Group Process: Room Set-Up

This is post #3 in my series “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.”

Chair Set-Up

The arrangement of chairs makes a big difference in group dynamics – in how well the students connect to you and to each other, and in how much attention they pay in class.

Here are options:

Semi-circle or U shape with instructor at front

  • Advantages: students can see each other and can see instructor well (helpful for demos of positions, audiovisual aids etc.) Sets up instructor as authority, but in a friendlier way than seminar seating. Instructor can move into the center of the room, walk toward people when they ask questions; this dynamic motion helps to engage students.
  • Disadvantages: Takes up a lot of space. Some students are uncomfortable looking at each other rather than looking straight ahead at white board. (Having tables in front of them reduces this discomfort, but makes the class much more formal than just chaUirs.)
  • Things to be aware of: Make sure all the chairs are angled to face more forward to the front of the room rather than facing into the center of the room… otherwise students spend lots of the class turned sideways in their chairs. Very uncomfortable!
  • Best compromise for a class with a mix of lecture, group discussion, small groups, etc.

Circle of chairscircle

  • Advantages: Everyone can see everyone. Equalizer. Best for group discussions. There’s plenty of floor space for practicing comfort techniques.
  • Disadvantages: Takes lots of space. Some people may be uncomfortable facing each other – feel like they’re on display with nowhere to hide. Circles don’t wok well with tables unless there’s one really big table everyone is seating around. Not good for videos or visual aids as some people won’t have a good view.
  • How I use this: I don’t use circles when I teach, simply because I write and draw on the board a lot and that works better with U shaped seating than with circles. I do use circles for class reunions because I want everyone there to be an equal participant, and acknowledge that everyone has valuable knowledge to share.

Seminar seating (rows of tables with chairs on one side, all facing the board) or theater seating (rows of chairs facing forward, no tables). seminar

  • Advantages: sets up a formal learning structure, focuses attention forward.  Good view of visuals for those in the front of the room. Best for lectures. Theater seating is the most compact seating – you can fit more people in the room with this option than any other, which may be important in a small space. theaterStudents with a professional or academic background may feel quite comfortable in this arrangement.
  • Disadvantages: may be too formal, and discourage interaction amongst students, and even interaction between students and teachers. Those in the back of the room may have a harder time seeing and hearing. This set-up also puts students in their academic brain. This is not where I want my childbirth class students because in labor you’re not in your academic brain. I want people moving, feeling, connecting, and exploring so they learn in a way they’re more likely to remember during labor. Also, this feels like a “class room”. If you have students who were “never good at school”, this will not feel comforting and welcoming to them.
  • How I use this: I try to avoid this arrangement, but sometimes when I’m running late to a class, I discover that this is how the facility staff set up the room, so I live with it, but make an extra effort to encourage group participation.

Banquet style seating (students gathered around tables, facing inward)banquet

  • Advantages: best for small group activities. Good for encouraging interaction and getting students to teach each other.
  • Disadvantages: For any lecture, half the people have to turn around in their chairs to see the front of the room. Could encourage people to only interact with the people at their table, and not with the full class.
  • How I use this: I occasionally use this set-up on week four or five of my series. After the group has already built a rapport, doing small group discussions can work well for values clarification and problem-solving exercises.

However the room is set up, make sure it’s clear and obvious to the students where they are supposed to sit. For example, if you have a room with far more chairs than you need for class, putting handouts on the chairs you want them to use helps make it clear. If you need all the chairs to be used, and don’t want couples to leave space between them and the next couple, make it obvious that there are “pairs” of chairs and put the handouts for a couple so they straddle over two chairs.

Decor, artwork and visual aids

If you’re teaching in a shared or borrowed space, you have to live with whatever décor comes with the room. Occasionally you may have something you need to cover up. For example, if you’re teaching a secular class in a church building, some of your students may be more comfortable if you can subtly cover up very religious images or words. If you’re in a medical clinic waiting room, you may want to set aside some of the educational materials and magazines that are normally there.

You can also decide whether to bring any of your own décor into the space – a table cloth maybe? Or flowers? I personally like to travel light, and I don’t like a lot of visual clutter, so I try to make the space as plain and neutrally welcoming as possible.

I have some slides I use in my childbirth educator training that illustrate a variety of classrooms, display of visual aids, and instructor appearance. Check them out, and then imagine that you are a “typical expectant parent” from the population you serve. What would you think about each of these settings? What would make you comfortable? Uncomfortable?

Pay attention to artwork and to visual aids. Medical illustrations of anatomy and pelvis models and such may be uncomfortable to some people, either because they don’t understand what they’re seeing (which makes them feel ignorant) or because they think bodily details are “icky.” I keep most of my medical AV’s out of sight at the beginning of the first class. “Earth mother” style artwork may also be a turn-off to some who already feared that birth class would be too “woo-woo” for them. Pictures of babies are almost always a winner, especially if they show diverse families.

Assess your current classroom

The next time you’re in your classroom, take a good critical look at it. Imagine you were a new student coming it, not knowing what a childbirth class would be, and wondering whether it was a good fit for them. What would they see? How would they interpret it? What could you do to make them more comfortable?

Group Process: Finding a Classroom

room

This post is part 2 in my weekly series on “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.”

The physical space in which a group meets has a big influence on the group dynamics. Most educators don’t have much choice in what classrooms they teach in – it’s usually a hospital conference room. However, if you have control over what classroom you use, and what’s in it, here are some simple steps you can take to create a welcoming environment.

Location Options

Having your own Dedicated Classroom: Although as an instructor, I would love having my own dedicated space that was the perfect classroom that met all the needs I describe below, and was optimized for my classes. However, it’s very hard for most childbirth educators to bring in enough money by teaching classes on weeknights and weekends to pay for leasing a space 24/7. It’s a big financial risk to take, and really cuts into your potential profits, so you may want to explore other options.

Some educators have had success opening a retail business that supports a classroom in a back room. But, many have failed at this, since the skills needed to be a good educator are not really the same skills necessary to being a successful retailer.

Sharing with like-minded businesses: You may be able to pair up with other groups or individuals that have compatible needs and complementary schedules. For example, the same space could host early morning and lunch time yoga classes, morning toddler groups, afternoon groups for parents and newborns, and evening childbirth preparation classes. Usually the way this plays out is that one person officially holds the lease and then makes agreements with individuals who use the space. Although this can be quite successful, it’s very important to have very clear agreements in place about things like cleaning up, vacating the space with enough time for the next group to set up, storage, use of other groups’ supplies, and so on. It’s also important to be very clear about financial responsibilities and liabilities. It would be quite easy for everyone to go in with good intentions, but then for some of the partners businesses to fail, or for health challenges to arise or whatever that leaves a small number of groups trying to pay for a space that was originally supposed to be shared by several partners.

Borrowing space at a clinic, hospital, store, school, gym, church, or yoga studio: You may be able to find a local business that does not typically host classes or public meetings, but is willing to host your classes. The advantage can be that the classroom is free. If the business serves pregnant clients, they can be a referral source and students may learn about your class simply because you’re in a place where they were already going. The disadvantage is that it’s often not an ideal space.

Sometimes you get lucky and they have a classroom space or large meeting room, that perfectly meets your needs (and if you’re really lucky they have storage space where you can keep your supplies between classes). But sometimes you end up in the staff lunch room, or the waiting room of a pediatric clinic (students who arrive early get the grown-up size chairs!), or even in the rocking chair display area of a retail store during business hours. (It was comfortable for my students who rocked their way through the class, but a little tricky for me when I had my flip chart set up in front of some bedding retail items, and customers would come up needing to pick out a crib sheet from those racks!)

Using a public meeting room: Your local library, community center, or mall may have a meeting room. They may loan it out for free (though they often then limit access to only non-profit groups or programs that are open to the public) or may charge an hourly rental fee. If it’s free, there can be a lot of competition for the space, so you may need to schedule way in advance or may need to be flexible about your schedule (instead of having a class that’s 7 Wednesdays in a row, it might be three Wednesdays followed by 4 Tuesdays). If it’s an hourly fee, that can start adding up and seeming expensive, but it’s certainly a lot cheaper than having your own dedicated space 24/7. The advantage is that it’s often a very functional classroom space with good furnishings, a white board, and some AV equipment. The downside is that it’s not your space and it’s not anyone’s space… at a psychological level, this anonymous space may make it harder for students to connect to each other and to you.

Using your home: Many childbirth educators over the years (especially Bradley instructors) have taught in their living rooms. The advantage is that it’s free and you can store all your stuff there. And, if the dynamics work right, it can feel cozy and welcoming and may help your students really connect to you and each other. The disadvantage is you’ll have to keep class sizes small, or really pack people into a space; your family will always have to work around classes (keeping the house cleaner than you otherwise might, keeping quiet on class nights, and so on); and some parents do not feel comfortable coming into a private house – they may just never register for your classes, or they might be brave enough to come one session, but then drop out.

Neighborhood

If at all possible, pick a centrally located classroom that is easy for people to find in a nice, safe neighborhood, with plenty of free parking.

It may cost more than a classroom on the outskirts of town, or one in a dodgy neighborhood, or one in a neighborhood with poor parking. But it’s worth it. You’ll have more students register if you’re in a nice, accessible part of town. Your students will be happier on the first night of class (and more likely to return for the other nights and more likely to recommend your classes to friends) if you were able to give clear easy directions, and if they were able to park nearby with ease.

Classroom Size and Shape

My favorite classroom is a square room, somewhere between 25×25 feet to 30×30 feet. It’s big enough to fit 12-14 couples, but small enough to not feel awkward with 5 couples. The fact that it’s square gives me the most options for room arrangement.

I have taught in long skinny rooms with big conference tables running down the middle where I feel like I’m having to shout to the people at the end and there’s no room to practice comfort techniques. I have taught in rooms that would comfortably fit 5 or 6 couples but we shove all the tables against the wall and cram in 8 couples. I’ve taught in rooms with columns smack dab in the middle where you have to figure out how to arrange the chairs so everyone has a chance of seeing the front of the room. You can make anything work. But when you’re first looking for a room keep the ideal in mind, and know what you’re giving up if you get something different.

Amenities

Good, clean bathrooms  are essential! Ideally, multiple bathrooms or multiple stalls so students don’t have to spend their break time waiting in line for the bathroom. Having a sink where you can fill a water pitcher is nice and having access to a refrigerator for ice and for cold water is even better. Having non-fluorescent lights that you can dim for videos and for exercise classes is helpful. (Never turn off lights all the way – some adults are scared of the dark…) For flooring, I personally like hardwood that is easier to keep clean than carpet, but then it’s nice if you have yoga mats or exercise mats to lay down on the floor for comfort during comfort technique practice. Other nice options: windows for natural light, some place nearby students can go on break to grab a cup of coffee or a snack, white board, TV with DVD player, and/or projector and screen, lockable storage where you can keep your supplies between classes.

Ideally, you want the ability to control the temperature. We all learn best when we’re comfortable, not when we’re too hot or too cold.

Furnishing

Ideally, I would want 25 – 30 stacking chairs, a small table for the front of the room for me to set my teaching supplies on, a bigger table or two for the back of the room for attendance sheets, nametags, handouts and for snacks. If you have control over the chairs, it’s worth putting a lot of time and effort into finding good ones. Women in late pregnancy are rarely comfortable, especially when asked to sit for long periods of time, but a good chair makes it much better than a bad chair. Avoid chairs designed for short term seating like wedding receptions or waiting rooms, avoid dining room chairs, which are often best for small-bottomed people and usually don’t stack. Look for “church chairs.” They’re designed to be comfortable for long periods of time, but still fairly easy to move around (although ours are a bit heavier than would be ideal). Make sure the chairs are stackable. If you’ve got a small class, you don’t want to have a ton of empty chairs all set up… that makes it look like these are lame classes nobody signs up for. If you’ve got 5 couples, leave out about 12 chairs and stack the rest tidily in the corner!For your tables, light weight folding tables are good. It’s also nice to have a few birth balls and/or “back jack chairs” so people have some options for comfortable seating.

I personally am not a fan of couches for seating because most pregnant women have a hard time getting up out of a couch. Some classrooms offer only yoga mats and birth balls for seating. That may surprise your students when they arrive, if that is not what they expected to find at a “class.” It can also be awkward for pregnant mamas to get down to the ground and get back up again.

Room Arrangement

Room arrangement makes a huge difference in group dynamics. ‘ll do a full post on this tomorrow.

Decor

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll address what you may need to do in a space you don’t control. If you control the space, you have more options. On one hand, you want to create a space that is welcoming and relaxing, and perhaps helps to empower people about their birth, or has images of parents and babies that help your students start visualizing themselves in their new role. On the other hand, keep in mind the comfort of your students. For example, many birth educators are comfortable with nudity, or exposed breasts in a nursing mama. Some of your students may not be. You might find candles, sage, and primal art appealing. But on the first night of your class, those might turn off some of your students who will think you’re too woo-woo / new agey / granola for them. (Once you’ve established your credibility, they’ll be willing to go that way with you, but it may be too much for week one.)

photo credit: EMSL via photopin cc

Group Process: Steps to take before class begins

I’m starting a multi-week series called “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.” Check back each Monday for a new post.

Why does group process matter?

  • Students want to connect! One reason parents choose to take in-person birth classes is the chance to meet and talk to other expectant families.
  • When students connect to the instructors and other students, they feel like they belong, which helps them feel safe. They will be more willing to participate by asking questions and joining in discussions. They will also be more willing to practice exercises in class, which makes it more likely they’ll practice at home, which makes it more likely they’ll use the techniques in labor.
  • When students connect, they have more fun. We learn best when we feel safe and happy, so your teaching will have more impact.
  • As an instructor, you’ll have more fun and your work will be easier if you’ve got good group dynamics.

Setting the Stage

Building an effective group where everyone feels welcomed, safe, and connected starts before the first class begins. Here are some things which will help get you off to a good start.

Group Size: Different educators have different opinions about the ideal class size for a childbirth preparation class, but most say that the best group is somewhere between 5 and 13 couples.

Small groups (3 – 6 couples) can sometimes work well, if you have a few very personable students who are good at pulling everyone else into a relaxed conversation. In effective small groups, there is a lot of opportunity for discussion and getting all the questions answered. Sometimes you’ll have a magical small group where the students really bond.

However, if you have a small group of introverts, everything can fall flat. If anyone misses a single session of class, the energy drops and more students start missing each week. Also, the smaller the group, the greater the pressure on individual group members to conform to a particular way of thinking or acting. There may be less individual freedom of opinion. Diverse students may not feel like they belong.

Larger groups (10 – 13 couples) can work well. There’s naturally a higher energy in the room, and a greater diversity of experiences, concerns, and questions. Every student can find someone else “like them” in the class. It can also make it feel like childbirth classes “must be important if so many people sign up for them!”

In larger groups, it may help to sometimes split them up for small group activities or discussions. You may also choose to have some activities where you go around the circle and ask every student to answer a question so that everyone’s voice has a chance to be heard.

Large groups (14 or more couples): Many instructors find 13 couples is a tipping point. At that level, they can still make a personal connection with students. But once it’s over 14 couples, you may as well have 20, because it just feels like a large lecture class, not a community. Very large groups tend to produce lower member satisfaction due to the lessened individual opportunity to speak or receive attention from the group leader.

Connect with students before class

If you handle your own marketing and registration, you’ll have lots of opportunity to connect before a class. But even if you just get a roster and email addresses a couple days before a class, it’s very helpful to send a friendly email. Welcome them to class and give a basic overview of what to expect (if the class is more than two hours long, tell them about the food situation). Optionally, you could include some fun, approachable info about a class topic (e.g. a link to an engaging video that is five minutes or less…) Be sure to say “contact me if you have any questions” and include a link to directions. Speaking of directions…

Make sure students know how to get to your classroom!

Be sure that they are receiving clear simple-to-follow directions. Test them yourself, or even better, have someone who has never been there and who has a horrible sense of direction test them! Also, if it’s tricky, tell them where they’ll park.

These days, many people trust their phone to give them directions anywhere, so they just type in the address, or the name of the building and follow that. If it’s not obvious how to find your classroom from the front door of the building, make sure you warn them of that in your communications. (For example: “you need to drive around the back of the church and go in the door next to the playground. All other doors will be locked when you arrive.”)

Also, on the first day of class, put up signs at the building, pointing them in the right direction.

Getting lost on the way to class and the stress of that makes it really hard for your students to feel comfortable and ready to learn when they do get there. Make it a smooth process for them!

Check back next week for thoughts about setting up the room to enhance group process.