How Group Therapy Can Help Students with Emotional Disabilties

Group Synergy

Group therapy and interventions for students with emotional disabilities have proven to be effective when addressing a variety of special needs. Students may feel isolated in their emotionality and group therapy has the potential to open their eyes to many others who experience similar obstacles.

According to Kastner (1998), children and adolescents in group therapy can engage in an experience of belonging that can facilitate them examining the nature of their interpersonal problems while realizing the possibilities and individual meanings of interpersonal change. Interconnectedness and mutual growth in group therapy may present the first opportunity for a sense of inclusion for students who often feel isolated due to demanding emotional disabilities.

It is important to remember that “disabilities” are “different abilities.” Group therapy can help children to discover and better understand what their different abilities are. Some students do not know or understand why they are challenged and the processing of emotional disabilities as a group can reduce stigma since everyone included has a different set of abilities that can present challenges. Once students realize the challenges that come with their different abilities, they will have an easier time finding the solutions.

Social Skills

It makes sense that group therapy would be preferable to individual when attempting to improve social skills. The practice, development and utilization of social skills is critical in the regulation of emotions. Children who are developmentally delayed in social skills are at higher risk of social maladjustment and resulting emotional stress (Epp, 2008). Children on the autism spectrum who lack social skills may be suave with adult interaction and fake a sense of mastery while remaining intimidated about practicing with their peers.

Epp (2008) said group therapy for children on the autism spectrum not only has great potential to improve social skills in a way that can be generalized to other environments in the children's world, but also helps them form friendships by teaching them social skills in groups. It is important to prevent social withdrawal and encourage interaction, which the group therapy process presents in a structured format that has the potential to be more predictable and comforting if presented appropriately. For example, these students might be reassured by a basic agenda with expectations and descriptions of daily routines. While working on limitations, such as socialization, playing to the organizational tendencies and strengths of students will increase their confidence.

Allowing for a sense of control during the group therapy process should not be considered too much to ask or as an encouragement of rigidity. Instead, one must remember that many students on the spectrum will be enduring an extreme and terrifying challenge just by entering into the group. According to Epp (2008), people on the autism spectrum live in individual worlds of their own in which they are socially disengaged from others and are often stressed by demands for social interaction or intimacy that they cannot give or manage. Group therapy can work to reduce the mental and emotional stress that Epp (2008) identifies as a cause of a chronic state of anxiety. Group therapy must be compassionate so that the students learn to be compassionate toward the variety of needs present within the group. Supporting each other and encouraging social expansion and risk taking is facilitated by a standard of respect.

Continue reading on to page two to learn more about group therapy and interventions for students with emotional disabilities using Legos.

LEGO and Social Skills

Group therapy and interventions for students with emotional disabilities can incorporate unique approaches and tools. Believe it or not, LEGO toys seem to be timeless in regards to therapeutic benefits.

LeGoff (2004) used LEGO as a therapy tool after inadvertently observing two clients, both 8 years old and diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder, excitedly playing and talking together in the waiting room. Each of these boys had coincidentally brought LEGO toys with them and observed each other with curiosity. LeGoff (2004) reported that both boys had previously shown little or no interest in each other and low motivation for social interaction in general until discovering LEGO as a medium for communication and motivation to continue the relationship.

Students with Asperger’s Disorder often have intense interests and finding a commonality in interests can be rare. If students are intrinsically captured by a stimulus, they may be more flexible in social interaction that includes a shared interest and active engagement. Attwood (1998) described this as constructive application, or the use of the child’s natural interests to motivate learning and behavior change. The comfort and familiarity of the play and manipulation of LEGO toys might serve as a catalyst to increased relaxation in the social interaction of group therapy. LeGoff (2004) said that LEGO intervention stimulates some thought about the nature of social competence, its component skills, and the effective strategies for enhancing it such as turn-taking, perspective taking, eye-watching, joint-attention and question asking. Developing these skills will lead to intrinsic gains which motivate students longer than external reward systems. LeGoff (2004) said benefits of LEGO play did not vary based on age and noted the importance of dividing tasks so that play consists of joint and interactive jobs. LEGO toys as group therapy facilitators can highlight for students the common interests they have with their peers that often go unnoticed. LEGO toys provide students with the opportunity to create and build together, which can be symbolic of the interpersonal connection taking place. Children often advance in therapy when the focus is taken off of individuals and placed on a common task that requires group participation.

In the next section, we will investigate how depression can be impacted by group therapy and interventions for students with emotional disabilities.

Group Therapy and Depression

Group therapy and interventions for students with emotional disabilities are effective in the treatment of depression. Group therapy provides a support network for students who may feel isolated and alone in their emotional experiences. According to Tiuraniemi and Korhola (2009), treating depression with cognitive behavioral group therapy has proven efficient and useful as it teaches patients skills that diminish depression and anxiety, such as problem-solving skills. Group therapy can give depressed students options in their response to depression. Students can learn coping skills that will increase the likelihood of a decrease in depression.

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps students to reduce maladaptive behaviors through the identification and modification of apparent distorted thought patterns (Free, 1999). Group therapy allows students to help each other better understand faulty thinking and discover alternative viewpoints that can influence perception. Cognitive behavioral group therapy has led to reduction in the levels of depression, negative automatic thoughts, and students’ dysfunctional attitudes (Hamamci, 2006).

As thought processes are recognized and addressed, students gain an increased sense of awareness and control. The way in which students think influences their outlook and ability to find hope in the future. Group therapy can identify and promote positive points of view that instill confidence and courage instead of debilitating responses to challenges in life.


Attwood, A. J. (1998). Asperger’s syndrome: A guide for parents and professionals. London,UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Epp, K. (2008). Outcome-based evaluation of a social skills program using art therapy and group therapy for children on the autism spectrum. Children & Schools, 30(1), 27-36.

Free, M.L. (1999). Cognitive therapy in groups: Guidelines and resources for practice. New York: John Wiley.

Hamamci, Z. (2006). Integrating psychodrama and cognitive behavioural therapy to treat moderate depression. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33, 199-207.

Kastner, J.W. (1998). Clinical change in adolescent aggressive behavior: A group therapy approach. Journal of Child and Adolescent Group Therapy, 8(1), 23–33.

LeGoff, D. (2004). Use of LEGO © as a therapeutic medium for improving social competence. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34(5), 557-571.

Tiuraniemi, J., & Korhola, J. (2009). Cognitive group therapy for depressive students: The case study. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health & Well-Being, 4(3), 133-144.