any group, be it a pick-up softball league or a management team has stages of formation occurring as part of the process. As a group develops, they grow as a group and as individuals. It can be helpful to know the process and where you are in it, so as to know how to support, understand and evolve.