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7 December 2020
By Matt Dickson

Group Coaching for Senior Leaders - The Path to Enlightenment?

One of the many concerns I’m hearing from headteachers at the moment is how to support their senior leaders who are doing so much to keep everyone else afloat.

Allowing leaders the opportunity to reflect and explore how difficult incidents have affected them and their relationships in school is powerful. We’ve all experienced a conversation that would have gone better if we were less tired, less stressed or better understood others’ point of view. Finding the skills to be able to park the emotional burden and learn from what has happened, leading to a better outcome next time round is more important now than it ever has been.

Group coaching, and Balint style coaching in particular, is a powerful way for deputy and assistant heads to come together from across different schools to look at their personal responses to situations and develop perspective. I have seen some of the most profound learning happen in those groups.

As a CPD method, Balint Group coaching has been around since the mid 50’s when the psychoanalyst Michael Balint began holding psychological training seminars for GPs in London. The doctors’ education was based on case presentation and discussion in a small group. Since those early days, Balint groups are used across the world because there are notable benefits for doctors' mental health and development of competence in the doctor–patient relationship.

Research has demonstrated a positive effect and Balint Groups are officially recommended as a means to promote reflection and wellbeing among GPs in many countries.

Although not widely used outside of medicine, the structure of these sessions lend themselves to education. The benefits for doctors are replicated in teachers.

Issues explored during Balint sessions obviously have a very personal element so high levels of professional trust are essential. To ensure the group is ‘safe’, clear protocols need to be in place.

It is important to establish ground rules at the start of a Balint group and there are some general rules I use with groups.

  • Choice: we will focus on what is important to the group.
  • Confidentiality: share anything you personally said or anything you experienced in the group meeting, just don't share what's others say or experience.
  • Transparency: nothing that I learn about you will be passed on to anybody else without you initiating the conversation.
  • Standards: we agreed to honour each other’s privacy, confidentiality, choices, expertise and contributions.
  • Group members will commit to regular attendance of the group as much as possible for the period of time specified.

There are various ways to run Balint Group depending on the group, but this is the best way I have found to facilitate them:

  • Members collect into groups of 6-12.
  • The facilitator invites members to discuss possible events and decide on one they want to explore so that all will learn.
  • The owner presents the case. (10 min)
  • The group listens to the story and are allowed to ask some questions for clarification of facts. (5 min)
  • The presenter is then asked to sit and listen to the group members reflecting on what they heard in a psychoanalytical manner. (20-30 min)
  • The presenting member is invited back to the discussion to reflect on their experience of hearing the group discussion and what they will do or change going forward. (5-10 min)

The following are issues I have seen brought to Balint Groups.

  • Situations where a teacher feels conflicted, anxious, overwhelmed, uneasy or powerless.
  • Colleagues who make the teacher feel confused, helpless, sad or uncomfortable.
  • Pupils with complicated personal or social histories which may be hindering their recovery.

There are no specific guidelines on the nature of issues explored. Balint Groups are focused on the emotions of the presenter and the subject arising within the narrative rather than the educational content.

By looking at issues that are relevant at the time, the learning is useful and can be applied immediately.

So, is this type of learning activity really the path to enlightenment?

The following quotes from previous participants suggest it might be:

“Since joining the group I have found a support network of people that I learn so much from. It is so interesting to see how others would approach the same problem in such different ways.”

“The coaching sessions at the end of the day are particularly interesting, engaging and useful for my own reflection and development.”

“… have made me reflect on how I approach difficult conversations and stop avoiding them.”

“The best thing is that all sessions are relevant to my role. I always learn something new.”

If you would like to find out more, or be part of a Balint Group contact your School Improvement Adviser.