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Sharks, mice and bears: A group-counselling experience with adolescents

Darci Polischuk and Don Collins write about the experience of a studentís first group-counseling experience with an anger management group for adolescents in a young offenders centre. A new creative approach was taken using the analogy of sharks, mice and bears representing the assertiveness training concepts of aggressive, passive and assertive behaviors.

As a fourth year Bachelor of Social Work student with the University of Calgary, Lethbridge Division, my first field experience was an adventure that I will not soon forget. I would like to share this first group-counseling experience which I hope both social workers and child care workers working with adolescents will find valuable.

My field placement was with the Young Offenders Centre in Lethbridge, Alberta. The Young Offenders Centre is a locked holding facility under the Solicitorís General for remand and sentenced youth who are serving custody dispositions. The youth are both male and female, aged 12 to 18. My interest is working in the field of corrections so I was excited about this opportunity to work in a correction setting with adolescents.

My first group session
Within the first month of the placement I was asked to start an anger management group with the incarcerated youth. The group was to be run on a monthly basis. I was anxious and nervous about starting the first group. I wanted to do well. From my group work course and readings on groups I was expecting a group full of participation and discussion. I was in for a surprise.

The first group session had 10 young offenders. There were eight boys and two girls. At seven oíclock, just after the participants had a structured quiet hour, the group started. The first mistake I made was allowing the group to meet in the living area of the young offendersí centre and further allowing the group members to be comfortably seated in the room. Most of the group became so relaxed they started to daydream and, indeed, a couple even fell asleep. I began the group by explaining its rationale which was that staff had been aware that several of them were having difficulty with anger, either expressing anger inappropriately or overly expressing their anger in temper outbursts, insults and other inappropriate manners. I then ran a fantasy sequence. The participants were asked to close their eyes as I talked to them through a visual sequence of events that would bring them to a confrontation experience. With their eyes closed, they all appeared to be participating well. They were asked to visualize how they would handle the confrontation and what the outcome of their actions would be. After the fantasy, I attempted to encourage discussion about how they handled themselves and what the alternative methods of handling the situation could have been.

The purpose of the session was to make group members aware of how they deal with anger and to teach them more appropriate expressions of their feelings. The model upon which I based the session was actually a form of assertion training. I started the group by trying to explain the difference between aggressive behavior, assertive behavior and passive behavior. A few of them, in a rather obsequious manner, attempted to understand what I was trying to say, no doubt to receive good marks for future privileges. A few more scratched their heads in bewilderment and, as I mentioned earlier, the others dozed off.

By the end of the session I asked each of the group members what they had learned from the session, which had lasted for an hour. The comment that stuck with me the most was, "I donít know what youíre talking about." That summed up my first group. Needless to say, I was rather devastated at the end of this session.

Back to the drawing board
I went to my colleagues at the Young Offenders Centre looking for some support and advice, and their general comment was, "Well, Darci, it would have been a great group if they had been university students." They asked me to keep running this group. Both frustrated and desperate, I went back to the university and turned to my methods group peers to seek advice.

A week later during methods class, which consisted of eight other students and Don Collins, our professor, I relayed the group experience. I sensed some support from them through the howls of laughter. The problem they identified was that I had not engaged the adolescents, so we needed to go back to the beginning of the group to look at how to engage these adolescents. Obviously, using a theoretical approach and language, i.e., "assertive behavior," "passive behavior," "aggressive behavior," was well beyond the understanding and interests of the adolescents. Indeed, theory can be quite boring at times. The conclusion of the class was that I needed to keep it much more simple, as well as to be much more creative in my engagement approach with inviting participants to work on appropriate assertive behavior.

Sharks, mice and bears
We decided in the next group setting that I was going to have a group which involved "sharks," "mice" and "bears." Initially, the class members were bewildered as to what Don Collins was talking about. It was explained that if we wanted adolescents to differentiate between aggressive behavior, passive behavior, and assertive behavior we should use language which adolescents could understand and associate with. He reminded us of the importance of symbolism in peopleís lives. It was thus suggested that instead of talking about aggressive behavior, we should talk about being a shark, to symbolize someone who attacks everybody and sees everything as a threat. Sharks invade each otherís territory with no respect for boundaries, they use too much force when it is not needed, and they donít plan their attacks. Mice, on the other hand, are afraid to take risks, they donít stand up for themselves, they hide their real feelings, they let others make their decisions for them, and they cannot say no. And finally, everyone wants to be a bear because they know when to stand up for themselves and when to back away. They know who is a real threat and who is a ridiculous enemy. They are not afraid to take risks, they know when to stay out of each otherís territory, they respect boundaries, and they plan their attacks well so that they will always achieve their goals.

My second group session
While I thought this whole idea of sharks, mice and bears was crazy, I was desperate enough to try it. I was willing to try anything and to stop feeling ridiculous at having adolescents fall asleep on me and ignore what I was trying to do.

The beginning
With some trepidation I entered the next group session presenting myself with unbridled enthusiasm. Trying to show boundless energy, I began. I did not repeat my mistake of putting them in an environment that was so comfortable they would fall asleep, so I had the group session in a new environment ó the school room. I began by having them push all the chairs away and then had them stand, lean, or sit in a circle. I again let them know that we were here for the anger group session and in this group there was only one rule ó there was no fighting allowed. I also told them that this was going to be an explosive session and the more they cooperated the less painful it would be. I explained again that anger meant the times when you stand up for yourself, when you back down, or when you just go crazy.

I then explained to them that there were three types of people: sharks, mice and bears, which I had characterized on three brightly colored, clearly written, simple poster boards. After listing the abovementioned characteristics of sharks, mice and bears, and explaining the differences, I asked them to tell me what type of animal they represented. While I was reading the characteristics of each animal, I had participants pick up a piece of color-coded cardboard as well as pictures of a shark, a mouse, and a bear. The shark, mouse and bear were color-coded and there were instructions to match the picture with the color, i.e., sharks: blue; mice: yellow; bears: orange.

This had the effect of getting the youth up and physically moving around in the group. It is hard to sleep when you have to move, and this also encouraged them to pay attention to what I was saying. Therefore, they could follow through on these simple instructions of putting the picture with the appropriate color. To my delight, it worked and I was getting them involved. While they were pasting the pictures to the various colors I finished reading the characteristics of the sharks, mice and bears, and I asked them to think of which picture would best symbolize the way in which they dealt with anger.

After I had finished describing the characteristics, I asked everyone to pick which picture best symbolized how they deal with their anger, and then I asked them to write down on the back of that picture specifically which characteristics they possessed which made them choose that particular picture.

Group discussion
Once this task was finished, each member in turn was asked to share with the group the picture they had chosen and why they had chosen that picture. At that time the group, including myself, got a chance to vote on whether the picture an individual chose indeed matched how the group saw the way they dealt with anger. The group majority ruled; thus, if the group decided the picture did not represent the way an individual dealt with their anger then that individual was given the picture that the majority thought was a better representation. The group became quite involved in this task, and I was open for them to discuss their reasons for either their individual choice, or the group deciding a different choice. The discussion was very relevant and quite fun at times.

With the group session a month earlier, I had a great deal of difficulty with resistance, yet, this time I was able to turn it completely around and use it to my advantage. For example, if a participant was withdrawn and did not want to participate, the group would label the person a mouse. Since all group members really did not like being identified as a mouse, the person identified as a mouse would suddenly start participating and become to a large extent appropriately assertive. At the other extreme, although initially people thought it was great being identified as a shark, the group would give tremendous feedback to the shark about their behavior, and the young people who were sharks became much more aware of their aggressive behavior and how on many occasions it had turned other group members off. Of course there were all sorts of combinations that occurred throughout the group. For example, we had someone who claimed he was a shark in bearís clothing (he was really a shark, but could be a bear when needed) and we had people switching from mice to bears and bears to sharks and back and forth. Yet it was amazing that they could quickly recognize these concepts and help each other become more aware of what they were doing.

The whole voting process and discussion in helping them become aware of the different ways in which each of them dealt with their anger lasted for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Role playing
Once each group member was finally identified with a particular animal, the group was split into the three different groups: a shark group, a mouse group and a bear group. We ended up having six sharks, two mice, and two bears. I was labelled a bear. Both mice were reluctant to go into their mouse group, so I instructed the sharks to be facilitative and help them go into the groups. We then started some role playing.

The first role play involved borrowing money. The second role play was about someone bumping into you in a movie line. Throughout the role plays I continued to refer the group back to the specific characteristics of each of the animals that were displayed on the color-coordinated charts. The first two role plays were primarily used to get the youth involved in practising role plays.

The third role play was based on an actual experience that just happened in the group. This incident involved someone sticking his feet up on a table in front of someoneís nose. The person was asked to remove is feet, but he refused. This role play was the one we spent the most time with as it was so real to them. I had the participant practise his role play first with the real instance where the shark had his feet up and a bear was trying to be assertive. In the second instance, that situation reversed. The person with the feet up was a bear and the confrontative person was the shark. Then we had a shark and a shark, and finally, a shark and a mouse. The mouse was the person with his feet up. Constantly throughout the role playing the group pointed out incongruencies in their role, i.e., when someone was not being true to his/her identified animal. One example of the incongruencies was with one of the youth who had been labelled a shark. He was in the young offender centre for assault with a deadly weapon, and yet in the role play his behavior was very much like that characterized by a mouse. In the role plays the participants were constantly encouraged to stay true to their roles to see what that experience would be like and to help them become more aware of the different ways of dealing with anger.

This role play was a tremendously engaging process because it helped the participants become involved in a real life exercise as well as become aware of how they really act in a particular situation. All the participants took their roles very seriously and were given tremendous encouragement by the others for their involvement and role-taking risks.

Closing the group
After the role plays all the participants were asked to try acting out the role of a bear. The motivation for all of them taking on a bear characteristic was that they were told the group would end as soon as each of them could demonstrate an appropriate bear statement. This exercise was very successful because the group members supported each other in attempting to find an appropriate bear response for everyone.

Needless to say, I left the group feeling exhilarated. All of the youth had participated. The group process was such that all of them became involved regardless of their age and intellectual ability. The use of sharks, mice and bears were terms that everyone could understand and become involved in. A sigh of relief was given from my youth care colleagues. They were not seeing me as frustrated and depressed but exhilarated. Indeed, they were excited about what I had done, and a few of them participated in the next sharks, mice and bear group that I ran the following month.

I have now run the sharks, mice and bears group on four different occasions at the Young Offenders Centre, and each time it has been successful. I have also used these concepts in individual work and found them equally useful. I have been looking back as to why I think these groups have been successful, and I believe it is because 1) they are simple; 2) they are fun; 3) they pique the adolescentsí curiosity; and 4) they are really involving by allowing the youth to be themselves; and finally, I approached the shark, mice and bear groups with more confidence and enthusiasm, and the adolescents recognized that and responded accordingly.

This feature: Polischuk, D. and Collins, D. (1991) Sharks, mice and bears: A group-counselling experience with adolescents. Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol.6 No.3, pp.41-47