Group Process: Challenging Group Dynamics

This is post #7 in my weekly series on “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.”

New childbirth educators tend to worry about these issues a great deal. To be honest, you’ll encounter mild difficulties from time to time with classes, but it’s rarely a big deal. The students in your class will be adult learners, which in general means they may be more engaged and better behaved than the students you remember from high school. Also, they chose to be in your class, and are motivated to learn what you have to share, which also improves behavior.

If you have quiet students:

  • ask more open-ended questions
  • go around the circle and ask each person to share a response to a simple question
  • use grab bag exercises or games where everyone has an assigned “job” to do
  • do more small group activities – it’s easier to talk in a small group

If you have loud students who over-participate:

  • break eye contact with them
  • walk away from them – toward the white board, toward a poster…
  • look at your watch
  • interrupt if needed: say “thanks for that” then ask “have other students had that experience?”

If you have issues with students’ attention wandering:

  • move around
  • pick something up or point at a visual aid
  • look at the person whose attention has wandered
  • ask a question
  • make students laugh – the inattentive one will wonder what she missed

For “side talk” (two students talking):

  • move toward them
  • look at them, then look to the one who is speaking
  • engage them
  • change the activity – get up and move around, pull out an AV.

If you have a hard time keeping the class focused, and find yourself wandering off target: Always write the outline on the board. If discussion is getting un-focused, you can point at it and say “I love this discussion, but we have more we need to cover today, so let’s get back on track.”

More tips for difficult students: www.uq.edu.au/tutors/index.html?page=66234

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Group Process: Activities to Build Connections

This is part 6 of my weekly series on “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.”

If you spent all your class time lecturing, showing videos, and demonstrating, your students would get a lot of information out of your class. But they would have missed out on one of the other benefits of taking childbirth classes: the chance to meet and connect with other parents. Consider spending a portion of each class on building community. (A side benefit for you: As students get more comfortable with each other, they will participate more, ask more questions, and learn more from the class.)

Here are some activities to try:

Tune Out, Tune In. Each week when students arrive at class, they’re often not quite “present” when they walk in. Their mind may be on work, or traffic, or the errands they need to run after class, or many other things. Try a warm-up activity each week to give them time to get present.

  • Check-Ins:
    • What’s on your mind today? What worries have come up? What questions?
    • Highs / Lows: What have been the best and worst parts of your last week?
    • What have you learned since last week? What have you read? Did you have an appointment with your caregiver? Did you see anything about birth on TV?
  • Question of the week related to the topic:
    • Name something that helps you when you’re feeling sick, in pain, or worried?
    • What’s one item you plan to bring to the hospital with you?
    • What’s your biggest worry about medical procedures and interventions?
  • Agenda setting: Any questions left over from last week? What questions do you have about tonight’s topic you want me to be sure to answer?

Small Group Work – the bigger the class, the more important it is to fit in some small group work into your classes, so people have a chance to connect. Sometimes keep couples together and pair up two or three couples. Other times, encourage a couple to separate and join different groups so they hear different perspectives.

  • Small group discussions. Examples:
    • Discuss experiences they have in common, like: common discomforts mom is having or plans for postpartum and baby care.
    • Labor words: Pass out a list of adjectives that could be used to describe labor. Ask them to mark 4 or 5 words that resonate with them. Then discuss with your group: what did they mark? If their labor was like that, what support would they need?
    • Scenarios for discussion: make up cards which describe variations scenarios or other challenges that may arise in labor. They read one out loud, then discuss what they think is happening, and what they would do.
  • Quizzes – make up cards that review the info you covered in the last class session – write a question on one side of the card, the answer on the other. Pass them out to small groups of students. They read the question, guess at the answer, check to see if they’re right.
  • Brainstorms: Assign them a topic (write it on a big piece of easel paper). Have them brainstorm all the ideas they can come up with. Example: pros and cons of vaccinations, circumcision, and breastfeeding.
  • Separate moms and support people. (Works best if you have two rooms.)
    • Ask moms to self-guide a discussion on common discomforts of pregnancy while you facilitate a confidential discussion with partners on what they’re worried about related to their ability to provide labor support.
    • Ask moms to self-guide a discussion on postpartum support resources and imagining how they’ll adapt to life as a mom while you teach dads/partners some newborn care skills (like baths, cord care, nail trimming). Allows dads/partners to be the “expert” on a topic so moms have to ask them how to do it.

Interactive activities

  • Invite participation in class. Give plenty of time for questions from students. Ask them plenty of questions.
  • Play games.
    • Try the Breastfeeeding myths and truths game: Each student reads a card and says whether they thinks it’s a myth or think it’s true. You follow up with more details.
    • Try the Signs of Labor game – write on the board “maybe, probably, definitely” or “possible, prelabor, positive” if you prefer. Give students a card describing a sign of labor, and ask them to tape it where it goes.
    • Birth Matters has a collection of game ideas, as does Passion for Birth. and Stacie Bingham.
  • Do role plays. Example: print these labor scenarios. Cut up the cards describing stages in labor, and put the posters on the wall. Have a couple read one scenario out loud, then suggest a comfort technique or two to try from the list of options (breathing techniques, comfort techniques, position). Everyone practices together.
  • Mocktail party. Laurie Levy invented this activity, where she brings tacky margarita glasses and offers several types of non-alcoholic mixed drinks for people to try (with recipes), puts on party music, and encourages them to mix and chat while drinking. You could combine this with a wide variety of icebreaker type games.

What do you do to build connections amongst your students?

Group Process: Encourage Connection

This is part 5 of my weekly series on “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.”

Giving “permission” for connections

Talk about the benefits of connecting to other parents. Talk in the first class about peer support, and what a fabulous resource new parents can be for each other, offering both practical advice, and support (i.e. helping you realize that you’re not the only one who’s having a hard time adjusting.) I say something like: “one of the best things for new parents is to talk to other parents, get support, get advice, share frustrations, etc. We’re going to start practicing that here today, and start talking to other people who are in your same life situation… It’s easy to think that because I’m teaching the class, I’m the expert in the room, but I guarantee that you all have things to teach each other and to learn from each other as well.” I then go on to give examples of how having connections to other parents will help you throughout your child’s life (get tips on potty training your 3 year old; talk to other parents about starting kindergarten, get recommendations for driver’s ed classes, get support from other parents are adjusting to having their child go away for college.)

Encourage connection. Assume your students want to meet and talk with other parents, but may need guidance for when and how to do that. Just before each break, encourage them to connect over break. Give them a couple questions to ask each other or discussion topics. I say something like ““go ahead and run to the bathroom, or get some water, then come back and chat with your classmates. Maybe you can get some good ideas for baby names, or where to shop for baby bathtubs, or share some positive birth stories you’ve heard.”

Or put out displays around the room which encourage them to wander around and chat informally with each other. Try “lift-the-flap” cards. First, think up trivia questions. Write the answers on a 4×6 index card. Then cover the answer up with a 3×5 post-it note. Write the question on the post-it note. Students ask themselves the question, then lift the flap to check their own answers. Works great for nutrition, pop quiz review of labor, baby development trivia, etc.

Breaks: Allow plenty of time at break for them to make these connections! (Note: breaks also allow the introverts to slip out of the room for a little while and get a breather.)

Snacks: People naturally connect over food. If you have snacks in your class, you will have a better group dynamic. The whole class will go better. Consider providing a simple, inexpensive snack in week one and asking parents to volunteer to bring snacks to all the other classes.

Encourage on-going connections

Connection outside of class: Suggest students get together. Consider setting up a Facebook group for them to use to connect. Hand out copies of a class roster with student contact information. (In week one, tell them you’ll be doing this, and pass around a roster, so they can make any changes, or mark out any info they do not want to appear on the roster you distribute.)

Encourage them to meet for dinner nearby before class, or go out for lunch after a class.

One of our instructors would ask students at the beginning of each class: “where did you guys get together this week” – her tone assumed that of course they had done so. The first week or two they would hem and haw, but then after that they started answering!

Reunion: Plan a reunion after all the babies are born. It’s a great opportunity for them to re-connect. Have them all email each other (or post on Facebook) when their babies are born as a lead-up to reunion. At reunion, hand out roster again. Encourage them to meet again.

Group Process: Class Begins

tent

This is post #4 in my weekly series “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.” It’s about the first ten minutes of class – this is the most important time in terms of establishing effective group dynamics for the rest of the class series. People won’t connect unless they feel comfortable and feel like they belong.

Arrival and First impressions

Your students form an impression of you, their fellow students, and whether they belong in the first ten seconds after entering the room, so it’s important to get first impressions right.

Be early for the first class and have everything ready so you can focus on welcoming students. Pay attention to how you are dressed. Try to dress in a similar style to your students, but one step more formal, since you are the “authority.” Introduce yourself when they arrive, and begin a conversation (great topics: when are they due, what they’ll name the baby, traffic and weather.)

Have an attendance sheet or class folder with their name on it. This reassures them they’re in the right place.

Have them make nametags. Rather than little tags they wear on their chests, fold a piece of cardstock in half to make a little “tent”. Have them write first names and due date with a marker so it’s easily visible from across a room. They set it on the floor in front of them. Or, you can use the spiffy white board style nametags shown at the top of the page.

Have snacks available, or at least water and cups.

Play music to set a friendly, relaxed tone. Try to find music that’s fairly universally appealing, not something aimed at just one demographic.

Have an icebreaker activity available in case lots of students arrive early – it’s better to get them moving and talking, instead of sitting passively in their chairs. Choose one that helps people find commonality and appreciate the diversity of experience. Try Icebreaker Bingo – each student is given a sheet with 25 questions on it. Their job is to find someone in the room that can answer yes to the question and write their name down.

Class Begins

Your introduction: This partially serves to establish your credibility as the instructor for the class (what you know and how you learned it) but it also helps to establish you as a human being they can relate to – an approachable mentor on the parenting path.

Student Intros: If you’re teaching a one-time two-hour class with 12 couples, you may not do full introductions of all the students. But for smaller classes and multi-week classes, always make time for intros. Minimum intros are names and due dates. If you have time, try the 3 part intro:

  • Who Are You? (Name and Due Date)
  • What do you already know? (Could ask professional background, but that can set up social class distinctions. Could ask what they know about birth and baby care. Could say “In this class, we’ll be talking about some things that are new to you that you might worry whether or not you’ll be good at. I want you all to remember that you can learn new skills and get good at them. Share with us something new you’ve learned and gotten good at in the past few years.”)
  • What do you want to know? (What are you hoping to learn in this class? If you’re in a hurry, ask them to say in one word what they’re hoping to learn. If you have more time, you don’t need to limit it in this way.)

When they introduces themselves, show interest in them as an individual. But then also generalize what they said so it relates to everyone. “Yes, a lot of people worry about that. We will definitely be talking about that in week two.” “Thanks for that question on diaper wipes. We’ll be talking more about all things diaper related in the newborn care class.”

Housekeeping. Tell them how to get basic physical needs met: where the bathrooms are, where they can get food / drink, when you will be taking breaks. If you’re teaching a class that’s more than 3 hours, say that it’s OK to sit on the floor, or stand, or sit on the birth ball, or whatever they need to do to be comfortable for all that time. If people are comfortable, they can learn. But if they’re wondering when /how they’ll get to eat or pee, they’re not learning.

Go over the class outline so they know what to expect out of each session of class. Also define social norms and expectations for participation and interaction.

In next week’s post, we’ll look at more ways to build community as the class goes on.

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?