Is social competence a pre-requisite for group participation?

Can I actively engage in the work of the group?

I wrote in a chapter some years ago that, “Being a member of a group, like our gender, class, or ethnicity, is such an integral aspect of our lives that we often take for granted how much time we spend in groups or groups within groups (McMaster, K.J., 2008). I went on to argue that our very first experience of group is our family, whānau or ingoa. In these early sites of socialisation we learn the skills to manage life and how to operate alongside others. For those of us in the human services we know that when families are multi-stressed, their ability to deliver on physical goods (housing, food), values and practices (e.g. social engagement) that allow skills of social participation to develop, is severely impeded. We also know from the vast literature on attachment theory that the early years of family life set the template for adult relationships. No surprises there.

Recently I read a book by Norma Lang titled ‘Group work practice to advance social competence: A specialized methodology for social work’. Her thesis is that many of the people coming into group programmes may not actually have the necessary skills to engage in the life of the group. Lang argues that social competence is a fundamental pre-requisite for readiness to engage in social change groups. While this isn’t a new idea, it felt that I hadn’t given it enough space to really consider in detail the implications in terms of my own group practice.

This thesis resonated so well with me when I look at attrition from programmes in particular. While this is often put down to the individual characteristics of participants such as age, employment, ethnicity, etc., a different perspective might be to assess wider issues such as the fundamental skill of being able to engage in a group. How do we at engage ask about participants prior experience of group in its widest sense? We could perhaps then better predict drop-out and put in place supports to assist the person to continue to participate. This of course would lead onto skills of enhanced social participation.

According to Lang, social competence is “the capacity to engage effectively and appropriately in social interaction and, by extension, to navigate the social world successfully, to hold a functional place in the society and the culture, and to be accessible to on-going socialisation through life”.

By taking a developmental perspective, Lang identifies predisposing factors that are required for social competence in groups. These pre-disposing competencies include the following:

  • Interaction – the ability to operate across a number of systems and sub-systems, to be able to adapt behaviour to specific situation, to manage impulsivity.
  • Relationships – the ability to form, maintain and close off relationships in pro-social ways. I can think of the significant number of men I have worked with who cannot let go of relationships when partners leave and then get themselves into problems with harassment and arrest.
  • Structure – how do we develop skills of routine, structure into our day, regulation of patterns, and manage unpredictability.
  • Norms – how do we learn to live within normative boundaries established within our family groups as well as those with culture and the community we live within?
  • Activity – activity provides a means for being and doing things together. Sometimes this is in parallel and sometimes together. Activity also provides meaning and reward.
  • Operational – developing shared understanding of what needs to be achieved, how and when.

When I thought about what Lang was saying I was acutely aware that many of the people I work with in groups struggle at times to even be present in the moment. It goes back to the old habilitation versus rehabilitation argument.  In many ways our journey with many people is one of getting the basics right so that they can then participate more fully in the world outside of the group – relationships, family, friends and the wider community.

Of course this is not to give up on group work as a place whereby we can provide experiences where participants can take time in a safe environment to practice the necessary skills. It may however that we limit our sights about what needs to be in place before we delve into depth work.

What has been your experience of social competence as an issue in group programmes? Love to hear your thoughts.

References:
Lang, N.C. (2010) Group work practice to advance social competence: A specialized methodology for social work, Columbia University Press, New York.
McMaster, K.J. (2003), ‘Facilitating change through group work’ in Jane Maidment & Ronnie Egan (eds) Practice Skills in Social Work and Welfare, Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest.

Published on Tuesday, February 28th, 2012, under Learning & development, Programme design & development

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