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I get a lot of questions from girl scout leaders, youth group advisors and camp counselors about how to get their charges to cooperate.
Gaining cooperation from children is one of the most difficult tasks of working with children in groups. There is a subtle difference between the words: “cooperation” and “compliance”. When children are compliant, they are submitting to adult will. Cooperation, on the other hand, indicates that children are able to work in tandem to achieve a common goal that is mutually satisfying for all. Compliance frequently leads to power struggles. To develop a cooperative atmosphere, the kids must buy in to the essential need for your rules, plans, and requests. There are steps you can take to help them cooperate more openly. And, there are behaviors you can steer clear of if you want to avoid power struggles and loss of control in the group.

The following are a couple of ideas that I hope you might find helpful:

Step One: Expect Cooperation
It sounds corny. “If you want kids to cooperate with you, you have to believe they will cooperate with you.” Your belief in their ability to work together cooperatively is imperative. They will take the cue from you.

Step Two: Praise the children for their cooperative efforts
Your words and your tone of voice are very important. Always be specific with praise, and make sure that you praise the group immediately upon witnessing cooperative actions. When you reward the entire group for positive group interaction, the girls are more likely to work together peaceably. For instance, try saying: “You’ve all quieted down the first time I asked. I really appreciate that!, “At our last meeting, you two had a big argument, and today, you are both making efforts to get along. It’s hard work sometimes to maintain friendship!”

Step Three: Provide Opportunities for Self Monitoring
A basic component for good cooperation is the ability for children to observe themselves and to change their behavior to fit the demands of a particular situation. Children rebel against rules when they don’t understand them or when they are imposed unpredictably. You may try to make statements like the following: “How are we doing as a group? Thumbs up if you think we are following our group rules!”

Step Four: Use “I” Messages
When you say “I feel___” rather than “You did ___” or “You are a ___,” you are more likely to get cooperation and less likely to make someone defensive and resistant. Read the following statements. Which sound better to you?

I feel disregarded when you ignore what I’m saying.
You never listen!

I’m really upset that you threw that pencil in here, and someone could have been hurt.
Watch out!! Do you want to put someone’s eye out?

Step Five: Use Effective Commands
Make sure when you give a child a direction that you mean it. You want to say the command clearly and firmly. Children know a phony when they see one. If you tell a child to do something, and you have no intention of making sure that the direction is followed, the direction will NOT be followed! Make sure you have the child’s attention before you give the command. If a child is looking at you straight in the eye, you have their attention.
- Give the command – Wait silently for compliance (at least 30 seconds) – Impose an immediate consequence if the command is not followed – For instance, “Sarah and Jill, please stop fooling around while I am talking to the group.” (Wait 30 seconds) If the clowning continues, “ Next time you two interrupt us with fooling around, I will have to separate you.” (Wait 30 seconds) If the behavior continues, “I have to separate you because you have shown me you can’t control yourselves.”
Setting the stage for cooperation is important to do up front. Let the kids know clearly and succinctly your expectations for their behavior from the “get go”. In addition, prepare them for what happens when they don’t work cooperatively. In this manner, they are aware of the consequences of their behaviors and can make choices accordingly.
And, remember, it is your commitment to the group and their ability to work together cooperatively that ultimately comes through.

Good luck!

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I am so sad to learn that Margaret King passed away a few days ago of cancer. As the first mother of In Step, Margaret King will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Margaret has been in my thoughts a lot lately with In Step marking its 20th year. I am absolutely incredulous that this much time has gone by. To think, when I first met Margaret almost 20 years ago, she was not that much older than I am right now.

Margaret joined In Step during our infancy and saw us through a tumultuous, sometimes tempestuous adolescence. In 1996, Margaret’s daughters, Stephanie and Ashley, were nearly grown, and Margaret was looking to begin a new chapter in her life. She sought to work in a nice little office, a place she could nurture and call home. I’d like to think Margaret found her home with In Step.

At that time, we were just a three room schoolhouse with a handful of therapists running a few groups. By the time Margaret left us in 2002, In Step had grown into a gangly teenager whose brain hadn’t quite caught up with its body. With three townhouses, 22 therapists, and 40 weekly therapy groups, the baby had morphed into a Baby Huey and Margaret was taking care of everything in the office with minimal support.

Margaret was In Step’s den mother; at times, she offered us moral support and nurturance, and at other times she set needed boundaries and limits. Margaret was passionate in her dedication to the Girl Scouts organization whose mission it is “to build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place”. She put that same passion and dedication into her work with us. She believed in In Step, in our goal to help children and their families lead happier, more fulfilling lives. And Margaret was unconditionally supportive of me as a person, not just me as her boss. She viewed my frustrations, challenges, weaknesses, and mistakes like an unconditional mother might, with a combination of empathy and pragmatism.

Margaret moved out of the area soon after her husband Terry died. And, although we’ve kept in touch, I never did tell her what an important person she was in my life, and how much she helped me during those difficult years. I wish I made more of an effort to see her even after she moved, to hear how life was for her in Harrisonburg, and to share stories about our kids. I would have love telling her about In Step now. I think she would be very proud of how her “baby” had grown up and who we have become.


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